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The Wolf Dilemma in Minnesota:
Can You Help Solve It?


L. David Mech1

This resource is based on the following source:
Mech, L. David.  1999.  The wolf dilemma in Minnesota: Can you 
     help solve it?  International Wolf 9(1):18-20.

This resource should be cited as:

Mech, L. David.  1999.  The wolf dilemma in Minnesota: Can you 
     help solve it?  International Wolf 9(1):18-20.  Jamestown, 
     ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.  
     (Version 04AUG2000).

Most people who are interested in wolves want to see as few as possible killed in wolf control efforts. If you are one of these folks, perhaps you can help solve the wolf dilemma in Minnesota. As the legally protected wolf population continues to expand its range in Minnesota, the basic problem is that wolves are overflowing into more and more agricultural areas.

There, the newest members of the flourishing population have a much greater chance of getting into trouble by killing livestock because the range has little wilderness but many farms. Thus each year more wolves must be killed to control their depredations on livestock.

In 1978 a federal wolf recovery team defined five wolf management zones in Minnesota. They considered Zone 5, basically the southern and western two-thirds of the state, to be culturally unsuitable for wolves because of the preponderance of agriculture and non-wilderness land in that zone. This is now an area that wolves are beginning to colonize.

Protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1974, Minnesota wolves increased an average of 3 to 5 percent each year despite a certain amount of illegal killing, natural mortality and livestock-depredation control by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The wolf population increased from about 750 in the early 1970s to 2,200 or more in 1997, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The gradual increase in the Minnesota wolf population saturated the state's 30,000 square miles of wilderness and semi-wilderness in the recovery team's Zones 1-4 by about 1989. Then the population began to spill over into agricultural areas.

Wolf Control in the State

Meanwhile, wolf controllers found themselves busier and busier as a disproportionate number of the increased wolf population preyed on livestock. By 1989 the number of wolves taken for depredation control quadrupled, compared to a low in 1979. During summer 1997, the kill of wolves by the control program reached a new record of 216, more than 10 times the 1979 take.

The number of wolves killed by the depredation-control program probably minimally represents those actually doing damage, because the program is conducted under certain restrictions imposed by a court settlement. For example, controllers cannot trap wolves unless both physical remains of livestock (rather than just animals reported missing) and definite sign of wolf depredations exist.

In addition, wolves can only be killed within a half mile of farms where wolf depredations were documented, and trapping can only be conducted for limited periods after the depredation occurred. Thus in some cases wolves might kill livestock, but evidence is insufficient to allow trapping there. Other times trapping is conducted, but no wolves are caught.

The Dilemma

The dilemma is that the depredation-control trapping does not keep up with the wolf population and range increase, so each year more and more wolves populate areas where increasingly more of them will have to be killed. For example, from 1988 to 1997, Minnesota wolves increased by 35 to perhaps 50 percent. However, the number of wolves trapped for depredation control increased 127 percent.

If enough wolves had been killed earlier along the edge of the agricultural area, the population would not have increased into Zone 5. Consequently fewer wolves would have to be killed each year now. However, by law, controllers could not have killed any more wolves than were preying on livestock at the current time. These laws and this trend continue. How many wolves will have to be killed next year, or five years from now?

When the wolf depredation-control program was instituted, several alternatives to killing wolves were found to be ineffective. For example, controllers distributed baits laced with chemicals, so that wolves would become sick when they ate the bait, in an attempt to teach depredating wolves not to prey on livestock. Blinking highway flashers and flags--similar to those used in Europe to restrict wolf movements during wolf hunts--were distributed around farms. Livestock guarding dogs were tried, and wolves were trans-located to new areas.

Lethal Control: A Last Resort?

These methods failed for various reasons, so lethal control was the only method anyone could devise that would help control livestock losses to wolves.

In 1978, the wolf recovery team, foreseeing the present problem, suggested that the wolf population should be restricted to Zones 1-4--the wilderness and semi-wilderness areas of Minnesota. The team also recommended that the public be allowed to help control wolves by taking 150-200 wolves each year through a sport hunting and/or trapping season.

By killing a minimal number of wolves along the edge between the wilderness and agricultural zones while the population was low, the recovery team reasoned that such action would minimize the number of wolves needing to be killed later. However, a legal ruling held that such taking would not be permissible under the Endangered Species Act, so the program could not be adopted.

Within the next few years, however, the federal government will remove the wolf in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from the endangered species list. Wolf management will then be up to the states. The states can manage wolves in any way, as long as wolf numbers do not fall below 1,250 in Minnesota and 100 in Wisconsin and Michigan combined.

Thus the current dilemma. Under the present plan and program, it is reasonable to expect that more wolves will colonize more agricultural land and require that more wolves be killed each year. Projecting the 1988-1997 trend suggests that by 2005 more than 500 wolves per year might have to be killed for livestock-damage control in Minnesota.

How would you solve this dilemma? Write us and share your ideas and opinions (see below).

What Would You Do?

We would like to hear from you. How would you propose
managing the Minnesota wolf population to minimize having
to kill an increasing number of wolves each year? We will try
to publish International Wolf readers' ideas for managing
Minnesota wolves in an upcoming issue. Your ideas and
letters may be edited for length. Please send your ideas to:

International Wolf
5930 Brooklyn Blvd. Suite 204
Minneapolis, MN 55429-2518

1 L. David Mech is a wildlife research biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He is the founder of the International Wolf Center and current vice chair of the Center's board of directors. He has published widely in scholarly and popular journals. His books include "The Wolf," "The Way of the Wolf" and "The Arctic Wolf," which has recently been reissued by Voyageur Press with an expanded text. These books can be purchased from the International Wolf Center at 1-800-ELY-WOLF.
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