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.

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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