Article by: Josephine Marcotty

With a stable population of 4,000 wolves in the region, Minnesota may establish a hunting season by next fall.

The gray wolf in Minnesota could go from protected to hunted -- perhaps as soon as next fall -- after it is removed from the endangered species list in January.

If the delisting proceeds as announced Wednesday, it will be the third time that the federal government has removed the wolf's protected status. This time, most experts think it will stick.

After 30 years of protection, the wolf now is more than capable of standing on its own four feet, said state officials and environmental groups.

The iconic predator, long a poster child of wildlife conservationists, has recovered to a stable population of 4,000 in the Upper Midwest. About two-thirds of them are in Minnesota's north woods, by far the largest population of any state. Minnesota officials said there are enough to allow them to be hunted, which could occur as early as next fall.

"Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region are now fully recovered and healthy," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., pushed the Department of the Interior to delist the wolf before others in Congress took matters into their own hands by initiating legislation that would have forced the Great Lakes gray wolf off the endangered species list.

Similar legislation earlier this year effectively delisted the Rocky Mountain gray wolf. Congress took action after the earlier attempts to delist the wolf were thwarted by years of drawn-out litigation. But many environmentalists said that delist- ing by congressional fiat undermined a highly successful federal law credited with saving the wolf and many other endangered animals.

"We did this the right way," Klobuchar said Wednesday.

Environmentalists satisfied

Even environmental groups that had fought the wolf's previous removal from the endangered species list said that they were satisfied with this decision, in part because it did not include Eastern states. That detail leaves open the possibility that wolves might be protected if they become established there in the future.

"It's clear that wolf recovery in the Great Lakes has been a tremendous success," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species coordinator for the Center for Biological Diversity, which fought delisting for years. "But more could be done to secure its future."

Hunting the wily wolf

Starting early next year, the state Department of Natural Resources will take over management of the wolf in Minnesota. That likely will include a hunting season, perhaps next fall, said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

It's too soon to know how many wolves it will allow to be shot or trapped by hunters, or how many licenses will be issued, state officials said. But wolf experts said that hunting is not likely to affect their overall numbers.

The wily wolf is difficult to find, difficult to shoot and difficult to trap.

"It's tough," said Dave Mech, a wolf researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He has studied wolves for decades, and even after years of practice he has trouble capturing his research subjects. He and a crew of five spent most of the summer trying to capture wolves in northern Minnesota, and by the time the season ended they had caught just 18, he said.

Western states are starting statewide efforts to reduce wolf populations through hunting, but so far they're not working very well, Mech said.

Montana, with about 550 gray wolves, sold nearly 20,000 wolf-hunting licenses this fall at $19 each for residents and $350 for nonresidents. Only half the quota of 220 wolves was killed during a five-week season, and the state has now extended the season through February.

Controlling problem wolves

A larger problem for Minnesota will be managing wolves that kill livestock and pets. In recent years, the number of those wolves killed by federal wildlife experts has risen to about 200. Conflicts are up largely because disease and hard winters have reduced the number of deer, wolves' most important prey, said DNR wolf expert Dan Stark.

Federal funding for the federal wolf-control program, with expert employees trained to investigate predation of livestock and to kill problem wolves, likely will end. The state plans to certify trappers and pay them $150 per pelt for problem wolves. But that won't be as good as the experienced wildlife experts the state has relied on for years, Stark said.

As a result, he said, he expects the number of conflicts to increase. That could lead to pressure to reduce wolf numbers. But the state's plan also allows farmers and others to shoot or trap wolves that are a threat to property. While most do not have the experience or patience necessary to kill or trap a wolf, the right to do so is critical for acceptance of the wolf on the landscape, experts said.

"It empowers people to know they can respond rather than waiting for someone else," Stark said.