Minnesota releases new 10-year wolf management plan

Gray wolf (Photo by Eric Kilby)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources today announced the finalization of its new guidance for managing wolves in the state. The agency says the plan was developed with extensive input from the public, scientists, and advocacy groups on all sides of the issue.

Overall, the DNR seeks to keep the wolf population at its current level. Hunting and trapping could be opened up if numbers start to rise — and if the animals are removed from the federal Endangered Species List.

“The DNR is continuing Minnesota’s longstanding commitment to wolf conservation and ensuring that our wolf population remains healthy and stable,” said Kelly Straka, DNR wildlife section manager. “Thank you to everyone who engaged in the planning process. Minnesotans’ involvement has been critical to establishing the comprehensive vision for wolves that is reflected in this plan.”

Minnesota’s wolf population is currently stable at an estimated 2,700 animals, primarily confined to northern and east-central parts of the state. It currently has the most wolves of any state in the lower 48 states.

Public process

To update the wolf plan, last done in 2001, the DNR used a public opinion survey, consultation with technical experts and tribal staff, and brought together a 20-member advisory committee. The process found widespread support for wolves in the state, and most Minnesotans are in favor of a healthy population of the iconic predators.

In the public opinion surveys conducted by the DNR, 44 percent of people want Minnesota’s wolf population to stay the same, while another 42 percent think there should be more. More than half the respondents want the current range occupied by wolves to stay the same, while about a third think it should increase. Livestock producers largely want fewer wolves in a smaller territory, and deer hunters fall in the middle — but overall, every interest group supports the presence of wolves.

“We’re proud we brought people together to update Minnesota’s wolf plan,” said DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen. “We had great engagement from tribes, state and federal agencies, academia, and groups and individuals interested in wolves.”

Wolves have been the subject of much debate in Minnesota and across the United States, particularly in the past 20 years. While they were given Endangered Species protection in 1974, their numbers have bounced back. Over the past decade, wolves have gone on and off the list of protected species, with a three-year window in 2012-2014 when they were managed by the state and hunting and trapping was allowed.

Wildlife advocates had called for a strong plan that would preserve the population using sound science.

“Like so many Minnesotans, I treasure our wolves and I’m glad that the new plan ensures their future in the state,” Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity and a member of the DNR’s advisory committee, told the Duluth News Tribune. “The new plan incorporates modern science on wolf conservation and better reflects the wolf-friendly values of most people in Minnesota.”

Goals and strategies

The updated wolf management plan describes its overall vision as “Minnesota’s wolf population will continue to be healthy, widespread across a suitable range, and stable after decades of recovery from historical lows.”

That vision is supported by six objectives: 1) maintain a well-connected and resilient wolf population, 2) collaborate with diverse partners to collectively support wolf plan implementation, 3) minimize and address human-wolf conflicts, 4) inform and engage the public about wolves in Minnesota, 5) conduct research to inform wolf management, and 6) administer the wolf program to fulfill agency responsibilities and the needs of the public and partners.

More than 4,000 wolves are believed to have lived in Minnesota before European settlement, which led to their near extirpation from the state. The Endangered Species designation of wolves called for a minimum population of 1,251-1,400 wolves, which the state has increased to a goal of 1,600 to provide a buffer.

Maintaining the population

The plan calls for the population to stay at more or less its current size. If numbers rise above an estimated 3,000 wolves in the state — a number which was briefly seen in the mid-2000s while the wolf population peaked with whitetail deer numbers — the DNR could open up hunting and trapping seasons that would allow killing of up to five percent of the population. The management plan includes a framework that would be used in the future to decide if hunting and trapping will be allowed.

But, no hunting or trapping will be allowed no matter what unless wolves are removed from the Endangered Species List again.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, a new lawsuit was filed yesterday by environmental groups seeking to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a national wolf management plan. It points to the fact that the agency’s 1992 plan focused on Minnesota, while largely ignoring the Rockies and other areas where wolves live.

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