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Minnesota’s wolf harvest takes shape with reliance on trapping and baiting

Wolves are said to kill game and livestock not only for subsistence but pleasure — perhaps like human trophy-seekers, who aren’t after the wolf meat.

The recovery of wolf populations in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States is a triumph in which plenty of nonhunting stakeholders hold a continuing interest.

[Update: A few hours after this post went up, I got word that the Center for Biological Diversity has gone to court to halt wolf hunting and trapping this fall on grounds that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources failed to follow the law on seeking public input before issuing regulations for the new seasons on wolves, which begin Nov. 3. Full post to follow. — Ron Meador]

is the first word that comes to mind on reading “Hunter to Hunted,” last week’s Star Tribune feature treatment of the upcoming seasons on gray wolves – those “killing machines” and “marauding predators” that slay deer, livestock and pets not only for food but sometimes just for fun.

Shallow would be second.

This 2012 Fall Spotlight of the Strib’s Outdoors pages runs the gamut, opinionwise, from a hunter who thinks the wolf season is a good idea to another hunter who thinks it might be premature.

Fair enough, for a presentation addressed primarily to hunting enthusiasts? Perhaps.

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Still, it’s troubling that since the gray wolf came off the federal protection list last January, only the outdoors writers – as best as I can tell – have done the Strib’s reporting on the evolution of rules for the first managed wolf harvest in state history, and the return of legal wolf-killing as sport for the first time since 1974.

The recovery of wolf populations in Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States is a triumph in which plenty of nonhunting stakeholders hold a continuing interest, from ecologists to wildlife hobbyists to nature-minded tourists and the businesses that depend on them.

Some wolf hunting is necessary

This would be a good time to state that I am not against hunting wolves. I think it’s necessary, for reasons I’ll lay out shortly. But I do think the new policies deserve a broader discussion than our state’s largest newspaper has been providing. (The Pioneer Press also seems to have decided that wolf management is a hook-and-bullet subject; I didn’t scrutinize its coverage as closely.)

And they deserve clearer, more considered prose.

Take, for example, the Strib’s description of Minnesota’s wolf harvest as proceeding under “fair chase rules,” which elevate the animals from vermin to “first-class game status, no different in many ways than ducks, pheasants and deer.”

The comparison, in particular, struck me as so obviously off-base that I called up Chris Niskanen, communications chief for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He confirmed that under Minnesota law, hunters cannot lay out bait to lure ducks, pheasants or deer – as they will be able to do for wolves. Nor can ducks, pheasants or deer be taken legally with traps and snares.

Wolves, on the other hand, will be subject to a combined trapping/hunting season that runs for 11 weeks after the first, hunting-only season concludes Thanksgiving weekend.

In fact, Niskanen told me, DNR expects the trappers to get a lot more wolves than the hunters, and thus be much more helpful to the agency in its three-month effort to subtract 400 wolves from the current state population of about 3,000.

I think it may be news to many Minnesotans that our long-discussed, fair-chase “wolf hunt” will in fact make heavy use of traps and bait. It might even be news to many who read “Hunter to Hunted,” two-plus pages where trapping and baiting are dealt with only at the end of a list of tips for prospective trophy-seekers.

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Issues with a long history

Wolf management is an issue I followed pretty closely back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it first became likely that wolves would be “delisted” from the federal endangered species program. Niskanen did, too, in his earlier career as an outdoors writer at the Pioneer Press.

My memory is imperfect but I don’t recall trapping having anything like such a high profile in Minnesota’s approach back then. A wolf taken by trap and one taken by rifle may count the same to a wildlife manager or cattleman, but many citizens feel differently – and if leg-hold traps had been in the picture so prominently, I think I’d remember the howls.

(I’m talking about trapping for sport; officially sanctioned trapping and shooting of wolves that prey on livestock has been part of wolf management under federal protections and will continue after delisting.)

Niskanen didn’t recall this, either, and referred me to Ed Boggess, DNR’s fish and wildlife director, for an historical review. Boggess said that trapping has always been central to DNR managers’ thinking, but because of the on-again, off-again status of wolf delisting, specifics of the harvest strategy weren’t developed or discussed publicly until this year.

As for the Strib writers’ insistence that wolves kill not only for subsistence but also for pleasure, I’m not sure what the point is. That wolves really aren’t on the same plane as other game species but on a different, morally inferior one?

If so, I suppose you could say the behavior puts them on the same footing as trophy-seeking wolf hunters who, after all, aren’t going to eat the meat.

Hunting in the wolves’ best interest

OK, that wasn’t very nice. So let me change the subject and tell how David Mech, everybody’s No. 1 wolf expert, persuaded me back in 1999 that an eventual wolf hunt was not only OK but necessary. I’ll paraphrase from old notes:

I am concerned with the survival of wolves as a species, and that means I can’t be concerned about saving every individual wolf. If we put wolves on a pedestal above all other species that we hunt, people will take the law into their hands, and before long we’ll be right back to the time when, for most folks, the only good wolf was a dead wolf. Sooner or later we’re going to have to have a hunt.

It wasn’t a tough sell. It turned out to be much harder for me, in turn, to persuade the Strib’s editorial board – a sizable majority of which was instinctively, even viscerally, against any killing of wolves for sport. But eventually I made the case for backing the recommendations of 33 diverse stakeholders (Mech among them) on the DNR’s so-called “wolf roundtable,” which opposed sporting seasons on wolves only during a five-year moratorium after delisting.

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The moratorium idea was quickly discarded. First the cattlemen deserted the consensus they had helped to form. Then legislators began drafting orders to the DNR to start the seasons immediately after delisting, not for population management but to meet “pent-up demand.”

This time around, lawmakers have told DNR not only to forget the moratorium but also extended the seasons by a total of 50 days, with the hunting-only season to coincide with the firearms season for deer.

Because wolves are so elusive, the reasoning goes, the best way to raise hunter success is to paint targets on them during the November weeks when up to 200,000 deerstalkers are already in the woods – some 3,600 of whom will have a wolf license as well.

Now, do you think it possible that some of the other 196,000 hunters might shoot a wolf without a license? Here’s how the less sanguine of the two hunters in the Strib’s package sees it:

The part that bothers me most about the wolf season is that the Legislature is running it concurrently with the deer rifle season. I think it sends the wrong signal to hunters, that now it’s OK to shoot wolves. To my mind, the illegal wolf kill is probably higher than the DNR thinks.

Although it was a political move to scrap the moratorium, Niskanen and Boggess defend it by saying the wolf population has grown healthier in the 13 years since the roundtable finished its work. I didn’t recall headcount being the main point of the five-year pause, so I checked in with Howard Goldman, senior state director in Minnesota for the Humane Society of the United States.

Why a moratorium matters

Goldman is a passionate advocate for animal welfare. Some may view him as a little wild-eyed, but I have always felt he stops short of shrill.

He told me that the roundtable’s membership – agriculture and livestock interests, wildlife managers, environmentalists, hunters and trappers, animal-welfare advocates, Native Americans – came quickly to agreement that DNR would need five years to gather good statistics on another new source of wolf mortality. That would be the livestock farmers empowered by delisting to shoot wolves on their property, rather than having to call in state or federal agents to remove them:

At this point, we still don’t have any idea how many wolves will be taken, but already this year, it’s almost 250 [including wolves taken by both farmers and government agents]. Last year it was 203 for the whole year, so it’s way up already and we just don’t know how high it will go.

On top of that, there are the wolves killed illegally, under the practice I’m sure you’ve heard of: shoot, shovel and shut up. On the roundtable, the best estimate we had was, close to 400 wolves every year. So you add together 400 illegal killings, and the 400 quota, and 300 from depredation controls – and it could well exceed a third of the population.

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We don’t think that makes a lot of sense for a species that has just come off the endangered species list, that has been protected for 38 years. It’s not just another game species. We’ve got to be very, very careful.

Fair point? I think so, and certainly worth a place in the public conversation. I’m pleased to put it there.

Also, to add Boggess’ perspectives that the numbers on wolves legally killed by farmers in earlier, brief delisting periods were trivial;  that the numbers this year are indeed going up; and that in any case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor the Minnesota situation for five years to make sure the wolf population stays healthy.

These are points I’ll return to as the wolf seasons play out.