Hundreds of deer hunters in northern Minnesota are gathering at a series of crowded meetings this week to vent their frustrations about a lackluster hunting season and direct their ire at the animals they believe are to blame for a demise in their beloved tradition — the state’s thriving population of grey wolves.
Organizers of a new group called Hunters For Hunters are holding meetings dubbed “Wolf Versus Deer: Who Will Win” in International Falls, Carlton, Aurora and Coleraine this week, with at least four other gatherings scheduled over the next month.
Steve Porter, a board member, said his son hurried to start the group before this year’s deer hunting season began, anticipating that hunters would leave the field angry and upset at the lack of deer they saw. He said that’s exactly what happened.
“We’re giving the hunters a legitimate voice and credibility. We have too many wolves. We don't want all the wolves wiped out. But we need a balance,” he said.
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Porter is a deer farmer and former Kittson County sheriff who made headlines five years ago for aggressively investigating livestock depredation by wolves. He also recently defied the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources by transporting deer in violation of an emergency order intended to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.
In a packed a room above an ice arena in Carlton Wednesday evening, Porter and others criticized the Minnesota DNR, politicians and other deer hunting organizations for not doing enough to control the state’s wolf population.
He and other hunters said they’re seeing more wolf tracks than deer tracks across northern Minnesota. And they're upset about it.
“This was the worst year I’ve ever had deer hunting,” said Sen. Nathan Wesenberg of Little Falls, one of several Republican legislators at the meeting.
When he asked the crowd how many others experienced bad hunting seasons, hands shot up all around the room. He said he’s worried his three daughters won’t want to continue his family’s hunting tradition.
“My 12-year-old shot two deer her first year. She hasn’t seen a deer in the last two years. She likes to go, and she’s been going out, but how many more years is she going to go hunting and not see a deer?” he said.
The Minnesota DNR estimates there are about 2,700 wolves in the state, a figure that has held fairly steady for at least the past 20 years.
Wolves are considered threatened in Minnesota and are protected by the federal endangered species act. That means they can only be legally killed in self-defense.
But when Porter asked the crowd how many knew someone who had killed a wolf, most in the crowd raised their hands.
“What we’ve done is we’ve created an environment where people are willing to go to prison to keep their land safe. What are we doing turning God-fearing people into outlaws?” Porter asked.
After the meeting, Jim Dahl, who lives in Beseman Township about 40 miles west of Duluth, said he’s sick of looking to the DNR for help.
“We’re plagued with wolves. And they will not do a thing. They say it’s a federal issue. So, I think it’s time the hunters take care of the problem themselves. Whatever it takes to get rid of them.”
When asked if he’s advocating for people to break the law, Dahl answered, “I’m not telling them to. People got to do what they want to do and what they see fit doing.”
The deer harvest was down this year, especially in northeastern Minnesota, where hunters killed 21 percent fewer deer than last year, and 37 percent fewer than the five-year average.
“I think it’s understandable that deer hunters have concerns about low deer numbers. Deer populations are below goals in most of northeastern Minnesota,” said DNR large carnivore specialist Dan Stark.
Stark acknowledges wolves have a large impact on deer numbers. But he said severe winters with deep snow, habitat conditions that don’t provide deer with adequate cover and food, and hunter harvest also play an important role.
“I think the conversation should evolve past wolves versus deer,” Stark said. “It’s more complicated than that.”
There have historically been large swings in Minnesota’s deer population, caused by the interactions of those different factors, Stark said. The deer harvest peaked in 2003, at a time when wolf numbers also were at their highest level.
Still, Stark said it will likely take some time for deer numbers to rebound.
“It’s not an immediate thing, especially with some of the habitat conditions. But as wildlife managers, we are committed to working with groups and individuals to support the conservation of wildlife and the outdoor recreation opportunities that we have here in Minnesota,” Stark said.
Wildlife managers also have to balance the considerations of other species, like moose, whose population has plummeted in northeastern Minnesota over the past 15 years.
Research has found that brainworm, a parasite carried by deer, but that doesn’t harm them, has killed up to 25 percent of adult moose in the state.
“When deer populations in northeastern Minnesota are very high, we see much higher levels of brain worm transmission to moose, and higher mortality on adult moose,” said Seth Moore, director of natural resources for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
But Moore said wolves also take a toll on moose, by preying on high numbers of moose calves. He said he hopes the debate becomes less polarized.
Moore and state wildlife officials have argued that wolves in Minnesota are thriving and stable, and should be removed from endangered species protection.
That happened in 2012 under the Obama administration. Minnesota subsequently held wolf hunts over three years, during which time about 900 wolves were killed.
But a federal judge has since returned wolves in the Great Lakes region to the endangered species list.
Hunters For Hunters wants the state to push harder to have wolves removed from federal protection, and to reimplement a legal hunting season to help control the population.
That’s a possibility, but is not required, under a new wolf management plan the Minnesota DNR finalized last year.
Some at the meeting in Carlton urged hunters to boycott next year’s hunting season to make a point.
“I think the DNR reacts to money,” said Gary Peterson, Carlton County commissioner, who sat on a recent DNR wolf plan advisory committee. “So this is something that we must consider.”
Meanwhile, Hunters For Hunters plans more meetings over the next several weeks, and in the words of Porter, intends to “keep raising a fuss.”