Minnesota DNR adopts new wolf management plan
It remains unclear if or when the state will regain control of species now protected by federal law.
ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday released its new wolf management plan that generally supports the state’s current wolf population but also allows for potential hunting and trapping seasons if wolf numbers increase.
The final version has been approved by the DNR commissioner after reviewing public comments on the draft plan released over the summer.
It’s the first update to the state’s wolf management strategy since 2001 and is intended to apply until 2032. But the state plan won’t matter much unless and until federal endangered status is removed for wolves, either by court action or act of Congress.
While the wolf plan is considered a guideline for DNR management of the species, it’s not the same as state law. State lawmakers and the governor also could step in and either ramp up hunting and trapping or prevent it altogether.
The Minnesota plan was developed over the past two years by DNR wildlife biologists with input from an advisory committee composed of a cross-section of views on wolf issues, including tribal interests.
The plan has six major goals:
- Maintain a well-connected and resilient wolf population.
- Collaborate with diverse partners, including tribes and nonprofit groups, to collectively support wolf plan implementation.
- Minimize and address human-wolf conflicts such as wolf attacks on livestock and pets.
- Inform and engage the public about wolves in Minnesota.
- Conduct research to inform wolf management.
- Administer the wolf program to fulfill agency responsibilities and the needs of the public and partners.
DNR officials said the new plan incorporates the diverse views of Minnesotans and will guide the state’s approach to wolf conservation. That includes an extensive public opinion poll that shows most Minnesotans like having wolves around: 87% of residents agree that maintaining the state’s wolf population is important.
“People generally want to see wolf numbers where they are at, and this plan reflects that,’’ Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist, told the News Tribune. “But they also want to see conflicts resolved, and this gives us the tools and direction to do that management if and when needed.
“Nothing is changing overnight,’’ Stark added. “We have a healthy and stable wolf population and this just outlines how we’re going to continue that.”
Stark said the final plan changed little from the draft but makes it more clear that the state will consult with tribal officials whenever any management effort is being considered, such as a hunting season.
Minnesota currently has an estimated 2,700 wolves that roam the northern half of the state, by far the most of any state outside Alaska. The draft plan calls for maintaining a minimum of at least 1,600 wolves in the state, with “mitigation measures to reverse decline’’ kicking in below that point.
The plan refers to a wolf population between 2,200 and 3,000 as the “optimal population level with current occupied wolf range …” and that, if wolves expand above 3,000, broader wolf harvest — more hunting or trapping — could be allowed. Above that level, the DNR would “consider additional public engagement and management actions to address depredation or other public concerns.”
The plan lists no potential wolf harvest if wolf numbers drop to 1,600 or below. But as wolf numbers increased, the agency said sustainable harvest could be allowed, including up to 5% harvest of the total population with wolf numbers between 1,600 and 2,000; up to 10% harvest with wolf numbers between 2,000 and 2,200; 10%-20% harvest with wolf numbers between 2,200 and 3,000; and up to 20% of the population harvested if the population rises above 3,000.
The state’s wolf population expanded greatly in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s but has been fairly stable in recent years, both in size and range, with some movement of wolves south and west.
“It’s been pretty clear for the last few decades that wolves occupy probably all the suitable area that will support them,’’ Stark said. “We aren’t seeing the expansion in range that we had in the '80s and '90s.”’
Even in suitable areas for wolves, their population or density generally is determined by how many deer or other prey exist.
“Wolf numbers peaked back when we had peak deer numbers in the early 2000s,’’ Stark said. “Wolf numbers have dropped some since then.”
In three seasons from 2012-2014, when federal protections had been dropped, Minnesota hunters and trappers killed a combined 913 wolves. Meanwhile, federal trappers kill about 175 wolves each year in Minnesota near where verified attacks on livestock have occurred.
Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity and who served on the advisory committee as the DNR developed the plan, said it’s based on sound science and guided by the reality of public opinion.
“Like so many Minnesotans, I treasure our wolves and I’m glad that the new plan ensures their future in the state,” Adkins. "The new plan incorporates modern science on wolf conservation and better reflects the wolf-friendly values of most people in Minnesota.”
Actual actions in the management plan could not go into effect until eastern or gray wolves in the Great Lakes region are removed from federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. Wolves are considered a threatened species in Minnesota and subject to control only by federal trappers.
The wolf plan also calls for additional cooperation with tribal agencies, more wolf research, increased population surveys, increased public education, continued effort to reduce livestock depredation and other efforts to guarantee wolf conservation in the state. DNR officials say they wanted the updated wolf management plan in place if and when federal protections end and wolf management resorts back to states and tribes.