Groups opposed to Minn. wolf hunt lose in court

Trotting wolf
A wolf trots across a grain stubble field near Embarrass, Minn.
Steve Foss for MPR

Two groups challenging Minnesota rules for a wolf hunting and trapping season were dealt another blow today. The Minnesota Court of Appeals dismissed a petition aimed at undoing the rules establishing a wolf hunt.

The appeals judges decided that Howling for Wolves and the Center for Biological Diversity, both based in the Twin Cities, lacked sufficient legal standing to challenge the state Department of Natural Resources' process for establishing the state's first managed wolf season. (Read the court opinion.)

The court found that the rulemaking process did not interfere with the two groups' ability to submit comments about the proposed rules, as they had claimed. The judges also said they were not persuaded by the group's claim that the rules threaten their members' aesthetic interest in wolves "because they open hunting and trapping seasons and cause wolf deaths that otherwise would be unlawful."

The groups claimed the DNR didn't allow enough public input when the agency first proposed a wolf hunt in January of last year.

"We're extremely disappointed that the courts found a way basically to not look at the case on its merits," said Maureen Hackett, founder and president of Howling for Wolves. "Our whole case was based on the fact that the DNR in their rulemaking cut out the public. And yet I'm finding that the judiciary is keeping us, which is basically an organization formed from the grassroots level, from bringing a case."

This is the second defeat for wolf hunting opponents this spring. Legislation seeking to impose a five-year moratorium on wolf hunts stalled during the Legislature's just completed session.

DNR officials hailed the Court of Appeals ruling as a victory for the department. Ed Boggess, director of the DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division, said the agency followed direction provided by the Legislature last year.

"We used the same process in terms of rule making for setting the annual season that we've used for 50-odd other game species and that we've been using for the past 20 years or so," he said. "That's what we used in this case."

Hunters and trappers killed 413 wolves during a two-phased season that started late November last year and ended in January. Wolves had been on the federal list of endangered species for more than 30 years until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed them from the list in 2012.

DNR wildlife experts say the wolf population has remained stable at around 3,000 animals for the past decade. Wildlife officials are working to complete another five-year population survey. Hackett and other opponents of wolf hunting say the animals should be returned to protected status. She also said trapping and snaring of wolves is inhumane.

"These are very complex animals that manage their own numbers anyway," Hackett said. "They have a hard time surviving. We don't have a lot of habitat for them. We're lucky to have them at all. And we're probably going to lose them. We really are."

The DNR plans to make decisions about a 2013 hunt this summer, after the latest population survey is completed. The agency will also release data provided by successful hunters and trappers during the season.

Boggess said the DNR is committed to balancing a well-managed hunt with long-term sustainability goals for wolves.

"Our intent is not to severely reduce or eliminate wolves," he said. "It's not the same as what happened in the 1800s or early 1900s. This is a managed season like we do for deer and all other species in the state, and we can do it in a sustainable way."

DNR wolf researchers say they'll be ready to release the latest wolf population estimate within the next few weeks.

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