Minnesota’s Brutal Wolf Season (Part 2)
Despite a widely held sentiment among deer hunters that an increase in wolves have decimated white-tailed deer numbers, there is no data supporting that belief. Despite this, it’s axiomatic among many who favor of a wolf hunt. As one hunter commented on the DNR’s wolf hunting survey “Way too many wolfs killing oujr deer.”
The DNR survey is filled with comments from hunters who claim to know, with certainty, that the wolf population is much higher than the DNR population estimate and that wolves have killed “their deer.” The survey is also littered with reports of wolves prowling and deer leaving, respondents stating with absolute certainty that scientists who actually measure such things have no clue. Such is wildlife management by anecdote, where a weekend’s sit in a tree stand qualifies a person to speak authoritatively about the statewide population of at least two wildlife species.
But folks with any memory at all will recall that a few short years ago, everybody, including the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, recognized that the white-tailed deer population was far too high.
In 1997, the pre-fawning deer population estimate for northern Minnesota was 221,000. But white-tailed deer are tremendously prolific, and a few mild winters later, the population was booming. By 2003, that population had more than doubled to 454,000. 2003 was also a peak year for deer hunters, with a deer kill of 290,000. At that point, the conversation turned to deer overpopulation. Forests stripped of all greenery that deer could reach, winter starvation, and increased deer-car accidents were some of the consequences of the Bambi boom.
Between 2005 and 2007, the DNR, in conjunction with hunters, developed a science-based set of deer population goals. Some areas were deemed to be overpopulated, and additional antlerless permits were used to bring the population down. In other areas, the deer population was too low, and more restrictive regulations were used to increase the population.
But the most recent hunting season was the winter of our deer hunters’ discontent. The previous winter was brutal, with deep snow and cold that undoubtedly decreased the deer population. Then, a windy opening weekend made hunting difficult. Despite the fact that the rest of the season exceeded expectations, since most of the deer harvest comes on the opening weekend, the overall deer kill was 192,300. This is a decrease of about 7% from the previous year.
This has set off a firestorm of criticism from the same hunters and hunting organizations whose feedback set the population goals in the first place. As a DNR press release announcing a reassessment of the deer population goals stated (emphasis added):
“Hunter dissatisfaction has increased as deer numbers have decreased to meet established goals,” said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife programs manager. “In fact, hunters are even expressing disappointment in certain areas where deer populations have increased to meet goals.” As a result, he said, the agency wants to revisit population goals in order to strike the right balance between hunter, landowner and other societal and resource interests.
The last time the DNR set population goals about one-half of the state’s deer hunting permit areas were slated for deer reductions. Conversely, about 40 percent of permit areas were slated for deer increases. Most of these areas were in the farmland country of western and southern Minnesota. Today, nearly 70 percent of deer populations are within goal, while 15 percent remain below goal and 18 percent are above goal.
So, let’s review what we know about deer populations. First, just a couple of years ago, everybody agreed we had too many deer and we set out to decrease their population. Second, winter weather is a big factor in deer populations. Third, no matter what the science says, if you have an unsuccessful hunting season, there must be something that caused it. Enter the wolf.
It is absolutely true that wolves prey on whitetail deer. In fact, deer are their primary source of food in Minnesota. Using a population estimate of 3,000 wolves, scientists estimate that wolves kill between 45,000 and 57,000 deer per year.
However, that doesn’t mean that wolf predation decreases the deer population, since a large number of the deer preyed on by wolves are old, weak or sick. Thus, their predation is “cumulative, rather than additive,” according to a Minnesota DNR fact sheet. An article from the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association’s own magazine describes a comprehensive 15 year study of wolf-deer population dynamics and concludes:
“The overwhelming preponderance of evidence based on our findings, as well as on those that have come before from studies elsewhere in Minnesota and North America, does not support the notion that wolves move into an area and come to dominate portions of the woods in the fall (or any other season) by either preying on large numbers of the resident deer or causing them to flee clear out of that area.”
Nonetheless, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association led the charge to get a 2012 wolf hunt. And the “early season” wolf hunt, where the DNR plans to sell thousands of wolf hunting permits to deer hunters, is entirely an artifact of that pressure. In Part 3 of this series, I’ll look at the schism between the supporters of this early season and those who believe that the season should wait until wolf pelts are at their prime.
In contrast, hunters seek to take the healthy, most robust deer. And despite the fact that hunters annually kill four to five times what wolves do, nobody seems concerned about the impact that hunting makes on the deer population. In part, that’s with good reason, since the fecundity of whitetail deer is legendary.
But what do the scientists know? It’s much easier to pander to hunters by blaming one tough hunting season on the wolf or the gubmint, instead of the weather. The DNR’s scientists seem to understand this. I wish some of them would take a crack at explaining it to the politicians and their appointees.
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