Minnesota will try to keep its gray wolf population right where it is, in the event the North Woods predator loses federal protection once more.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released its proposed wolf plan Thursday, its first update in 21 years. The DNR said the "optimal population" of wolves is where their numbers have been since the late 1990s — between 2,200 and 3,000 animals. The agency said it won't make a decision on whether to allow hunting until wolves are removed from the endangered species list.
Much of the state's plan is dormant while federal protections are in effect. But it does provide a framework that will help the public know what to expect if the state is put back in charge of management.
Wolves have come on and off the endangered list several times over the last 20 years. The administrations of the last four presidents — Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton — tried to remove federal protections, declaring wolves recovered. Each time courts quickly restored them, saying the animals had not returned to enough of their native range.
Minnesota's wolf population "appears to be resilient and robust, with no immediate or serious population threats in Minnesota," the state plan reads.
"We expect this updated plan to help ensure Minnesota's wolf population remains healthy," said Kelly Straka, DNR wildlife section manager.
Minnesota has as many wolves as the rest of the Lower 48 combined. It is the only state outside of Alaska never to lose them. But it wasn't for lack of trying.
Until the 1950s, Minnesota ran poisoning campaigns and hired sharpshooters to fire at wolves out of helicopters. It paid trappers bounties for wolf hides until the 1960s. Still, a few hundred held on in the northern woods.
Numbers started quickly growing once those programs ended. Wolves were put on the endangered species list in the 1970s, and the population increased further. By the late 1990s, wolf numbers approached what they are today — holding stable at around 2,700.
The DNR will accept public comments on its plan until Aug. 8.
The proposal lays out several factors that the DNR said it will consider when deciding on future hunting seasons, including one that would not allow any year's kill totals to have a long-term impact on the population.
It said the agency would try to be flexible with any hunts based on the needs of particular parts of the state. It could consider reducing wolves in critical moose habitat, for example, to help moose numbers rebound.
Under the plan, the state would also manage wolf conflicts much in the same way it already does. The Department of Agriculture would compensate ranchers and farmers for any livestock killed by wolves and could send in trappers to kill wolves in the area.
The plan sets certain limits that would trigger action from the state. If wolf numbers dip below 2,000, the state would immediately increase monitoring efforts to find the cause of the decline. If they fall below 1,600, no hunting would be allowed. If they rise above 3,000 for several consecutive years, the state would consider new "management actions," such as additional hunting or depredation control.