Hunters take to woods for first wolf season

Bryan Heiney and his wolf
Bryan Heiney of Duluth killed this wolf at about noon Monday, Nov. 5, 2012 in southern Koochiching County, Minn., on the third day of the state's first wolf hunting season.
Photo courtesy of Bryan Heiney

At the end of a rough and muddy trail in southern Koochiching County this weekend, a few miles from Northome, six hunters were hunkered down over a simmering pot of spaghetti.

There were deer antlers mounted on the walls. Bunk beds were stacked at one end of the room. A generator provided electricity for lights and heat. And talk turned to the state's first ever managed wolf hunt.

Three of the hunters had wolf licenses. But none of them caught a glimpse of their prey. Bryan Heiney, of Duluth said he isn't surprised. In his 23 years of deer hunting, he's only seen three wolves while sitting in a deer stand. (Update: Heiney shot a wolf Monday at about noon.)

Heiney said he trusts DNR biologists who say there are enough wolves in the state to hunt them safely without affecting the overall population.

"I knew I was applying as soon as I heard there was a season," said Heiney. "I would love to hang a fur on my wall. That's what I want to do. ... It's a trophy, it really is."

Heiney said he knows there are wolves in the area because his motion-activated trail cameras have captured about 250 images of wolves over the past few months. In just the last few days, he's seen wolf tracks in the snow.

Wolf hunters
Annual gatherings at the Treat family hunting shack in southern Koochiching County are as much about friends and fellowship as they are about hunting. Pictured, from left, are Mike Bradburn and Bryan Heiney, both of Duluth, and Joel Treat of International Falls, on Nov. 3, 2012. They were out hunting on opening weekend.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I think it's the greatest thing ever to stand on the deck of the shack and hear the wolves howling at night. It's pretty awesome to me," he said. "On the other hand, we don't need an overpopulation of wolves in the state of Minnesota. We're not trying to wipe the wolves out. Nobody wants that. We want to reduce the population to what Minnesota can sustain."

Another hunter, Mike Bradburn of Duluth, said having a wolf tag makes sitting in his deer stand a little more exciting. He's frustrated with people who oppose the wolf hunt, saying they don't understand that wolves are killing too many deer.

"The metro area doesn't have any timber wolves, so they don't see what they do," he said. "You see a wolf kill in the wintertime out on a lake or something, and it will take up a 100-by-100-yard area, and it's just nothing but fur and blood. There's nothing left."

Wolves kill about 10 percent of the deer population each year, according to the DNR -- far less than deer hunters kill.

The wolf hunt has been divisive in Minnesota. Groups that oppose the hunt have challenged it in court. Several Ojibwe bands held protests over the weekend, citing cultural ties to wolves.

Wolf on trail camera
Bryan Heiney of Duluth captured this image of a wolf on a motion-activated trail camera he has set up in the area where he hunts in southern Koochiching County. Heiney and two friends who had wolf hunting permits took to the woods this weekend, but did not see any wolves.
Photo courtesy Bryan Heiney

Wolf hunter Mike Bradburn said from his vantage point, when there are wolves in the area, there are fewer deer around. DNR officials say the same might be true of humans.

When hunters are around, wolves probably lay low, and are less likely to be seen by people, according to Steve Merchant, the DNR's acting wildlife chief. That's one reason why it's tough to hunt a wolf.

"I think that they probably change their behavior during the deer season, regardless of whether people are hunting them or not," said Merchant. "There's just a lot more activity in the woods, and gunshots, that I would certainly suspect would make them more wary."

Before the season began, DNR wolf experts predicted there would only be about 70 wolves taken by early-season hunters. That would be only a 2 percent success rate for the 3,600 wolf hunters who have early season licenses.

That estimate could still be close, according to Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager, even though hunters killed nearly half that number on the first day. That's because fewer hunters are likely to be in the woods for the remainder of the season.

"Half of our annual deer harvest comes in the first two days of the season, because most people only hunt two or three days," he said.

Wolf hunters will most likely follow that same pattern, so "it would be logical to presume that the bulk of the wolf harvest would come on opening day of the deer season."

The success of the state's first wolf hunt is still an open question. The early season ends on Nov. 18. A late wolf season starts Nov. 24 for both rifle hunters and trappers.

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