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Wolf-killing by the numbers: Trappers outdo hunters — and stir public outrage

In both Minnesota and Wisconsin, sportsmen’s success confounds predictions.

As of last week, two of DNR's three wolf zones were closed for the duration and the overall tally, at this writing, is approaching 300.
REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Today may mark the midpoint of Minnesota’s new trapping and hunting seasons on wolves, which began Nov. 3 and will run through Jan. 31. 

Or maybe not. Policy calls for the Minnesota Department of Resources to end the wolf “harvest” as soon as its target of 400 wolf kills is reached, and with each passing day, that goal seems likelier to be reached early.

As of last week, two of DNR’s three wolf zones were closed for the duration and the overall tally, at this writing, is approaching 300 (updates and a map are available here).

This means roughly three-quarters of the quota has been filled in the first half of a two-part schedule that began with hunting only, then moved into a combined trapping and hunting phase just after Thanksgiving.

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By the way, the same pattern is shaping up in Wisconsin, where the trapping/hunting season started two weeks earlier than Minnesota’s and is set to run a month longer. At this writing, five of the six zones had been closed; seven more kills will fill the state’s quota of 201.

So much for the blithe predictions in both states that the wily wolf would prove more than a match for trappers and hunters, even if 200,000 Minnesota deer hunters “flooded the zone” during the early-November seasons.

Trappers outdo hunters, 2 to 1

The Strib’s Doug Smith had an interesting analysis of the Minnesota numbers in Saturday’s paper, including these points drawn from DNR stats:

  • As expected, trappers are taking a lot more wolves than hunters: more than twice as many in the combined trapping/hunting season that began Nov. 24, even though hunters outnumber trappers by the same 2-to-1 proportion in the woods right now.

“We’ve known that trapping is the most effective method to take wolves, so it’s not surprising,” said Ed Boggess, Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division director. “Trappers can place multiple sets, and the traps are out there 24 hours a day. Hunters have to be there when the wolf is there.”

  • During the hunting-only season, about 85 percent of the 147 wolves killed across the state were taken “incidentally” by hunters who were also after deer. Three of them had been radio-collared for research purposes.
  • In addition to wolves killed recreationally, another 267 had been killed by federal and state trappers responding to complaints of livestock losses, and 16 more were killed by citizens “protecting livestock or pets.”

The DNR told Smith that Minnesota’s wolf population, now estimated at about 3,000, could withstand losses in the range of 30 percent for “a number of years” before its recovery would be threatened.

Thirty percent would be about 900 wolves, and at this point the combined tally of kills from all sources appears likely to stay below that in this first year of managed sport killing – assuming, of course, that all hunters, trappers and livestock-protecting citizens are scrupulously honest in reporting their doings to the state.

Rising tide against trapping?

I have no statistics to back up this observation, but from tracking the online comments and letters to editors on this subject it seems clear that the trapping aspects of these seasons continue to stir up strong reactions among Minnesotans who might have been OK with a hunting-only approach, and often say as much.

Trapping (and baiting, by both hunters and trappers) have always been part of DNR’s planning for sport seasons on wolves. But they didn’t have a very high profile in the department’s communications, or in mainstream press coverage,  until the last couple of months.

To a wildlife manager, a take is a take – whether the wolf is taken with a rifle, a steel-jawed trap or a snare. But to plenty of nonhunting citizens – and apparently to a significant number of hunters as well – there is a night-and-day difference between hunting under fair-chase rules and the kind of killing accomplished with traps.

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For a nuanced, close-up look at the latter I commend Dave Orrick’s piece for the Pioneer Press on Saturday, a father-and-toddler tale about a DNR conservation officer’s success in trapping, then shooting, “wolfie” with his not-quite-2-year-old in tow.

Orrick paints the CO, convincingly, as a disciplined, hardy, studious, conscientious trapper who is scrupulous about every aspect of setting and checking his traplines.

He explains, somewhat persuasively, that modern foot-hold traps are different from the jagged-jaw contraptions that persist in many modern minds – that in fact they can be identical to the traps used by researchers to detain wolves for radio-collaring.

He quotes the wolf expert David Mech as explaining that the animals don’t really chew off their feet to escape the trap:

“Most are very docile in the trap when you approach,” Mech said of younger wolves, which are the most likely to be caught, if for no other reason than they make up the majority of the population at any given time. … “They cower when you get there. They’re afraid of you. … They’d be easy to shoot.”

You can read for yourself what Orrick’s readers thought of this account and the accompanying picture of trapper with trophy. They gave him an earful.

For my own part, I’ll just say this:

  • I’ve long been OK with some recreational hunting of wolves on a fair-chase basis, for reasons I’ve explained before, though I think baiting ought to be beneath us, and I don’t really understand the logic that bans it from deer hunting and allows it for wolves.
  • I think trapping of wolves to stop livestock losses is a regrettable but necessary step that farmers and ranchers ought to be able to take to protect their livelihoods – and that those of us who eat the meat should swallow any objections along with the meal.
  • Realistically, the only alternative to these measures is a return to the bad old days of  “shoot, shovel and shut up,” and nobody can want that.

I’ve been a lot more dubious about trapping, but I admired Dave Orrick’s story and also its assumed purpose – to paint a detailed, humanized portrait of a modern practitioner as a way of informing our ongoing public debate of these issues.

And I certainly bear no ill will toward Orrick’s trapper. But as I watched him approach this animal, silhouetted against the snow, anchored to the ground by a steel vise, and put a bullet in its head, I thought I just might throw up.

While I’m at it, I also want to commend the Strib’s November editorial for a cogent statement of  all the reasons why Minnesota’s rules on wolf trapping and hunting deserve rethinking before next year’s seasons.