Minnesota Gray Wolves: Endangered for a New and Different Reason

Few Americans know much about the lives of Minnesota’s gray wolves, yet all seem to have definite ideas about how they should be managed. I am not a wolf manager, but I have spent a great amount of time during my past 29 years among gray wolves inhabiting a ten square-mile area a few miles south of the Ontario Border in Minnesota’s scenic Arrowhead Region. There since 1990, I’ve been studying habits, behavior and range utilization of white-tailed deer and black bears. Based on these studies and earlier whitetail/bear studies in Aitkin County beginning in 1960, I have written about 900 articles for outdoor magazines—Midwest Outdoors during the past 30 years under the byline, “Dr. Nordberg on Deer Hunting”—and seventeen popular books including Whitetail Hunters Almanac, 1st–10th Edition. Arguably, gray wolves have been at a historic high north and south of the Minnesota/Ontario Border for more than two decades. After a year of becoming accustomed to my frequent camping, scouting and sitting in trees among them, I have often observed these awesome predators at very close range. I have thus been able to keep track (via skilled observation methods only) of their numbers and relationships with deer and moose and discover how the Endangered Species Act and protectionists all over America have been adversely affecting their lives.

One characteristic of gray wolves that is commonly overlooked by those who protect them from being hunted is, wolves live on flesh and bones of other animals. They therefore greatly influence numbers of other animals living within their ranges. Their primary prey in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region are white-tailed deer and moose (not many moose when less dangerous deer are plentiful). There was a time when a certain biological axiom was well known and understood about predators and their prey, namely, “when predator numbers are high, prey numbers are low and vise versa.” Without sound management by humans, ups and downs of predators and their prey tend to be cyclic and extreme. When predators have become so numerous that surviving numbers of their prey animals have become too few to provide adequate food, the predators bear fewer young, if any, and inevitably begin to die in great numbers from starvation and related diseases.

Many politicians in Minnesota have recently come to the conclusion that because opportunities to see gray wolves living in our state would be a great tourist attraction, future wolf hunting (after federal delisting) should be banned. Ironically, though most Americans become enraged upon discovering overabundant cattle, horses, dogs and cats suffering from a lack of adequate food, they think nothing of subjecting gray wolves to this same terrible fate. To be fair, most Americans do not realize the protection provided wolves by the Endangered Species Act since 1974 and by those in government who insist wolves should not be hunted have allowed the gray wolves of our Arrowhead Region to become so numerous that they have been finding it more and more difficult to find adequate food. But, because gray wolves (like black bears and foxes) are rarely seen even where very numerous, most Americans do not realize this has been happening.

Some Americans do realize what has been happening in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region as a result of gray wolves being allowed o become overabundant, namely, residents of this area and those who have hunted deer there for many years. These Minnesotans have long been disgruntled about the increasing depredation of farm livestock, wolves showing up in yards in urban areas, wolves killing and eating pet dogs and cats, wolves lurking near rural school bus stops and chronically low deer numbers. The inability of Arrowhead whitetails to recover to 1950s and early-1960s numbers despite widespread logging has long been a subject for heated discussions in this region. Before the severe winters of the mid-1960s when up to 90% of whitetails perished in Cook md Lake Counties (with somewhat lesser percentages elsewhere across northern Minnesota), there were as many as 22 deer per square mile in the Arrowhead Region, including where I study whitetails today. Deer in my study area have never numbered more than 8–11 per square mile between 1990 and 2016. Though my family and I have personally limited the number of deer we have harvested to four mature bucks per firearm hunting season, the deer population there eventually fell to a mere five per square mile in 2017. Deer harvests by hunters are not the reason. Only about one deer has been harvested by licensed hunters per ten square miles in this region for several years.

Like wolf packs elsewhere, studies suggest the wolf pack of my study area—made up of related wolves that typically come together about November eighth each year to hunt deer cooperatively until snow melts in spring—probably kills only about one adult deer per week in their vast hunting range, about 100 square miles in size. However, the mated pair that dens in my study area has killed three of four fawns between late May and early November annually. This was made evident by personal observations of fawns being killed by wolves, the fact that from 1990 through 2018 almost all wolf scats found in this area contained deer hair, unstained and unworn fawn teeth and fawn-sized dewclaws and hoofs between late May and early November and the fact that there has only been about one surviving fawn per two or more mature does in this area after November first each year, even after most mature does had given birth to twin fawns following mild to moderate winters. Significant numbers of deer of all ages have perished in this region during some severe winters since 1990, but fawn depredations by wolves is the principal reason whitetails of my study area have never been able to recover even close to numbers that were common during the 1950s and early 1960s. I am not sure whether the great number of fawns being killed simply reflects the fact that fawns are easier prey or it is a consequence of chronically low numbers of all whitetails.

During this same period, moose numbers in my study area fell from about three per square mile in 1990 to less than one per square mile in 2017. Though brain worms carried by whitetails (not fatal to deer) have been blamed for the demise of Minnesota moose, similar reductions of moose have occurred throughout North American where there are no brain worm infected deer (more likely related to global warming). I have personally witnessed wolves pursuing moose from calves to full-grown bulls in my study area and in Cook County and have found parts of recently killed moose with wolf tracks about them many times since 1990. Wolf depredation of much larger, more dangerous moose by Arrowhead wolves today is likely a consequence of chronically low deer numbers, caused by chronically overabundant wolves.

A number of other changes or consequences attributable to an overabundance of wolves have also been observed in my study area since 1990. I grew up in Aitkin County where there have always been gray wolves (then called timberwolves), made evident by their tracks, droppings, howls and rare sightings. They were not often seen back then because they hunted primarily at night and deer were plentiful. Today, the two mated wolves of my study area, which hunt singly, and the related wolves that join them to form packs in November, are often seen and/or heard excitedly howling while pursuing deer or moose during daylight hours, including midday. Last November, their tracks were freshly made during daylight hours about our tent deer camp (while we were away hunting) almost daily for two weeks, likely attracted there by scents of bucks we had taken. Previously, this only happened at night, twice accompanied by noisy howling within twenty yards of bucks hung behind our tent. In recent years, these wolves have commonly keyed on our gunshots, quickly consuming deer entrails left behind after we began dragging deer to camp. Obviously, nighttime hours no longer provide our Arrowhead wolves with enough opportunities to kill adequate numbers of vulnerable (catchable) deer. Healthy mature whitetails can run as fast or faster than gray wolves and in forest habitat they repeatedly leap over obstacles that soon discourage pursuit by wolves. Our gray wolves must therefore key on deer made slow for some reason—deer that are very young or old, wounded, sick, starving, slowed by deep snow or made to fall on slippery lake ice in winter. Ordinarily, gray wolves are only successful at killing mature whitetails in one of five attempts, and today too few of such opportunities occur at night.

In the early 1990s, the wolf pack of my study area typically consisted of a grizzled-black alpha male, a buckskin-colored alpha female, 3-4 other mature wolves with tawny legs and muzzles and two half-grown pups. Since 2005, our pack has never included more than four mature wolves and no pups—strong signs of inadequate nourishment (inadequate vulnerable deer) during previous winters. Our entire original pack did not survive the winter of 1992-93, early deep snow likely contributing to fatal starvation. They were replaced by a new alpha pair and new members of their pack the following year. This second set of wolves has inhabited my study area ever since.

In 1990, only one group of wolves was heard howling at sunset about two miles northwest of my camp. By 2010, three additional groups of wolves were regularly heard howling at sunset at more distant sites east, south and southwest of my camp—meaning wolf numbers had quadrupled in this area between 1990 and 2010.

The unprecedented spread of gray wolves from our Arrowhead Region to the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan provides the most convincing evidence our Arrowhead wolves are overabundant. Mature wolves with established ranges are known to drive off or kill other wolves that dare invade their ranges. This is the reason young wolves searching for new ranges of their own and likely some wolves that have migrated south from wolf-crowded Ontario have been forced to greatly expand their geographic range, in most cases ending up where they are not welcome. This continuing expansion means there is no room for additional wolves in northeastern Minnesota.

For the sake of our Arrowhead gray wolves, therefore, something must be done to reduce and control their numbers. The best and most humane way to restore a healthy and flourishing ratio of our long overabundant gray wolves with their long dwindling natural prey in an area most suitable for wolves, our Arrowhead Region, is allow our well qualified MDNR big game managers to reduce wolf numbers there until there is an equally healthy and flourishing number of deer throughout this region—ideally about fifteen deer per forested square mile. This would be a simple means of determining when numbers of very difficult to count gray wolves are finally at an ideal, ecologically balanced ratio with their prey. After 45 years of allowing our wolves to become overabundant, wolves, deer and moose endlessly made to suffer the consequences, banning wolf hunting, the most practical and humane means of reducing wolf numbers quickly and with great control, would only make matters worse for our Arrowhead wolves, deer and moose. It’s time our widely revered, over-protected wolves and their equally revered prey are finally rewarded with sound management. I know Arrowhead residents and Zone 1 Minnesota deer hunters would enthusiastically welcome this as well.

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