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.

Mech credits the wolf's incredible resilience, along with laws and education, for its biological success story. Each year, wolf young disperse from a pack. Young males and females travel up to 500 miles in quest of adventure and love. In theory, Minnesota wolf could end up on Chicago's South Side. That may seem far-fetched, but absent guns, traps, and hatred, wolves seem indomitable. Wolves traveling from Minnesota to Wisconsin have established a transit corridor south of Duluth that apparently includes crossing of the busy four-lane Interstate 35, according to Dick Thiel, a Wisconsin biologist.

And now, these widely traveling, biologically successful wolves are going to have to be controlled, sympathetic public or not. With the expiration of their protection under the Endangered Species Act, Minnesotans may have to adjust their perceptions to see wolves as not a sacred cow but more like the white tail both are fond of.

If the truth be known, the legal killing of wolves in Minnesota never stopped. "We battle with wolves up here. Particularly when I was growing up as a kid 15 years ago. We raised cattle and had a lot of trouble. Trappers were out lots of times," notes Milo Clevens of Warroad. The trappers Clevens refers to are federally authorized to kill wolves preying on livestock. Last year, they trapped nearly 200, or 10 percent of the state's total population. But it's not enough to slow population growth. As wolves move out of the wilderness and into the landscape of rural Minnesota they increasingly, in innocence, become weeds. Even their staunchest supporters now say population control needs to be stepped up.

In a paper published last year in the Journal of Wildlife Research, Mech, along with Steven H. Fritts and Michael E. Nelson, suggests a variety of control methods including electric fences, guard-dogs for livestock, zoning, public hunting seasons, and sterilization of the dominant males in selected packs. For large-scale wolf management, the authors seem to prefer a combination of zoning--which might entail different levels of hunting and sterilization in different zones of the state--government trapping, public hunting, and vasectomies.

Surgical vasectomies on wolves have been researched successfully in the field, but are expensive. The authors propose investigating chemical sterilization for larger-scale control methods. To date, however, research on chemical sterilization has been limited to laboratory dogs.

"Minnesota will come up with a management plan," predicts Berg. "It will involve a lot of things. When we try to have a wolf trapping or hunting season we will end up in court. The state will try to have some limited season. It will go out for public comment. There will be public meetings all over the state. It's up to the people of Minnesota, the United States and, sort of, the people of the world on what happens."

Nancy Gibson co-founded the International Wolf Center, headquartered in Ely, and is a current board member and past chair. She echoes Berg's thoughts. "There will be lawsuits to stop public hunting and possibly other management measures."

Toward the end of its 1997 session, the Minnesota Legislature gave the Wolf Center money to hire a biologist to study and foster public discussion about wolf management in Minnesota. "Our role is to educate people," says Gibson. "The more you know wolves, the easier it will be able to make management decisions based on facts, not fiction."

One fact Gibson and the Wolf Center want to make clear is that wolves kill. They kill sheep, calves, deer, and the family dog if they have to.

"Wolves," she quips, "make a living killing." She also suggests that the growth of the wolf population may in fact begin to become more of a nuisance. "The last two winters have been very hard on deer. Some experts say the population may be down 30 percent. Wolves seem to be killing a lot more livestock this year."

Wildlife managers and impassioned citizens who want to save wolves should take note that the natural systems that control wildlife populations are at least as complex and powerful as those imposed by humans. In 1970, said wolf lovers would need to shout wolf haters down if the animal was to survive.

"We've succeeded in that," he said recently. "Now the plea is for accurate public understanding. Because wolves only need prey and to be left alone means that they can live in areas where maybe they don't belong. If they live just outside the city they're going to gobble up the dogs and cats and they'll scare the kids. There has to be some rational approach to managing wolves in a way that they can live where their detriment to humans is minimal--that's the challenge to the future."

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