The debate over wolves, long a hot-button topic, has heightened with a decline in deer numbers, more frequent wolf sightings and an increase in livestock depredations.
Chris Bangs has no doubt there are more wolves roaming his hunting land in northern Minnesota these days, and that the wolves are likely responsible for a decline in deer there.
"I hunt with 10 or 12 other people, and we all are seeing significantly more wolves,'' said the 53-year-old Bangs, of Woodbury, who has hunted the 1,500 acres in northern St. Louis County and southern Koochiching County since he was a kid.
"We saw 12 to 14 wolves over 10 days of hunting last fall. We now see wolves in broad daylight, while we're on our stands and doing deer drives. In the past, we saw just an occasional track.''
And, Bangs said, the group's deer harvest has been down the past three years.
Bangs isn't alone in his opinion. Other Minnesota deer hunters have expressed concerns to conservation officers and wildlife managers that there appear to be a growing number of wolves, and that the wolves are responsible for a recent decline in the northern deer herd.
State officials acknowledge that wolf numbers likely are as high as they have ever been -- estimated between 2,200 and 3,500 -- and that deer are their No. 1 food. But they say wolves alone don't drive deer populations.
"Winter severity, hunter harvest and a change in the forest [habitat] -- all of those things factor in whether a deer population increases or decreases," said Dan Stark, Department of Natural Resources wolf specialist. "Wolves are a component of that, but not a driving factor.''
Among the scientific evidence, he said:
• Research indicates wolves eat 15 to 19 adult-sized deer yearly, and with about 3,000 wolves, that would be 45,000 to 57,000 deer yearly. An estimated 450,000 deer populate the state's forested wolf range, meaning wolves are killing 10 to 13 percent, Stark says. Hunters kill about 100,000 deer in that region.
• A 15-year DNR study of white-tailed deer monitored the movements, survival and causes of mortality of about 450 radio-collared female deer in northern Minnesota. Researchers also radio-collared 55 wolves. The annual mortality rate of the deer from wolves ranged from 4 percent to 22 percent. The highest rate was during the severe winter of 1995-96; typically, the rate is 5 to 10 percent.
• Despite high wolf numbers, hunters have harvested record number of deer since 2003, five times exceeding 250,000. "We had some of the highest harvest of deer in the last decade even with a robust wolf population,'' Stark said. Deer harvest numbers have fallen the past two years, dropping to below 200,000 last year.
• The high reproductive potential for deer is a key to why they can thrive despite wolf predation and hunter harvest, Stark said. The DNR study showed the average age of does was 5 to 7 years old, and about 13 percent were 10 to 18 years old. Pregnancy rates were 90 percent for yearlings and 95 to 100 percent for does 2 1/2 to age 15.
• A high percentage of the deer killed by wolves likely would have died anyway, because wolves prey on the most vulnerable deer, including the young, old, sick and injured, Stark said.
DNR officials have said deer numbers are down in some areas because of recent tough winters and liberal hunting regulations. But livestock depredations from wolves have been up recently. Last year, federal officials received 201 wolf depredation complaints and confirmed 95. Federal trappers killed 196 problem wolves, up from an average of about 140.
"Wolf numbers probably are at the peak and they will start dropping,'' Stark said, because of the smaller deer herd. "We aren't going to have a lot of wolves if we don't have a lot of deer.''
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, is among those who want to see the state gain control of the wolf from the federal government and allow some wolves to be hunted to reduce their numbers.
Bangs agrees: "In the past, wolves were extremely wary and wanted nothing to do with us. But now ... they don't run away ... they no longer are afraid of us.
"To me, wolves are a great animal, beautiful and deserve their place. But it would be nice to keep them in check."
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org
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