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Minn., Wis. wolf hunts show different approaches to management

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John Erb
DNR wolf research biologist John Erb inspects the frozen carcass of a wolf in a DNR laboratory in Grand Rapids. The wolf was killed by federal depredation trappers after complaints of livestock attacks. Erb uses the specimen to train DNR staff who will process wolf carcasses brought in by hunters during the upcoming season.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Minnesota's first-ever regulated hunting season for wolves opens this weekend.

Wisconsin's wolf hunt has been under way for almost two weeks.  

When it comes to wolves, Minnesota and Wisconsin have a lot in common -- in fact, Wisconsin's wolves probably migrated from Minnesota. But differences in the hunts point up divergent approaches to wolf management. And some observers worry about whether both hunts will disrupt wolf packs enough to cause more problems than before.  

  The big question is: How many wolves can people kill before they start to put the overall population at risk?

Minnesota has about 3,000 wolves; Wisconsin has about 850.   

The Minnesota DNR's target kill for this year is 400 wolves, or about 13 percent of the population. Wisconsin plans to allow 201 wolves to be killed, or about 24 percent. In Wisconsin, 85 licenses are reserved for Native Americans and are unlikely to be used.  

Researchers say a wolf population can handle human-caused deaths of about 30 percent of the population. 

Wisconsin's 24 percent target comes close to that. But wolves also die from causes other than hunting: cars and poaching and depradation control. They can take out betweeen 8 and 33 percent of the population in any given year. In theory, people could kill 57 percent of Wisconsin wolves this year and 46 percent of Minnesota's wolves.

But wildlife managers in both states do not believe the kill will come close to those levels.

The Wisconsin DNR's land division administrator, Kurt Thiede, said some of the wolves that hunters and trappers kill might have died from something else. 

"It's the old argument of whether it's compensatory or additive mortality," Thiede said, "and that's one of the things we'll be learning this year in this first season."   

Minnesota has not set a goal for a maximum wolf population, while Wisconsin has. It wants to reduce the number of wolves to 350 and keep it there.

Timothy Van Deelen, a wolf expert at the University of Wisconsin, said the state will have a hard time managing such a small population. He said that even minor mistakes can be destabilizing and lead to uncontrolled population growth or collapse.

"That's the issue that I think the managers and the decision makers don't fully appreciate, is just how difficult it is to have sustainability -- to have stability -- at that low population size," he said.

There is a lot that researchers do not know about the impact of hunting on wolf populations. For example, no one knows what might happen to wolf packs if the pack's leaders are killed. Some research suggests removing breeding males or females can reduce pup survival. Young wolves need these pack leaders to teach them how to hunt.  

Randy Jurewicz, a retired wildlife ecologist for the Wisconsin DNR, worried about losing the strong, savvy wolves in packs.

"There is a possibility that if you take out the biggest and best deer-killing wolves out of a pack," Jurewicz said, "you may turn the rest of that pack into depredators.

"It's easier to go kill a sheep than it is to run down a deer."  

But the Minnesota DNR's large carnivore specialist, Dan Stark, disagreed. He said wolf packs have a high turnover rate, and there are always wolves around to take over key roles.    

Stark said that Minnesota's goal in this first season is not to reduce the population or to kill problem wolves, though that might be tried in future seasons. 

"This year it's just to gather information about hunting and trapping wolves in the state," he said, "and allow a harvest of wolves that's going to be sustainable.

Both states' natural resource agencies are working from a script written by their respective legislatures.  

Wisconsin's law permits the use of dogs to hunt wolves, but a coalition of animal welfare groups persuaded the court to stop that, at least for this season. 

In Minnesota, the DNR wanted to delay the wolf season until after deer season closed, but the Legislature decreed the hunt would begin on the opening day of rifle deer season on Saturday.

Both states hope to learn a lot from the first season and will probably tweak wolf hunting in future years.  

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