Livestock killings down, but too soon to link to wolf hunt

Livestock producers in northern Minnesota were some of the loudest advocates for a wolf hunt when the gray wolf came off the endangered species list last year. They said in the years leading up the the delisting they were seeing more of their cattle killed by the predator. When they could prove their animals were killed  by wolves, the government would pay to trap and kill the wolves in the area.

As Minnesota heads into  its second regulated wolf  hunt (set to begin Nov. 9),  the number of verified complaints has dropped by almost half. And because a single complaint can lead to exterminating an entire herd, the drop in wolves killed has been even more dramatic.

This year’s data is through the week of Oct. 7, but historically the vast majority of depredation occurs in the summer months.

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The DNR can’t say whether the declines are a direct result of the first hunting season. “But it was certainly something we wanted to consider as an objective down the road to evaluate hunting and trapping as a management tool,” said Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist.

More than the hunting season contributes to the state’s wolf population, including the availability of prey (largely white tailed deer), and the wolves’ nutritional status. Stark says wolves usually fare well in severe winters, when deer are more vulnerable, and more poorly in mild winters, when deer are more difficult to catch.

That could help explain the depredation numbers. 2011 was very mild (remember those 80 degree days in March?). The following year depredation numbers spiked. 2012’s winter was agonizingly long for humans. But that benefited wolves, and depredation numbers dropped significantly in 2013.

Of course the hunt could have contributed to this year’s low numbers as well. The DNR plans to conduct wolf population surveys every year now (rather than every five years), so it can better study the hunting season’s impacts on the wolf population in Minnesota.