Most wolf-hunt permits going to hunters in northern Minnesota

Wolf in woods
A wolf walks in the woods near the Echo Trail about 20 miles northwest of Ely, Minn. Wolves and most of the hunters with wolf permits call the northern half of the state home.
Steve Foss for MPR

When Minnesota's wolf-hunt season opens on Saturday, many of the permitted hunters will likely have seen a wolf before. Some have even felt the impact of the growing number of wolves. That's because wolves and most of the hunters with wolf permits call the northern half of the state home.

Residents of four cities in northern Minnesota won the largest numbers of wolf permits when the state Department of Natural Resources held its lottery. ZIP code data indicate a high interest in the wolf hunt in International Falls, Grand Rapids, Duluth and Bemidji. Not surprisingly, that's where the wolves live. DNR wolf population surveys show high concentrations of wolves near those cities.

"You don't have to go 10 miles out of town and you're in prime wolf habitat," said Mark Cook, who owns Bluewater Outdoors store in Bemidji.

Cook said several of his customers have told him they will participate in state's first-ever organized wolf hunt.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

"There's a lot of guys that have waited a long time for this," he said.

The DNR is selling up to 6,000 wolf permits. About 98 percent of them are going to Minnesota residents. ZIP codes covering Bemidji had 120 lottery winners, and 10 ZIP codes covering Duluth had 208. The numbers of purchased licenses will differ slightly because not all lottery winners bought licenses by the deadline.

A ZIP code covering International Falls had the highest number of wolf lottery winners of any single ZIP code in the state, at 141.

That includes Kyra Briggs, who will participate in the late season at her family's hunting shack located between International Falls and Baudette. Briggs considers herself lucky.

"All my family had applied and they were pretty bummed that they didn't, of course, get one. So they were excited that I did," she said.

For Briggs, deer hunting is a family tradition. She said she knows it may be difficult to actually shoot a wolf, but she has seen several of them over the years.

"They're all over our trail cams at our hunting shack, and the dogs go crazy when they're down at the hunting shack, so they are abundant," Briggs said.

Some of the enthusiasm for the wolf hunt in the International Falls area might come from those whose deer hunts have come up short in recent years.

"People are excited," said Jim Leinum, owner of the Outdoorsman's Headquarters in International Falls. "One of the things we've noticed is that deer hunting has not been as good as it has been for quite some time, especially in certain areas, and they see a lot of wolves. And people are actually getting frustrated with deer hunting because there's been so much wolf activity, so I think those people just want to feel that maybe their deer hunting is going to improve."

Hunters in the metro area show less interest in the wolf hunt. More than half the state's population lives in the seven-county metro area, but only about 20 percent of the wolf lottery winners are from the metro. There is even less interest in southern Minnesota. For example, Rochester is Minnesota's third-largest city, but only two-dozen wolf-hunt lottery winners are from there.

Gray wolf
A gray wolf at the Minnesota Zoo.

One area near International Falls where hunting will be off limits is Voyageurs National Park. Park officials began a new study of wolves in the park this fall.

The park's wildlife biologist, Steve Windels, said it is possible one of the wolves he has collared will wander outside the park boundaries and get shot. But he doesn't expect the hunt to greatly affect the park's overall wolf population, which has been estimated over the years at between 30 and 50 wolves.

"Wolves are highly territorial, so that's really a limiting thing for them. Other wolves aren't going to be able to come into the park and establish territories there," Windels said. "The wolves who are here now, they don't really tolerate wolves from other packs, so that's really one of the main limiting things for wolf populations is other wolves."

Even though a wolf pack's territory can cover hundreds of square miles, Minnesota's wolves so far have not ventured much away from their prime habitat in the forests of northern Minnesota.

• Follow Elizabeth Dunbar on Twitter: