Published January 13, 2013, 05:05 AM

Wolf season considered success despite lawsuits filed by opponents

Officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say they’re pleased with the state’s first-ever managed wolf season, although a lawsuit filed by opponents of the season remains in the courts.

By: Herald Staff Report, Forum Communications

Officials from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say they’re pleased with the state’s first-ever managed wolf season, although a lawsuit filed by opponents of the season remains in the courts.

Minnesota’s inaugural wolf season ended Jan. 3, when the late hunting and trapping seasons closed.

DNR officials closed the season early because the harvest was nearing the overall target of 400. The final tally during the two seasons was 413, the DNR said. Hunters and trappers had until 5 p.m. Jan. 4 to register wolves taken the last day of season.

Had the harvest target not been reached, the late season could have remained open until Jan. 31.

“I think in general it was a very successful season,” said Steve Merchant, wildlife program manager for the DNR in St. Paul. “It was quite a challenge to do what we needed to do to make it work, and we accomplished that. 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.”

While hunters and trappers ultimately took more than 400 wolves, DNR officials said the harvest target was not a firm quota.

“From the beginning, we stated it was a guideline and a trigger, that when we were at or approaching it, based on harvest trends, we would initiate closing a season,” Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., said. “It wasn’t an absolute limit that couldn’t be exceeded.”

When a season was to be closed in a specific zone as the target harvest was approached, the DNR would announce the closure the day before, so hunters and trappers still had an additional day to go afield.

The Northwest Zone was the last area to remain open when the DNR closed the season. The DNR closed the East-Central Zone on Dec. 14 and the Northeast Zone the next day.

State management

The Minnesota DNR took over management of the gray wolf after it was removed from the federal Endangered Species List on Jan. 27, 2012. Minnesota’s wolf population is estimated at 3,000, more than twice the number called for under federal recovery guidelines.

The wolf season was strongly opposed by some Minnesotans, many of whom thought the state acted too quickly in holding its first managed wolf hunt. Two groups, Howling for Wolves and the Center for Biological Diversity, filed a lawsuit saying the DNR hadn’t sought enough public input before holding its first wolf season.

An injunction that would have halted the first season was not granted, but the case remains in court.

The DNR issued 6,000 wolf licenses to hunters and trappers, and more than 23,000 people applied. Hunters had a success rate of about 4 percent, while trappers had a success rate of 25 percent, Stark said.

The first season was limited to hunting, but trappers were responsible for 74 percent of the late-season harvest, he said. That amounts to 197 wolves taken by trapping and 69 by hunting.

“All indications are that it went better than anybody expected,” said Shawn Johnson of Duluth, president of the Minnesota Trappers Association. “I was pleasantly surprised at the numbers taken by hunters.”

EGF taxidermist busy

Jim Benson of Sportsman’s Taxidermy Studio in East Grand Forks said he received 10 wolves from successful hunters and trappers. All but four of the wolves were taken by trapping or snaring during the late season.

“It got real fast and furious that last week,” Benson said. “The phone was ringing off the hook.”

Benson said the wolves he received mostly were taken in northwest Minnesota, with the majority coming from Roseau County. He said the wolves were of average size and color — brownish-gray — and he didn’t see any with striking black- or silver-colored fur.

“Most people are just getting them tanned,” Benson said. “We’ve got a couple of rugs to do and a couple of life-size mounts.”

Benson, who has hunted wolves in Ontario, said he was surprised to see the harvest target reached as early as it was.

“I was thinking they’d be able to get to the quota pretty close, but I didn’t think it would fill up a month early, that’s for sure,” he said.

Opposing views

Collette Adkins Giese, a biologist and attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said watching the state’s wolf season was troubling.

“I’ve been haunted by the knowledge that wolves suffered and died because we were unable to stop the hunt,” Adkins Giese said.

Dr. Maureen Hackett, a psychiatrist, is founder and president of Howling for Wolves, based in Hopkins, Minn.

“I think wolf hunting is bad for our culture,” Hackett said. “It gives the wrong impression about predators in general and specifically about the wolf. There’s no evidence we have too many wolves.”

High density

Minnesota’s hunting success was substantially higher than western states, where success has been closer to 1 percent, Stark said.

According to Stark, the number of wolves killed in Minnesota doesn’t reflect the population size. He said the DNR believes the estimate of 3,000 wolves still is quite accurate. The DNR conducts a comprehensive population every five years, with another census scheduled this winter, he said.

At the same time, though, Minnesota has one of the highest wolf densities anywhere, Stark said, which could have been a factor in hunting success. Wolves in Minnesota have an average territory of about 40 square miles, he said, compared with more than 100 square miles in western states.

“We made some assumptions about the rates at which wolves might be taken based on experiences in other places,” Stark said. “There’s just likely some differences here that affect harvest rates.

“We can’t draw a correlation to that and say there are more wolves.”

John Williams, acting regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said about 135 wolves were brought into area wildlife offices in northwest Minnesota for the required inspections. The area wildlife office in Bemidji alone handled 32 wolves, Willaims said.

“The process went remarkably smooth once the season got under way,” Williams said. “The trappers and hunters who were successful were quite pleased with the opportunity to partake in a wolf season.”

Pending the outcome of lawsuits seeking to stop future wolf seasons in Minnesota, it’s too soon to say what changes, if any, might be in store next year, the DNR’s Stark said.

“At this point, we’re just compiling the information we have on this season, completing another wolf population survey this winter and will make recommendations for next year’s season this spring or early summer,” he said. “We haven’t discussed what (the season) might look like next year.”

Forum News Service outdoor writers Sam Cook of the Duluth News Tribune and Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald contributed to this story.