Gray wolves once faced extinction in the upper Midwest. With decades of federal protection, their numbers rebounded. That led federal authorities in January to remove the wolves from the Endangered Species list, placing them under state control.
To help manage the population, the state Department of Natural Resources has authorized a wolf hunt, the first ever in Minnesota, starting Nov. 3.
But the hunt has been challenged on billboards, in court and on the airwaves by opponents who question its wisdom and necessity.
Why is Minnesota holding a wolf hunting season this fall?
Minnesota holds about 3,000 gray wolves now -- the largest population of any state outside of Alaska. The DNR says a "conservative" hunt will help control that population without damaging the wolves' long-term survival.
The agency set a maximum kill of 400 wolves in this fall's hunt. Even if that quota is reached, the state's wolf population would stay far above the minimum 1,600 wolves the DNR says is needed to ensure survival.
Why a hunt just months after delisting? State officials in the 1990s expected they wouldn't set a hunting season until five years after the wolf was removed from federal protection so they could monitor the animals' progress. But after legal battles delayed removal for nearly ten years while the population grew, state lawmakers last year removed the five-year waiting period
The feds still require the DNR to monitor wolves in Minnesota for at least five years.
How will Minnesota's wolf hunt work? The hunt has three seasons. Early hunting in deer permit areas runs through Nov. 18. A "late hunt," will run from Nov. 24 to Jan. 31. A late trapping season will also run from Nov. 24 to Jan. 31.
Hunters had to choose one season and apply for one license in that season. One wolf is the limit. The seasons end early if the quotas are met; 400 is the maximum number of wolves that can be killed.
In late September, the DNR said more than 23,000 hunters applied for the 6,000 available wolf licenses that will cost $30 for residents and $250 for non-residents.
Hunters can use firearms or bows to kill a wolf. Calls can be used and bait is allowed as long as it does not contain food that can attract deer. Dogs or horses can't be used to hunt or trap wolves. The use of dogs is at the heart of a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin's new wolf hunt season.
Speaking of dogs, the DNR is concerned enough about dogs being caught in wolf snares that it is recommending trappers "avoid areas of high use by other recreational users."
Click here to find all the DNR's wolf hunting and trapping regulations.
Besides allowing for a hunt, removing the wolf from federal protection also changed the everyday rules of engagement.
Before wolves were removed from federal protection, you could only kill a wolf if it presented an immediate threat to humans.
Now wolves can killed in their core regions (Zone A on the map below) if they pose an "immediate threat" (stalking or attacking) to livestock or pets. In southern Minnesota (Zone B), "immediate threat" is not required.
What do supporters and opponents say?
DNR officials say the hunt they've laid out is conservative, responsible and part of a "science-based management strategy that ensures the long-term survival of wolves in Minnesota."
Some opponents believe the DNR moved too quickly to satisfy legislative and hunter interest in a hunting season and didn't do enough to broadly survey Minnesotans on whether a hunt was wanted or needed.
Officials, they add, also didn't sufficiently consider that more wolves will be killed during the year because of the new flexibility given to farmers and ranchers to defend their livestock.
"Wolves under state management are being killed for depredation control by livestock owners that experience losses from wolves," Collete Adkins Giese with Center for Biological Diversity told MPR News.
"Already there's additional killing now that wasn't happening when they were federally protected, and it makes good sense to wait some time, monitor the wolves under state management, before opening a recreational hunting and trapping season."
"Howling for Wolves," a group seeking to stop the hunt, argues wolves die mostly by starvation and so keep their own numbers in check.
A hunt, they warn, would create a domino effect that will effectively kill more wolves than the DNR projects. If stronger pack wolves are killed in a hunt, the weaker animals will go after livestock where they can be killed any time.
MPR News reporter Dan Kraker notes that so far the new flexibility to kill wolves isn't having a big impact. Since January in Minnesota, 12 wolves have been killed protecting livestock, three protecting pets.
The wolf also holds a special place in Native American culture, leading some Minnesota native groups to oppose the hunt.
The state's deer hunters generally back the hunt. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has long backed federal de-listing of the gray wolf from the Endangered Species list and urged a hunt.
State farming and ranching groups also support the move. The Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association notes that state paid about $150,000 last fiscal year in 111 depredation claims to compensate cattlemen for livestock killed by wolves.
Still, that seems relatively small given that more than 260,000 head of cattle the group says are in the wolf's range.
The reality is a wolf hunting season probably is not going to help farmers.
Complaints about wolves killing livestock typically peak in the summer when wolf populations are higher following the birth of pups in the spring, the DNR's Dan Stark told lawmakers in January.
The winter wolf population is fairly stable and "taking wolves in the winter isn't likely to address a lot of depredation complaints," he said.
The wolf season, he added, will be "more of a recreational hunting opportunity."
,Source: Wolf sign observations 2008. Source: Minnesota DNR.
How do you hunt a wolf?
Wolves make their living being smart and fast. Killing them won't be easy.
"Hunting wolves in the northwest has certainly proven to be a challenge, and will no doubt be difficult in Minnesota as well," said Jonathan O'Neal, owner of huntwolves.com, an Idaho-based website with lots of detail on tracking and killing wolves.
In Idaho's first wolf season three years ago, the wolf quota was only 220 animals. "Even with that small quota, the season had to be extended several months because of the difficulty sportsmen had hunting wolves, and it ended without the harvest goals being met," O'Neal told MPR News in May.
Last season was better as the state allowed trapping and lengthened the season, "but many hunting zones still closed without the quota being filled."
His recommendations for a good hunt:
Scout heavily for tracks, wolf kills and den sites well in advance of the season to find wolves and try to pin down their home range and travel habits.
Use wolf howlers to locate and call wolves in. Use prey distress calls (rabbit calls, calf elk cries and fawn bleats) to call wolves in.
Take advantage of every fresh snowfall to make tracking easier.
"Wolves will definitely become even more difficult to find the longer they are hunted," he added. "They learn quickly and adapt their travel & hunting patterns to minimize human encounters."
Where about other states? What happens next?
Besides Minnesota, the feds took the gray wolf off the endangered species list in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Wisconsin also opted for an immediate fall hunt following the delisting. Its season began October 15 and hunters killed four in the first 24 hours.
In Michigan, lawmakers are weighing a 2013 hunt.
The Humane Society is pressing now to get the wolf put back on the federal endangered species list.
Given the size of Minnesota's wolf population today, though, it's unlikely the feds will act soon to put the animals back under federal protection.
For now, the hunt is on.
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service map showing the range of the Western Great Lakes gray wolf (dark blue is the primary area).
MPR News reporter Stephanie Hemphill contributed to this report.
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