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Species in Conflict: Minnesota wolf management follows bumpy path on road to recovery

Love them or hate them, few animals evoke stronger emotions than the gray wolf.

Iconic without question, a symbol of wild places and revered by people who want them protected at all costs.

But also a top-level predator, scorned by ag producers when wolves raid their livestock and despised by the hunters who believe wolves kill too many deer.

There's no middle ground on wolves, it seems.

"Something I like to tell people, and I've always been—love 'em, hate 'em, whatever your thoughts on them—I like to think if you have wolves in an area, it tells you you're living in a pretty cool wilderness area," said Jeff Birchem, a retired conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources in northwest Minnesota.

The recovery of the gray wolf in Minnesota is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act, which protected Minnesota wolves and put them under management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beginning in 1974.

From a low of fewer than 750 animals in the 1950s, wolf numbers by the winter of 1988-89 had risen to an estimated 1,521 and peaked at 3,020 in 2003-2004, results from DNR wolf surveys show. At the same time, the state's wolf range has expanded from 12,000 square miles in the 1950s to more than 27,000 square miles, the DNR said.

Minnesota's wolf population today stands at an estimated 2,856 wolves in 500 packs, based on results from the DNR's most recent survey in 2016-17, released in September.

Factoring in a margin of error of about plus or minus 500, that means the actual population could range from 2,356 to 3,386 wolves.

Even at the low end, that's nearly twice the range of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves called for under federal recovery guidelines, yet—except for a three-year period from 2012 to 2014—wolves in Minnesota remain federally protected, listed as threatened in Minnesota and endangered elsewhere in the western Great Lakes region, according to the DNR.

The history of wolf management, you might say, has taken a bumpy path on the road to the species' recovery.

Historical perspective

Bill Berg, 77, a DNR furbearer biologist who retired in 2001, has an extensive background in the history of Minnesota wolf management, dating back to the days when the state paid a bounty on wolves, to their federally protected listing in 1974, to the recovery and expansion that prompted the DNR to begin writing a new wolf plan in 1998 as the state prepared to take over management of the species, which by then had met federal recovery goals.

The bounties ended in 1965, Berg said, but wolves in Minnesota remained an unprotected furbearer that could be hunted or trapped until their 1974 listing under the Endangered Species Act.

By then, wolves in Minnesota basically were confined to Lake, Cook and St. Louis counties in the far northeast and parts of northern Koochiching and Beltrami counties to the west, Berg said.

"When they had a hunting and trapping season wide open, there were still, on average, 150 to over 300 wolves taken back then every year, but wolves were really diminished in range," Berg said.

State game wardens, called conservation officers today, even shot wolves from the air, Berg says, a practice that ended in 1956.

"It was just the dislike of predators," Berg said. "There was not a good feeling for the ecological value of a wolf or coyote. It was just like every predator is something to be gotten rid of, so it was part of the wardens' job description."

Colorful time

As a wildlife student at the University of Minnesota in the early '60s, Berg says he remembers going to the Capitol and listening to crusty Northwoods trappers testify against removing the bounty on wolves.

Dressed in their wool trapping clothes and plaid jackets, the trappers were a colorful part of Minnesota's outdoor history, Berg says.

"They would come in a Greyhound bus, and the bus would drop them off right by the steps of the Capitol, and they would drag out a wolf-killed deer," he said.

"This really happened—they dragged wolf-killed deer up through the rotunda and into the meeting room. It was a very colorful time in Minnesota history to have these guys—not only did the wolf-killed deer smell, but these guys did, too—and it was just neat."

Federal protection removed wolves from state control and put an end to wolf hunting and trapping, Berg said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service then established a program to live-trap nuisance wolves and move them elsewhere.

"They'd catch wolves around Duluth or somewhere and take them up in the most wild areas they could and let them go simply because they couldn't kill them," Berg said. "A lot of them would get into trouble again because they were used to eating livestock and lambs."

Status change

Federal trappers couldn't kill nuisance wolves until 1978, when wolves were listed as "threatened" instead of "endangered" in Minnesota under the Endangered Species Act. Federal rules stated wolves only could be killed under a strict set of guidelines.

About that same time, Berg recalls, there was a movement within the DNR to develop a statewide wolf estimate. Using data from telemetry studies and other wolf research in the state and field observations from DNR, tribal and federal agencies, county land departments and other personnel, the first statewide estimate in 1978-79 was 1,235 wolves, Berg said.

Even then, Minnesota probably had more wolves than it did in pre-settlement days when old-growth forests that support few deer dominated the landscape, and deer were less abundant, Berg said.

"I think that's hard for the protectionists to understand," Berg said. "Very few deer support very few wolves. There's nowhere on the planet that supports wolves that doesn't have some kind of ungulate (hoofed mammal). They need elk, moose or deer."

The DNR then conducted winter wolf surveys every 10 years, Berg said. In 1988-89, Minnesota's wolf population had risen to an estimated 1,500 wolves, and the 1998-99 survey tallied an estimated wolf population of 2,445 wolves.

"There was just a steady increase, and by then, wolves had moved out of their conventional range to the transition zone (farther west), and some moved into southeast Minnesota," Berg said.

The DNR has conducted wolf surveys annually since the winter of 2012-13. While protectionist groups have questioned the DNR's population estimates, wolves are among the easiest animals to count, Berg says, because three-fourths to two-thirds of them travel in packs.

"The telemetry tells us how big the pack territories are, and it also gives us the average number of wolves in those packs," Berg said. "You put all this information together, and even areas that don't have radio wolves, after every field person from every agency in the state writes down where wolf tracks are seen, you get a really good plot of where wolves are in the state.

"The methodology is really sound."

Minnesota this winter had 45 to 50 wolves with tracking collars between the DNR, tribal and government or university research projects, said John Erb, the DNR's wolf research scientist in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Making plans

As wolf numbers crept past the low end of federal recovery guidelines, the DNR began making plans for taking over management of the species.

That required gathering public input to develop a plan for managing wolves, a task overseen by Berg and Mike DonCarlos, a DNR colleague who died in 2015.

In January 1998, Berg and DonCarlos conducted a series of 12 public meetings around the state gathering input on what the plan should include.

The veteran biologists weathered the wrath of people on both sides of the wolf debate during those meetings, and Berg said he even got death threats from anonymous callers.

"Shoot, shovel and shut up," was the rallying cry at a meeting in Thief River Falls. A meeting at the school in Northome, Minn., in Koochiching County, added to the original 12 at the request of northern Minnesota legislators, drew twice as many people as the town's population of about 200, Berg recalls.

"Those 13 meetings set a record probably never to be broken for DNR public input meetings—13 meetings had around 3,000 or 3,500 people," Berg said. "That showed the interest and the polarization. There's no other critter that evokes so much emotion and love and hatred."

Berg said he and DonCarlos were ready for that emotion, but the Twin Cities meetings were especially difficult.

"I don't know that we had police protection anywhere else but in the Twin Cities—Mike and I had armed protection—and we had two really raucous meetings there," Berg said. "Otherwise, people liked to get up and talk and grandstand and sit down on both sides, but everybody else was really well-mannered and pretty civil. But in the cities, that's where we had some threats. It took a toll on both of us."

Following the public input meetings, the DNR assembled a panel of agency experts and people on both sides of the wolf issue for a series of seven roundtable sessions to hammer out final details of the wolf plan.

Roger Williams, a mediator from the Minnesota Office of Dispute Resolution, oversaw the effort to develop a consensus

"The Minnesota DNR was on the side of a wolf management plan that allowed for some wolf harvest," Berg said. "We were not unbiased, but (Williams) did a good job and (there were) a lot of perspectives and people who were extremely polarized."

Berg recalls the final meeting in Duluth, where efforts to develop the plan nearly collapsed before protectionist groups made some concessions. The result was a plan that included a limited harvest no earlier than five years after removing wolves from federal control—a process called delisting—and additional staff for managing wolves.

The Legislature failed to adopt the plan in 1999, but after some legislative tinkering in 2000, a wolf management plan establishing a minimum population of 1,600 wolves—there is no maximum number—finally was signed in 2001, paving the way for return to state control.

"It passed, but it wasn't very amenable to the protectionist groups," Berg said.

Back and forth

Even with a state management plan in place, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposals to delist wolves were scuttled by court rulings until January 2012, when the DNR finally assumed state management.

That designation—which again proved to be only temporary—gave livestock producers and property owners the right to protect themselves against wolf threats, and the DNR offered limited hunting and trapping seasons in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Then, on Dec. 19, 2014, a federal judge siding with protectionist groups in a lawsuit against delisting again overturned state control and thrust management of wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and portions of neighboring states back into the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And that's where it stands today.

In essence, wolf management in the past 20 years had come full circle, from federally protected to managed by the state back to federally protected, with a tumultuous series of twists and turns along the way.

"Right now, we're probably further behind in the wolf management process than we were before we started in the late '90s," Berg said.

Where the journey leads next remains to be seen, he said.

"So much depends on sympathetic judges," Berg said. "It's way beyond biology; it's all social. It depends on how people feel socially about accepting wolves or not liking them."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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