Midwest Wolves Returning to Former Territory

Sep 11, 2020  | 7 min  | Ep4604

Once upon a time, there were two groups of predators who constantly fought over the same prey. They battled one another for generations until, finally, one pushed the other out. Over time, the winning predators began to miss their enemy. Some helped their former rivals return to the once-contested forests and fields. And, now, it only remains to be seen if they can live side by side.

While it may not read like an old storybook, Michigan wildlife biologist Brian Roell keeps a list on his computer of important “wolf dates.”Brian Roell, wildlife biologist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources: “Throughout the early 1900s, killed every wolf you would see because they were a bounty animal. In 1956, we felt there were fewer than 100 wolves in the Upper Peninsula and, four years later, the bounty was removed.”

By the end of the 1960s, gray wolves had all but disappeared from the region, with one small pocket remaining in northeast Minnesota’s Iron Range. In 1966, wolves were listed as endangered under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act.

Brian Roell, wildlife biologist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources: “As things changed both ecologically and socially, you know, people started to realize that predators were an important part of an ecosystem.”

By the 1980s, wolf populations began to rebound across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Roell says exceeding planned population goals should have resulted in wolves being removed from the endangered species list. Instead, a series of administrative changes and answering lawsuits have meant the wolf's status on the list in Michigan has whipsawed, changing seven times in an 11-year period.

Brian Roell, wildlife biologist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources: "So it has been this yo-yo movement that I don’t think really has helped wolves in this case. All it does is build this animosity that we can’t do anything: we can’t protect our own livestock, our own pets.”

Roell says when those lawsuits succeed, the rare wolf found hunting lambs or calves can only be dealt with in non-lethal means. Nearly all of those measures eventually stop being effective.

Brian Roell, wildlife biologist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources: If we could empower the farmers to do some of that work… it grants wolves some approval rating that…’I can deal with that.' But when they are so hands-off that even though they are killing cattle, I’m not allowed to kill the wolf’, that creates animosity and what they do is they tell their neighbor and that neighbor tells their buddy and it just snowballs so people have this belief that wolves are rampantly killing livestock, which isn’t the case.”

Two hundred fifty miles away, in Minnesota, wolf numbers are climbing and territory is expanding. The state estimates the wolf population now numbers more than 2,800, about two-thirds of the total in the western Great Lakes region.

One research team is getting up close and personal in Voyageurs National Park, near International Falls, Minnesota. Their trail cam footage has helped draw attention to the wolves’ gradual return. Unlike in Michigan and Wisconsin, wolves in Minnesota are listed as threatened rather than endangered. This allows government officials to use the last-resort option of killing a wolf known to be causing repeated problems with livestock.

Joseph Bump, Fisheries, Wildlife and Conversation Biology associate professor, University of Minnesota: “When wolves are causing problems by eating sheep or eating cattle or hunting dogs or pets, which they’ve been documented to do, no one wins, right? It’s a problem for the owners of those animals; it can be an economic problem…Wolves don’t win either because often USDA Wildlife Services will come in and trap to lethally remove wolves as well, as to mitigate conflict. So I think everyone has a shared interest to minimize that.”

Wildlife experts have a range of non-lethal options, including guard animals - such as dogs, donkeys and llamas. If those fail, streamers, lights and alarms could be used to frighten wolves. But none of these work every time.

Joseph Bump, University of Minnesota: “You have folks who raise livestock who think the only good wolf is a dead wolf, and you have folks who absolutely enjoy and are thrilled by wolves on the landscape where they are operating.”

Cattle producer Keith Carlson is learning to coexist with the wolves, which have returned to the area near his farm an hour south of Duluth.

Keith Carlson, Sandstone, Minnesota: “As a youngster growing up, if we ever heard of or saw a wolf, it was very, very rare. This is probably in the past 20 years or less that we’ve started to have to deal with wolves that are in this area. There’s many producers or ranches throughout this area that have had wolf problems. Within the past 10 years, it seems to have gotten worse.”

Carlson says the challenges are offset a bit by government reimbursement for livestock killed by wolves. However, the evidence must be clear that a wolf was responsible.

Keith Carlson, cattle producer, Sandstone, Minnesota: “Last summer on our ranch, we had five confirmed wolf kills and I’m saying we had eight. But we couldn’t prove the other three of them…We do have agencies that work well with us… to help verify that it was a wolf kill.”

Carlson says Midwest residents are being misled when a population goal is met, but doesn’t result in delisting.

Keith Carlson, cattle producer, Sandstone, Minnesota: “They all came to an agreement. That’s the frustrating part for us.”

Brian Roell, wildlife biologist, Michigan Department of Natural Resources: “It opens up attacking the whole Endangered Species Act and I certainly don’t want to see major changes made to the act because of one species. When you look at wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, it should be a celebration of the Endangered Species Act and not used as a tool to keep them perpetually on the list.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org

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