Bear with me – I’ve just returned after being gone from Minnesota for two-and-a-half years.
It seems like I never left.
About the time I was leaving for other opportunities, the wolf situation in Minnesota mostly was – as it had been for years before that – in flux. It was difficult to keep up – wolves would be listed as endangered one week, then off the list the next.
Just before I left, Minnesota was wrapping up its first wolf hunting (and trapping) season. But wolf advocates fought it again after that first season. And then, last December, Minnesota wolves were returned to the federal endangered species list as a result of a Washington, D.C., district court ruling, I was told by Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Minnesota DNR. He went on to say that, until that is overturned or wolves are removed again from the federal list, there won’t be a hunt in Minnesota.
Wolves are iconic Minnesota; amazing animals. But I’m confused. According to a recent Minnesota wolf population survey, there was no significant change in the state’s wolf population during the last three winters, a time period that would have encompassed those hunts.
The Minnesota DNR release went on to say that, with wolf numbers estimated at 2,221 last winter, the state’s wolf population remains above Minnesota’s minimum management goal of at least 1,600 wolves and is above the federal recovery goal of 1,251 to 1,400 animals, the DNR said.
So instead of getting closer to those management and recovery goal numbers, despite hunts, the population remains about the same over that time period. The DNR did go on to say that this year’s specific population estimate is lower than the previous winter’s estimate of 2,423 wolves. Still, there has been no statistically significant change in population size during the last three years, the agency said, which was the premise of that recent report.
“Results from the 2015 wolf survey demonstrate that the wolf population remains well established across northern and central Minnesota,” Stark said in the release.
So if the hunt is on hold – and history would tell us that could be indefinitely if not much, much longer – how is Minnesota to get that population to the state’s minimum management or federal recovery goals? How will the population be manageable?
“There was no specific population objective for the wolf season,” Stark said in an email. “The intent was to allow a season without having a major influence on wolf numbers. Basically, it was intended to take what is sustainable without reducing overall numbers. In the future, once wolves are removed from the (endangered species) list, there may be more specific population objectives for the wolf population.
“The DNR does not have authority to manage wolves. Responsibility for that falls on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Again, wolves are a staple of Minnesota. Anyone who gets a glimpse of one of these magnificent animals likely never will forget it. But there has to be at least some management here in Minnesota. Farmers know it all too well; deer hunters, too. Because issues regarding the management of one species ultimately impact the management of others. The DNR release went on to say that, because white-tailed deer are the primary food source for Minnesota’s wolves, the wolf population tends to follow deer population trends.
But that goes the other way, too. While wolf numbers have held fairly steady in recent years, white-tailed deer numbers – and, ultimately, harvest number – have dropped. But it should be noted that these wolf population parameters are similar to those estimated during the winter survey of 1997-1998, which, like this survey, came on the heels of back-to-back severe winters and a reduced deer population, John Erb, DNR wolf research scientist, said in the DNR release.
So are the minimum management and federal recovery goal numbers too low? Or is the wolf numbers estimate off? Or are wolf advocates being unrealistic in what those numbers should be? Because something’s not adding up here.