TOWER, MINN. - Despite not squeezing the trigger on Saturday, the first day of Minnesota's first managed wolf hunting season, Dave Bjorgo was optimistic he'll shoot one.
"I think my odds are very good," he said on Friday night as he gathered with family and friends around a bonfire at the group's deer camp near Tower.
"There's a lot more wolves now than 10 or 12 years ago," said Bjorgo, 54, of nearby Soudan. "We find wolf scat and tracks everywhere, and we hear them howling."
But by day's end Bjorgo never saw a wolf.
He wasn't alone.
Though 3,600 licenses were issued for the 16-day early wolf season, wolves proved mostly elusive on the first day of the controversial and historic hunt. Thirty-two kills had been registered as of Saturday evening. The deadline to register first-day kills was 10 p.m.
"I think people did pretty well, but I'm not terribly surprised by the numbers,'' said Steve Merchant, Department of Natural Resources acting wildlife chief. "It was in the ballpark [of what we expected.]"
Hunt is on - protests, too
That any wolves were killed upset members of groups that have fought to stop the hunts. Howling for Wolves and the Northwoods Wolf Alliance held rallies in Duluth and on the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation near Cloquet.
"I'm saddened and outraged,'' said Maureen Hackett of Howling for Wolves. "If people understood how much this animal means to Native Americans, and how much it's tearing them apart that wolves are being shot for sport, they wouldn't do it.''
Two other groups intend to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, seeking to return wolves to the Endangered Species List.
But for now, the hunt is on.
Dan Starr, a DNR conservation officer, cruised on Saturday morning in the Ely-Tower area, checking on about a dozen deer hunters. None had seen a wolf or had a wolf license, though most said they support the new hunt.
"I heard some howling this morning," said Kirk Weisinger of Duluth, whose group of 10 had seen a couple of does but hadn't pulled the trigger by late Saturday morning. He didn't apply for a wolf license. "I have no interest in shooting one,'' he said.
But Starr, who has patrolled the Tower region for 15 years, said "there's a lot of excitement in the air" over the inaugural wolf hunting and trapping seasons. And he thinks hunters know this first season is a chance to show they can help manage the wolf population.
"For years and years, hunters have been frustrated because they didn't have that ability," he said.
'There's plenty around'
Starr believes the wolf population, now estimated at 3,000, has increased in recent years. "There's plenty around," he said. "People are seeing them almost every day. I'm not a biologist, but I think we're out of balance right now."
He believes hunters may approach the 400-wolf quota -- 200 in the early season that runs concurrently with the firearms deer season and 200 in a second hunting-trapping season that opens Nov. 24.
Dan Stark, DNR wolf specialist, estimated about 70 wolves might be killed in the early hunt. But if Wisconsin is any indication, trappers in the second season will have a much higher success rate. As of Saturday, 32 of the 57 wolves -- 64 percent -- killed so far in the Wisconsin season were taken in foot-hold traps.
Back at his camp, Bjorgo said his No. 1 priority this weekend is to bag a deer, but if he sees a wolf, he'll shoot it. "I'd love to get a wolf and hang the pelt in the cabin," he said.
Bjorgo said he holds no animosity toward wolves, though he believes their numbers are affecting the deer and moose herds. "The deer season is big up here," he said. "It means a lot to the local economy. Hunters want to see deer. I don't want wolves exterminated -- I want them controlled."
'Wolf is a tremendous asset'
Bjorgo believes the DNR's 400-wolf quota is conservative, as agency officials claim.
"This hunt won't hurt the wolf population at all," he said. "I think it's a good start."
He believes having a wolf season may improve the negative attitude some hunters have toward wolves and could reduce the illegal killing that officials know occurs. He's hoping hunters abide by the laws, so that the state -- and not the federal government -- continues to manage the wolf.
Starr agrees: "The wolf is a tremendous asset, and with proper management will be here for generations to come."
Deer hunter killed
A deer hunter from Bemidji died on Saturday when he was struck by a bullet fired by another hunter in Turtle River Township, 9 miles northeast of Bemidji, said the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office. The two men were acquaintances but were not hunting together. Chief Deputy Ernie Beitel said the man who fired the gun was not carrying a cellphone and left the victim to report the incident. He found someone with a phone who called dispatchers. The hunter died in the field.