A perspective on wolves and deer from a deer hunter

March 1, 2024
Barry W. Babcock

     In northern Minnesota we have a 2 week firearms deer season. This 2014 season was from November 8th to sundown on the 23rd. Several events this year are note worthy enough to cite here.

     1. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) held a series of public meetings with the MN DNR last year in order to arm twist them into acknowledging that the deer herd is drastically down. The MDHA, which the DNR considers a "client," bowed to the MDHA wishes and greatly curtailed the number of doe permits which made the season (mostly) bucks only.

     My take on this: The Minnesota deer herd, if down, is still too high. Deer numbers are impacting the ecology of our forests. Nearly all forest ecologists agree that behind climate change, an over populated deer herd is number 2 in posing a threat to the health and longevity of MN's forests. As for the poor hunter success rates of tagging whitetails by the states deer hunters is more the cause & effect of too many hunters who have become dependent on a plethora of gadgets. From what I see and hear from others, the vast majority of hunters rely on ATV's to get anywhere in the woods during the hunt. One need look no further than the thick catalog of Cabala's to see where many hunters focus their attention. Deer are nocturnal animals and with tens of thousands of ATV's rumbling throughout Minnesota's forest lands during the hunting season, it's no doubt that the numbers of deer harvested (I don't like that term "harvest") is down. Who but anyone in their right mind would doubt this. In the woods around me, opening morning sounds like military maneuvers at Camp Ripley. It's tail gates dropping, ATV ramps banging, two stroke engines warming and noisy engines heading off into the land of the elusive whitetail deer.

     2. The weather during this entire period was below normal in temperatures and saw some winds that were persistently strong.

     My take: If you are a serious hunter, there are ways to effectively hunt in these conditions. One very effective way is to "still hunt", which is slowly taking a few steps, then stopping and looking and listening, then repeating this stop and go method - the movement helps keep the blood moving, something hard to do if you can't get your butt off your ATV seat. When bucks are in rut and does are in estrus, they will move, unless the woods is full of motorized traffic....then deer wait till sundown when the noisy machines and ignorant hunters leave.

     3. And the presence of wolves and the third MN wolf hunt with 250 permits issued is also another issue with hunters.

     My take: During the entire week preceding the rifle hunt, I was in the woods daily with my stick bow. During this period, I saw unbelievable numbers of deer and most especially some nice mature bucks. Once opening weekend of the rifle season started, the numbers of deer I saw dropped about 50%. Deer have always tended to become more nocturnal during the gun season but during the last 20 years this tendency has greatly increased. I attribute this to the modern gadget addicted hunter rather then having hunters who have the basic understanding of the habits of white tailed deer which I refer to as being the soul of caution.

     Last Thursday evening well after sundown, I and my son-in-law heard a pack of wolves howling quite persistently at a distance of not more than 200 yards from my backdoor. During the next 2 days, we saw between 12 and 15 deer. And they were heard again at sunrise on Friday but at a greater distance. Now, I am not suggesting that the deer we saw is wholly attributable to the wolves but I am saying that wolves move deer around and that's a good thing for hunters like me. A deer has senses more acutely attuned to his world than our meager understanding will ever grasp. They can, in a metaphysical sense, disappear into thin air from us dumb humans. Wolves root them out and move them around. As I have written before, as among most Indian people, including the Koyukon's of Alaska, see the wolf as “the master predator among the animals of the north, possessing intelligence and strength, keen senses, and above all the ability to hunt cooperatively. Like the humans that they watch from afar, wolves multiply their muscle and mind by cooperating in pursuit of prey, then share the spoils. Indeed, for the Koyukon, the similarity between wolves and humans is no coincidence – in the Distant Time, a wolf-person lived among people and hunted with them. When they parted ways, they agreed that wolves would sometimes make kills for people or drive game to them, as a repayment for favors given when wolves were still human.” [Make Prayers to the Raven,” Richard K. Nelson, p.159]

     In hook & bullet publications and letters to editors I read extreme embellishments of the number of wolves in N MN. Hunters report seeing more wolf tracks than deer tracks, that wolves are out of balance and need management, and wolves going on killing sprees. I live in the woods, I study the interactions of all wildlife and I do not see this. Yes, there are wolves distributed throughout the northwoods but as for claims of our forests being over taken by wolves is just ridiculous. Wolves do a good job of remaining in balance within their range. It is the whitetail whose numbers exceed the sustainability of the forest. I have been hunting deer for a half century. I have a perspective that most hunters do not. In the 1960's, with wolves absent from most of their current range, deer population was without question, the lowest it has been in my lifetime. The deer population from 2000 up to today has exceeded one million - the largest numbers of whitetails in history. This same period (2000 to 2014) coincides with a steady population of 3,000 wolves. How do these anti-wolf hunters explain this?

     Time after time, I see the wolf as an asset rather than a liability. Hunters need to get out of that group think mentality and observe more closely the plant and animal communities in which they hunt. Hunting was never meant to be a 21st century gadget driven pass-time till the recreational-industrial complex got into the equation, it was and is meant to be a link with our far distant past. It is to be a port-hole into that past. It is not the job of government resource departments to make game farms out of the northwoods. We are still lucky to have a semblance of wildness in our northern forests. Remove the wolf and the wildness is gone. As Wisconsin's great conservationist, Aldo Leopold said, "...the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead. An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost." I would argue that by removing the wolf, or reducing him to a remnant, we have removed or crippled that great "motive power," "we toppled the spire off an edifice a building since the morning stars first sang together." The wolf, the deer and the raven have been together since we were throwing spears. They are the front line of wildness, yet untamed by man and industry.

Barry W. Babcock, author of "Teachers in the Forest" and "Bonga". Barry at bookstore in Minneapolis giving a talk on his book, "Teachers in the Forest."