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Know the West

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.