Some Ojibwe tribal members object to wolf hunting, trapping

Wolf in woods
A wolf walks in the woods near the Echo Trail about 20 miles northwest of Ely, Minn.
Steve Foss for MPR

Some Ojibwe in Minnesota are worried about the fate of the state's wolf population as state lawmakers consider a hunting and trapping season for the animals.

Wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list last year, and that upsets some tribal members. For many Ojibwe, wolves are important to traditional culture. Some believe wolves are sacred, and they want to see protections continue.

A painting of two wolves hangs prominently on the living room wall in Mary Favorite's home in Wauben on the White Earth Indian Reservation.

Favorite is a tribal elder and a member of the wolf clan. That means many in her large, extended family associate themselves very closely with the animal. Favorite considers wolves among her relatives.

"It's very special to me. When I read that in the paper that they were thinking about... passing a law about killing the wolves," Favorite said. "It broke my heart."

Favorite remembers decades ago when gray wolves nearly disappeared. Now there are an estimated 3,000 gray wolves in Minnesota.

The Department of Natural resources proposes to let hunters and trappers kill 400 wolves this fall. Favorite hates the idea.

Mary and Andy Favorite
White Earth Ojibwe tribal members Mary and Andy Favorite have very personal ties to wolves. Mary is a member of the wolf clan and she considers wolves among her relations. Andy says wolves are prominent in the Ojibwe creation story and ancient cultural legends.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I thought, 'Oh my God,'" she said. "It's like they want to come in here and they want to shoot my brothers and my sisters."

It's not just members of the wolf clan who are upset about a possible wolf hunting season. Favorite's husband, Andy, is a historian and retired tribal college teacher. For traditional Ojibwe across the upper Midwest, wolves are sacred, Andy Favorite said.

"In our creation stories and a lot of our other legends, the wolf is very prominent. A lot of our spirits come in the form of these creatures, so it's a very spiritual thing," he said. "If the tribes have the spiritual moxie, they will step in and do something to protect the wolves."

Some Minnesota tribes have already done that. In 2010, the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe was the first to adopt a wolf management plan. They designated the band's 843,000 acres of land as a wolf sanctuary.

Bob Shimek
Environmental activist Bob Shimek was born and raised on the White Earth Indian Reservation. Shimek and other Ojibwe people oppose state plans to start a wolf hunting and trapping season this fall. Shimek says the Ojibwe have close cultural ties to wolves.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Red Lake is unique because it's considered a closed reservation. That means most of the land is owned and controlled by the tribe.

In most of Minnesota's other reservations, regulating hunting is more complicated because there's a checkerboard of land ownership. Those tribes regulate what happens on tribal land, but the state regulates hunting licenses for state land or land owned by non-American Indians.

In February, tribal officials at White Earth passed a resolution banning hunting and trapping on tribal lands. The tribe will only allow a wolf hunt for specific ceremonial purposes, or if wolves are causing problems with livestock or humans. Tribal natural resource managers said it's unclear how many wolves are on the reservation, but there are only a few known packs.

Other Minnesota tribes are drafting their own wolf policies.

Gray wolf
A gray wolf at the Minnesota Zoo.

Tribal activist Bob Shimek has been involved in the politics of wolves since the 1980s. He said many Ojibwe people believe there is a strong historic parallel between wolves and Indians that has been foretold in tribal legends — what happens to one, happens to the other. He compares bounties on wolves to government policies of the past that tried to exterminate American Indians.

"Indians and wolves have always been a political sore point here in America," he said. "It has always been about clearing the howling wilderness of those savages and those wolves and making it safe for pilgrims and settlers."

Shimek and others are unhappy the state has not consulted with the tribes about managing wolves.

DNR officials say they plan to talk with the tribes once the Legislature establishes a framework for a hunting season. Dan Stark, a large carnivore specialist for the DNR, said the goal is to balance wide-ranging interests in wolves. Farmers and ranchers who lose livestock to wolves support keeping the wolf population in check. In 2011, there were more than 100 verified complaints of wolves attacking livestock or pets.

There are also sporting groups that want a chance to hunt or trap wolves for recreation, Stark said.

"It's a pretty emotional topic for a lot of people," Stark said. "But I think that the wolf population in Minnesota is secure and we're going to make sure that however this develops, that we have wolves in the state and that wolves continue to thrive."

For Shimek, convincing the state to scrap plans for wolf hunting and trapping is an uphill battle.

"I honestly believe that a thousand Indians could show up in St. Paul to testify against this wolf legislation and it would not matter one single bit in terms of the outcome," Shimek said. "That's just the nature of politics."

On Thursday, Shimek and others at White Earth will begin a series of public education "wolf talks" on the reservation, although opposition to a wolf hunting season has not seemed to slow the bills that are advancing through the Legislature.