The Taking of Wolves: Who’s Calling the Shots?

Photo: This picture of a wolf was taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Photo: This picture of a wolf was taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Photo: Caption:  Snares and traps set for wolves unintentionally kill other animals, such as the dead lynx pictured in this photo.
Photo: Caption: Snares and traps set for wolves unintentionally kill other animals, such as the dead lynx pictured in this photo.
Photo: The wolf above was snared in Superior National Forest.
Photo: The wolf above was snared in Superior National Forest.

Minnesota’s wolves were just removed from the Federal Endangered Species list, and are already under attack. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is backtracking on earlier promises to keep wolves on a five-year watch list after removal from endangered designation, and now wants to open a wolf hunting and trapping season as early as November. Why the big rush?

History of the wolf

The gray wolf appeared as a species about one million years ago. The species was well established in North America by the time indigenous people came across the Bering Strait. It survived the extinctions that followed the end of the Ice Age, becoming the main canine predator in North America. When European settlers came to the continent, they brought with them their fear and antagonism toward the wolf. With westward expansion, ranching and farming took over the land, displacing the buffalo, the wolves, and the indigenous people. In 1919, the U.S. government passed a law calling for the extermination of wolves on federal lands, using lethal techniques that included shooting, trapping, snaring, poisoning, cyanide-gunning, clubbing, tracking with dogs, and den bombing. By the time the law was abolished in 1942, the wolf had been exterminated in all of the then 48 states, except for Minnesota.

Endangered species listing

Following passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, gray wolves were placed on the endangered species list. At that time, an estimated population of 350-700 wolves was surviving in northeast Minnesota in an area consisting mostly of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Superior National Forest.  A few stray packs occasionally wandered into Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. In 1978, Minnesota’s wolves were downgraded to threatened, allowing federal agencies to kill “problem” wolves.  
Under the ESA, the wolf population was able to increase. The most recent survey conducted in 2007-08 placed the wolf population at 2,921 animals. Population survey results are somewhat subjective, depending upon “opinion surveys,” peripheral information from studies of other species, and extrapolations from aerial surveys. According to those survey results, there was no significant change in wolf population from 1998 to 2008. However, the wolf population had dispersed into parts of north central and central Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s UP (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
In March of 2010, the Minnesota DNR petitioned the U.S. government to de-list the gray wolf.  In May the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, the Safari Club International, and the National Rifle Association followed suit. In December of 2010, the Mining Journal, Marquette, reported that the Fish and Wildlife Service would release a proposal in April of 2011 to turn management of the region’s wolves to state wildlife agencies in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Mining concerns were eager to remove the wolf as an endangered species. Once that protection was removed, new mining proposals would no longer need to consider wolf habitat and protection in their environmental review.

Delisting of the Wolf

Removal of the wolf from the endangered species list in 2012 placed Minnesota’s gray wolf population under the control of the DNR. This has resulted in an immediate conflict of interest.
Minnesota’s DNR receives much of its income from the sale of hunting licenses. DNR policy has specifically favored keeping a high deer population to satisfy a majority of hunters in the state. According to 2010 statistics, with approximately one million deer in the state, 800,000 deer hunting licenses are sold each year, and an average of 240,000 deer are taken. Hunting supports a lucrative outdoors equipment and hunting supply industry with a vested interest in increased hunting and trapping of any kind.
Deer are a primary prey of the wolf. In predator-prey relationships, a natural balance is maintained. Wolves, for example, tend to cull out the old, weak, and sick members of a herd. Further, birth rates and the size of a wolf pack depend on the food supply. A high deer population will attract a higher wolf population. Deer and wolf numbers can fluctuate from year to year based on the severity of winter conditions. Rather than acknowledge this natural balance, hunters claim that wolves are in direct competition for a common prey.
While the number of deer in Minnesota has increased, the population of moose has dropped in half during the past six years. One contributing factor might be the spread of brain worm from the deer to the moose population. Although tolerated by deer, the parasite kills moose. It’s also hypothesized that the moose population is more sensitive to climate change. Despite the fact that the moose population is plummeting, the DNR continues to offer a moose hunting season. Hunters seek out the bulls, killing off what might be the strongest and healthiest of the gene pool.
The DNR has recently proposed a limited wolf hunting and trapping season, issuing 6,000 licenses at $30 each. Another proposal is to hold a lottery and sell many more licenses.  According to DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr, “This animal is a trophy animal” (Outside with Sam Cook, January 26, 2012). Once the DNR opens the door to a wolf season, it will be impossible to close, even if wolf numbers start to decline. Just as with the moose, the money trail and hunting group pressure will simply not allow it.

The Wild West of politics
and the legislature

In December of 2010, Senator Amy Klobuchar wrote to the Department of the Interior saying that the increased number of wolves was “threatening the citizens of my state as well as our livestock and hunting industries.”
U.S. Reps. John Kline, Collin Peterson, and Chip Cravaack added to the hyperbole by introducing legislation to remove wolves from protection “because of all the killings by an ever-expanding and increasingly dangerous wolf population.”
On January 26, 2012, the day the wolf was delisted by the Department of the Interior, Ed Boggess, Director of Fish and Wildlife for the Minnesota DNR, told a panel of state lawmakers, “There’s been a pent-up enthusiasm, a pent-up demand to hunt wolves.” The phrase was echoed throughout the legislature. As a result, Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake) and Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids) introduced companion bills that would require state officials to schedule wolf hunting at the same time as the deer hunting season, with a secondary wolf trapping season to begin on January 1, 2013.
Jumping on the hunting bandwagon, Rep. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) sponsored a bill to allow the hunting of coyotes from aircraft and snowmobiles, stating, “This would be just one more way to continue the intrigue and enjoyment many people get out of hunting as well as a creative way to help control the coyote population.” Westrom said people have been telling him for years how much fun they had hunting wolves from aircraft in the 1960s and 1970s. “I want to bring back something that younger generations have never had the chance to experience” (Star Tribune, “Westrom proposes allowing coyote hunting from aircraft, snowmobiles,” February 24, 2012). Rep. Dill called aerial coyote hunting “a great idea.”
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) and Senators Tom Saxhaug, Dave Tomassoni (DFL-Chisholm), and Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam) introduced SF 1820/HF 2417, which changes requirements for the checking of conibear traps and snares from one day to three days. In addition to tripling the torture time of a trapped animal, this bill would allow trappers to set out more traps on longer lines, making it easier to trap more wolves. All traps kill more than the intended prey,

Non-lethal solutions
for farm predation

Killing is not the only answer to conflicts that occur between human and wolves. In fact, killing may not be much of an answer at all. Reducing pack size or killing strategic members of a pack may put more pressure on the remaining adults to obtain more easily available meat by migrating into farming areas.
Wolf predation affects less than 2% of existing farms within wolf range. A state-wide hunting/trapping season will not address these individual situations. Rather, farmers must become pro-active in adapting to predation.  Studies in other countries and states have shown that fencing is a deterrent, including electric fences, wood barriers, and mobile partitions. Farmers are encouraged to keep their livestock in barns at night and during birthing. Dead carcasses should be buried or removed so as not to attract wolves. Sheep farmers in particular have found the use of guard dogs to be helpful in protecting their herds. Breeds such as the Italian maremma and the Pyrenees Mountain sheep dog instinctively place themselves between their charges and any intruder. While a single dog alone can be wolf prey, two or three dogs can adequately surround and protect a herd.

Predation of pets

There were 15 documented cases statewide of dogs being killed by a wolf in 2010. Wolves may view dogs as competitors, as well as prey. Pet owners in wolf range need to take extra precautions, such as keeping their dogs in at night, keeping them close to the house, and providing enclosed outdoor protection. It’s also possible to scare off a wolf by shooting into the air or making loud noises.

While it is difficult to face the loss of a pet by predation, many dogs are also killed by hunters and traps. And to keep things in perspective, dogs also lose their lives to cars, environmentally caused cancer, and the debilitation and death caused by Lyme disease, which is spread by deer ticks.
Wolf as icon

Current debate over the future of the wolf is part of a polarizing mix of politics. On the one hand, mining companies, trophy hunting industries, the hunting supply industry, hunters and trappers, and some affected farmers have joined forces to call for the killing of wolves. They are being supported by the Minnesota DNR, whose commissioner is a political appointee, and whose budget is at least partially dependent on the sale of hunting licenses.
On the other hand, the wolf is symbol of all that is wild and free, an icon of the great north woods of Minnesota, along with the moose and the loon. Wolf and moose habitat is being disturbed by mineral exploration and has been further stressed by the Pagami Creek fire. Meanwhile, the waters that are home to our breeding loon population are contaminated with mercury from our coal plants and mining industry and lead from shotgun pellets and fish line sinkers.
At the same time, DNR policies maintain an artificially high deer herd, which results in the replacing of old growth forests with aspen, causes deer damage to white pine reforestation attempts and to farm crops, creates a safety problem when deer cross highways, and contributes to the spread of Lyme disease.
Open season on the wolf represents just one more piece in the unraveling of the ecological balance of the forests of northeast Minnesota. It brings us one step closer to the demise of the heritage of our great North Woods.

Co-existing with the wolf

While the white culture continues its war on wolves, the Red Lake and White Earth Ojibwe Bands have approved policies protecting the wolf on their reservation lands. The Ojibwe warn that hunting and trapping pressures will put the wolves back on a path toward extinction.

The indigenous People see Wolf as brother. What befalls the wolf befalls us all.


In a Minnesota Public Radio report on December 21, 2011, following news of the coming delisting of the wolf, Senator Amy Klobuchar stated, “…hopefully we won’t face litigation… And if we do then we’ll have to look at Plan B, which is doing it legislatively.” If that sounds like a threat, Klobuchar, a former prosecuting attorney, says that it is.

Call or email Governor Dayton and ask that he veto any bill that allows for a hunting, trapping, or snaring season on Minnesota’s wolves.
You can phone the Governor at 651-201-3400 or 800-657-3717.
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