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Wolves becoming commonplace around state

PARK RAPIDS - Placing wolves back under the federal Endangered Species Act could mean that sightings, now fairly commonplace around Minnesota, could become a matter of close encounters.

"From the surveys I've done we have a wolf pack in almost every township that has enough habitat to contain them," said Park Rapids DNR wildlife technician Tom Stursa.

"They're so commonplace many people don't even report them."

And that commonplace status is making livestock owners mad as the dickens. Farm groups have protested a court ruling last fall that reinstated federal protection for wolves, saying it will result in more wolves preying on sheep and cattle, especially in northern Minnesota.

But wildlife and ecosystem activists say wolves are absent from 95 percent of their historic range and are truly endangered. On Jan. 21, President Barack Obama halted an Interior Department proposal to once again de-list wolves until that agency formulates a comprehensive recovery plan, not the piecemeal de-listing that has occurred in the past.

The last tracking survey counted nearly 3,000 gray or timber wolves throughout Minnesota, mostly concentrated in the northeastern sector. That was about twice the density wildlife officials had determined was optimal for Minnesota. The population is holding its own, with stable numbers over the past decade.

Wolves have been somewhat of a political football for at least that long, punted from federal protection, to state management and back to the feds last fall under a court order.

In September 2008, the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia reversed the Interior Department's plan to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from federal protection. The result is that they're once again considered an endangered species.

Because Hubbard County and the surrounding regions have a healthy deer population, packs of wolves come here for the cuisine.

"About 75 percent of their diet is deer," Stursa said. "They do get into trouble once in awhile and decide to dine on some domestic livestock but most of the time it's deer."

One important upshot of the court ruling is that frustrated farmers and ranchers can no longer shoot wolves that threaten their livestock. Wolves may, however, be killed in defense of human lives.

Only federal agents are allowed to cull a wolf pack in cases of verified livestock depredation. From 1996 to 2008, federal agents killed 931 wolves in the northern Rocky Mountain region and 1,951 wolves in the Great Lakes region, all in defense of livestock.

Nimrod cattle farmer Chuck Becker raised a ruckus shortly after the court decision was handed down. He complained to every available media outlet that wolves were scaring his cattle, causing them to run panic-stricken through fences and become crippled. He maintained some of his cattle were eaten alive by hungry wolf packs.

When the state managed the wolf population, Becker and about 80 other farmers were compensated for livestock losses at the hands - or paws - of wolves. Now the state management plan remains on hold while federal authorities have the ball in their red zone.

DNR wolf expert Dan Stark acknowledges some frustrated livestock producers may be thinning wolf packs illegally.

Sebeka farmer Tim Nolte told Minnesota Public Radio three of his dairy and beef cattle disappeared into thin air. He blamed wolves.

Interestingly, the wolf ruling had nothing to do with managing populations - or overpopulations.

It had to do with how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service applied its statutory authority, both designating distinct populations of animals and de-listing them at the same time. The Humane Society and other animal rights groups sued, contending USFWS had no authority to simultaneously do both.

Two previous attempts to de-list wolves in the Rocky Mountain area were struck down by federal courts.

The Obama decision ends what his administration termed the "premature removal" of wolves from the endangered species list in 14 states, including Minnesota.

The DNR's official position on wolf management is currently: "The Minnesota DNR is committed to ensuring the long-term survival of the wolf in Minnesota, and also to resolving conflicts between wolves and humans."

Minnesota has a total of 96 endangered, 101 threatened and 242 special concern species, according to the DNR.

Stursa meanwhile said there are ways to keep wolves at bay.

"We've been telling people for years, 'If you're going to feed deer you're going to encourage predators; not only wolves but coyotes and stray dogs,'" he said. "So if you're putting out feed for deer it's actually a collection point for lots of animals."

The federal debate will wage on as to how best to manage the wolf population. For the foreseeable future, the only beneficiaries will be the lawyers.