Right here, in the den, the dogs hear their long ago cousins, howling, and they want to join them in the tribute to the night. Since there are two, both mastiffs, both well over 100 pounds, I feel safe letting them outside to patrol their territory. Some of my neighbors have watched their smaller dogs become a wolf snack. Not letting their pet inside fast enough, they open the door just in time to see their beloved companion disappear into the woods; in the jaws of a wolf. Yelling only makes the wolf run faster. They do not drop their meal.
A few winters ago, my neighbors were awakened by their frantic dog, and terrible screams. That is when they found the doe, torn and surrounded by wolves, seeking sanctuary in their yard. It was the first time they had heard a deer scream, a sound they will not forget.
Firing the shotgun over their heads made the wolves retreat into the shadows. Another shot put the doe out of its misery. A call to the game warden got the okay to salvage the body of the doe. The wolves watched as their prize was gutted and hung. They did not leave. The dog did not quit barking. It was the last time that the wolves ran a deer into that yard.
They lost one battle but there would be more they would win. Deer are plentiful. Evidence of their booming population lays in the ditches. Once scarce, eagles rip open the deer carcasses for the waiting ravens. There seems to be many more deer than the wolves can eat. Plenty left for hunters to shoot. Just check the ditches.
While Minnesota's wolves will and do take household pets and livestock, their prey of choice is the whitetail deer. Each wolf needs the equivalent of 18 to 20 adult sized deer each year to survive. That would be 40,000 to 50,000 deer annually at the present population. Last year hunters took 193,079 whitetail deer total.
In 1998 hunters in Minnesota took 158,854 deer. The deer harvest was down in 1997 due to the unusually cold and snowy winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97. Embarrassed MN, recorded a record cold temperature of -60 F. At anything below -40 F water thrown from a glass will freeze before it hits the ground. The snow was so deep the deer were reluctant to get off of their trails to find food. It took them too much energy.
We started feeding the deer that winter. There was a group of about 20 that had yarded up in our woods. Gaunt, hollow-eyed, they stumbled into the clearing we had plowed open for them. Staring, disbelieving their senses perhaps, they cautiously followed a big doe. She had a horrific gash in her left side, and walked slowly into the center of the clearing. The rest of the deer stoodd at the tree line, waiting. She stood watching, checking for scent. Finally she carefully checked each pile of corn, then began to eat. It was safe, this was real corn, and the others staggered single file into the clearing. Exhaustion and relief seemed to emanate in waves. There was no jousting for position, they simply ate.
Wolves usually kill only what they need to in order to survive, but sometimes towards the end of tough winter with deep snow wolves will sometimes kill more than they need. 'Surplus Killing' seldom occurs and usually only when the deer are nutritionally stressed. The wolves will eat the internal organs of the deer and leave the rest of the carcass. It may appear to be a waste but fox, fisher, marten, weasel, bald eagles, ravens, jays and chickadees all will feed off of the carcass, and often wolves will revisit a "pre-made" meal. Nothing ever goes to waste. This was one of those winters. My neighbor reported seeing 15 deer carcasses during a 5-mile walk through the woods. He was disgusted at the apparent "waste". Then he reflected, "well, I guess it isn't a waste to the ravens."
Indeed. No more than road kill.
But how many wolves are too many? The DNR set the figure at 2000, there are now an estimated 2,500 wolves in Minnesota. At the present time, wolves are still protected, but with their numbers increasing, they are no longer considered threatened. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife service held hearings and collected comments for 4 months last fall. During which they received nearly 20,000 written comments, and heard from hundreds of people at 14 public hearings.
Currently there are more wolves in Minnesota than ever before, probably due to the high number of deer. How many more can this state hold? Some argue that increased wolf populations do not necessarily mean more conflict between people and wolves. In 1991, 91 wolves were killed, from 55 farms, and 76 verified kills. $42, 739.04 was paid to farmers. By 1994, 172 wolves were killed, from 74 farms and 91 verified kills. $31,223.84 was paid out in reimbursements. 1997 saw 216 wolves killed, from 93 locations and 109 verified kills. $50,262.50 was paid out in reimbursements, the maximum allowable payment being $400.00. (Note* The winters of 1995-96 to 1996-97 where unusually cold and snowy).
In 1998 145 wolf kills were verified, from 99 farms with 161 wolves killed. $71,766.55 was paid out for reimbursements, with the maximum compensation raised from $400.00 to $750.00.
In 1999 wolves 163 were killed from 87 farms, 95 verified kills of cattle, calves, sheep, turkeys, and dogs. $64,918.50 was paid out for reimbursements.
Wolves are colonizing new areas where they have never lived before. Wolf packs have even moved into the northern Minneapolis/St. Paul outer suburbs, showing a surprising ability to adapt to more human activity. Minnesota's humans seem to have become, overall, more tolerant of wolves. Perhaps this is due to more education about wolves or more tolerance towards wildlife in general. Either way, tolerance is allowing wolves to expand their territory, roaming out of state into Wisconsin, North and South Dakota.
Wolf populations in Minnesota have increased about 6% annually in the 1970's, about 3% in the 1980's and approximately 4.5% annually during the 1990's. It's like interest on a savings account, which compounded annually would result in your doubling your money, (or wolf population), every 15 to 20 years. The wolf range continues to increase as well, expanding into unoccupied territory originally thought to be unsuitable. They now roam in singles, pairs or packs.
It makes sense that the wolf would follow its main prey. As the whitetail deer population and range continues to expand, so will those who make a living from them, not just wolves, but coyote, bears and fishers, (fawns are favorite prey of fishers and coyote). Normally wolves will not tolerate coyotes, but judging from the howls we hear, (the long, almost mournful yodel of the wolf, the sharp yips of the coyote). There must be plenty for all to eat as they all seem to have plenty to sing about.
We continue to feed "our" deer. The leader, with the torn side, healed and we named her Maude. She is an old doe now, graying about the muzzle, but still the undisputed "Grand Mam". She had twins again last year. Her fawns are still both fat, sleek. Her daughter Patches has become very friendly, taken to following us around the yard with her twin fawns right beside her. As forward as Maude and her charges are cautious, Patches and her brood expect their rations of corn and sunflower seed.
The Minnesota Legislator attempted to draft a wolf management plan, and while the house did pass a bill, the senate has been unable to do so. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service states on their web site that "We are working diligently with the intent to announce our final decision on gray wolf reclassification in July, 2001."
No matter what is decided, lawsuits are being threatened. The livestock industry wants wolves to be de-listed, but wolf advocacy groups have threatened to sue if the wolf is de-listed.
International Wolf Center
1396 Highway 169
Ely, MN 55731
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Bishop Henry Whipple Building
1 Federal Drive
Ft. Snelling, MN 55111-4056
DNR Information Center
500 Lafayette Road
St. Paul, MN 55155-4040
651-296-6157 or 888-MINNDNR
* * *