Minnesota had an estimated 2,278 wolves in 439 packs last winter, up just a tick from the year before, according to survey results released Monday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The winter survey estimate showed several more wolf packs across the wolf range — about the northern one-third of Minnesota — but the population was statistically unchanged from the estimate of 2,221 in 2015, the DNR said.
“The consistent wolf population surveys over the last several years are further evidence of the health and stability of Minnesota’s wolf population,” said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR.
The increase in wolf packs — up from an estimated 374 in 2015 — comes as the big carnivores have to travel less to find their favorite food, whitetail deer. The average pack covered about 62 square miles in this year’s survey, down from 73 square miles last year — a sign that deer numbers continue to rebuild after dropping significantly in 2012 and 2013, the DNR notes.
“In recent years we’ve observed a decline in prey that translated into larger wolf pack territories, and the reverse is now to be expected if deer numbers continue to increase,” John Erb, the DNR’s wolf research scientist, said in announcing the survey results.
The survey estimated an average of 4.4 wolves per pack, down from an average pack size of 5.1 wolves per pack in last year’s survey but within the 30-year range that bounces between 4.3 and 5.6 wolves per pack.
The survey is taken at the low point of the annual wolf population cycle, at mid-winter. Each spring the population doubles with new pups born, but many of those pups and other wolves die in the coming year.
Minnesota’s stable population comes after renewed federal wolf protections. After several years of state-sanctioned hunting and trapping seasons, wolves returned to the federal endangered species list in December 2014 after a federal judge’s ruling.
The federal court order means wolves can’t be killed in Minnesota except under the watch of federal trappers near where livestock or pets have been attacked. Wolves also are off-limits to hunters and trappers in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Minnesota’s wolf population remains above the state’s minimum goal of at least 1,600 wolves. The state has by far the most wolves of any state outside Alaska.
Wisconsin’s annual winter wolf survey found an estimated 880 wolves were roaming the state earlier this year, up 16 percent from 2015 and the most wolves ever counted in the state in modern times. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has about 500 wolves.
Several bills have been introduced in Washington to remove the federal protections and return wolf management to state wildlife agencies in the Great Lakes. So far those bills have not passed Congress.