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Managing Minnesota's Recovered Wolves


Gray wolves (Canis lupus) in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan have increased and expanded their range considerably during the past 20 years (Fuller et al. 1992, Michigan Department of Natural Resources [DNR] 1997, Berg and Benson 1999, Wisconsin DNR 1999), greatly exceeding the recovery criteria of the Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan (United States Fish and Wildlife Service 1978, 1992).

Map of Minnesota showing wolf range covering the northcentral and northeastern portion of the state with the strongest density of livestock occurring in the southern half of the state.  
Figure 1.  Distribution of livestock in Minnesota (Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service 1997) and 1997 wolf range (cross-hatching, Berg and Benson 1999). Each dot represents 500 head of livestock.

For Minnesota, the recommended recovery population level was a minimum of 1,250 wolves (United States Fish and Wildlife Service 1978, 1992), but the population in winter 1997-1998 was double that and increasing at 4.5%/year (Berg and Benson 1999). Although average wolf density remained about the same from 1989 to 1997, the wolf population expanded into more agricultural areas and thus increased from an estimated 1,625 in winter 1988-1989 (Fuller et al. 1992) to 2,450 in 1997-1998 (Berg and Benson 1999). At that rate of increase, the projected population in 2007 would be 3,800.

Since 1989, when the Minnesota wolf population was proliferating into regions with more agriculture (Fuller et al. 1992), wolf depredations on livestock and associated costs have increased considerably (Fritts 1982, Fritts et al. 1992, Mech 1998b). Because Minnesota's wilderness and semi-wilderness are saturated with wolves, the only areas left for the wolf population to colonize are primarily agricultural (Figure 1).

Thus, without population control, the increase in rate of depredations on livestock will likely continue and accelerate. The following should increase similarly: costs of wolf depredation control, compensation payments by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for livestock killed by wolves, number of wolves killed by the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] depredation control program, and potential wolf-human interactions (Mech 1998b). Because wolves can habituate to humans and endanger them (Shahi 1983, Jhala and Sharma 1997, Mech 1998a, Route 1999), the increased wolf population in Minnesota has raised fears of attacks on children (Niskanen 1998).

On the other hand, the wolf's long tenure on the endangered species list has resulted in another constituency that strongly favors continued protection (Kellert 2000). Thus, wolf management has assumed a sociopolitical dimension that extends well beyond fundamental biological concerns.

When the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is confident that proposed state management plans will ensure maintaining wolf populations at or above recovery levels, it will propose delisting the wolf from the endangered species list in at least Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, probably in 2001 or 2002 (R. Refsnider, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, personal communication), and the states can resume wolf management. There are no specific federal requirements for the state wolf management plans except that they must ensure the survival of the wolf at or above recovery level. Wisconsin and Michigan have developed state wolf management plans.

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