A tale of two wolf populations


The Minnesota State Fair is the Land of 10,000 Lakes' great melting pot. Enthusiasm for the "great Minnesota get together" is, to an outsider, strangely universal. Minneapolis hipsters -- who can rock skinny jeans and ironic, retro eyewear with the best of Brooklyn -- relish the opportunity to gorge on fried food on a stick just as much as their more conservative rural brethren who make the annual pilgrimage to the St. Paul fairgrounds.

So it makes a certain kind of sense that if you wanted to take Minnesotans' pulse on an issue, you'd do it at the fair. Which is exactly what Roger Johnson did in 1972 to gauge people's attitudes toward wolves, which still populated the state, though in far fewer numbers than they once did. He found that kids younger than 10 years old harbored the most negative feelings toward the animals, thanks Johnson believed, to the scary way wolves were portrayed in children's literature. Thirty percent of those surveyed said wolves posed a threat to humans, while 56 percent believed wolves deserved protection.

But get this: A whopping 90 percent professed that a wolf population had value for Minnesota.

Ninety percent?! Sure, it's a relatively vague statement. And though the survey included residents from all over the state, it was skewed toward those living in the Twin Cities, which lean to the left politically, and don't abut the state's core wolf habitats. Still, can you imagine a stat like that coming out of the Northern Rockies?

Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan support some 4,000 wolves -- more than double the number of the Northern Rockies' population. Yet wolves inspire remarkably less acrimony in the Midwest. Last week, the Interior Department deemed wolves officially recovered in the region, and announced it would remove them from the endangered species list next month. Some of the same environmental groups that have fought delisting in the Rockies tooth-and-nail celebrated the Great Lakes population's departure from the list. (At least one animal rights group, however, did not.) Midwestern farmers and ranchers may not cheer the wolf's resurgence, and the fact that they remained listed for a number of years after recovery benchmarks were met has soured public attitudes toward wolves, particularly in rural areas. Still, rural Midwesterners typically aren't red-in-the-face angry about wolves' presence. And though local politicians have actively pushed delisting, they've done so without the hyperbole and grandstanding favored by some Western politicos. 

So what gives?

"I think the big difference is this: We always had wolves," says Nancy Gibson, a wildlife biologist and co-founder of the International Wolf Center, an educational facility in Ely, Minnesota. Wolves were hunted and poisoned out of existence in the Northern Rockies, but not so in Minnesota, where the dense Northwoods and an abundance of lakes complicated extermination efforts. "Getting into those areas was very difficult. What some people thought was a terrible failure in the 1960s actually turned out to be a great asset (for wolf recovery)," Gibson says, because they didn't have to be reintroduced to the region.

"The wolf population expanded naturally and recolonized Wisconsin and Michigan," says Andrew Wetzler, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest land and wildlife program. "Farmers in some parts of Minnesota have long been accustomed to raising cows in wolf country," whereas many ranchers in the West are only a couple generations removed from those who helped wipe wolves out. "Even with wolves expanding," says Wetzler, "it was different than having the feds come in, and in many ranchers' eyes, forcibly reintroducing wolves."

Wolves kill livestock in the Midwest just as they do in the West, and they catch heat for it wherever they prey. But ranching is a different game in the north country -- one less prone to the level of conflict seen in the Rockies. "You don't have cattle turned loose on public land for long periods of time," Wetzler says. Gibson adds that many cattle operations in Minnesota are dairies, where cows are "much more watched over, and not allowed to roam." And in the far north, where wolves are most concentrated, public land is worked by loggers more than livestock producers. 

As for why fewer wildlife groups are rushing to court in the wake of this delisting decision, Wetzler says, "A lot of conservation organizations have said that recovered populations of wolves number between 2,000 and 6,000 individuals. So by our own standards, this population is recovered." He adds that the Midwestern state wolf management plans are generally "far more responsible" than those offered by Western states. "You don't have a state like Wyoming proposing to classify wolves as predators in 90 percent of the state," allowing them to be shot on sight for any reason. "If Wisconsin did that, it'd be different."

None of this is to say that wolves are without controversy east of the 100th meridian, or that the era of state wolf management will be hiccup-free in the Midwest. A federal program in Minnesota to trap wolves that kill livestock -- which Gibson says has been "one of the best tools for recovery of wolves" --  recently lost its funding. "It gave livestock owners a psychological out," Gibson says. "If they had a problem, there was a solution for it." It's unclear whether the state will be able to pick up where the federal program leaves off. And though landowners will now be able to kill wolves that threaten their livestock, most don't have the skills -- or time -- that the federal trappers did. "Trapping a wolf is not easy," Gibson says.

The Midwestern states must also now decide whether, where and how to allow public hunting of wolves. "There will be the usual controversy at the state legislature," Gibson says, and she hopes that Minnesota takes a targeted approach, focusing hunting in areas where the most wolf-livestock conflicts occur. 

But whatever happens in the future, she says, "I'm proud of our states. We did it right. We went through the processes we're supposed to go through. The Endangered Species Act was not usurped by Congress. I'm proud of that."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

Photo: A radio-collared wolf in Minnesota, courtesy U.S. Army Environmental Command.

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Dec 30, 2011 10:27 AM
By the late 1980s wolves were beginning to move back into Montana and Idaho from Canada without government assistance. A famous fledgling pack called the Ninemile Wolves evan garnered sympathy from ranchers on whose property they roamed. In hindsight, FWS probably wishes it had just let nature take its course instead of instituting the human-assisted re-introduction program that became such a success in terms of wolf populations. We humans can't seem to resist tinkering with nature.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Dec 30, 2011 02:18 PM
The reason so called environmental groups aren't disputing the delisting (yet) in court is because public opinion has shifted dramatically against them. They are one budget amendment rider away from a perhaps much worse deal covering more states, and even more bad press. As the liberal Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnisotta said when asked what if this effort fails she said they would, "have to look at Plan B which is doing it legislatively." She went on further that if that sounds like a threat, that's because it is.

Scientifically reintroducing a canine was relatively simple and very successful. Politically for conservation and environmental issues in general it has been an unmitigated disaster.
william huard
william huard Subscriber
Jan 01, 2012 12:00 PM
Gee whizz Somsai-
How do you figure public opinion has shifted away from pro wolf people? Just because the less educated people of Idaho, Wyoming, nd Montana have a pathological hatred against anything they can't understand......By the way, you spelled Minnesota and several other words wrong......
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jan 01, 2012 01:19 PM
I don't know Mr Huard, I've lived in those 3 states and met many educated people and many not so much so, and they mostly have little hate for anything or anybody. One generality I would make about folks from the Northern Rockies is that they have a deep understanding of animals, domestic and wild.

I never said anything about public opinion shifting away from pro wolf groups. Many people and groups are pro wolf, pro scientific wildlife management, and pro delisting.

My google spell check picked up Minnesota.... Which several other words? I wonder why you feel a need to point that out?
Nathan Blanchard
Nathan Blanchard
Feb 04, 2012 08:49 AM
I used to listen to high country news back in the day and now read it when I hang out at some of my hippy friends house, I'll be honest the level of middle ground common sense had all but left HCN.

To say 90 percent of city folks from Minn support wolves is well.... b.s. I used to live in the boundary waters in the late 80 and even then wolves were impacting ungulates at an alarming rate and the locals who HAD TO LIVE WITH WOLVES told a totally different story then their urban brethren to the south who only see wolves as Nature shows want them to be seen.

I now live in YAAK MT which was a true archipelago with all the cybonic creatures before the idiots in Washington and uneducated environmental groups forced a non indigenous predator into the forest.

twelve years ago I would hear indigenous Rocky Mt Timber wolves howling wile living harmoniously with deer,elk,moose,fox,coyote etc.... then lo and behold we were force to except Canadian Grey wolves a huge non indigenous dog that only took five years to crash our little piece of paradise.

we now have no elk,moose,timber wolves,fox or coyote and very few white tail deer thanks to folks who live urbanely but feel their warped UNEDUCATED feelings were more important than rural people's common sense.

I went to all the meetings locally and voiced my concern as a conservationist,wildlife photographer,hunter,animal lover that the Forest service should be patient,mother nature will provide us with the wolves that belong with our ungulates but of coarse I live in the woods,recreate in the woods work in the woods same as my neighbors so what do we know.

Sorry but the idea that the non indigenous Grey wolf will find it's place is ignorant

who is going to relocate elk,deer,moose when they are all gone and when they are all gone what will Grey wolves eat.Attacks are on the rise up here but you hardly hear about that in HCN.

Remember folks, and this goes out to the blogger that call us Northern Rocky mt inhabitants ignorant, We are on the front line of a very bad,botched, uneducated experiment.

IMHO at this point the only thing that will save indigenous Rocky Mt wolves and ungulates is for the removal of all non indigenous Grey wolves.

Remember, Native Americans used to control wolf populations when they got out of control and effected the other creatures in the forest negatively.