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.
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.