When the Eastern Gray Wolf was placed on the Endangered and Threatened Species Act in 1974 only 750 wolves remained in the lower forty-eight states and all of these resided in northern Minnesota. The mere fact that these wolves had managed to survive had nothing to do with anything that Minnesota law-makers or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources did in regards to wolf survival rather wolves survived because there were vast segments of wild and unroaded wilderness in the upper portions of this northern state. Prior to 1974, wolves were trapped, poisoned and shot from planes. Minnesota has as horrifying a record of wolf killing as any other wolf hating state and even though the federal and state government orchestrated this killing, wolves managed to find their last bastion of refuge in the rugged wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the largest wilderness east of the Rocky Mountains. Human access for trapping and poisoning were difficult in the BWCA and wolves learned the sound of planes meant getting off the ice and into the dense forests where they were protected.
Much of the push behind wolf annihilation then as now comes from the powerful Ag lobby and sportsmen. These powerful special interest groups and their role in wolf genocide was well stated in the 2014 decision by appellate court judge Beryl A. Howell’s decision to relist the wolf when she most famously said to U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials, “At times, a court must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough,” Howell wrote in the decision. “This case is one of those times.” For those of us that watched incredibly as the six wolf states began killing wolves in 2012, we were surprised and elated as though we had received a Christmas gift by the Judge Howell’s December 2014 decision but as of today, there have been no fewer than eighteen attempts in Congress to delist the wolf. All thus far have failed but current prognosis looks ominous.
In the late 1990’s Minnesota created a citizens task force that resulted in a Wolf Moratorium. The moratorium stated that upon delisting, there would be a five year wait before a hunt could be initiated. Upon delisting in 2012 the Minnesota state legislature immediately circumvented the five year wait by re-classifying the wolf from a big game animal, as assigned in the task force, to a small game animal. As a big game animal, any poaching of wolves would result in possible confiscation of vehicle, guns, loss of hunting privileges, and a large fine. As a small game animal, penalties are no greater than if a rabbit was shot illegally which is a maximum of $500 and that amount is rarely if ever handed out. This status regarding the wolf as a small game animal emboldened wolf haters to brazenly kill wolves where the opportunity presented itself and that opportunity will begin again in Minnesota, if and when the wolf is delisted.
I live in a rather remote region in Northern Minnesota. My home is beyond the end of the road and for the last 14 years I have lived amongst the highest density of wolves anywhere in North America. I have had numerous face-to-face encounters with wolves, none were threatening but they were exhilarating. I have dogs and the only time one approached a dog of mine, I was armed but, instead, hit the wolf on the head with a deadly weapon; my cap, and it quickly backed off and left. My wife and I listen to their howling and have located dens and rendezvous areas. To us, the wolf adds a degree of character to the land it would not have if he were not present. To many of us the wolf is the embodiment of wilderness. I am glad I do not live in just another turkey-deer state. His presence has benefited a wide array of wildlife; from ravens and eagles to weasels and foxes. His role in the ecological scheme of things has made a much healthier forest community.
I have been hunting whitetail deer for over fifty years which have contributed to my semi-subsistence life style; venison is a prized commodity in our freezer. As a deer hunter I find that from the 1990’s to present has been the golden age of deer hunting. Never in the history of Minnesota has the population of deer been as high as it is now. Estimates of the deer herd in Minnesota from 2000 to 2016 have ranged from one million to one and a quarter million and during these same years, prior to the wolf hunts of 2012, 13, and 14, the estimated wolf population was as high as 3,200. This is not to credit wolves with the upswing in the deer herd, rather, that was due to intensive logging practices in Minnesota’s four and a half million acre state forest system which served more as a tree farm for Potlatches three orientated strand board processing plants. Logging creates openings and edges which are ideal habitat for deer. It should also be noted that the whitetail deer herd is exploding and at record numbers in all of the eastern United States. But even with an over abundance of deer, most deer hunters in the state are still crying wolf and now, not only are they pointing fingers at the wolf, they are also blaming all predators in general. So how is it that a hunter like myself sees an overpopulated deer herd when the modern hunter of today states there too few deer, answer; the existence of a “recreation-industrial complex.” The culture of hunting has been transformed more in the last twenty years than it has in the last two hundred years. Too many of today’s modern hunter rides a $6,000 to 9,000 ATV into the woods, in some cases right up to his started castle-tree stand made of treated lumber, with shooting lanes emanating out from his stand like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. He spends a thousand dollars on a scope for a 50 yard shot, spends more time in Cabelas or Pro Bass Shops than he does in the woods. Hunting for him is more a commercial experience than an outdoor past-time. Many hunters today are lazy and expect a deer to be guaranteed by the state DNR.
As far as the whining and moaning from the Ag sector about wolf depredation on livestock, the record indicates that in reality wolf depredation is shockingly low. Northern Minnesota leads the state in calf production. In 2011, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service documented 211 confirmed cases of wolf depredation in the state and this includes cows, calves, sheep, pigs, dogs, chickens, geese, llamas and horses and these confirmed cases indicate only a 1.7% loss to the Ag community in northern Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture in 2014 show MN with a cattle herd of 2,300,000 and a total of eighty-three (17 cows and 66 calves) cattle killed by wolves. This means if you are a cattleman in MN, you have a .0038% chance of losing a cow to a wolf. If there is anything surprising in these statistics, it’s how low they are. I have two neighbors that have small cattle herds and never have they lost a cow or calf to a wolf yet wolves are crossing their property with regularity.
It needs to be emphasized here that science shows that wolves and other mega-predators self-regulate their own populations. When wolves become stressed due to over population, a low prey base, or some other factor contributing to pack stress, female wolves will forego estrus. Even L. David Mech’s book “The Wolf” cites self regulating due to social stress in chapter eleven. When the MN DNR was mulling over the decision to hunt wolves with delisting in 2012, they did not base their decision on the results of an on-line survey the MN DNR held in which 79% did not want wolves hunted or when a Lakeland Research poll was taken, 80% of the states respondents stated they want wolves protected yet the MN DNR chose to make their decision on behalf of their “clients”; deer hunters, trappers and livestock industry. The wolf is and has always been a political and economic issue in this nation and has yet to be regarded as he should; an organism in a healthy ecosystem. Bear in mind that Minnesota’s wolves represent the only native gene pool for wolves in the lower 48.
Although the wolf is, at the time of my writing, still protected by the ESA, there have been no fewer than eighteen attempts by Congress to delist the wolf and much of this is being led by neo-liberal Democrats from the wolf states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Senator Amy Klobuchar of my state, considered Presidential material and the darling of state liberals is leading the charge to kill wolves in the Senate along with another neo-liberal, Rep. Rick Nolan in the House and MN DFL blue-dog, Rep. Collin Peterson. In Wisconsin, supposed progressive, Senator Tammy Baldwin, along with Republican Ron Johnson are another two co-authors of wolf delisting. The most obnoxious part of the bill would disallow the courts from becoming involved again with listing the wolf under the Endangered Species Act. In other words, they are virtually removing the wolf from status of the ESA in the Great Lakes states.
You may be asking why would elected officials go to these lengths to kill wolves? It’s the powerful Big Ag lobby, the Sportsman’s Caucus, and corporate extractive industry. Mining, Oil, and Big Timber see the Endangered and Threatened Species Act as an obstacle and the wolf is front and center as an obstacle to development and corporate America. Dangerous sulfide non-ferrous mining is moving forward in the watersheds of the BWCA and Lake Superior and there is already a law suit to stop these polluting projects due to them placing the wolf and lynx in peril. There is not a single instance of a sulfide mine that has not polluted ground and surface water anywhere in the United States and the consequences of acid mine drainage lasts for generations. It should be noted here that Senator Klobuchar, the same darling liberal Senator that wants wolves permanently delisted authored the bill that required Superior National Forest to sell of the land to Polymet Mining for one of these sulfide mines and Rep. Rick Nolan is working to overturn the United States Forest Service decision to not permit Twin Metals from performing sulfide mining within the BWCA watershed. Those of us who want to protect the plant and animal communities in our nation have few friends in either party in state or federal government.
For those of us who love the land and everything upon it fear that a total corporate take-over of our natural resources is placing the greatest threat we have seen in my lifetime on what truly makes America great; our precious public lands, forests and wildlife. Remember where the wolf sought sanctuary; our semi-wild public lands. These lands are our “commons.” The wolf, the bear, the eagle and our wild places are unique to Americans. Our wild lands and the plant the animal communities they harbor define who we are as a people. Gertrude Stein said, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.” If we allow the greed of corporate America and their schills in government to discard our public lands and the complex living communities that are their homes we are betraying our heritage. The wolf represents more a single life form, he symbolizes our disconnect from a complex interconnected system and our failure, over the centuries, to be better human beings. If we can’t get it right with the wolf, what can we get right?
Barry Babcock lives off the grid in the Mississippi Headwaters Country of northern Minnesota. He is the founder of the grassroots organization Jake Pine Coalition. Since the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act, Babcock has been pro-actively fighting to protect this animal. This has included speaking to legislature in conjunction with the non-profit group Howling for Wolves, and assisting with the production of the documentary Medicine of the Wolf. He is the author of Teachers in the Forest: Essays from the Last Wilderness in Mississippi Headwaters Country.