Minnesota's wolf population down nearly 25 percent
DULUTH -- A survey across Minnesota's northern forest last winter showed the state has about 2,211 wolves, down about 700 from the most recent survey in 2008.
The survey results, announced Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, come on the heels of last autumn's controversial wolf hunting and trapping seasons when 413 wolves were killed. They were the first ever regulated wolf seasons in Minnesota and the first sanctioned public killing of wolves since the 1960s. The seasons were allowed only after the animals had recovered enough to be taken off the federal endangered species list earlier in 2012.
Another 300 wolves were trapped and killed last year, as some are each year, under a government sanctioned program that targets wolves near where livestock have been attacked. DNR officials said the surveys show a continued healthy wolf population and, based on that, they plan to hold another "conservative" hunting and trapping season this autumn very similar to 2012.
While they have not announced details, DNR officials said they will likely allow fewer wolves to be shot and trapped in 2013 than last year.
The 2012-13 winter survey estimated a range of 1,652 to 2,641 wolves, compared to the 2007-08 estimate of 2,200 to 3,500 wolves roaming over about 30,000 square miles across the northern one-third of Minnesota. The 2004 survey estimate showed 2,300 to 3,700 and the 1998 survey estimated 2,000 to 3,000 wolves.
The DNR reports 438 distinct wolf packs in addition to hundreds of lone wolves.
"Results from the 2013 wolf survey continue to demonstrate that Minnesota's wolf population is fully recovered from its once threatened status and the population is responding naturally to the availability of deer," which are wolves' most common food, said Dan Stark, the DNR's large carnivore specialist.
Although nearly 25 percent lower than the 2008 midpoint estimate of 2,921 wolves, the population still exceeds the state's minimum goal of at least 1,600 wolves and is above the federal recovery goal of 1,251 to 1,400 animals.
John Erb, the DNR's lead wolf biologist, said the current low-end estimate is close to the minimum population goal but the low number is not alarming. He said mathematical formulas predicted very similar numbers.
"I stand by our numbers as being pretty good estimates," Erb said. "I think the population is doing well."
DNR officials note an estimated 2,600 pups were just born in recent weeks, after the survey was taken, to replenish the population -- at least until humans and other factors begin to take their toll.
More ground, fewer deer
The survey also estimates a 13 percent increase in average wolf pack territory size to about 62 square miles. The increase in territory size likely is caused by fewer deer per square mile, wildlife biologists surmised.
Deer numbers have dropped about 25 percent in the northern reaches of the state since the last wolf survey was taken, forcing wolves to enlarge their territory to find food.
The size of wolf packs observed also declined, from about 4.9 animals per pack to 4.3 animals.
The overall range of wolves has remained relatively stable for the past three DNR surveys, Erb noted, adding that they have generally not moved into primarily agricultural or developed areas as some people feared a decade ago.
Hunt critics, advocates
Critics of hunting and trapping in Minnesota say the low end of the population estimate could be too few wolves to sustain ongoing wolf killing. But supporters of wolf hunting and trapping say the survey shows the population remains robust under state management.
Collette Adkins-Giese, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes wolf hunting and trapping, said the overall decline is a problem.
"The loss of approximately a quarter of Minnesota's wolf population is a cause for concern," said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney and biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Hundreds of wolves needlessly died during last year's sport hunt, and we are glad that the DNR is likely to reduce the quota for next year."
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, which supports expanding wolf hunting and trapping, said the DNR appears to be doing a good job in managing wolves after taking over the job from the federal government last year.
"I think they do a good job with their survey. But we need to remember it's not an exact count, there's a range there and it may be higher or lower," Johnson said. "But what it does show is stability in the population. The state is doing a good job and the wolves are doing fine."
Off the endangered list
After a century of unrestricted shooting and trapping as a nuisance animal, Minnesota was believed to have had fewer than 500 wolves by the 1970s, all in the Superior National Forest in northeastern counties, when the animal was first given federal protections in 1974.
Left alone, wolves gradually rebuilt their numbers and expanded their range, with Minnesota wolves also moving into Wisconsin and Michigan, which now have thriving populations.
Wolf numbers in the western Great Lakes reached the government's official "recovered" level by the late 1990s but it took more than a decade for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to overcome political and legal opposition to leaving wolves unprotected.
Lawsuits are pending that seek once again to place wolves back under protections of the Endangered Species Act, especially noting they have reached safe population levels in only a small fraction of their original range in the United States.