The Surprising Truth About Wolves

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Fall 2014

By Greg Breining

Three years ago, the wolf was taken off the federal endangered species list in its Midwestern strongholds of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Those states, along with Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, have subsequently opened controversial wolf hunts. On Isle Royale, a remote island on Lake Superior, the wolf population is at an all-time low and may soon die out, likely because of inbreeding. How much worse could the picture get for this icon of the wilderness?

Actually, things have never looked better for the wolf, says L. David Mech, adjunct professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. Author of the classic text The Wolf and a pioneer in the use of radio telemetry to study wolves, Mech is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on the animal.

Why is the wolf so controversial?

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s the progenitor of the dog. It’s a familiar creature to us and yet it’s out there, it’s wild. It’s like our pet but it isn’t. Somehow that grabs the imagination. Who knows? I don’t even know what kind of a study one could do to try to learn why people are so emotional about wolves. But, boy, they sure are.

What is the state of wolf conservation?

Quite good. This is the first time in history where wolf taking has been regulated. It used to be wide open. You could kill them any way, any time, anywhere. That’s how they got wiped out, mainly by poison. Now, it’s tightly regulated.

Since wolf numbers have rebounded, several states have allowed hunting and trapping. Do you see that as a setback?

I would say it is a necessary product of success. I wrote a paper in 1995 on the challenge and opportunity of wolf recovery. I said it looks like they’re recovering and we better brace for the fact that they’re going to have to be controlled. And that’s what’s happened. The thing is, it jarred the public. Here the wolf went from being endangered to all of a sudden being hunted. A lot of the public just couldn’t buy this. So we had quite a backlash. We still do.

Compared with Minnesota, western states seem less tolerant of wolves. Why?

In Minnesota, our ranchers and farmers have always lived with wolves. They were wiped out of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. So the folks there see [reintroduction] as a real imposition on them.

Do hunting and trapping seasons have any effect on wolf behavior?

We don’t have any scientific proof that it does. But if you talk to any wolf biologist, they’ll tell you that’s what happens. Once they start being hunted and trapped, they get a lot warier.

There have been two documented cases now, one in Alaska and one in Canada, of wolves killing people. But look at all the wolves in Minnesota and all through northern Canada and Alaska. Very rarely does anyone ever get killed. We always need to keep that context in mind.


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