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A gray wolf peers through ferns in the woods north of Duluth, Minn., in 2017. The wolf had just been released by biologists with the 1854 Treaty Authority after being trapped and examined as part of a research project. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

Deer-wolf population dynamics offer fodder for debate in Minnesota

Last fall, a Bemidji-area deer hunter's video was widely circulated on Facebook among Minnesota hunters. In the video, it appeared that about a dozen gray wolves emerged from the right side of the screen, one or two at a time, and made their way across the scene. The video was shot from the hunter's elevated stand. A couple of wolf pups romped at one point. The adults moved through single-file at intervals, over a period of a minute or more.

The video seemed to support the impression that many Minnesota deer hunters have about wolves, namely that too many of them roam the woods.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, agrees with that sentiment.

"I do agree, and it is the position of MDHA to support delisting the gray wolf from the endangered species list and to let DNR manage the wolf," Engwall said in an interview just before the 2017 firearms deer season.

Last fall, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to support legislation that would have removed Minnesota's wolves from federal protection. That legislation never passed.

Wolves in Minnesota are currently listed as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The species had been delisted in Minnesota in late 2011, and Minnesota held fall hunting and trapping seasons in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Then, in December 2014, a federal judge ended state wolf management and declared the animals again protected.

That decision was upheld by a federal appeals court and remains in effect.

'Fully recovered'

Engwall, who hunts in the Dora Lake area north of Deer River, Minn., said wolf numbers compiled in the most recent Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wolf survey portray a fully recovered wolf population in the state.

"The facts are simple: The federal recovery plan for the gray wolf identified a recovered population number of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves," Engwall said. "DNR's winter wolf population survey in 2016-17 estimated the population to be approximately 2,856, an increase of 25 percent from (the previous) year. The wolf has recovered, and management should be returned to the state."

The annual wolf survey by the DNR showed those 2,856 wolves spread among 500 packs, up from 2,278 wolves in 438 packs in the 2015-2016 survey. Wolf numbers had remained flat or declined some for several years before last year's increase.

But a pack size of a dozen wolves, as the video depicted, would not be typical, according to the DNR's survey. Biologists found slightly more wolves per pack in the most recent survey — an average of 4.8 compared to 4.4 in the previous survey.

More deer, more wolves

DNR officials say wolf numbers have increased because there are more deer in northern Minnesota for them to eat. Higher deer densities after three mild winters allow for more wolves, biologists say.

But the wolf population isn't the limiting factor for deer numbers, DNR officials say.

"Wolf predation is definitely a component of the mortality of whitetail deer. It's been well documented," said Dan Stark, DNR large carnivore specialist. "But as far as impacting the deer population, wolves are not the driving factor in the number of deer we have on the landscape. The two primary impacts are hunter harvest and winter severity. We've had some of the highest harvests of deer on record while at the same time having the highest estimates of our wolf population."

After a recent series of mild to moderate winters, both deer and wolf numbers are increasing, Stark said.

"It's pretty clear that wolf numbers aren't driving deer numbers, but wolf numbers are a result of deer numbers," he said. "When we have more deer, we have more wolves. If we want to have more deer in the state, we're likely to have more wolves, and we'll coexist with that."

The federal Endangered Species Act is no longer serving a purpose for wolves in Minnesota, Stark said.

"When I was first hired, wolves had been removed from the Endangered Species list," he said. "That was celebrated as a success. Since that time, there has been relatively no change in (Minnesota's) wolf population. There's really nothing effectively that the Endangered Species Act is going to do for wolves in Minnesota. We have as many wolves in Minnesota as the prey available can support.

"From a biological and recovery perspective, the Endangered Species Act has run its course. It's time to transition to something else and focus on other species that are in need of recovery."

John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune contributed to this report.