OPINION | Successful enough to hunt? Minnesota's gray wolves

Growing up in the city, the sounds of buses, traffic, and the occasional car alarm accompanied me to sleep each night. Yet I heard stories from my grandpa about life in western Kansas and how he would go to sleep listening to coyotes howling in the night. His stories always made me long for a world that was more in touch with nature, more wild.

Over the next several weeks Minnesota 2020 will run a series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. This is part of their continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

Predators like coyotes and wolves seemed mythical to me—so far from my daily life that I considered them to be part of another world, part of the past. To many people, they are just that, having largely disappeared in the United States. However, in both Minnesota and other upper Midwestern states, the gray wolf has come back.

Canis Lupus, the gray wolf, is a very territorial and incredibly social animal, traveling and hunting in packs with complex hierarchies. They feed on deer, moose, beavers, and other small animals. As top predators, who hunt but have no natural predators of their own, wolves are also vitally important to the ecosystem of northern Minnesota, creating stability in population dynamics with competing groups of prey.

The wolves are not just important ecologically, but also culturally. Wolves are important to the heritage of our state and our peoples. When humans first came into contact with gray wolves, they threatened wolf hunting grounds by competing for prey and encroaching on wolf territory. Seen as a threat to both livestock and to people, wolves were hunted. As a result, most wolf populations were severely threatened by the early 1900s, becoming largely extinct in most of the United States. Today, they exist in Yellowstone National Park and the upper Midwest.

A case in point: The Isle Royale National Park population on Lake Superior demonstrates the need for ongoing concern. With a mere nine wolves left in the park, only one of which is a female, the chances for extinction on the island are high. Although hunting and trapping are not allowed in the national park, the wolf population has still diminished significantly, dropping since 2009 from a long-term average population of around 24. This drop has been attributed to a shortage of females, breakdown of packs, and declining prey populations due to disease and starvation. The fragility of this population and the speed at which it has declined is alarming. One lesson that can be learned from this is that we must continue to exercise care in our decision-making about control of the gray wolves.

Following over three decades of careful population management, the Minnesota wolf population rebounded to 2,900 individuals, the largest of the lower 48 states. This success resulted in the removal of gray wolves from the federal Endangered Species list in January of 2012. But there are differences of opinion on this decision. We must carefully consider which interests have the biggest say in this debate.

Minnesota wolf population management is now in the hands of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  The DNR decided to open a wolf-hunting season directly after the delisting, which is cause for concern both because of potential harm to the wolf population and because of the lack of public input in the delisting process.

The DNR will allow 400 wolves to be hunted per season, and believe that the population could sustain much heavier losses without threatening its viability. There is concern, however, that the best interests of the wolf population are being undermined by competing interests. Hunting brings in significant amounts of revenue for the DNR, and the permits sold to hunt wolves earn the DNR an estimated $400,000 each year.

Originally, legislation called for a five-year period of monitoring the wolf population before opening up a hunting period. That this proposal was overruled is cause for concern for many environmentalists and activist groups on several fronts. The first and most obvious concern is for the wolves themselves. While it is believed that the population could rebound from more than 400 hunted each season, it is unclear what effects the increased interactions with humans could have now that federal protections have been lifted.

Also problematic is the DNR’s disregard for the public input processes surrounding ecosystem management, despite the fact that Minnesota’s natural resources are something that we all share and value. This about-face from federal protection to hunting demonstrates a recreational attitude toward nature that does not prioritize the well-being of Minnesota’s wildlife.

The gray wolf is a powerful cultural symbol for Minnesota’s dedication to nature and to its wild areas, and we must continue to protect it.

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