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Revising Minnesota’s Wolf Management Plan: Courting Disagreement and Finding Common Ground

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of International Wolf magazine.

By Cree Bradley

When Dave Olfelt welcomed the newly formed Wolf Management Advisory Committee, he didn’t imagine it to be under such unique and distant circumstances. Referencing the opening sequence to the 1970s American sitcom, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR) Division of Fish and Wildlife director called the “Brady Bunch style” virtual meeting an imperfect option to gather 17 committee members and 12 DNR, tribal and other staff. Yet, despite complications created by the Covid-19 pandemic, the important work of updating the state’s wolf management plan would move forward with a solid process and a flexible, patient approach.

Originally drafted in 2001 with extensive public input, the plan provides guidance through a transition from federal to state authority over how Minnesota oversees wolves; it includes population monitoring, management, depredation control, public safety, research, education and more.

Nineteen years later, as wolf status, range and prey numbers (moose, deer) have fluctuated, and new wolf research has become available, it is time to evaluate and revise the plan, re-assessing how public attitudes around wolves may influence management decisions. The aim is to improve management and conservation strategies with an over-all goal to “ensure the long-term survival of wolves in Minnesota while minimizing and resolving conflicts between wolves and humans.”

But this goal, itself, might be up for debate, as certain committee members suggested “survival” is a low threshold. Complex considerations like this, along with zoning, lowest desirable population, hunting and trapping, prey impact, conflicts with humans, conservation and more must be fleshed out through a robust planning process.

Large Carnivore and Wolf Management Specialist Dan Stark stated, “It’s critical to have all voices about wolves at the table. With the public’s input, we can effectively evaluate how the plan is working and identify what may need to be improved.” To that end, the MNDNR developed a multi-tiered, public-input process that includes public comments, three public meetings and multiple meetings of the advisory committee.

The committee consists of 20 stake-holders, including seven unaffiliated, at-large members, as well as representatives of hunting and trapping interests, animal rights and advocacy groups, agriculture and livestock producers, forestry and conservation groups, and local, county and tribal governments.

During the September meeting, members expressed their opinions on the 2001 plan and their desires for improvements to the revised edition. These messages, among others, stood out:

• The public holds strong opinions both for and against a wolf hunting-and-trapping season.

• There is interest in a managed wolf population that matches the 2001 plan’s minimum population of 1,600 wolves; there are also concerns that this population is too low. Stark clarified that if the population approaches this minimum, the DNR would try to identify reasons for the decline and reverse the trend.

• Some people support lethal depredation control and compensation levels truer to market value for livestock losses, while others want to emphasize educating farmers about non-lethal controls, with a possible insurance program incentivizing risk management, similar to crop insurance.
The committee shared commonalities and differences between tribes that highlighted the history and cultural significance of wolves to native people. One tribe, located outside of Minnesota wolf range, proposed a “premium hunting season” that dedicates revenues to conservation and depredation reduction. The tribes residing in wolf country oppose a recreational wolf harvest, citing cultural and scientific reasons.

There was consensus around using the best science-based information in creating the revised plan. However, some misconceptions and lack of access to research caused differences in members’ viewpoints, particularly related to effects of wolves on deer populations—a topic that arose repeatedly throughout the meeting. To deal with scientific aspects of the plan, the process also includes a technical panel of state, federal and tribal wolf experts. While this workgroup meets separately, there is overlap in meeting attendance, and presentations from biologists have helped inform the process. For example, MNDNR’s Glenn DelGiudice presented on moose, deer and wolf management.

Finally, a public attitudes survey of nearly 10,000 Minnesota households, hunters and livestock producers further ensures the plan accounts for a broader understanding of values, beliefs and attitudes toward wolves. The survey revealed key differences in opinions between groups. Minnesota residents generally oppose lethal control, while hunters and livestock producers sup-port it. There is considerably higher support (at 80 percent) for a hunting and trapping season by hunters and producers than by residents. And residents prefer wolf numbers and range to remain consistent with present numbers.

Wolf management continues to be an emotional, divisive and value-laden issue. Throughout the planning process, advisory and technical committees, along with MNDNR staff, have been challenged to synthesize and massage sometimes opposing opinions into agreement or compromise. The public-attitudes survey results, however, showed that Minnesotans agree on one primary idea: maintaining a wolf population in Minnesota is important. That single fact holds significant weight and provides a positive starting point for the hard work of revising the state’s wolf management plan.

Cree Bradley is a member of the International Wolf Center board of directors.