ELY, Minn. - Throughout Minnesota's history, the wolf has been both mystical and misunderstood. Some find the nighttime howl of the animal soothing and comforting; the same sound can send shivers down the spine of a cattle farmer.
Federally protected for decades, the hunters are about to become the hunted. The population in the Land of 10,000 Lakes has rebounded dramatically, and the much-anticipated hunt will begin on November 3rd.
"There's been a lot of interest. We've had over 23,000 people apply for the lottery," the DNR's Dan Stark said outside his Grand Rapids office. 6,000 hunters got a license through a lottery and they're authorized to take 400 wolves in 3 seasons; 2 general hunting seasons and 1 trapping season.
"We've kind of estimated about a 7% success rate based on how many licenses we're offering," Stark remarked.
In 2011 in Montana, a wolf season drew more than 18,600 hunters. The pre-season quota was 220 wolves and hunters managed to harvest 166 during the initial season.
Mark Johnson, Executive Director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, is not surprised. The Northwoods-based organization has been lobbying for a wolf hunt and calls the DNR's harvest quota conservative, yet understandable. "I wouldn't mind seeing it more liberal, but it's a start and gives us a chance to really look at the hunt. What are the implications? What really happens from it? I think in 5 years we're going to find we'll be relaxing the regulations quite a bit," he said.
But folks opposed to this hunt are lining up, hiring lawyers trying to stop it. One of the most vocal groups is "Howling for Wolves," founded by Dr. Maureen Hackett. "We're not being overrun by wolves so it's not like we have so many wolves running around that we need to manage their population. So this hunt is being done to please people who want to shoot them," she said. She also believes there wasn't adequate public comment before the hunt was approved.
Howling for Wolves has purchased more than a dozen billboards around the state. A PSA the organization produced states "we are about to lose all that we worked so hard to save. Don't silence our wilderness."
We asked Dr. David Mech, the world's foremost wolf expert, if Minnesota's population could sustain a hunt. Mech has been studying wolves in Northern Minnesota for 5 decades; having collared more than a dozen in different packs around Ely. "The number of wolves had to be at least 1,250 before the wolf could be de-listed. Well, we reached that number in about 1978 and then just continued to increase since then," he said.
The DNR puts Minnesota's current overall population at 3,000 this winter. Mech said it's a conservative estimate and during the summer, after the pups are born, the population can almost double. Plus, the expert says, wolves aren't aware of political borders. "Our Minnesota population is connected to the 60,000 wolves in Canada," he explained.
It's not what John Chute, who raises beef cattle near Aitkin, wants to hear. He says he's surrounded by hungry packs of wolves and he hears them almost nightly. "They'll be off in the north and there will be another group off in the south and here I am in the middle," he told KARE 11.
Chute says he's had a-half-a-dozen verified kills over the last 10 years. According to state numbers, an average of 170 wolves are captured or killed annually across the state in a depredation program set up to manage wolf-livestock conflicts. The state reported 128 wolf damage payment claims in 2011.
"Everyone that we lose is like saying I'll donate 2% of my gross and give it to the wolf fund, so it kind of hurts," Chute said.
The Native American tribes of Northern Minnesota have banded together, forbidding the hunting of wolves on their lands. The White Earth tribe is taking this hunt personally. "In our history it says the wolf walked with us, the Anishinaabeg people," Mike Swan, the White Earth Director of Natural Resources, said.
Several members of the wolf clan on the reservation have also strongly opposed the new hunt. "What they're going to be doing is they're going to be killing my brothers and my sisters. You know, that's my family, that's always been my family," tribal member Mary Favorite said.
Wolves in Minnesota are not often seen in the wilderness but they are certainly a large part of the current conversation, as opening day for a controversial hunt nears.