Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Are Minnesota’s wolf-harvest rules more ‘conservative’ than Wisconsin’s?

Both states would allow hunting, trapping and baiting, though only Wisconsin proposed to let hunters use dogs.

In Minnesota, the wolf population is thought to stand at around 3,000; the mid-range estimate for Wisconsin is about 850.

After last week’s posts about the pending resumption of legal wolf hunting and trapping in Minnesota, I heard from a few folks who thought that, in fairness, I should acknowledge the ways in which this state  has taken a more “conservative” approach than Wisconsin’s.

This “conservative” label has been steadily promoted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and by lawmakers who crafted the legislation from which the DNR’s regulations are derived. But what “conservative” should mean in this context is less than perfectly clear, at least to me.

Would it describe the methods permitted, the numbers of animals taken, the numbers of hunters or hunting days authorized, or what?

Article continues after advertisement

Because of litigation in Wisconsin, media attention has focused on a feature that has outraged animal welfare advocates there — the permitted use of dogs to trail, chase and corner wolves. The plaintiffs (and some hunters, too) feel this is little more than an invitation to legalized dogfighting between wild canines and their domesticated kin, and a broadening of the documented conflict that occurs when hounds are used to hunt bear in the Badger State.

However, a court has enjoined that provision, so there will be no dogs in the wolf hunt unless the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources succeeds in finding a way to rewrite the rules that passes court muster, which it has promised to try. Hunting with hounds, you see, is a Proud Wisconsin Tradition.

Does this make us conservative, or progressive, by comparison? I can’t say.

Compensation for lost hunting dogs

OK, and while I’m on the Proud Wisconsin Tradition, let me point to an aspect of Wisconsin law that makes the state absolutely unique:

For many years after wolves came under federal protection as a species threatened with extinction, farmers who lost livestock to them were compensated for the losses. This was seen as a fundamental fairness to folks who in many cases had established sheep or cattle operations during the period when wolves were nearly gone from the landscape – and, more optimistically, a way of buying peace with the most outspoken foes of wolves’ recovery.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin, these losses weren’t a make-or-break factor — far from it. In the West, though, particularly Montana, I’ve met cattle and sheep ranchers who said they were driven out of the business by wolves, and I believed them. They tended to disdain the compensation program, preferring the extralegal approach of shoot, shovel and shut up.

Among all the states with recovering wolf populations, only Wisconsin has extended these reparations to hunters who lose animals to wolves.

That’s right: A Wisconsin hunter who sends his hounds after bear in a region where wolves were historically present, and are being re-established — that is, a hunter who deliberately places his hounds at risk of being killed by wolves who see them as natural competitors — is also entitled to be paid off by the Wisconsin taxpayers.

(Of which I am now one. But, trust me on this, I thought it was lunacy even before I was required to underwrite it.)

Some other points of comparison between the states:

Minnesota’s wolf quota is twice the size of Wisconsin’s, 400 to 201.

However, Wisconsin’s quota is a much larger percentage of the estimated wolf population. In Minnesota, the wolf population is thought to stand at around 3,000; the mid-range estimate for Wisconsin is about 850.

So if Minnesota’s wolf seasons go forward (as I wrote last week, a new court challenge makes this doubtful), taking 400 animals would mean a 15 percent reduction. Should Wisconsin reach its 201 quota, the reduction would be more like 23 percent.

Wisconsin’s season is longer, running 136 days from Oct. 15 to Feb. 28. Minnesota has scheduled two seasons, the first beginning Nov. 3 and the second beginning Nov. 24, for a total of 89 days.

Minnesota issued more than five times as many licenses as Wisconsin, 6,000 to 1,160, although the demand was comparable – 23,700 applications here, 20,272 there.

Both states authorize trapping along with hunting, and a Wisconsin license is good for both. In Minnesota, the licenses are for one or the other, and trapping would be allowed only during the second season. Of the 2,400 licenses issued for the second season, a minimum of 600 would be reserved for trapping.

Both states allow hunters to use bait to attract wolves. By my reading the Wisconsin rules seem a little more restrictive.

A rebuff to Minnesota Ojibwe bands

Conflict between Minnesota’s DNR and Ojibwe bands who regard the wolf as sacred has received a little media attention and I expect we may hear more about this if the hunt goes forward.

The Fond du Lac and White Earth bands asked the DNR not to permit hunting and trapping on nontribal lands within the overall borders of their reservations; the DNR said no. Wisconsin’s DNR is prohibiting wolf hunting and trapping on nontribal lands within the Bad River, Lac Courte Oreilles, Lac du Flambeau, Menominee and Red Cliff reservations.

It’s frankly hard to imagine why the DNR wouldn’t simply grant this request and avoid the insult. But since the lawsuit was filed last week the agency has gone into no-comment mode on wolf matters.

I’ve said before that I am not opposed to all wolf hunting, having been persuaded by a leading expert that the long-term survival of gray wolves in our state and region would be undermined if we replace decades of federal protection, which ended last January, with a new, special status that elevates them above all other game species.

That’s a view I’m reconsidering in light of the ways in which the Minnesota regulations place them below some of our marquee game species, by allowing them to be trapped or baited.

Hunters, trappers and wildlife managers like to say these provisions are trivial because wolves are so elusive, wily and sensitive to human presence that it’s beyond difficult to lure them with bait.

Someday I hope to hear an expert explain how, if this is so, the use of strychnine-laced bait in earlier times helped make our long eradication campaign against the wolf nearly 100 percent successful.

An interesting interview with a Wisconsin legislator who tried unsuccessfully to rein in wolf-hunting provisions that he found unwise is available on this page of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.