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Minnesota Wolves

Something to Howl About: Minnesota Wolves on the Rebound


L. David Mech (pronounced “Meech”) is a Senior Scientist with the Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, and Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. He has studied wolves and their prey since 1958, as well as several other species of wildlife.Although administration of his U.S. Geological Survey research is through Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, he is headquartered on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota in the Gabbert Raptor Center, 1920 Fitch Ave., St. Paul, MN 55108. Mech is also founder and vice chair of the International Wolf Center, and chair of the IUCN Wolf Specialist Group.

Mech has used radio-tracking for most of his career on wolves, deer, leopards, caribou, elk, lions, elephants, raccoons, lynxes, elk, hares, etc. For basic info, see Handbook of Animal Radio-tracking, and for info about satellite and GPS collars, see “A critique of wildlife radio-tracking and its use in national parks: a report to the National Park Service“.


Amid many alarming stories of Minnesota’s signature wildlife species in decline, one refreshing story is that of the gray wolf. Perhaps no animal is more emblematic of Minnesota and its wild lands. Its grandeur, elusiveness and signature howl have been the stuff of legend.

Since Minnesota is home to more wolves than any other state in the lower 48, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s also home to internationally recognized wolf researcher David Mech (pronounced “meech”). Conservation Minnesota sat down with Mech recently to discuss our howling friends – past, present and future. Mech is a 50-year veteran of wolf research throughout North America and he has seen dramatic changes in both the viability of wolves in Minnesota and human attitudes toward them.

Mech started on Isle Royale studying wolves and moose in 1958 and further studies took him to Superior National Forest and Denali National Park. He was later instrumental to the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park and has spent every summer for the last 20 years studying the wolves on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada.

Back From the Brink
Human opinion of wolves in Minnesota was poor up through the 1960’s – they were the menace that ate other animals, like moose and deer and even pets. Bounties were being paid for dead wolves, and until 1974, there was an open season on wolves. The state’s population of wolves was as low as 350 in the 1960’s and early 70’s.

So how did the wolf so completely recover from the brink of elimination in Minnesota?  Mech credits a significant change in public attitude toward wolves since the 1960’s. After the bounty on wolves was removed in 1965, their population began to rebound. Passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973 further protected wolves and allowed them to re-populate and add populations in Wisconsin and Michigan where wolves had virtually disappeared.

“The wolf population in Minnesota is about as good as it’s been in many decades.”

After several decades of alarming decline, the population of wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan is currently not threatened. Certainly, there will always be some poaching or “illegal taking” as well as natural fluctuations in their populations based on a variety of factors. “The wolf population in Minnesota is about as good as it’s been in many decades,” says Mech. “There’s more wolves than there have been since probably the 40’s or 50’s. There’s 3000 or so in the state now and they range across the northeastern 40% of the state.”  With 600 wolves each in Wisconsin and Michigan, the whole western Great Lakes region is currently rich with wolves.

Mech contends that the wolves’ recovery is so complete that it is “biologically recovered” and ready to come off the federal Endangered Species list. “The federal government doesn’t have enough money to keep working with all these different endangered species and helping those that are much more endangered and are not recovered.”  Since the wolf has recovered, “get it off the list and let the federal government move on to other species that are more endangered.”  While the wolf was taken off the Endangered Species List in 2007, a legal technicality has kept it on the list for the short term. Mech anticipates the issue to be resolved within a year and the wolf to be de-listed for the long term.

Once wolves are officially de-listed, they “could easily be managed by the states,” Mech assures. “And they have management plans that are quite acceptable and would protect the wolves.”

Off the List
One health threat that does keep the wolf population from further expansion is Parvo virus, which is traditionally a dog disease that tends to kill pups at a very early age. The disease was first identified in Minnesota in the 1970’s, wolves here have a 50% decline in the survival rate of pups. It might sound like a huge threat, but the average wolf litter is six pups per year. The decline in survival rates minimizes the ability of wolves to disperse across a wider range in Minnesota – which has not expanded in the last 10 years and may not, as long as Parvo virus is a factor.

© 2008 Conservation Minnesota

Wolf management

Minnesota’s gray wolf population is currently managed under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wolves in Minnesota are classified as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

We anticipate a decision to delist gray wolves in Minnesota in the next year. Once that happens, wolves will be managed in Minnesota by state statute, rule and under a wolf management plan This is a PDF file. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to download it. (2.33 MB). Read the Delisting FAQ.

The state wolf plan is designed to protect wolves and monitor their population while giving owners of livestock and domestic pets more protection from wolf depredation. It splits the state into two management zones with more protective regulations in the northern third, considered the wolf’s core range.

The plan establishes a minimum population of 1,600 wolves to ensure the long-term survival of the wolf in Minnesota. The state’s wolf population, estimated at fewer than 750 animals in the 1950s, has grown to the most recent estimate of 2,921. There will be no public hunting or trapping seasons for wolves for at least five years. The endangered species act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor wolves in Minnesota for five years after delisting to ensure that recovery continues.

Minnesota DNR position statement: “The Minnesota DNR is committed to ensuring the long-term survival of the wolf in Minnesota, and also to resolving conflicts between wolves and humans.”


Wolves and Big Game

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