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Setting sights on wolves

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Jim Benson has been on successful wolf hunting excursions in Ontario, and that gave him reason for optimism last week, when he and some friends embarked on a six-day hunt north of the border.

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Chalk one up for the wolves.

"I got my (butt) handed to me in a hand basket," said Benson, of East Grand Forks, a longtime hunter and owner of Sportsman's Taxidermy Studio. "We never even saw one, and we had them in our face.

"They are very difficult to hunt."

The experience of Benson and others who have pursued gray wolves where hunting is permitted likely offers a hint of what hunters and trappers in Minnesota can expect this fall, when the Department of Natural Resources offers a limited season on the animals.

Wolf management returned to the state Friday after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the species from federal protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Michigan.

Minnesota's wolf population now stands at about 3,000, nearly twice the number called for under federal recovery guidelines.

Work in progress

The DNR has had a management plan ready to implement since 2001. The original plan included a five-year waiting period after delisting before a season could be offered, but the Minnesota Legislature eliminated that requirement in July.

Wednesday, the DNR proposed an inaugural joint hunting and trapping season that calls for a harvest quota of 400 wolves. The season would run from Nov. 24 through Jan. 5 or until the quota is met.

Anyone taking a wolf would be required to register the animal the same day, and the DNR would collect data from the harvest.

The proposal, which got its first hearing Thursday in the Minnesota Legislature, also sets a cap of 6,000 licenses that will be issued through a lottery system.

Calls and bait would be allowed with restrictions.

Benson said he'll be surprised if wolf hunters in Minnesota reach the quota. Especially since the DNR's proposal doesn't coincide with the firearms deer season, when the greatest number of hunters are afield.

"There aren't going to be many wolves shot -- especially if they have a separate season," Benson said. "If it's a separate season, I bet hunter success would be less than 10 percent.

"I'd say it might even be in that 2 to 3 percent range, but that's just a guess."

Formidable quarry

Bill Berg of Bovey, Minn., a retired DNR biologist who was at the center of the agency's efforts to draft its wolf plan, said he still thinks lawsuits from environmental groups could scuttle the season and return the species to federal protection, which has happened on two previous occasions.

Berg admits, though, that his pessimism is waning.

"I'm not sure what's going to happen," he said. "I'm kind of pessimistic, but I think it's going to happen."

If it does, Berg says people who try to match wits with a wolf will face a formidable quarry.

"They're a lot harder to hunt than they are to trap," said Berg, 71, who helped capture wolves for numerous studies dating to the early 1970s. "They're fairly easy to trap."

Bill Paul of Grand Rapids, Minn., who spent 32 years as a federal trapper for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services branch, said a No. 4 leg-hold trap, which has a 6¾-inch jaw spread, is the best option for holding a wolf. The old Newhouse traps, which no longer are on the market, or a newer trap made by the Livestock Protection Co., both work well, he said.

"It takes a really stout trap to hold a wolf," said Paul, who retired in 2007.

Like Benson, Paul said he thinks hunters and trappers will have a hard time taking 400 wolves -- even the first year, when they're still relatively uneducated. He said experienced federal trappers would take about 200 problem wolves in a summer on 60 to 90 farms.

"And trapping is much more difficult in the winter months than the summer because of the snow and freezing and thawing," Paul said. "It's a lot harder to keep a trap working in the winter."

Paul said the most feasible hunting approach would be to establish a bait site similar to what's done in bear hunting, if it's allowed. The DNR hasn't yet announced specific rules pertaining to baiting.

"I can see with a trapping season, in the first year or two trappers will have some success, but then wolves are going to learn, and it's going to be harder each year afterwards," Paul said. "I think the same would be true in hunting. Certainly, wolves are going to adapt. Each year there's a harvest, the wolves are going to be more educated."

Paul said wolves will respond to a call, but unlike coyotes and other larger predators, they rarely can be drawn into open areas.

"Wolves tend to hang up on the edge of the woods line and don't want to come out of heavy cover," Paul said. "While they might respond, they might be more difficult to see and shoot."

They're also elusive. Even as a federal trapper logging thousands of miles, Paul said he rarely saw more than a wolf or two in a year's time.

"Wolves basically are hunting dusk 'til dawn during the nighttime hours and aren't real visible to people," Paul said. "They become a little more visible in the winter because they're hunting and traveling more during the daytime hours."

100-hour effort

Conway Marvin of Warroad, Minn., an avid hunter who owns property on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods, said he managed to take a wolf late last March, just a couple of days before the province's season closed.

"I probably put 100 hours into the hunt before I was able to kill one," Marvin said. "I'm blessed with the opportunity to do a lot of hunting, and it's probably the most exhilarating hunting experience I've ever had."

Marvin said the combination of baiting and calling seems to be the best technique for bringing a wolf into range.

"No question it's a challenge," he said. "They're an extremely elusive animal."

Marvin, who owns Streiff Sporting Goods in Warroad and Hosted Hunts Inc., a hunting- and fishing-trip travel agency, of sorts, said he believes there's plenty of support for the season in northern Minnesota.

"It's kind of one of those 'it's about time' from the general public, and there's a lot of anticipation," he said. "We've just been born and raised in a culture here where they're hard to see, hard to find, but they're also against the law to hunt."

Until this fall, that is. Just don't expect it to be easy. Benson, the East Grand Forks hunter, said his head is still spinning from his recent trip to Ontario.

"We had 30 below and no wind and fresh snow three of the six days we hunted, so when you saw tracks, they were fresh," Benson said. "You would come across wolf tracks and think, 'OK, there's wolves in the area,' and we quickly learned that doesn't mean anything.

"It's just amazing how much country they cover in a short period of time."

Benson said he's shot three wolves in Ontario -- all during deer season. Ontario requires only a small game license and a special "wolf-coyote game seal" to take wolves.

"I've deer hunted up there like 18 years, and I don't know how many wolves I've seen but not shot at," Benson said. "But when you want to get one, it's a whole different ballgame.

"It's an exciting hunt, but it ranks right up there with the toughest hunts I've ever done."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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