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Near Extinction To Thriving: Efforts To Delist Wolves

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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By Bill Hudson, WCCO-TV

AITKIN COUNTY, Minn. — Nothing symbolizes Minnesota’s vast wilderness more than a roaming pack of timber wolves. And thanks to the foresight of conservationists, wolves that were near extinction 40 years ago, are flourishing today.

But that’s why the state and many farmers say it’s high time to drop federal protections.

In the heart of Minnesota’s wilderness comes a sound so lonesome and haunting, you’ll hear it for a lifetime.

“Canis lupus” — simply known as the gray or timber wolf. It’s the top dog in the forest food chain.

“We’ve got a lot of people on either side that feel very passionately about the timber wolf,” said T.J. Miller of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He says in 1970, Minnesota was the only state outside Alaska with any timber wolves. Aerial surveys counted just 236. In 1973, came the Endangered Species Act.

Now, after nearly 40 years of federal protection, their howl is heard beyond the wilderness. Wolves have expanded from the Arrowhead into central Minnesota to an estimated 3,000.

“We stopped killing them. The Endangered Species Act protected the timber wolf and that’s all the wolf needed,” said Miller.

“But along with recovery, grows problems. There are more wolf complaints than ever, as wolves encroach on agricultural lands where they’ll prey on livestock, pets and, in some cases, threaten people.

“They’re very bold, they’re not even afraid of us anymore,” said cattleman John Chute.

Chute and his cattlemen neighbors are eager to get wolves off the protected list and back under state control. They’re simply tired of losing livestock as wolves move into farm country.

It’s the basis of Dale Lueck’s lawsuit.

“It seems that the only way to get anything done is to go to court and take your chances and try to get the court to compel them to do what the law says — and it’s simply delist them when they’re recovered,” said Lueck.

That would give the DNR better control over problem packs. And, eventually, open wolves to public hunting and trapping.

“All of the suitable habitat is now saturated with wolves and as wolves start moving out of that suitable habitat the depredation numbers have increased,” said Miller.

There were record numbers last year when wolves killed 106 livestock and poultry, and 23 dogs. Only bones and fur remain from a St. Bernard killed near Ely.

“Down the road they need to be treated just like bear, deer, elk, moose,” said Lueck.

While environmental groups may again try to block delisting in court, Nancy Gibson of the International Wolf Center says simply — it’s time.

“We should be celebrating. We have taken an animal that is just a magnet for controversy. We have taken it from very low numbers back to numbers that have really recovered. We should be patting ourselves on the back,” said Gibson.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to propose rules next month to turn over timber wolf management to the state. If approved, Minnesota would still protect wolves from general hunting and trapping for five years.

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