Smith: Wolves into the cross hairs

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2012 - 6:49 AM

The DNR is considering holding its first wolf hunting and trapping season in 35 years as a way to keep the state's wolf population in check. Potential hunters will need great patience.

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A gray wolf.

Photo: Dawn Villella, Associated Press

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Keith Kubista hunkered among trees in the rugged Bitterroot Valley of southwestern Montana, a high-powered rifle in hand, hunting wolves this fall.

He howled. Wolves in a creek-bottom below howled back.

"It sends a chill up your spine, just like when you hear an elk bugle,'' said Kubista.

But over three days, Kubista and a hunting companion never saw a wolf.

"They would howl, but we couldn't get them to come in,'' he said.

Minnesota wolves could be in the cross-hairs of hunters as soon as next fall. That's when the Department of Natural Resources could hold the first wolf hunting and trapping season in more than 35 years, since the species was protected under the Endangered Species Act. Now that wolves have been removed from federal protection, the DNR management plan includes hunting and trapping to reduce or keep their population in check.

The DNR and Legislature must develop a season structure and regulations, and many questions remain, including how many wolves are allowed to be killed. But one thing is certain: This will be no turkey shoot.

"Hunting wolves is extremely difficult,'' said Kubista, 59, president of Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, a group that promotes predator management. Montana wants to reduce its wolf population, estimated at about 600, because of concerns over elk and livestock losses.

In Montana this season, about 18,000 hunters bought wolf licenses ($19 for residents, $350 for nonresidents), but just 121 wolves have been killed so far -- less than a 1 percent success rate.

In comparison, about 35 percent of Minnesota's firearms deer hunters shoot a whitetail, and about 30 percent of wild turkey hunters bag a bird.

"I think there'll be a great deal of interest in hunting wolves, at least initially,'' said Dennis Simon, Minnesota DNR wildlife chief. "But I think it will be more difficult than people anticipate. We could end up with a smaller core of people willing to put in the time.''

How to do it

Successful wolf hunters employ many of the same techniques and strategies that coyote hunters do. Kubista offers this advice:

• Hunters must be well camouflaged, including wearing white camouflage in snow. "Concealment and stealth is key,'' said Kubista. "And you have to get into the woods before it's light.''

• Locate wolves. Just as deer hunters maximize success by hunting in areas frequented by deer, so, too, will wolf hunters. Talk to landowners or farmers who might have had wolf problems or frequently see wolves. Scout. Look for wolf signs.

• Wolves, like other predators, are curious but wary. Hunters can call wolves to gunshot range by mimicking the sound of prey, such as a dying rabbitt or a bleating fawn. And wolves are territorial; they may respond to wolf howls.

"Howling works,'' said Kubista. "One woman I know harvested a wolf while her husband was howling,'' he said. Hunting in tandem with a partner can help. "Typically one calls and one is set up with a rifle on a tripod or rifle-rest,'' he said.

• In Montana, most wolf hunters are hunting from a ground blind. In Minnesota, hunters may have success from a deer stand. Kubista likes to hunt transition areas. Here, that could mean the edge of a field or powerline near woods.

• High-powered rifles are recommended, because even in Minnesota the shots could be long. Kubista's is chambered in .270. Others use a .243 or a .22/250.

"The average shot was in the 150-yard range,'' he said. "Two of our members shot them at over 275 yards,'' he said.

A deer-wolf hunt?

Ultimately, Minnesota's regulations could greatly determine whether hunters are successful in reducing the wolf population, estimated at around 3,000.

In Montana, baiting and electronic calls are prohibited. In Idaho, those are legal. (About 33,000 wolf licenses -- $11.50 residents; $31.75 for non-residents -- have been sold this season in Idaho; hunters have killed 173 wolves. That state has an estimated 1,000 wolves.)

The DNR's Simon doubts baiting and electronic calls will be legal here.

Luck might play a big role for Minnesota's wolf hunters. Most of the 121 wolves killed this season in Montana were taken during the five-week big-game hunting season, when hunters seeking elk, deer or moose encountered a wolf and shot it.

Minnesota has 500,000 deer hunters.

"Most wolves will be taken during the deer hunting season, incidental to deer hunting, because that's when so many people are out there,'' predicted David Mech, a wolf expert and senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul.

But the DNR's Simon said it's uncertain whether a wolf hunting season would coincide with the state's deer season.

Kubista said he believes Minnesota's wolf harvest will be very low if the state's deer hunters aren't given the chance to take wolves.

"If you only have a two- to three-week big-game season where you can put hundreds of thousands of guns in the woods, you have to take advantage of it if you're serious about reducing the wolf population,'' he said.

Montana set a quota this season of 220 wolves, but because harvest has been low, officials extended the season from Dec. 31 to Feb. 15.

To encourage hunters, Kubista's group has offered $100 rewards for photos of wolves killed legally in the state. So far, just four hunters have cashed in.

"You've got to have great patience to hunt wolves,'' Kubista said. "I know a lot of very successful hunters who have never even seen one.''

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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