Minnesota's first regulated wolf hunt moves into a new phase Saturday when sport trappers will be allowed to try their luck for the first time since the region's wolves came off the endangered list last winter.
Trapping was not allowed in the state's early wolf season, which closed Sunday. Hunters registered 147 wolves killed, which was fewer than the early-season quota of 200 but about double what the Department of Natural Resources had been expecting.
The early wolf season coincided with Minnesota's firearms deer season, and many wolf licenses went to deer hunters who bought them just in case they happened to see a wolf from their stands.
The agency has sold 2,400 licenses for the late wolf hunting-and trapping season, and they're expected to be used mainly by people specifically interested in killing a wolf.
"Our expectations are that it will be another successful hunt," said Steve Merchant, the DNR's wildlife population and regulation program manager.
The season could run as late as Jan. 31. The state is divided into three wolf zones, which can be shut down individually if the zone's quota is reached. Dan Stark, the DNR's large carnivore specialist, said that's likely to happen in the northeast and east-central zones but not in the northwest zone.
"We know that trappers are likely to be more successful than hunters so we expect to see a fair number of wolves taken through trapping," Merchant said, noting that most wolves taken in neighboring Wisconsin so far this season were trapped. "I think we'll see the same kind of trend here in Minnesota for the late season."
Wisconsin DNR data show that trappers had killed 55 wolves as of Monday morning, compared with 34 wolves that were shot, for a total of 89. Wisconsin's deer season didn't open until Saturday.
One reason wolf trappers traditionally have higher success rates is that they're not tied to a specific location and can set their traps and snares in several locations, Stark said. Hunters will have 1,607 licenses versus 793 for trappers. Most trappers are expected to use snares that loop around the neck or traps that grip the leg that will prevent the wolf from escaping until the trapper returns. Traps must be checked daily.
The DNR issued 3,600 permits for the early season, which translated into a success rate of 4 percent.
"I'm surprised, a little bit," Stark said. He explained that Minnesota's low preseason estimates were based on the experiences of other states where hunters seeking other big game have had the chance to shoot wolves.
Stark said it's too early to tell why Minnesota's hunter success rate was higher, or to conclude that wolves are easier to hunt than commonly believed. He said the DNR won't compile and evaluate all its data from hunters until after the season.
The 53 wolves that could have been taken during the early season but weren't will be added to the late-season harvest quotas, mostly in the northwest zone. The all-seasons statewide quota remains 400, which biologists say is low enough to ensure the species' survival in Minnesota.
Wolf hunting remains a contentious issue in Minnesota, where the population dwindled just a few hundred in the 1960s before recovering under federal protection to around 3,000 today. The group Howling for Wolves tried but failed to stop Minnesota's wolf hunting season from opening. Maureen Hackett, the group's founder, is dismayed that more wolves than expected were shot in the early season.
"I think the trapping is going to be horrific. It's a horrible way to die," Hackett said.
She disputes that the wolf population has recovered enough to allow hunting.
"To have a sport hunting season when we just brought the wolf back from the brink of extinction is really feeding into the historic persecution of the wolf," she said.