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DNR Survey finds Minnesota wolf population holding stable

ST. PAUL — Minnesota had an estimated 2,278 wolves last winter, up just a tick from the year before, according to survey results released Monday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The winter survey estimate showed several more wolf packs across the wolf range — about the northern one-third of Minnesota — but the population was statistically unchanged from the estimate of 2,221 in 2015, the DNR said.

“The variations from year to year, it’s harder to tease out why they change. But what is clear is that we have a pretty stable population out there over several years. The population is in good shape,” said Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist.

Packs

An increase in wolf packs, up from an estimated 374 in 2015 to 439 packs this year, comes as the big carnivores have to travel less to find their favorite food, whitetail deer.

The average pack covered about 62 square miles in this year’s survey, down from 73 square miles last year — a sign that deer numbers continue to rebuild after dropping significantly in 2012 and 2013, the DNR notes.

As deer numbers dropped earlier in the decade “we’ve observed a decline in prey that translated into larger wolf pack territories, and the reverse is now to be expected if deer numbers continue to increase,” John Erb, the DNR’s wolf research scientist, said in announcing the survey results.

Erb said the population estimate has a “confidence interval” of 450 wolves, up or down, with 2,278 at the midpoint.

The most recent survey estimated an average of 4.4 wolves per pack, down from an average pack size of 5.1 wolves per pack in last year’s survey but within the 30-year range that bounces between 4.3 and 5.6 wolves per pack.

Winter survey

The survey is taken at mid-winter, the low point of the annual wolf population cycle.

Each spring the population doubles with new pups born, but many of those pups and other wolves die in the coming year.

Minnesota’s stable population comes after federal wolf protections were reimposed nearly two years ago.

After several years of state-sanctioned hunting and trapping seasons, wolves returned to the federal endangered species list in December 2014 under a federal judge’s ruling.

The federal court order means wolves can’t be hunted or trapped in Minnesota, where they are listed as threatened, except under the watch of federal trappers near where livestock or pets have been attacked.

No hunts in Wisconsin

Wolves are completely off-limits to hunting and trapping in Wisconsin and Michigan, where wolves are listed as endangered.

The fact that the state’s wolf population didn’t go up more after hunting and trapping was stopped was surprising to some wolf advocates, noting the population dropped quickly when wolf seasons were held from 2012 to 2014.

“Wolf hunting and trapping caused a 25 percent drop in Minnesota’s wolf population, and even with federal protection, the population has not rebounded,” said Collette Adkins, a Minnesota-based biologist and attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This survey shows that there’s no need to hunt wolves to manage their numbers because pressures like disease, road mortality, illegal killings and depredation control (federal trapping) continue to strain the wolf population.”

Erb said it will take several years of deer populations increasing before wolf numbers increase significantly, and Stark said normal winters in recent years have been better for deer but made it harder for wolves to catch their prey.

Minnesota’s wolf population remains above the state’s official minimum goal of at least 1,600. The state has by far the most wolves of any state outside Alaska, with the population varying from just a few hundred wolves in the early 1970s — before Endangered Species Act protections — to as many as 3,020 wolves in the 2004 survey, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data.

A year without hunting and trapping seems to have bolstered Wisconsin wolves more than Minnesota.

Wisconsin’s annual winter wolf survey found an estimated 880 wolves were roaming the state earlier this year, up 16 percent from 2015 and the most wolves ever counted in the state in modern times. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has about 630 wolves.

Congressional issue

Several bills have been introduced in Washington to remove the federal protections and return wolf management to state wildlife agencies in the Great Lakes. So far those bills have not passed Congress.

An October court hearing is scheduled in the ongoing federal case regarding Great Lakes wolves.

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