Scott Rall Column: No right number will ever exist
There is no bigger wildlife issue brewing today in Minnesota than wolves. The timber wolf was on the endangered species list for a very long time. They were hunted and trapped to almost complete extinction many years ago.
Minnesota had a population goal of 1,600 wolves in the state. This figure was used as the number that was considered a self-sustainable population at a level that people and livestock producers could live with. We were at or much above this level for more than 10years.
The population last year was estimated to be a little more than 3,000.
How did the wolf population get twice the size considered necessary for their removal from the endangered species list? Enter the land of lawsuit after lawsuit brought against every entity that manages wolves by every organization that loves them as something different than any other wild animal.
The state of Minnesota and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were all the big, bad guys for trying to delist the wolf. So after many years had passed and as the suits were dismissed one after the other there was a new lawsuit filed to replace it and the process started all over again. So after more than a decade and with a wolf population twice as large as was considered suitable, the wolf was finally delisted. I wonder how many tens of thousands of dollars were earned by the lawyers on both sides of this issue. The state had to have paid a ton of taxpayer money in this process.
With the final delisting, the management of the wolf in Minnesota was turned over to the Department of Natural Resources. They are now responsible to manage wolves in a manner that protects their numbers but also does not allow then to expand to a point where they affect livestock production and public safety.
In the early DNR management plans of wolves in Minnesota, they were going to monitor the wolf population for five years after they came off the ESL and no hunting was going to be allowed. Because of the long delay in the delisting process, the wolf numbers were much higher than considered reasonable, and the hunting of wolves was started the year after their removal.
The Legislature even got involved and told the DNR to have a hunt and to do it right away. So the process of determining seasons and quotas for different areas of Minnesota were determined, and last season there were about 400 wolves that were harvested by firearms hunters and trappers. There were specific harvest quotas in each area, and when that quota was met the season closed for the year in that area.
The current population assessment of wolves in Minnesota is completed for the year and the population is considered to be around 2,200. With a rough 3,000 estimate last year and a 400-animal harvest last fall, that gets you relatively close to 2,200, and then you can add on this year's reproduction and the number appears to be pretty well calculated and pretty stable.
The reduction in population from last year has all of the same groups that are against wolf hunting firing up their lawsuit engines, and there is a pretty good chance that the lawsuit train will be at full-speed very shortly. They will claim that there should have been a five-year moratorium on hunting and trapping as first planned that that these activities should not be allowed. If they get their complete wish there will never be wolf hunting in the state no matter how many wolves roam the landscape.
On the other hand, the wildlife management biologists can see that the delisting took 10 years longer than expected and the wolf population after the first year of hunting is still 40 percent larger than what is considered stable and sustainable. So continuing the current management path is prudent.
The outcome of this battle is by no means settled. I am not sure if I will ever buy a wolf hunting license. When you consider the number of applicants, almost nobody that could or would draw a tag in the lottery will actually be successful.
At the very least it is a very small percentage of hunters that actually bag a wolf. I don't have any spots to hunt them, and if I want to hunt them, they are nowhere my home, so time and travel is an issue.
So wolf hunting is not likely in my future. This is not because I think hunting them is bad, I just prefer to chase birds with my bird dogs.
But you can ask yourself this question: If they are stable in their populations, population numbers need to be controlled to limit livestock predation, protect the public safety and hunters are willing to pay the freight to help manage them, then why not hunt them in a controlled manner like all of the other wildlife in the state? What makes the wolf so different than any other big game animal? With close scrutiny and proper management there will be wolves in Minnesota for centuries to come.
Most Minnesotans will come down firmly on one side of this fence or the other. Not many people will say that they really don't care one way or the other.
Wildlife has to have a place in our daily lives. Deer are beautiful but no one wants to hit one with the car every other month, so they are controlled by hunting. We need to be vigilant and manage wildlife properly to the best balance for all parties involved. It's hard to have too many pheasants or ducks, they don't cause any trouble, but it's pretty easy to have too many deer or wolves in a specific area.
It will be very interesting to see where this debate will finally settle out. I think that very closely controlled hunting will continue until the lawsuit train has run out of gas and all court options have been exhausted.
The only other question is how much money will get spent on both sides of this issue before that happens? If we could spend those court dollars on additional wildlife habitat that is being lost at the fastest rate since 1930, we would all be better off, and that includes a stable population of Minnesota timber wolves.