By Shawn Perich
En route to points south via Highway 61 on a recent early morning, I happened upon a wolf near Tofte. Seeing a wolf along the North Shore is hardly unusual, but this one caused me to do a double take. It was strolling along the paved bike path just a stone’s throw from lakeside trophy homes. When I beeped the horn, the wolf merely glanced my way. I smiled to think a yuppie jogger or cyclist using the same pathway would be in for a surprise.
At a meeting later that day, I told the story to a logger friend, who smiled, too.
“I saw one just like that beside the highway near Virginia the other day,” he said.
Driving home that evening, I spotted a second wolf walking along the highway shoulder about a mile west of Cascade Lodge. This one, too, was unconcerned with my passing vehicle. Having seen two wolves in one day, I wondered if lightning would strike thrice. Sure enough, a third critter appeared on the roadside as I was leaving Grand Marais, although I can’t say with certainty that it was a wolf.
While you won’t see wolves every time you drive Highway 61, they are a common sighting, especially in the morning and after dark. Actually, walking the highway shoulder or right-of-way is normal behavior for North Shore wolves. Rarely do they run out in front of traffic.
What I’m calling “normal” behavior–using the same travel route as humans driving cars and trucks–is what other folks would call “bold.” In their minds, wolves should be fearful, furtive creatures that always avoid humans, because that’s the way wolves used to be.
If you are old enough to remember the Seventies, you can recall the time when Minnesota wolves were unprotected vermin. They were shot on sight year-round and relentlessly pursued by expert trappers when their fur was winter-prime. Wolves not only stayed away from people, they feared the smell of steel and would even avoid crossing a human snowshoe trail in deep snow. When hunters took to the air to shoot wolves, they even learned to hide from airplanes.
Though we can remember an earlier era of unrestricted wolf control, what we may forget is this war on wolves represents a short, 100-year window in the passing millennia of human-wolf interactions in North America. Many native people were hunters, like the wolf, but did not possess weapons capable of easily killing them. Humans and wolves sought sustenance from the same big game animals and likely had frequent encounters, yet there isn’t archaeological evidence suggesting wolves preyed on people. In that context, a wolf that appears unconcerned while in the presence of nonthreatening humans is likely behaving the same way wolves have for thousands of years.
Since last fall’s inaugural wolf hunting and trapping season began, I haven’t noticed any change in behavior among the wolves I see along the highway, nor of those whose fresh tracks I encounter during daily dog walks. In other words, wolves continue to go about their business as they did while completely protected as endangered species. By and large, they live in close proximity with people on the North Shore with minimal human-wolf conflict.
Now, here’s the kicker: This may well mean the Minnesota wolf hunting and trapping season is working.
Some folks think hunting and trapping will re-instill in wolves a healthy respect, if not outright fear, of humans. Here on the North Shore, I’m not so sure this will occur. Opening the Minnesota wolf season was a big deal for people, but less so from the perspective of wolves already accustomed to encountering hunters during the deer season and avoiding traps set for other species. Unless we return to an unrestricted wolf war or greatly liberalize the hunting and trapping season, it seems unlikely a limited human harvest will greatly change wolf behavior.
Recently, the Minnesota DNR announced that last winter’s population estimate found wolf numbers decreased from the last count in 2008. Although wolves were fewer, their overall range expanded slightly in northwest and central Minnesota. Biologists attributed the population decline not to the wolves killed in 2012 by licensed hunters and trappers or animal damage control specialists, but to a 25 percent decrease in deer numbers across the wolf range. By limiting antlerless deer harvests, game managers hope to boost whitetail numbers. They say more deer means more wolves, too.
Deer are Minnesota wolves’ primary prey. So it’s reasonable to believe we’ll have more wolves if they have more deer to eat. We already know deer numbers can increase in spite of wolf predation, because northern whitetails became more abundant than ever during the decades of complete wolf protection. But what we collectively know and what some folks think are two very different things. Many folks believe a counterintuitive argument that more wolves means fewer deer. No amount of science is likely to convince them otherwise.
Emphasizing that deer management influences wolf numbers is a healthy step forward into the 21st Century for the Minnesota DNR, which long held a thinly disguised disdain for the wolves’ federally imposed and enforced endangered species status. Getting hunters and the general public to appreciate the positive link between deer and wolf abundance may take some time. And, realistically, the ultimate success of the wolf season will be judged by its effectiveness at limiting livestock depredation.
This week, the DNR announced its 2013 wolf season has a statewide harvest quota of 220 wolves, down 45 percent from the 2012 quota of 400. The number of 2013 hunting and trapping permits were reduced by similar percentages. The reductions are a response to an estimated 25 percent decline in the wolf population since 2008. This is a prudent action by a wildlife agency that is breaking new ground: Taking an animal that was first wholly unprotected as vermin, then wholly protected as an endangered species and now managed on a sustainable basis as a game animal. It’s a tough task, but so far the DNR seems to be on the right track.