Archived Story

Wolves claw way back from extinction

Published 10:41am Friday, January 13, 2012

It was a cool fall evening, no bugs, and we didn’t bother to even set up our tent, just put our pads down on the ground and spread out our sleeping bags. There was only one other group at the little-used, state forest campground north of Bemidji, and they had gone to bed at dusk, not even bothering to light a campfire.

Our own fire-sitting had been brief; it was just cold enough that sleeping bags were more enticing than sitting out, and a long day of hiking had us tired.

As I feel asleep I could hear, distantly, the sound of howling — perhaps someone’s dogs, possibly coyotes or maybe, just maybe, timber wolves.

There was no point in mentioning the howls to my wife. If she had heard them, she would already have been asking alarmed questions. And since she had not, there was no point stirring up trouble. So I just listened for a few minutes and then fell asleep.

Was it a distant encounter with wolves? If so it was, as distant as it may have been, my closest encounter with the big predators. I had come across wolf kills on BWCA portages in the early spring while snow was still on the ground. But I had never — still have never — seen a wolf, except on the television or in pictures.

That memory from a couple of years ago came back one day last week amidst the reports that the Department of Natural Resources had developed a plan for managing wolf hunts; their population (wolves, not the DNR) in Minnesota was in the neighborhood of 3,000 when last measured, enough to be sustainable even with a limited hunting harvest.

The road from endangered to huntable has been a tangled one as conservationists, ranchers, hunters and regulators have battled over whether and how to change wolves’ status.

Wolves have joined bald eagles as creatures that were, at one time, so rare as to seem almost mythical. Back in the DDT era of the 1970s, eagle sightings were rare enough to cause my whole family to pack up for a car trip in hopes of seeing one. We never even heard rumors of wolves, at least not where I grew up in Wisconsin.

Now, however, they have significantly extended their range and their numbers. The DNR’s wolf briefing last week included a couple of maps that showed wolves’ “core population” now covers the northeastern third of Minnesota. It has also grown to include much of northern Wisconsin.

Even more interesting, the map shows distinct wolf population segments that range throughout Wisconsin and Michigan, down through the entirety of Minnesota and well into Iowa, as well as the eastern portions of North Dakota and South Dakota.

That would seem to suggest that, like the mountain lions which southern Minnesotans are seeing more often, wolves are to be seen, at least on occasion, all over the place.

It is clear, from the brouhaha surrounding the proposed wolf hunt, that there are many who don’t see the timber wolf’s comeback story as an unmitigatedly good thing. Livestock growers in northern Minnesota made 88 verified complaints last year about wolves threatening their herds.

There is a segment of hunters who greet the news of the wolf’s resurgence with pleasure of a different sort, because they see it as a chance to bag a new and different sort of trophy.

One can sympathize with, and even support, the ranchers who want to protect their livelihoods. It’s also possible to understand the urge to shoot something as still-rare as a wolf, although perhaps not easy to see it as a good thing. Fortunately hunting and stock protection are activities that the DNR plan would aim to blend.

One can’t help wondering if when wolves are not only the hunters, but also the hunted, they will develop a deeper cunning about avoiding the places and situations that can lead to sudden death. Reports are that in some western states where wolves may be hunted, many of the tags that are issued go unfilled.

And perhaps that’s as it should be, that predators do not make easy prey.

Because while it may make scientific, biological and statistical sense to create a wolf-hunting season, it is hard to feel like killing a creature that has clawed its way back from endangered status is really a good thing.

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  • Reid Carron

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. I understand preservation of life and property. Killing wolves for sport is an entirely different matter; it is a primitive and immoral endeavor.

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  • Reality22

    Reid, In Minnesota they have to kill around 190 of the vermin each year to clean up after them. Having Hunters help control this animal is needed and needed desperately. Expecting the taxpayer to foot the bill to do YOUR dirty work & make it liveable & for the ranchers/farmers of Northern Minnesota/Wisconsin & the UP is where the immoral comes in to play! Wisconsin alone is spending 3/4 million dollars a year on this animal with $200,000 just to reimburse the farmer/pet owners for the damage done. Reid, no matter what way you cut it this amimal will eventually need to be managed. The question is will it be where the DNR needs to spend millions & it is a burden on the local people! It is immoral to put countless people of these three state through sleepless nights and dead livestock / pets.

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  • cama

    I am so tired of hearing people malign the wolf for their own failings. Whose fault is it if a wolf kills a pet – the wolf for acting like a wolf, or the person living in wolf country who didn’t have the sense to protect their pet? Take responsibility. I live in wolf country and I would never let my dog run loose or tie it. When it’s out, I’m with it. As for livestock, I wonder how many would be killed if they too were protected. Ever hear of having barns, sheds, and pens? Bringing livestock in at night or when they are calving? Checking on them regularly, riding the fence line during the day? There are even guard dogs that are bred to sound the alarm if predators are around the home buildings. But the cheap and easy way is to let livestock run loose day and night with little or no protection and then blame the wolf if they consider your cattle prey. Ever hear of practicing good husbandry? What do you do with animals that die? Dump them in the woods? Guess what that attracts. Or are some of those deaths claimed as wolf kill to get paid for a loss? Taxpayers are paying because much of the time those complaining about wolves are not doing their job. Spend the money to do it right or don’t ranch and farm in wolf country. Vermin? How much of the world’s resources do you think you use compared to a wolf? If there were something bigger than you, you’d be eradicated by now. As for deer hunters who whine, what gives them any more right to the deer than the wolf? At least the wolf kills and eats the deer (all of it) to live, instead of many hunters who just shoot a deer so they can have a bigger set of antlers on their wall than their buddy has on his. I actually know of individuals who will shoot a deer and leave it because it doesn’t have a big enough rack. Trophy hunters or sport killers are plumb depraved. An appropriate afterlife would be just their heads mounted on a cloud so they could stare at each other for eternity.

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