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Final stats disprove notion that trappers and hunters are outmatched by wolves

Sport killings reached or exceeded DNR targets in zone after zone, and well ahead of schedules.

Seasons were cut short — way short — and still the total number of wolves killed went over the DNR's target, finishing at 412.
CC/Flickr/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest Region

Now that Minnesota’s first sport seasons on wolves are history, it’s interesting to revisit an early chapter in the evolution of this program – and to compare some predictions of a year ago with the final results now posted.

Dr. David Mech
Dr. David Mech

It was last Jan. 26 when Dr. David Mech was called to a hearing in the Minnesota House and asked his view of the trapping and hunting rules that were taking final shape after the gray wolf’s exit from federal protections.

Mech has spent a half-century – as he said, his entire professional career – studying wolves. Asking him to review your wolf-management program is like asking Noah to take a squint at your sketches for a new ark.

And the praise Mech delivered could not have been more glowing. He called it “an extremely well thought-out plan” and a “conservative” approach that couldn’t threaten the state’s recovered population of some 3,000 wolves.

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Low targets and scant skills

First, the DNR’s quota of 400 wolf kills was low. Second, hunters and trappers weren’t likely to reach it anyway – even if part of the hunting took place during deer season, with hundreds of thousands of hunters already in the woods (a provision many hunters questioned, but Mech endorsed).

The Department of Natural Resources was naturally delighted with Mech’s blessing, and still features the video at the front of its wolf-management web pages. Forecasts along his lines became a prevailing theme for the agency and many outdoors writers as well.

I watched the Mech video again yesterday, after catching up on statistics from the seasons now ended, and in hindsight some comments stood out in particular:

  • It’s difficult to hunt wolves. Not impossible, and I’m sure there will be some people who will learn how to do it.

We already have some coyote hunters, for example, and they can adapt their methods to taking wolves, but there’s quite a difference in that you go out in coyote range and you’re probably never more than a quarter-mile or half-mile from a coyote … wolves, you’ve got to find out where they are.

  • Trapping and snaring would be the most effective [ways of taking wolves, but] even trapping and snaring requires you to go out every day and check your traps or snares, you’ve got to contend with the weather, freezing traps and snowfall that ruins your sets and all.

[Past programs to control livestock losses with trapping succeeded because] there were a fair number of trappers, local trappers, who were practiced in taking wolves and they had the time and made the effort to get them. [But that was 35 years ago, and] whether it would be true now, it’s hard to say.

  • The first year, or the first couple of years [of the new wolf seasons], there will be a certain number of people who want to hang a wolf rug on the wall, but after you get that first wolf rug, I mean, how many more do you really want to put on your wall? … You can sell ’em for, maybe a pelt would be worth $100 now, but it’s going to be a lot of work.

Look out for bad PR, though

Mech’s only caution was against setting the quotas too high, because

If it ended up that you took more than anyone would guess you might take, then all of a sudden you’ve got a PR problem: “Oh, the DNR is allowing us to wipe out the wolves.”

Not a wolf-management problem, mind you – just a PR problem.

As it happened, hunters and trappers were steadily successful beyond DNR expectations. Seasons were cut short – way short – and still the total number of wolves killed went over the agency’s target, finishing at 412. Hunter success in both seasons was about four times higher than in western states, the Strib reports.

In addition, 272 wolves were killed by government trappers to control livestock losses, and another 16 were reported by private citizens to have been killed to protect farm animals or pets. I suppose it’s barely possible that additional wolves were shot or trapped and not reported to the enforcement authorities.

The combined tally of just over 700 is below the winter mortality level of about 900 that DNR says the state’s current wolf population can sustain, for at least a few years in a row, before entering a significant decline.

The final assessment of how this year’s takings will affect Minnesota’s wolves awaits analysis of various postmortem samples collected by the DNR to update its knowledge of the age, health and probable reproductive success of the population.

Studying the wily human

But already we know some important new things about the human side of the engagement, and about the rules that governed it.

  • Hunters and trappers not only exceeded the DNR targets, they did so at a far faster pace than anticipated. The agency had to halt the second season — which combined hunting and trapping, and was to run from just after Thanksgiving till as late as Jan. 31 – about  seven weeks early in two zones and a month early in the third, which closed Jan. 3.
  • As Mech predicted, trappers were far more successful than hunters, getting three-fourths of wolves taken in the combined hunting/trapping season. To judge from news accounts featuring young, novice trappers, lack of experience wasn’t a big hindrance.
  • In the first, hunting-only season that ran for three weeks in November, hunter success was hugely dependent on the overlap with deer season. About 85 percent of the wolves killed then were shot by hunters who were out on deer stands.
  • Despite a system that allowed (in fact, required) hunters and trappers to check the status of their zone each morning, takings exceeded DNR targets in one zone for the first season, and in two out of three in the second season.
  • Aside to Dr. Mech: Published accounts put the current pelt price about 250 percent above your $100 estimate.

Whether the Minnesota program will change much in light of this experience won’t be known for a while. Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager, was quoted by the Grand Forks Herald in this refreshingly candid comment:

I remember hearing a lot of folks say we weren’t going to be able to harvest nearly that number of wolves. I guess we proved that wrong.

But his boss, Commissioner Tom Landwehr, told the Strib:

We’ve demonstrated that you can have sensible wolf harvest and still have wolves, because this won’t even make a dent in the population. This is a sustainable harvest. We will have wolves in the state forever.

And then there’s the issue of how much change the Legislature would permit anyway. Rep. David Dill, the Crane Lake DFLer who now heads the committee that took Mech’s testimony last January, told the Strib that he didn’t think any changes were needed.

To him, the pattern of early closures and over-quota takings doesn’t reflect on human capabilities at all, but rather “means either that wolves are really dumb, which they’re not, or there’s more of them than we thought there were.”

Which, I suppose, would justify raising the quota in future years.