One of Minnesota’s Vital Natural Resources

The gray wolf or canis lupus, also called the timber wolf is considered a pure wolf as distinct from wolf-coyote hybrids or canis latrans.  Gray wolves once roamed the United States from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wolves were intensively trapped and shot and eradicated from all of the lower 48 states except in Minnesota where a sustainable but once threatened population still exists today. The last actual count of wolves in MN was in the winter of 2007-2008, which occurred at a time when the moose population was twice what it is today. The estimated wolf population in 2008 was 2921 and the average pack size was 4.9 wolves per pack.

Gray wolves in Minnesota are considered part of the contiguous group the Great Lakes wolf population, ranging in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.  Minnesota's wolves were the only sustainable population at the time that they were listed as threatened and put on the ESA in 1974 with the goal of enhancing the Minnesota population.  Michigan and Wisconsin wolves were considered endangered and the Minnesota wolves are credited with providing the genetic diversity that brought back those populations, though at much lower numbers.  The problem with actually surveying for numbers of gray wolves is that surveying is in part dependent on using snow tracking for wolf paw prints. The separation of these two species is difficult if not impossible.

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Wolves are known to keep wilderness habitat healthy for the forest ecosystem.  The wolf is the keystone species because they cull out weakened prey species and maintain the deer and elk populations that forage on the understory vegetation of the forest. Along rivers and streams, ungulates such as deer and elk do not graze as long due to the presence of wolves.  This "ecology of fear" improves the health of the water systems in the forests and meadows.

Studies in Yellowstone National Park have demonstrated just how valuable a healthy wolf population is to having young trees to grow to middle age. Wolves were absent from Yellowstone National Park since 1927 when the last wolf was killed by bounty hunting.  After wolves were re-introduced in 1995 (with much public controversy) the Yellowstone river was brought back to a healthier state. The river bank has less erosion and supports more wildlife. More vegetation supports more beaver that have now damned up more streams and parts of the river. This results in cooler river temperatures and healthier fish. The increased vegetation also provides for a healthier bird and small animal habitat.

About the Gray Wolf

Wolves are pack animals that live in small groupings formed mostly by family members.  The alpha male and alpha female are the only members to have pups and the entire pack raises the pups. Occasionally, a second female will have a litter "with permission" of the alpha female. More than half of newborn wolf pups will die by 6 months of age with starvation being the most common cause.  Over one third of adult wolves die of starvation each year.

If a litter of pups is orphaned by its pack due to their death, then another pack will raise them.  Wolves do not kill wolf pups; they adopt them. The pack size is dependent on the amount of food and the size of its territory.  Wolves control their own numbers in that they protect their territories and will kill non-pack members that threaten the pack or move into the territory.  This means that when wolf numbers increase beyond their habitat, the population is maintained by an increase in wolf-on-wolf kills.

As hunters, wolves select out the least productive animal of a group; very young and very old or sick.  The lead hunter (usually alphas) selects the animal and starts the pursuit and the remaining pack will pile on until it is brought down. Once an animal is selected and the chase ensues the pack does not waiver or move to a different animal.  If they are unsuccessful, the pursuit stops.

Because wolves die mostly by starvation and they control their own numbers due to their limited natural habitat, a wolf hunt is not necessary to keep their numbers in check. A hunt by humans will likely cause a domino effect and result in a higher fatality rate among packs due to the already fragile state of Minnesota's wolf packs (many of which are composed of 5 or less wolves). If the wolf that is trapped or killed is the hunter-leader of the pack, then the pack's ability to hunt is significantly decreased. Wolves will eat anything to survive including decomposed animals killed by cars. Wolves predate or kill livestock and even pet animals if the livestock is readily available or they cannot hunt successfully.  Thus, if wolves are randomly trapped for fur, the remaining weaker pack members are likely to go for livestock . The risk of a hunt for wolves is actually more livestock predation at least until they are nearly wiped out from the farm areas.

In Northern Minnesota where there are 165,000 cattle, only 91 confirmed wolf kills on livestock were verified in the year 2011.

Unknown numbers of illegal wolf killing occurs along with kills by motor vehicles and diseases such as distemper and mange are potentially lethal as seen in Yellowstone in 2010 when the number of wolves dropped from 180 wolves to 100 in a two year period.

Wolves and Mankind

Mankind has always displayed a variety of  deep emotional responses to wolves.  These range from reverence to fascination, to fear and even loathing of wolves.  Fairy tales and folklore such as the big bad wolf of Little Red Riding Hood and Werewolves are examples of tales which originated from European.  European  wolves, which were eradicated centuries ago, were more predisposed to Rabies near the end of their existence. This may be the source of the fearful reactions toward wolves. In North American, there have been no known wolf on human attacks except for one bizarre circumstance in Alaska within the last five years where a wolf may have been encouraged to and taunted with food. 

Wolves hold a special place in some indigenous people's culture including American Indian tribes in North America. The wolf is revered and respected as a brother by some American Indians who see the wolf as a partner in keeping mother earth a sustainable home. In the Creation story of the Anishinabe (Chippewa) American Indians man and wolf walked the Earth and named all living beings and then parted ways to live separately but in peace as brothers. So in Minnesota all the American Indian tribes banned the hunting and trapping of wolves on tribal lands.  The Anishinabe believe that their fate is directly related to that of the wolf.

A Species in Danger

The Endangered Species Act ( ESA) was instrumental in bringing back the wolf populations in the Northern Rockies to a total of about 1700 wolves in the states: Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and eastern Oregon and Washington. As soon as these wolves were de-listed from the ESA, the states tasked with their management began killing wolves in large numbers.  A federal judge then put the wolves back on the ESA.  In response to this legal action, Senator Tester of Montana sponsored a bill that exempted the Montana and Idaho wolves from the Endangered Species Act which was then passed into law.  Currently, a proposal is in the works to delist the wolves in Wyoming.  Now the numbers of wolves in the Northern Rockies is much lower than when they were officially de-listed and before they were exempted from the ESA. Never before was the scientifically based ESA trumped by congress to keep a species from federal protection.

The Gray Wolf Timeline Highlights at Minnesota and Federal Levels

"Wildlands need their full complement of species to maintain their ecological integrity. Thus it has been heartening to see the gray wolf repopulate the rugged northern Rockies and expansive western Great Lakes in recent years. But postage-stamp populations of wolves on the American landscape is not comprehensive recovery, and this underscores as misguided and premature the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to strip critical protections for wolves in nearly all of the lower 48 states."
-- Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face, and Peter Metcalf, CEO and lead founder, Black Diamond Equipment, The Salt Lake Tribune Op-Ed, Sept. 7, 2013

  • Indigenous, pre-European settlement Period: The Gray Wolf - or "Ma'iingan" - is recognized by Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe (Chippewa) Tribes of Native Americans, as educators of the Anishinaabeg. The wolf teaches original man about living together as a family unit, and is a key figure in the tribes' creation story as a brother to original man.
  • The Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries: As early as the 1930s, the gray wolf was hunted, trapped - and poisoned - almost to extinction in the lower 48 states. The last wild wolf population in the lower 48 states was in Northern Minnesota in the late 950s.
  • 1974: Its survival in question, the gray wolf is listed on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. It's estimated that Minnesota has only 300-750 wolves.
  • 1978: The Minnesota Gray wolf is now listed as being "threatened" but not "endangered."
  • 1978 - 1998: Minnesota wolf numbers for the period from 1978 through 1998 are put between 1,235 and 2,445, with average pack sizes from 5.55 to 5.40
  • 1998- 2008: Minnesota's gray wolf population remains the only original population in the lower 48 states. While the state's wolf numbers were predicted to increase in number and range due to white-tail deer availability, the wolf numbers remain stable with no hunting or trapping. The DNR estimated 2,445 (+/- 500) wolves in 1998.
  • 2000: The Minnesota Wolf Management Plan is developed by the Minnesota DNR. The goal of the DNR’s wolf management is to ensure the long-term survival of Minnesota wolves and to resolve wolf-human conflicts. Consensus was reached with more than 25 stakeholders. The plan directs that wolves will be allowed to naturally expand their range in the state. To assure the continued survival of the wolf in Minnesota, the minimum statewide winter population goal is 1,600 wolves. The DNR estimates that 35% of adult wolves die annually from starvation, wolf territory disputes, human poaching and car collisions. The mortality rate of wolf pups is 50-60%.
  • February 2001: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) releases “The Minnesota Wolf Management Plan” providing a 5-year moratorium on  wolf hunting and trapping  should they be delisted from the Endangered Species List (ESL) and a roadmap for reducing wolf/livestock conflicts in Minnesota. “Population Management measures, including public taking (i.e., hunting and trapping season) or other options, will be considered by the DNR in the future, but not sooner than 5 years after Federal delisting by U.S. Fish and Wildlife service (USFWS). If in the future, public taking is proposed by DNR, there will be opportunity for full public comment. Decisions on public taking will be based on sound biological data, including comprehensive population surveys.” The 5-year moratorium was to allow for the state management plan to be in effect before consideration for population management needs.There is no mention of a recreational wolf hunt in the management plan. Included in the plan is a reference regarding the need for research into non-lethal methods - Best Management Practices - to reduce wolf depredation to livestock, guard animals, and dogs. (See More on HFW's Plans for Non-Lethal BPMs Backgrounder)
  • Winter 2007- 2008: An estimated 2,921 ( +/- 650) wolves are reported in the DNR survey, indicating a stable and not expanding population dating back to 1998 despite predictions that the wolf population would increase.  The average wolf pack size dropped to below 5 wolves per pack for the first time ever at 4.90.
  • 2010: The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe establishes their reservation lands as a wolf sanctuary where no wolf hunting and trapping will occur.
  • 2011: 109 officially verified wolf-livestock conflicts are reported at 96 sites, including 91 calves/cattle killed on Minnesota farms, less than 2% of all Minnesota beef-producing lands in wolf territory. 202 wolves are killed in response.
  • May 2011: The gray wolf in the Rocky Mountain region is exempted by congress (Federal law) from the Federal Endangered Species List and is to be managed by the states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
  • July 21, 2011: During the hurried and dysfunctional Special Session of the Minnesota Legislature, the legislature approves - behind closed doors and without public input - a 101-page budget bill that contained four obscure lines repealing the 5-year wolf hunting and trapping moratorium that was to occur when the wolf was federally removed from the endangered species list.
  • January 2012: Led in part by Democratic efforts in the U.S. Senate to delist Minnesota's wolves, the gray wolf is removed from the Federal Endangered Species List by the U.S. Interior Department, opening the door to recreational wolf hunting and trapping in MN.
  • April 23, 2012: Dennis Simon, DNR Chief, Wildlife Management Section, in a forwarded email to fellow DNR officials titled, "Wolf Season W/out Legislation," writes that "All things being equal I would prefer that we delay the season until we can establish a license, complete the population survey, and draft a population model even if we have to estimate harvest effort and success initially."  Then in the next paragraph, Simon does an about face, writing, "However, after giving it considerable thought over the weekend, I have come to the conclusion that we owe it to our primary clients, hunters and trappers, and to livestock producers as secondary clients, to do what we can to establish a legitimate harvest opportunity now that the wolf is under our management authority."*
  • April 25, 2012: A meeting with Governor Dayton’s staff to stop the inaugural wolf hunt for recreational purposes takes place and includes Howling For Wolves, HSUS, Sierra Club Northstar Chapter, Center for Biological Diversity, and Audubon Minnesota.
  • April-May 2012: The state's Game and Fish Bill narrowly passes and includes wolf hunting and trapping with the use of wire neck snares that cause painful brain bleeds. Without consulting any of Minnesota's native tribes, the DNR, state legislature and Governor Dayton move forward with its plan to kill 400 wolves by issuing licenses for trapping and hunting.
  • June 2012: A DNR public survey (online) shows that 79% of Minnesotans oppose the shooting, trapping and snaring of wolves: Of 7,351 responses, 5,809 people opposed it.
  • August 9, 2012: HFW presents the DNR with a petition for Rulemaking change requesting that the five-year moratorium on wolf hunting be reinstated.
  • August 20, 2012: The White Earth Band of Ojibwe Tribal Council designates the White Earth Reservation as a Ma'iingan, or Wolf Sanctuary.
  • August 2012: DNR petitions to remove the wolf from the state’s list of species of special concern - even before a long-awaited population survey was done, before the first wolf hunting season, and before the wolf is managed under new, lightened state laws regarding poaching.
  • September 2012: The state plans to issue 6,000 total licenses for hunting and trapping, with a quota of 400 wolves to be killed.
  • September 18, 2012: The Center for Biological Diversity and Howling For Wolves file suit to suspend the wolf hunt based on the DNR's failure to allow for adequate public comment per its own rule-making process.
  • October 3, 2012: MN DNR issues its 12-page response to the Howling For Wolves petition for Rulemaking change that requests restoring the five-year moratorium on wolf hunting. The DNR makes clear that the wolf hunt is for recreational purposes only and not to control the wolf population.*
  • Summer-Fall 2012: 299 wolves were killed by licensed trappers and private landowners due to perceived conflicts ( 81 calves and cows were killed all that year by suspected wolves).
  • Fall 2012: The state's first recreational hunting and trapping season kills 413 wolves, driving the population down 25% to near 1988 levels - with pack sizes showing a steady decline to their smallest size ever of 4.3 wolves/pack.
  • Winter 2012-2013: The most recent DNR population survey estimates approximately 2,211 wolves (plus or minus 500 wolves) and average pack sizes of 4.30. All wolf surveys take place before pups are born each spring but the DNR claims that these pup births will make a difference even though they are known to have high mortality rates.
  • 2013 Legislative Session: S.F. 666 introduced during the session to re-instate a 5-year moratorium on recreational wolf hunting is passed out of the state Senate Environment Policy Committee and referred to the Environment, Economic Development and Agricultural Committee. The House companion bill, 1163, awaits a hearing in the 2014 session.
  • February 12, 2013: Humane Society, Born Free, and two Minnesota organizations, HOWL and FATE, sue in federal court regarding the federal delisting of the Great Lakes wolf population as a distinct population segment (dps).
  • May 25, 2013: The Minnesota Court of Appeals dismisses the earlier lawsuit by Howling For Wolves and The Center for Biological Diversity to ban the hunt, saying that "it lacks standing" - a legal judgment that one news source, MinnPost, calls "a mockery of public participation." The result is that the DNR does not have to answer to the public although it is a public entity and operates according to its own internal rules. 200 of the last 202 hunting rulemaking processes since 1995 have been done using the expedited emergency rulemaking process avoiding any public comment process.
  • June 2013: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service petitions to remove the entire U.S. lower 48 Gray Wolf population, from the List of Endangered and Threatened Species except for the endangered Mexican gray wolf. The USFWS initially disallows three leading wolf biologists to serve on the panel during the public comment period.
  • July 9, 2013: DNR releases the 2013 winter wolf population. It shows the wolf population has decreased 25% below 2008 levels. The DNR admits in the media conference call, that they will not know the effects of the hunting season on Minnesota’s wolf population for at least one or two years (because the packs are affected by a hunt).
  • July 29, 2013: Because of a "smaller Minnesota wolf population," the DNR announces that 220 wolves will be killed (harvested) by hunting and trapping in 2013. By law trapping must be allowed. Wire neck snares will again be used and cause painful brain bleeds and the wolves will have the tell-tale “jelly heads” that trappers call them.
  • August 2013: Minnesota removes the wolf from its list of endangered and threatened species and species of special concern.
  • August 14, 2013: HFW launches the 50,000 signature petition to suspend the wolf hunt campaign. By collecting Minnesotan names and addresses through events and media ads, HFW gathers momentum both to suspend the 2013 wolf hunting season and to enact legislation in 2014 to suspend future wolf hunts and to pass wolf advocacy legislation.
  • September 26, 2013: Minnesota resident and two-time Academy Award Winner Jessica Lange pens an Open Letter to Governor Dayton asking him to suspend the 2013 wolf hunting season and opposing "the cruel and inhumane methods" used to trap and ensnare wolves.
  • November 9, 2013: The next wolf hunting and trapping season begins.
  • The Rest of 2013: Pressure to suspend future wolf hunts - and to allow for the development of non-lethal depredation strategies - will continue in advance of the upcoming 2014 legislative session.

*Documents available for review.

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