Frustrations over Minnesota’s first managed wolf hunt got an airing Wednesday in the state Court of Appeals, where lawyers debated whether state wildlife officials gave short shrift to public concerns about hunting the once-endangered animal.
In a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), two wolf advocacy groups are arguing that the agency violated its own rules last year when it failed to hold public hearings for the public to respond to the proposed hunt, with issues ranging from how many wolves should be killed to whether it should include baiting and trapping.
One hunting opponent, for example, lives in the heart of wolf country near the Gunflint Trail and encounters the predators frequently. But she has no access to the Internet and was unable to participate in a DNR online survey of public opinion, according to Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney who represented the wolf groups.
An attorney for the DNR, however, said the agency got a clear message from the Legislature that wolf hunting had to commence in 2012 — the same year the wolf was removed from the federal endangered species list. The agency followed the same process in setting up rules that it does for all types of hunting, he said.
The suit is part of a multipronged effort by wolf advocacy groups to delay or stop a second wolf hunting season in Minnesota.
A bill calling for a five-year moratorium on wolf hunting and trapping in Minnesota has passed a Senate committee but has failed to get a hearing in the House. And another lawsuit was filed this year in federal court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in an attempt to put the Great Lakes wolf back on the endangered species list because, advocates say, the hunting seasons established in Minnesota and Wisconsin make it clear that the states are not doing enough to protect the species.
An attorney representing the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that filed the suit, argued Wednesday that the state should have at least allowed the public a better opportunity to discuss Minnesota’s proposed hunt. The Legislature passed a bill last year that required two hunts — one that would coincide with the state’s November deer hunt, and then a trapping season from December through January.
The DNR set a quota of 400 wolves, which wildlife officials said is low enough to ensure a healthy population.
DNR officials say the public had ample opportunity to voice opinions during the legislative process. Instead of public hearings, which are often conducted on new rules governing the management of natural resources, the DNR set up an online survey after the bill was signed, in part to elicit feedback on hunters’ preferences. The rules for the hunt were established after the survey was completed.
But the vast majority of survey respondents opposed the hunt, in part because wildlife advocacy groups issued an e-mail alert to their members suggesting that they register their objections. Of 7,351 responses to the DNR survey, 5,809 people said they opposed the wolf hunt.
Still, Giese, the attorney for the wolf groups, argued that the survey was not sufficient. “It’s supposed to be a process that is as inclusive as possible,” she said.
Giese said the wolf groups include many Minnesotans who value the chance to see and hear wolves in the wild, and who were denied an opportunity to provide written comments to the DNR.
David Iverson, the Minnesota assistant attorney general who represented the DNR, said the Legislature set the ground rules. And, he said under questioning from the judges, those opposed to a wolf hunt are not likely to be harmed by it. “They might not see a wolf as a result of the wolf season,” he said.
The court is expected to rule later this year.