with Mitch Cox
The first public hunting and trapping of wolves in the Upper Great Lakes got off to a fast start in Wisconsin, with hunters taking 106 wolves by the second week of December. The season is scheduled to run through February, but with only five wolves to go before all state zone quotas are met, officials anticipate an early close.
Minnesota hunters registered 147 wolves during their two-week early hunting season. Before the hunt, Minnesota DNR large carnivore specialist Dan Stark "guesstimated" that 70 wolves would be taken. A week after the hunting-only season closed, Minnesota opened a combined hunting and trapping season, and another 69 wolves were taken the first two weeks.
Minnesota officials believe resident deer hunters who also picked up a wolf tag took most of the wolves during the early season. Tags were reasonably priced at $30. But now, the majority will be taken by outdoorsmen who are specifically targeting wolves, and trappers are expected to get most of those. In Wisconsin, where hunting and trapping were both allowed from the get-go, trappers took more wolves.
"We know that trappers are likely to be more successful than hunters, so we expect to see a fair number of wolves taken," a release quoted Steve Merchant, Minnesota DNR wildlife population and regulation program manager. The Minnesota late season is scheduled to run through January or until a statewide quota of 400 is met.
Great Lake wolves were put on the endangered species list in 1975 and removed from the list last January. During the intervening 37 years, the Endangered Species Act pretty much did what it was supposed to do; protecting a species while it naturally repopulated a historic range from which man had extirpated it.
Of course, more wolves in the Great Lakes region does not please everyone. Ask a Wisconsin hound hunter whose best friend has been mauled by wolves. The way anti-hunting groups used court challenges to keep the wolves on the endangered list long after federal protection was no longer warranted has been both costly and frustrating for wildlife officials trying to get the wolves off the list and back under state management.
In reality, the wolves never were threatened as a species, much less endangered. When wolves went on the list in 1975, the only population in the lower 48 was found in Minnesota near the border with Canada. Yet those wolves were thriving on the edge of a 50,000-plus mega population that roamed freely across the North, from the Atlantic Ocean to coastal Alaska.
However, the Act not only called for protecting species on the brink of extinction, it also called for restoring regional populations where it was feasible to do so, and that is what happened here. If you think the Act overreaches--and plenty of Americans do--you can work to change the law. That's how democracy works in a land ruled by laws.
It is important to keep the Great Lakes situation separate from the boondoggle that has transpired out West, where literally hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to live-trap and "reintroduce" Canadian timber wolves into a region such wolves may have never inhabited in the first place. It's easy to see how that may be viewed as more than even the overarching goals of the Endangered Species Act intended.
It certainly is instructive to look at how the two situations differ.
First, the wolves that now roam across Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan came naturally from a native population. The recovery was accomplished primarily by outlawing the widespread killing of wolves to protect livestock. In essence, man just stepped back and let nature take its course.
Yes, one result has been more wolves eating more livestock. But there haven't been the wildlife predation problems seen out West where herds of elk have been decimated by an alpha predator they did not evolve alongside.
White-tailed deer always have been the primary prey of wolves in the Great Lakes region, and these deer are doing OK. Populations may be a bit reduced, but the deer are prolific. Healthy does breed at a young age and often drop twins.
Biologists pretty much concur that now that the states are using hunting and trapping seasons to control wolf numbers, we are not going to see the kind of "predator pit" dynamic that can occur when unchecked wolf populations literally eat themselves out of house and home, decimating the prey base to the point local herds of elk, moose and caribou dwindle away.
Wolves do not pose a threat to Great Lakes whitetail populations, and this kind of regulated hunting and trapping poses no threat to wolf populations. In fact, we may see quotas lifted next year; perhaps first in Wisconsin where it appears a larger harvest of wolves could have been sustained. Wildlife managers acknowledged going into the season that it would be a learning experience for them as well as for the many first-time wolf hunters and trappers.
From the earliest white settlement, Great Lakes wolves were viewed as a predacious scourge to be eliminated. Then, they were protected as a rare species. Now, they are being managed not just as a predator but also as a game animal and furbearer, a valuable wildlife resource.
"We are successfully out of species recovery mode and into species management mode," a release quoted Wisconsin DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp.
The fact that so many hunters and trappers succeeded this season bodes well for the long-term survival of the wolves. One of the basic tenets of wise-use conservation is to manage things in such a way that the resource pays for itself. Minnesota sold nearly 6,000 wolf permits this year, and a few nonresidents paid $250. In Wisconsin, 881 residents purchased $100 wolf tags and 6 nonresidents paid $500.
The two states took in a combined $270,000 selling those permits, and Michigan officials are looking into holding their first wolf season next year in the Upper Peninsula.
Love 'em or hate 'em, these wolves are here to stay.