Updated 3:42 p.m. | Posted 8 a.m.
When Minnesota's third wolf hunting season closes on Friday, its will have added to the controversy over how hunters have trapped and killed the animals since they were taken off the Endangered Species List in 2012.
Wolf hunting and trapping went well — so well that hunters exceeded state goals. That led opponents of the hunt to rally against it.
The Department of Natural Resources announced Monday it was closing the late wolf season in northwestern Minnesota as hunters and trappers approached the 82-animal target from the area. But the DNR says now that 103 kills were reported.
"The harvest varies by day, but in that northwest zone it varied between 6 and 12 most days," said Paul Telander, chief of the department's wildlife section.
"But in the last day, 32 animals were registered. That was surprising. But our closure work, we initiated our closure, and the season ended the following day, at the end of shooting and trap tending hours."
Hunters killed 103 wolves in that part northwestern Minnesota, 21 more than the DNR's goal. The kill in northeast Minnesota also exceeded the state target. Hunters and trappers took six more wolves there than the 35 animal target.
The DNR announced it is closing the third and last wolf hunt zone for 2014. East central Minnesota has a target of nine wolves, and the DNR reported four have already been registered. That season ends Friday.
Telander downplayed the effect of the kills above and beyond the state's target.
"We set target harvests, which is a number that we shoot for in the harvest, but it's not an absolute quota; it's just a target," he said. "So if we are either under or over, it's not an issue biologically for the wolf population."
Opponents of the wolf hunt begged to differ.
Dozens of them picketed in front of the DNR headquarters on Thursday, complaining that the fact that hunters killed more wolves than the state's target shows that the DNR cannot effectively manage the wolf hunt.
"It's bad hunt management," said Maureen Hackett, a founder of Howling for Wolves, a group opposed to the wolf hunt. She helped organize the protest, which had more than 30 people demonstrating outside the DNR headquarters.
"After three years of hunting the wolves, we could really be at the point where they're endangering them again, or at least threatening them, because they don't know how many wolves die outside the hunt," Hackett said. "They're basically in unknown, uncharted territory, and they're basically experimenting with the wolves, the Minnesota wolves, the wolves that basically saved the species for the entire lower 48."
The debate has been raging since 2012, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service removed the wolf from the Endangered Species List in the western Great Lakes area. The DNR announced a hunting and trapping season later that year, and 413 wolves were killed.
Last year, when the target was cut nearly in half, hunters killed 238 wolves. The agency set a target of 250 wolves this year. Some were killed during the firearms deer season, and the late season opened Thanksgiving weekend. That late season had a goal of 126 wolves, but 148 have been killed so far, prompting Thursday's protest.
Opponents called for the hunt to end, saying the DNR's own targets acknowledge a long-term decline in the wolf population.
But Telander said the DNR is conducting an annual count of wolves, and that numbers indicate that wolves are doing well, despite the hunt. He said Minnesota has maintained the highest wolf population in the lower 48 states and the highest wolf density in North America.
According to the DNR, there are about 2,500 wolves roaming Minnesota now.
"We do have a thriving wolf population here — a very healthy population," Telander said. "The animals are prolific. They've done very well here in Minnesota."