The Minnesota Department of Natural resources recently released information from its 2016-2017 wolf survey that said the state’s wolf population has increased 25 percent since the 2015-2016 survey.
Locally, some hunters within Douglas and Otter Tail Counties have talked about an increase in wolf sightings for a few years now.
In 1979, a map of the wolf range showed that consistently established packs were limited to the far northern part of Minnesota. That range has continued to move south since then.
The map of the wolf range from 2013 shows established packs in areas such as Little Falls and Milaca. Hunters locally talk of increased sightings of wolves and other big predators in areas of ideal deer habitat like those in portions of permit area 213.
“Now you see populations of wolves moving in and the wolves are definitely affecting the herds,” Prairie to Woods Whitetails president Bruce Lien said in an interview. “They’re maybe not taking the adults, but they’re taking out the fawns in the spring. We’ve noticed an increase in bear sightings. They’re fawn specific in the spring. Coyotes, same thing.”
Statewide numbers on the rise
After remaining stable during the past four years, the survey released on Sept. 25 estimates that within Minnesota’s wolf range there were approximately 500 wolf packs and 2,856 wolves.
The survey’s margin of error is about plus or minus 500 wolves. The 2015-2016 survey estimated the number of packs at 439 and the wolf population at 2,278.
Minnesota’s wolf population remains well above the state’s minimum goal of at least 1,600 wolves and also above the federal recovery goal of 1,251 to 1,400.
The DNR’s goal for wolf management is to ensure the long-term survival of wolves in Minnesota while addressing wolf-human conflicts. Minnesota currently has no direct management responsibility for wolves because a federal district court ruling in December 2014 returned Minnesota’s wolves to the federal list of threatened species.
Survey results suggest packs were slightly larger (4.8 versus 4.4) and used smaller territories (54 square miles versus 62 square miles) than the previous winter. Collectively, they are consistent with a continuing increase in deer numbers observed in many parts of wolf range. From spring 2015 to spring 2016, deer density within the wolf range is estimated to have increased 22 percent.
Not surprised by local sightings
Alexandria and areas to the north like Parkers Prairie and Fergus Falls are not within the current borders of what is considered wolf range in Minnesota.
The last time those borders were examined was the winter of 2012-2013, but in an interview, DNR wolf research scientist John Erb said it would not surprise him if wolves have been sighted in an area like this outside of their established range. He pointed to several detections of wolves about 28 miles north of Alexandria and three wolves that were reported killed in that general area in 2012 during the open season on wolves.
“I don’t have anything recently hearing anything from our staff that says, ‘Yeah, we know there is a pack or three packs or something around this Alexandria area,'” Erb said. “But it’s possible there could be a pack, and it’s certainly possible, if not likely, there’s individual wolves that traverse the landscape even if they don’t stay put.”
The wolf population survey is conducted in mid-winter near the low point of the annual population cycle. Pack counts during winter make spotting wolves easier against the snow but are assumed to represent minimum estimates given the challenges with detecting all members of a pack together. A winter count also excludes the population spike that occurs each spring when the number of wolves typically doubles immediately following the birth of pups, many of which do not survive to the next winter.
Erb said for years they have had confirmations of individual wolves and even packs forming outside of their typical range, though those packs often disappear after a year or two.
“We try to draw the line more of where we think there are somewhat consistent and most likely pack confirmation, not necessarily a wolf someone saw,” Erb said. “Let’s say a couple packs of wolves did establish for a few years 30 miles south of that line. We might not draw that line all the way down there if it included a whole bunch of wolf-free areas between it.”
How far south will the range go?
The wolf range in Minnesota expanded from north of Virginia in 1979 down to a southern border near Deerwood in the 1989 survey.
Things went even further south in the 1998 survey, reaching as far south as Little Falls and Milaca, but that’s where the established packs seemed to have stopped since then.
“They don’t seem to have really marched forward much, even though there certainly are some areas outside of that line that have a lot of deer,” Erb said.
Prey density typically determines the carrying capacity for wolves. Parts of the landscape in permit area 213 hold enough deer to sustain a wolf population. The same can be said of areas of southeastern Minnesota.
“Tons of deer there and certainly we’ve had individual wolves get there,” Erb said. “The question remains why haven’t they seemed to really march forward? We know deer are a big part of it, but there are plenty of areas close to that line that have enough deer that wolves don’t seem to have really established consistent packs in. I don’t have the answer as to why that is.”
Erb theorized that more human activity and the open landscape of agricultural regions the farther south one gets in Minnesota might deter wolves from really establishing themselves outside their current areas.
“The area I still think there is some potential is parts of southeast Minnesota,” Erb said. “My gut is telling me that maybe the line is where it is (to stay).”
Upcoming survey to examine range boundaries
John Erb, DNR wolf research scientist, said the agency re-examines the map boundaries for the wolves’ range every five years right now to determine whether or not any of those boundaries need to be changed.
The next survey to do that is coming up this winter. Information is typically gathered through observations from natural resource staff members, but Erb encouraged anyone to contact him regarding wolf sightings they have.
Erb can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.