By Walker Orenstein, MinnPost
The last time the federal government removed endangered species protections for wolves in Minnesota, the state held recreational hunts aimed in part at culling the population. The open seasons between 2012 and 2014 were controversial, yet backed by both Democratic and Republican leaders, including DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Now, as the federal government prepares to cut gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act again, long simmering debates over wolf hunting in Minnesota are emerging anew. Yet opponents are wondering if the political winds on the issue have shifted in their direction this time.
In a surprise April vote, the DFL-controlled House narrowly approved a ban on recreational wolf hunts over spirited objections from Republicans. Current Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan embraced the ban shortly after.
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"I thought it was actually one of the more momentous votes that we've taken this session," said Rep. Rick Hansen, a DFLer from South St. Paul. "Because it reflects a changing Minnesota and therefore a changing Legislature."
The GOP has argued support for the wolf hunts is strong, especially in areas where the carnivores actually roam, and point to DFLers in northern Minnesota voting against the ban. Plus, the Republican-led Senate is unlikely to support the legislation this year.
But the vote nevertheless serves as a preview of a split the state will have to navigate if the species is delisted. If the Legislature takes no action on wolf hunting, existing law puts the Department of Natural Resources in control of the decision.
Minnesota's wolf population has grown substantially under federal protections. From a population as low as 400 in the 1950s, the DNR estimates there are now more than 2,650 wolves in northern Minnesota.
Dan Stark, the DNR's large carnivore specialist, told a House panel earlier this year that wolves have long exceeded recovery benchmarks. "The science supports the conclusion that the wolf population in Minnesota has recovered," he said.
In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services proposed delisting gray wolves across the country and handing management over to states. The decision is not final, as the FWS is taking public comments. But if they delist wolves, the DNR can authorize hunts, as they've done before.
In 2011, for example, wolves in the Great Lakes region were removed from the ESA. Minnesota held three recreational wolf hunts afterward, which were celebrated by some and protested by others. In 2014, though, a federal judge put wolves back on the endangered list.
This time around, the debates over wolf hunting are similar.
Many in the GOP argue recreational hunts can be used to manage wolves and protect livestock and pets. Past hunts haven't hurt wolf recovery, they say, and complaints about cows and dogs killed by wolves abound in the Legislature. While people can get state money if their livestock is killed by wolves, it is illegal to kill a wolf unless a human is in danger.
In a lengthy speech on the House floor, Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, asked lawmakers to google graphic images of dogs killed by wolves before voting on a hunting ban. "They lick up Fluffy in a hurry," he said. "The question is, in your idolizing of the wolf are you going to pursue it so far that you run over Fluffy?"
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, also introduced an amendment to bring wolf packs to the Twin Cities metro, including Fort Snelling, to underscore the notion of a rural and urban divide on the issue. Nash eventually withdrew the amendment, though, calling it "lighthearted."
In his own House floor speech, Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood, brought up controversial research from Washington state that found killing wolves that attacked livestock destabilized wolf packs and actually led to the death of more cattle. He said his measure would not block the DNR from managing or killing wolves, particularly if they attack domesticated animals.
Fischer also mentioned wolves' central role in the creation story of some Minnesota tribes and called for protections akin to those for America's bald eagle. "We want to make sure that we're respecting their sacred animals," he said.
In the House, Fischer's arguments won out, but just barely. And while Hansen said the vote showed changing politics in the state, it was something of a surprise.
Democrats currently hold a 75-59 majority in the House -- thanks in large measure to big wins in the suburbs during the 2018 elections. Yet a ban on recreational wolf hunts drew almost no attention during most of this year's legislative session. DFLers held just one committee hearing on Fischer's legislation, and the measure was not initially part of Democrats' larger collection of bills and spending plans related to environmental issues.
Hansen, the DFLer in charge of that omnibus bill, said he let Fischer bring one of three wolf-related policies to the floor as an amendment to the environmental package. When Fischer chose the hunting ban, Hansen asked lawmakers to "vote their districts" rather than support the legislation because of the controversy. "I'm not sure we knew exactly how it was going to turn out," Hansen said.
The measure passed by a single vote, 66-65. Eight DFLers voted against the ban, most from northern Minnesota, while one Republican voted for it.
Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe told reporters after the vote that banning the wolf hunt was personal. "I am wolf clan," she said. "The rule is you can't eat or hunt your own clan."
Walz said he supports "selected hunts" to manage the wolf population, but that sport hunting of them wasn't appropriate.
Roseau Rep. Dan Fabian, the top Republican on Hansen's environmental committee, said the measure "isn't going anywhere in the Senate," however, which is controlled by a 35-32 Republican majority. He also said while DFLers often argue for local control on issues important to cities -- the minimum wage is a prominent example -- the party steamrolled rural voters who deal with wolves in their own backyard.
Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunter's Association, said he didn't see a broader Minnesota shift on wolf hunting. His organization supports a recreational hunt as a way to reduce wolf numbers, in part because wolves eat deer sought by hunters. Engwall said he's been tracking the issue for decades and successfully defended a state wolf management plan in court for the Attorney General's office in 1999.
"Politics have been so partisan lately votes are more right along the lines of the DFL-Republican split and this one was a one-vote margin with many of the rural DFLers voting against this ban," Engwall said. "So it's really more of a rural-metro split than it is a DFL-Republican split. I don't read a lot into things other than, post 2018 election, the House changed and the Senate didn't."
Ultimately, the decision on wolf hunts will likely fall to the DNR, which has not made a decision on whether to allow a wolf hunt. In a written statement, assistant commissioner Bob Meier said if wolf management returns to the state, the DNR "will follow all applicable laws and employ extensive public engagement prior to any decisions" on recreational wolf hunting and other management questions.
He said the DNR generally would work to stop people from illegally killing wolves and stop wolves from killing domestic animals. "Regardless of the ESA status of wolves, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is committed to ensuring the long-term survival of the wolf in Minnesota and minimizing and resolving conflicts between wolves and humans," says Meier's written statement.
In the meantime, there is little consensus to be found on the issue, other than to note the strong emotions evoked by the debate.
Fabian said he understands the sensitivity of wolf hunting, but questioned those who call it a wrongheaded trophy hunt. "We do it with deer, we do it with elk, we do it with fish. How many muskie mounts and walleye mounts are there on the wall some place or a deer head or an elk head?"
Hansen said he thinks the wolf "is an iconic animal," and the DFLer sent MinnPost a short essay from conservationist Aldo Leopold to illustrate his feelings on recreational wolf hunting. In it, Leopold described his own regret at killing wolves, and lionized the carnivore's role in balancing an ecosystem.
"There's strong feelings, both a love-hate relationship, a fear relationship," Hansen said of the general public and wolves. "It's a very emotional debate."