Gary Drotts embraces the possibility. But for him — and others — it still remains just that.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that Minnesota’s gray wolves will finally be removed from the federal government’s threatened species list and returned to state management in January.
As the DNR wildlife manager in Brainerd, Drotts would be among those counted on to help manage the population when the gray wolves are delisted.
When — and if — they are finally delisted. Until then, Drotts and those who have followed the years-long wolf saga in Minnesota remain cautiously optimistic that it will get done.
“Until they’re delisted, it’s out of my hands. But when it’s done and I get the report and what it means to me locally, we’ll adjust and do,” Drotts said.
Several years ago, delisted wolves were listed then delisted again, all within a span of weeks. Mostly because of technicalities and resulting lawsuits, Drotts recalls.
“It will be interesting. I’m still cautious of if they cleared up some of the technicalities of the lawsuits,” Drotts said.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Minnesota DNR, it’s all but a done deal. The USFWS announced Wednesday it will publish a final delisting rule in the Federal Register on Dec. 28. After a 30-day period, the Minnesota DNR will reassume management of the species.
The DNR is already looking at a hunting and trapping season by as early as next fall, according to Ed Boggess, the DNR’s fish and wildlife director, although details are still being worked out and it might take longer. The DNR hasn’t decided what total harvest levels would be, but Dan Stark, the DNR’s wolf management specialist, said the DNR likely will seek to keep wolf numbers above the state’s minimum population goal of 1,600. There will be a public comment period at some point, the DNR said.
Minnesota has a stable population of about 3,000 wolves, the highest in the lower 48 states and roughly twice the number required in the federal government’s wolf recovery plan. Most of the state’s wolf population is found in northeastern Minnesota, but wolves are showing up with more regularity across the state, including the greater Brainerd lakes area.
“I don’t keep numbers in my head year to year of how many I deal with, but I did seem to have a few more this summer than in the past,” Bob Mlynar a DNR conservation officer in the greater Aitkin area, said of wolf incidents. “I do know of at least four wolves that have been caught incidentally or accidentally by trappers within the last three weeks. That’s never happened in my memory in my area. Whether that’s coincidence or a reflection of more wolves ...”
Mlynar said he’s been a CO in the Aitkin area for about 10 years.
“The area north of Aitkin — the Blind Lake area — most people familiar with that area would say there’s an established pack or packs (of wolves) in that area,” Mlynar said. “In my memory, there have been more livestock depredation (incidents this year) than I can remember.”
Drotts oversees the entire greater Brainerd lakes area, including up to and around Aitkin.
“I’ve lived in Minnesota my whole life and I’ve seen the impacts of wolves,” Drotts said. “But I don’t want to see them wiped out, either. With this new management authority comes more responsibility. It falls on the state now. Harvest numbers will have to be monitored. If it crashes too far under our tutelage it’s going to put us in a bad light. We will be watched very closely by people who want to protect the wolves.
“For me, I’m happy it’s back under state control,” Drotts added of the possible change in wolf management. “We’re fortunate to have timber wolves in Minnesota. But you have to recognize that there are certain population goals (that have to be met). This is a turning point.”
Under the state law, owners of livestock, domestic animals or pets may shoot or destroy wolves that pose an immediate threat to their animals. Owners of domestic animals will have more authority to control wolves themselves and the state will also offer the services of certified private predator controllers. Similar to federal regulations, state law also allows anyone to take a wolf to defend human life.
The federal government has twice before delisted the gray wolf in Minnesota and the western Great Lakes from federal protection. In both instances the decisions were overturned in federal court due to legal challenges relating to procedural processes unrelated to wolf conservation management.
The state would assume management just as federal funding ends for the U.S. Department of Agriculture wolf depredation program in Minnesota, which traps and kills gray wolves on farms where wolf depredation occurs. Most of the funding for the program, operated by Wildlife Services under the USDA, ends Dec. 31. Under the program, 150 to 200 wolves causing damage to domestic animals were removed annually.