Duluth News Tribune
by Sam Cook

Wolves eat deer. We know this.

But that doesn’t mean that wolves are the primary reason, or even a significant reason, that the firearms deer harvest has dropped 20 percent in each of the past two seasons in Northeastern Minnesota.

I began hearing the complaints last year, and they’ve only increased this year.

“Wolves have been the No. 1 topic,” said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association at Grand Rapids, following Minnesota’s firearms deer season.

Blaming wolves for a decrease in the deer harvest is almost as traditional as deer hunting itself. Hunters see wolf tracks. Some hunters hear wolves howling. Some hunters see wolves. And if hunting was slow where you sat this year, wolves are a handy and popular scapegoat.

But it doesn’t seem logical that wolves are the problem – if, indeed, there is a “problem.” Wolves, estimated to number about 3,000 in Minnesota, were plentiful all the years earlier this decade when hunters were enjoying record and near-record deer harvests. Why weren’t they a problem then?

“It’s hard to make an honest argument that wolves have wiped out the deer. There is no evidence,” said John Erb, wolf and furbearer biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “To the contrary, all of our record deer harvests have occurred in the past 10 to 15 years or so, at a time when we’ve also had some of the highest wolf densities ever recorded in North America.”

Erb cited a 15-year study of radio-collared deer by the DNR near Grand Rapids.

“Wolves took about 10 percent of the deer per year,” Erb said. “Hunters took 10 to 15 percent of the deer per year. And during most of that time, the deer population was increasing. Barring severe winters, deer can easily stand that kind of mortality.”

Last winter was harsher than many recent winters. It was moderate to severe across most of northern Minnesota. Deer died.

On top of that, the public has asked the DNR to reduce deer numbers in many areas across northern Minnesota, and until this year, the agency had issued liberal numbers of antlerless permits to do just that. The buck harvest in Northeastern Minnesota was down just 6 percent this fall. The antlerless harvest was down 33 percent, primarily because fewer permits were issued for antlerless deer.

But for some reason, hunters prefer to blame wolves.

Not all hunters do, of course. I spoke to one hunter who saw only one small buck this fall during nine days of hunting. He had heard wolves howling nearby on several occasions. He knows wolves may be affecting his hunting to some degree, but he does not resent them. Quite the opposite. He considers it a privilege to hunt in a place still wild enough, and with enough prey base, to support a healthy wolf population.

“In some localized situations in Minnesota, almost certainly small-scale or short-lived, it’s possible that the presence of wolves affects success (negatively or positively) of individual deer hunters,” the DNR’s Erb said. “But time, as measured in years, not a few days’ deer-hunting experience in one year, as well as scientific data from Minnesota, has clearly shown that a healthy wolf population in Minnesota is essentially synonymous with a healthy deer population.”

Many hunters probably will continue to blame wolves in years of decreased deer harvest. But the argument just doesn’t hold up.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at “samcookoutdoors.”