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Walz says he supports wolf hunting ban

A gray wolf walks across a snow-covered highway.

ST. PAUL — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz for the first time Wednesday, May 1, said he would support a ban on wolf hunting, signaling an apparent reversal in state policy and providing a key ally for those opposed to the practice.

Walz, himself a hunter of birds and other game, even described wolf hunting as “sport hunting,” a term frequently used by hunting opponents.

Wolf hunting opponents also scored a victory Tuesday, when the state House by one vote approved a ban on wolf hunting, putting the issue in play for negotiations at the end of the legislative session. The Senate is likely in favor of allowing wolf hunting and trapping, led by its majority leader, a staunch supporter.

Wolf hunting isn’t currently allowed in Minnesota, but that’s only because of federal protections — which the Trump administration has aims at removing. If they succeed, under current state laws and regulations, the state could resume its hunting and trapping seasons in 2020, or perhaps even this fall.

But Walz on Wednesday threw into doubt those state regulations — and even the state’s entire wolf management plan, which has generally guided state policy for 18 years.

What has state policy been?

The state’s long-standing policy has been that limited hunting and trapping would be allowed if federal protections are removed and the wolf population could handle it. Biologists with the Department of Natural Resources have determined that for years the population, currently estimated at around 2,655 animals, can handle it. As such, with the blessing of the Legislature and then-Gov. Mark Dayton several years ago, when wolves were removed from the federal endangered species list, the DNR set up several zones with a maximum number of wolves that could be killed during the seasons. The policy also allowed for killing of wolves that prey on livestock.

From 2012 to 2014, hunting and trapping seasons were held on wolves around the Great Lakes, until a federal judge ruled that the plans of Upper Midwestern states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — were inadequate. That left Minnesota in its current situation: no hunting and trapping, not even to protect livestock or pets. Killing a wolf is only allowed to protect human life.

State policy has been more hazy on a slightly different question: Should wolves be hunted by the general public to control, or manage, the population? The nuanced difference between what a population can handle and whether the population should be suppressed has remained a central tension.

What Walz said

Walz seemed to allow for some level of killing to control the population Wednesday as he answered a reporter’s question and discussed his own votes when he was in Congress and various proposals to de-list wolves came up.

Here’s what he said: “I think that good wildlife management involves hunting, certainly at certain points. We have a population, and this is one, as a member of Congress, a selective de-listing of the wolf is something I supported in areas where the population had recovered to the point where it was warranted. The massive and the universal de-listing I did not because it is not supported by good game management practices. And I do think, because of the nature of our wolves, you can have selective hunting to manage the population. I don’t think that’s a place where sport hunting is appropriate.”

When asked to clarify whether he supports the plan approved by the House — a ban on an “open season” that would allow the general public to hunt wolves much like deer, bear and other big game — he said, “I do support this legislation.”

That’s a departure from at least four of his predecessors. Dayton, also a Democrat, supported the hunting and trapping seasons. Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty allowed the state’s management plan to stand, and former Gov. Jesse Ventura of the Independence Party adopted the 2001 management plan.

The degree to which Walz has discussed the matter with DNR officials wasn’t clear Wednesday.

Gazelka on the other side

The Senate, in its current makeup, hasn’t voted on the issue.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, has been a strong supporter of allowing wolf hunting. He was a lead sponsor of the bill several years ago that defined the parameters of Minnesota’s seasons.

Asked to respond to Walz’s remarks Wednesday, Gazelka supplied this statement: “I’ve supported the DNR managing the wolf population through hunting and trapping. Just like the DNR manages other wildlife, they should be allowed to determine the proper population levels for wolves.”

Lt. Gov. Flanagan also supports ban

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan made her opposition to wolf hunting clear Wednesday as well, putting it in personal and spiritual context as an American Indian.

“It’s personal for me," said Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe. “I am wolf clan. There’s rules. You can’t eat or hunt your own clan.”

However, Flanagan added this: “We also know that we need to make sure that we are doing our best to manage our wolf population so that people can coexist with wolves.”

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