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Wolves claw way back from extinction

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.