What's the appeal in hunting or trapping a wolf?

Karin Winegar
Karin Winegar: The wolf season is not about biological need or controlling specific problem animals.
Photo courtesy Karin Winegar

Karin Winegar is a St. Paul journalist and author.

On a deserted logging road sometime before midnight about 30 years ago, I pointed my nose at the night sky and howled. Beside me, the wolf scientist David Mech howled, too; then we waited, our naked little ears straining through the miles of rock, pine and birch to catch the high, far thread of answering sound.

A photographer and I were covering the issues around this endangered species and its reintroduction to Yellowstone Park. We interviewed staff at the Wolf Project in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and met with ranchers in Montana and biologists in Minnesota.

Since then, wolves have often been on my mind and in my life. In 1993 I covered the opening of the International Wolf Center in Ely, where wolf pups licked my ears and nose. Dogsledding on Ely's frozen lakes, I glided in the tracks of wolves. And, camped one October evening outside Nerstrand, Minn., I thrilled to the song of a captive pack.

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Then as now, wolves evoked an emotion far disproportionate to their actual numbers or threat. In a controversial move in 2011, Idaho and Montana removed wolves from federal protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, Minnesota did so in January 2012. No species has previously been removed from the act's protection.

Now there's a huge public howl about Minnesota's first season on wolves. Minnesota trappers and hunters will be allowed to kill 400 of our estimated 3,000 wolves starting in September. Why de-list now, I'm wondering, and who stands to gain?

The new season is not about biological need or controlling specific problem wolves; it is a sport and trophy hunt. And the noise involves at minimum a certain sense of entitlement, a volatile and intractable mix of passion, political meddling in science, masculinity in search of itself, a residue of country-city enmity, political point-scoring with extremists, juvenile anti-authoritarianism and some ancient scapegoating. And possibly worse.

When Idaho promptly kills half of its wolves (379 kills recorded in the 2011-12 season), when Wisconsin receives more than 10,000 applications to kill 201 of its estimated 780 wolves, when Wyoming proposes a hunt without limits or season on all of its 343 wolves, when Minnesota rolls out the welcome mat for a controversial group of international trophy hunters (Safari Club International) and overrides the 80 percent of respondents to a survey who denounce the hunt, there is something up in the collective psyche.

The something is not a surge in the number of Minnesota wolves (a stable population since 1998) or a shortage of Minnesota deer (stable at 900,000 to a million).

What is the appeal in killing a shy creature with no detectable DNA differences from your golden retriever? How is it fair to run wolves over with snowmobiles or — as in Alaska — run them to exhaustion with airplanes and then shoot them?

Biologist Peggy Callahan is founder and director of the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn., which uses captive wolves in education programs. Her perspective is that the Minnesota DNR does solid field work and has a "good handle on the lethal management of wolves." She says the wolf population in Minnesota "can withstand a hunt, and the numbers the DNR uses are conservative," which is not the case in other states. Like me, Callahan scents something wrong.

Minnesota created a wolf management plan in 1998-99 that achieved consensus from "all stakeholders," she explained. It was signed into law in 2000. Then, in a closed-door session in summer 2010, legislators axed the plan's requirement for a five-year waiting period after de-listing before a hunting season would be declared.

"This has stopped being about science a long time ago. This time, Congress walked over the plan and changed it, and that is terrifying," said Callahan. "Unfortunately, what has happened is a perception that protection of wolves is a 'left wing' issue and delisting is 'right wing' issue.

"It is fear or hatred or both. I don't know, but it is really out of proportion."

What's the rush, I wonder? How much of this is misdirecting our free-floating and amped-up cultural anxiety toward an innocent species? And is it incidental that removing the wolf from endangered-species protection could help mining companies get easier access to its habitat?

Whatever the reasons, wolves, and those who care about them, could now pay a horrible and unjust price.