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The way of the wolves in Minnesota: Will DNR see their protection as transcending game management?

An old saying is “a healthy forest is a forest with wolves.” There are more deer in our state now than ever in history and it’s not only Minnesota but in every state east of the Mississippi. 

Photo by Barry W. Babcock

Thirty or more years ago my wife and I owned and operated a “Ma & Pa” motel in northern Minnesota. As we cleaned rooms, we would have the TV on. One day I had to stop work when a documentary on wolves caught my attention.

A small group of what looked like farmers were pulling a wagon behind a tractor. The scene was possibly in Minnesota as the setting was a small opening in a snowy forest of dense aspens. In this forest opening was a deer carcass laced with strychnine and spread out around the poisoned bait was perhaps as many as six to eight dead wolves.

Men in bibbed overalls were throwing the dead and stiff wolves over their shoulders and loading them onto the wagon like cord-wood. As one farmer hoisted upon his shoulders what appeared to be a large male who was still clinging to life, it lifted its head and seeing its pack members wiped out its head sagged and it became lifeless.

 I was horribly moved by what I saw and thought that if this isn’t morally wrong then nothing is. The image of this wolf raising its head has never left me. Aldo Leopold witnessed a “fierce green fire” die in a wolf that he had shot and now I had my “green fire” epiphany.

Since Europeans arrived in North America over 400 years ago, white people have continuously waged a determined effort to extirpate the gray wolf (Canis Lupus.) For many, the wolf represented red ink to cattlemen, futile efforts for deer hunters and a danger to the Little Red Riding Hoods of the world.

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To others the wolf symbolized wilderness as many of us in Minnesota cherished the fact that 450 wolves still inhabited the dense forests in the northernmost tier of counties in Minnesota in 1974. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 and the wolf was listed on the ESA in 1974, many of us believed that maybe we were beginning to recognize the wolf as more than a blood-thirsty marauder.

With listing of the gray wolf on the ESA in 1974 I thought or hoped, that this genocide had ended and that we had entered a new era of understanding of the role of wolves and other mega-predators in healthy ecosystems. But delisting in 2012 proved me wrong. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) saw an opportunity for increased hunting license revenue, big box sporting goods stores saw increased sales in their plethora of gadgets and livestock owners saw an opportunity to eliminate an animal that had insignificant impacts on its livestock. We had opened a Pandora’s box, and now all wolf states in the U.S. are back to senseless and brutal massacres of wolves.

I have been an avid deer hunter, both with a traditional stick bow and an old 308 bolt action rifle for well over 50 years. I was a Pope & Young “regular” member. I do not consider myself a “trophy hunter” but by living in a remote location in the north woods among wolves for almost 20 years I feel I am qualified in the belief that I have gotten to know and understand wolves. 

In Minnesota we have had a healthy wolf population, ranging from 2,600 to 3,200 wolves for years (far more than any other state) while at the same time we have maintained approximately 1 million whitetail deer.

Barry W. Babcock
Barry W. Babcock
An old saying is “a healthy forest is a forest with wolves.” There are more deer in our state now than ever in history and it’s not only Minnesota but in every state east of the Mississippi. Deer numbers are exploding and deer are carriers of chronic wasting disease, brain worm (afflicting moose) and epidemics of tick-borne diseases, and besides this, overpopulated deer herds are dramatically altering forest ecology. Yet, many deer hunters “cry wolf” as they isolate themselves in starter castle tree stands and know their way around a sporting goods box store better than they do the forests they hunt in.

As wolves in the Great Lakes States are currently back on the ESA thus nullifying a hunt for now, yet the DNR is proposing a restricted wolf hunt in far northeast Minnesota, when and if de-listing occurs, to reduce moose calf mortality.

Moose are in serious trouble in our state but it is not because of wolves. Wolves and moose co-existed magnificently for eons in northeast Minnesota. The focus should not be wolves but climate change, ticks, brain worm and a number of other reasons. 

For the time being, I am proud of our state. The House of Representatives, the governor, the lieutenant governor and thousands of ordinary citizens have prevented a wolf hunt in 2020 and 2021 when other states have chosen to wage war on wolves. Thus far, a coalition of broad-based citizenry have been mobilized enough to make this an election issue.

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I still have hope that the DNR will recognize that protecting wolves transcends game management and the agency will understand the history and gargantuan efforts and sacrifices that many of us have to keep wolves safe in what was the last bastion for wolves. To many Minnesotans, wolves have a deep and special meaning as to who we are. Wolves should never be used as a pawn in game management.

Barry W. Babcock, author of “Teachers in the Forest,” lived with his wife in a remote forest location in northern Minnesota for 18 years. He now lives on a headwaters lake downriver from Bemidji.