Lone Wolf No More

The timber wolf, along with baby harp seals, was an environmental-movement poster child. But biologists have found wolves don't need wilderness to prosper. They need, simply, something to eat and to be more or less left alone.

Call them timber wolves, eastern gray wolves, or by their Latin name, canis lupus, Minnesota's wolves are making such a stunning recovery that biologists and wildlife managers have been caught by surprise. As a result, wolves will soon lose federal protection and, most experts agree, may soon need to be killed in order to control populations. The disagreement, at this point, is confined to how.

This is new thinking. Thinking that may be unpalatable to Minnesotans who have learned to see wolves as symbols of the wilderness, a fragile resource hurtling toward extinction. By 1999, Minnesota must take over management of the growing timber-wolf population from the federal government. An informed public, in concert with biologists, bureaucrats, and politicians, will have to debate whether wolves will be limited by methods such as chemical vasectomy or public hunting and trapping. In the end, the kind of total protection wolves have enjoyed for nearly a quarter-century won't be an issue.

Thirty years ago, canis lupus was isolated in a few pockets of wilderness in north central and northeast Minnesota. Over the next decades, a combination of biology and human culture caused the estimated population to swell from 500 to more than 2,000. There are probably more wolves in Minnesota now than there were prior to European settlement.

Back in the late 1960s, the debate about wolves in Minnesota was dominated by legislators like Loren Rutter, from the Iron Range community of Kinney, who dragged frozen wolf carcasses onto the state Capitol steps. Holding them aloft, sharp white teeth frozen into a canine grimace, made for good photo ops to capture votes from enraged deer hunters back home. The state paid a $35-a-head bounty for dead wolves up until 1965. Wolf-hating equaled good politics.

"One time they dragged a dead fawn down there to show what wolves kill. That's how you get attention at the Legislature, I guess," recalls Dr. L. David Mech. In his 1970 book, "The Wolf," Mech suggested that wolves deserved the same reverence as the Grand Canyon. He'd been researching wolves since 1958 and was often called on to testify before the Legislature in opposition to the reinstatement of the bounty.

While Mech and the anti-bounty cadre tried to shout down Wolfman Rutter and his grisly lobby, a few living wolves populated the wilderness areas of northeast Minnesota. Wisconsin wolves had been exterminated in the 1950s. The few remaining in Michigan were dying. While the humans debated in St. Paul, about 500 wolves were hanging on by their canines in the in the continental United States.

The first protection of wolves from humans came in 1970. That year the supervisor of Superior National Forest banned trapping and hunting in the federally owned portions of the forest. The patchwork of state and private land in the forest made enforcement difficult. But it was a start. The wolf was protected in most of its remaining range. "They didn't dare stick their nose out of the wilderness or they'd be nailed," Mech remembers.

The Endangered Species Act, enacted in 1973, expanded protection beyond the Superior National Forest to anywhere a daring wolf might go. The act also freed up plenty of research dollars for species, such as the wolf, that were listed as endangered.

Mech and his colleagues set about studying the wolf and popularizing what they learned. Soon the timber wolf, along with baby harp seals and grizzly bears, was an environmental movement poster-child. Canis lupus, however, wasn't consulted. And, as it turns out, isn't interested. Biologists, somewhat to their surprise, have since found out wolves don't need wilderness to prosper. They need, simply, something to eat and to be more or less left alone.

"Wolves really fooled the biologists. We never featured that they would live in areas like around Brainerd, much less in Camp Ripley and Cambridge and south of Mille Lacs," says Bill Berg, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologist who tracks wolf populations. "Wolves have shown that they aren't really creatures of the wilderness, but that they can survive and adapt in areas that have adequate prey and a few semi-wild areas. They can do pretty good in areas of high road and people density." Under the protection of law, wolves have moved out of publicly designated wilderness into the landscape of rural Minnesota.

And they've done so with a speed that Mech and Berg weren't even predicting as recently as four years ago. "The 1992 Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan established a wolf population goal of 1,251 to 1,400 by year 2000. The most wolves we believe Minnesota will be able to sustain is about 2,000," Berg wrote in the International Wolf Center's magazine, "International Wolf," in the spring of 1993. Four years after that, Berg estimated Minnesota's population at 2,000 to 2,200 and expanding.

Mech had some clue in the early '70s that wolves weren't the pristine creatures they appear to be on Sierra Club calendars. Wolves like garbage. "In Italy during 1974 when I was studying them, wolves lived in the forested mountain sides during the day and at night came down and walked through the villages to garbage cans just like coyotes," he says. Minnesota wolves are more civilized than their Italian cousins, he adds, preferring white-tail deer to garbage. According to Berg, wolves eat 40,000 Minnesota deer each year. Humans devour 100,000, and other predators eat about 60,000. Berg credits much of the expanded wolf population with the similarly expanding deer population. That's why wolves have been sighted in suburban Washington County and the decidedly non-wilderness corn country of Nicollet County. Today, there are deer there. Twenty-five years ago there were few to none.

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