Anderson: Time was right for a wolf hunt

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 1, 2012 - 7:24 PM

Disparate parties have a range of opinions on the necessity and propriety of the wolf hunt - but let's hope the debate sticks to the facts.

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Minnesota's wolf hunt started Nov. 3.

Photo: Macneill Lyons, Associated Press

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Though the Legislature doesn't convene until next month, maneuvering already has begun by those who intend to stop, or suspend, wolf hunting and trapping in Minnesota. Their primary argument is that the Legislature, the Department of Natural Resources or both irresponsibly jumped into the wolf-killing business absent due and careful consideration.

Those who buy into this fatuous fact dalliance will be gullible indeed. Regardless, expect plenty of loud talking, fist pounding and perhaps even a few tears to accompany the claim.

All of which should be considered for what it is: a marketing campaign to increase contributions to various groups, not least the Humane Society of the United States, which has threatened to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the delisting of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

In point of fact, never has a Minnesota wildlife species received so much attention and so much scientific analysis as the gray wolf, while incurring the deliberation and costs of so many lawyers.

And all along, wolf hunting and trapping were part of the plan should the state's wolf population rebound from its low point in the 1960s.

"It is important to remember,'' the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in its 1978 wolf recovery plan, "that the wolf is controversial, so there will be local opposition to any attempt to re-establish the animal or afford it any measure of protection. Similarly, there will be opposition from other quarters to any effort to control the animal, although control may be necessary for the good of the animal itself in certain areas. If re-establishment of the wolf is accomplished, regulated taking of the animal undoubtedly will be necessary in the restored range sooner or later.''

Officially, a "recovered'' state wolf population was expected to be 1,250 to 1,400 animals statewide, up from the 350 to 700 wolves that existed here before their protection was afforded in 1974 under the Endangered Species Act.

Everyone, or virtually everyone, agrees the listing was appropriate, because wolves here were so few, due in large part to bounties and unrestricted gunning and poisoning, both of which were highly effective.

Yet once these were disallowed, Minnesota wolves actually increased in number, even before Endangered Species Act listing.

Which is a point that suggests another, namely that Minnesota's wolf "problem'' in coming years in all likelihood will be that too few hunters and trappers -- among a fast-aging population of hunters and trappers -- will be willing to spend the time and money necessary to find and kill wolves, contributing, perhaps, to a further-burgeoning state wolf population that engenders more enemies than friends.

Speculation is involved here. But as Minnesota's inaugural managed wolf hunting and trapping seasons unfold, it's possible the 400-animal quota set by Minnesota's DNR won't be met -- this, even though hunters and trappers here are energized about the hunt, and even though initial wolf kills up north were recorded at what many believe was an unexpectedly fast clip.

Similarly, in Wisconsin, where the wolf season began in mid-October (as opposed to Nov. 3 in Minnesota), the harvest took off fairly quickly, particularly, it seemed, as trappers became more effective as the season progressed.

• • •

At least a couple of factors might have contributed to these early high kill rates, which in turn seem to suggest -- though perhaps falsely -- that hunting and trapping as presently construed can effectively help control wolves over the long term.

In Wisconsin, wolf hunting and trapping began when the ground was unfrozen and trappers were able to bury their traps, increasing their chances of fooling their prey.

In Minnesota, where trapping wasn't allowed until Nov. 24, that advantage generally has been unavailable -- contributing, perhaps, to the fairly slow rate of kill experienced in the state's second wolf season, which allows trapping.

Additionally, because Wisconsin hunters and trappers began their season in mid-October, they were more likely to encounter wolf pack "rendezvous sites,'' or areas where young wolves wait for their parents to return from hunting.

Rendezvous sites are the second step leading to broader pack dispersal. The first is the den where pups are born, and the area surrounding it, where the young wolves collect themselves even more tightly while waiting for their parents to return from killing a deer or other prey.

The older wolves subsequently regurgitate some of what they've eaten for the pups, who can aid the process by licking the older wolves' lips and faces.

Dens, in time, are abandoned for the rendezvous sites. In September and October, and sometimes as late as early November, the rendezvous sites also are abandoned, as packs five animals strong (on average) begin to roam territories that in Minnesota cover about 40 square miles.

Which more or less brings us to the present, with only some 45 animals killed so far in Minnesota's second wolf season. In Wisconsin's, the wolf harvest also has slowed.

Perhaps the pace will pick up. But perhaps not.

Perhaps, as indicated earlier, the 400-animal Minnesota quota won't be reached. Or even if it is, as years pass and ever-older Minnesota hunters and trappers tire of challenges associated with finding and killing wolves that likely will become only more elusive in response to harvest efforts, the problem in Minnesota will be as it has been worldwide for other recovered wolf populations.

How will the higher number of animals, over their expanded range, be controlled?

By allowing trapping earlier in Minnesota, when it might be more effective? Probably not, because of potential conflicts with hikers, grouse hunters and other recreationists. And because wolf pelts generally aren't gaining prime condition until December.

Minnesota researcher Dave Mech has been involved in wolf management and wolf reintroductions worldwide.

I asked him last week: "Have you ever known a recovered wolf population that didn't require control?''

"No.''

• • •

None of this will convince those opposed to wolf hunting and trapping of the propriety of -- never mind the necessity of -- these types of harvests.

Some people simply are not temperamentally suited to accept the willful killing of any animal, particularly one that isn't eaten.

These same people often refuse to acknowledge that most wildlife -- wolves in particular -- die a violent death. Far more so than that caused by a bullet.

And refuse to acknowledge as well that game and nongame wildlife are managed as populations, not as individuals. Thus a fundamental difference between these species and people.

Which is fine. We're all different, with different viewpoints.

But cooking up various "facts'' that are grounded more in fantasy than reality seems hardly the best way to gain ground among policymakers.

Yet this is the foolishness that seems to warrant more space in the ether now: that the Legislature and the DNR carelessly established a state wolf hunt, even though the record clearly shows that hunting and trapping were part not only of the federal wolf recovery plan dating to the 1970s, but part of the state's plan, circa 2001.

True, under the state plan -- the product in part of a deliberative roundtable of wolf observers and experts -- wolf hunting and trapping in Minnesota were to be stayed for five years after delisting.

But that was 11 years ago. By the time the state actually regained management of its wolves in January of this year, wolves here had "recovered'' still more, to a population of about 3,000.

Don't like wolf hunting and trapping?

That's OK. Everyone has his or her own personal list of likes and dislikes.

But when the subject is as important as, and iconic to the state as, wolves, appealing to the gullibility of others shouldn't replace reasoned judgment and careful overview.

With luck, it won't.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune. com

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