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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Don’t blame wolves for fewer moose

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As dialogue broils over correlation and cause, I question the real culprit in regards to moose decline in northeast Minnesota. The recent Mech/Fieberg study appears to point to wolves as the major cause, yet, I believe the wolf has once again become the convenient scapegoat. Before I continue, I feel the wolf population is in great shape in Minnesota and have mixed feelings about the re-listing of wolves. I also hunt, live in the woods, and have studied wolves with great interest.

 Nobody is refuting the findings in the Mech/Fieberg study that wolves have/had increased in the study area, as moose have declined, but the big question that most seem either incapable of answering, or choose to dance around, is why did the wolf population increase within said area? Wolves and moose have co-existed in that locale since before the arrival of whites. What is the new variable?

 Marshall Helmberger quotes the Mech study’s wolf numbers as holding consistent as roughly between 50-65 with moose numbers remaining strong and calf-to-cow ratios consistently above 50 percent from the 1990s and early 2000s. He then adds that beginning in 2004 the wolf population steadily increased in Mech’s study area from 58 in 2003 to 97 by 2009.  “It’s hovered around the 90s ever since.” I take issue with this statement as it has not hovered around the 90s ever since, but more on that later.

 What caused the increase in wolf numbers, contributing both directly and indirectly to moose decline? One might look no further than whitetail deer.

The blowdown of 1999, prescribed burns, and a series of mild winters in the 2000s witnessed a profound increase in the deer population. I cite the Aug. 11, 2006 issue of The Boundary Waters Blog: Deer or Moose? “At the end of the trail (Gunflint) where it was once rare to see a deer we are seeing many deer even late into the fall. The deer population is thriving thanks to a plentiful food supply created by the blowdown, logging and recent prescribed burns. The lighter snowfalls and mild winters with warmer temperatures are also helping the deer population.”

Also, last fall at an International Wolf Center presentation, Tom Rusch said as much in regard to the deer population in the blowdown area, and it wasn’t until, I believe he said 2008, that there seemed to be a reversal in the deer population in that area.

 We can also look at a Canadian survey as found in a 2011 issue of the Kenora(Ontario) Miner News: “Decimated moose population attributed to brain worm, predators and habitat factors. Ministry of Natural Resources Kenora district staff completed an aerial moose survey of Wildlife Management Areas (WMU) 7A Aulneau Peninsula and 7B Lake of the Woods during January.

 “The survey was conducted by helicopter with flights over 43 grid blocks measuring of 25 sq. miles each. Observers counted a total of 42 moose, resulting in a projected population of approximately 300 moose for the two wildlife management units combined.

 “It was not unexpected. The moose population is not doing well,” commented MNR Kenora district biologist Bruce Ranta who took part in the survey. Ranta noted the population estimate is about 10 per cent of moose numbers compared to the peak population for the same area during the 1990s.

 “Brain worm is certainly one of the large factors but not the only factor. Deer and habitat are the two biggest factors,” he said. Deer are the source of the brain worm parasite which is benign in that species but can be fatal to infected moose. The high deer population also supports a large wolf population, which prey on moose, particular the young during calving season.”

 Now we can return to the Mech/Feiberg study, and related Star Tribune article. First, Mech did not say “It’s hovered around the 90s ever since.” What he did say was, “The wolf population there increased until 2012, but he said it appears to have since declined.”

 Also, directly from the Mech/Fieberg publication: “Wolf-population density in the wolf-survey area was able to remain high even as moose numbers were declining because throughout much of the wolf-survey area as well as the larger moose-survey area, deer and beavers continued to be available, probably subsidizing wolves while they also preyed on declining numbers of moose. Some wolf packs even occupied narrow territories stretching as far as 42 km from the northeastern part of the wolf-survey area where few deer live in summer and none in winter to the southwestern part where deer live in summer and congregate in winter.”

 From the MN DNR: “At the time of European settlement, white-tailed deer in Minnesota existed throughout the wooded river valleys and woodlands of central and southern Minnesota. In northern Minnesota where the forest habitat was much different than it is today, deer were absent or rare. Moose and woodland caribou were the most abundant members of the deer family.”

 The question that appears to resonate is, what is more important, moose or deer? If you want deer, there will be more wolves, and more pressure on moose. The winters of 2012/13 and 2013/14 impacted the northern Minnesota deer population severely, and even then, the DNR would not allow emergency deer feeding in the moose zones during the 2013/14 winter. All vectors point to the deer in regard to moose decline: brain worm, liver flukes and increased biomass, which lead to more wolves. The two aforementioned winters have knocked back the number of deer, and if the correlation between wolf numbers and deer population “fits” there will be fewer wolves, and perhaps less pressure on moose. Let’s keep the safety on for a while.

 In conclusion, I remember many years ago, a friend saying that wolves belong in wilderness areas where they can’t get into “trouble”. If wolves can’t be left alone in such remote areas as the BWCA and the Mech study area, where can they be left in peace?

Bob Hayes worked as the Yukon’s wolf biologist for 18 years, until 2000. During that time he helped design and deliver Yukon’s wolf control programs. He wrote a very informative book, “Wolves of the Yukon”. In 2011, Hayes has some advice for Yukoners (that can be applied here as well) who want to revisit the wolf cull: don’t bother.

“It’s completely not worth it,” he said. His conclusions? It’s costly. It often doesn’t work, and when it does, its effects are always temporary. And, ultimately, it cheapens the Yukon by transforming wilderness into a glorified meat farm.

Is this what we want for northeastern Minnesota?

Mike Ruzich  

Morse Twp., Minn.

Editor’s Note:

Mr. Ruzich raises a point that needs to be addressed. The study by Dr. Mech, which I referenced in my April 10 column, included wolf numbers through 2012. During the four years from 2009-2012, which were the four most recent years cited in his study, the wolf population, by year, was 97, 91, 82, and 92 in order. This represented a four-year average of 90.5 wolves, which represents a significant increase over wolf numbers in the early-2000s, when wolf numbers averaged 56.25 (2001-2004). Dr. Mech undoubtedly has more recent data, but it was not included in his study, which was the subject of my column. As such, I stand by my characterization of the data presented by Dr. Mech.

Secondly, neither I nor Dr. Mech ever suggested that the DNR or any other state agency undertake a wolf control program, such as the state of Alaska undertook a number of years ago. I agree with Mr. Ruzich that this would be a poor use of public resources. What Dr. Mech suggested is that the DNR could apportion more of its annual wolf quota (if the wolf is, once again, delisted) in the northeast zone, which would correlate roughly with the primary moose range.

This would not involve the expenditure of additional public dollars, beyond the usual administration of the wolf hunt, and would represent the kind of routine wildlife management that goes on in Minnesota and most every other state and Canadian province all the time. M.H.

Comments

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First of all I will admit that I am a deer hunter and that I don't care for wolves. There was a time that I enjoyed seeing a nice, large timberwolf (not during hunting season of course). But back then, I saw them so infrequently that it would be an event that I would mention to family and friends sounding as if I enjoyed them.

But now I see them often. I have trail cameras around my property. I have had these trail cameras for about five years. The first year or two I would maybe see one or maybe two wolves in my cameras. This past fall I had twelve pictures of them. Some of the pictures were not real clear but I could differentiate at least five of them.

Maybe because the deer herd has decreased from the previous two winters that myself and my friends have been more ultra aware of the increased sightings of wolves along with the decrease in deer. This past season I rarely did not hear about someone's deer hunt success without hearing about the large number of wolf sightings.

In my humble opinion I believe the DNR has severely underestimated the quantity of the wolves. The DNR set a limit for wolf hunting or trapping for our area at 30 last fall. I believe they could have set if for 30 for my township alone and we would not see a significant difference.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015
snowshoe2

Wolf population estimates are made in like March,so that springs pups is not in the population estimate. Yes I think wolf numbers are in the high end of there estimates confidence limits.

Yes wolves do have a impact on calves. The long term moose population problems are multible tho.

Too many people want to be a one item thing. nature doesn't work that way many problems.

If you cut calf wolf mortality,at least short term,moose populations will increase.

Most wolf--moose experts will agree.

Friday, April 24, 2015
chessie2go

I've lost a lot of respect for David Mech, as he fueled the past legislative session for hunting and trapping of wolves. Of all people, Mr. Mech should understand the dynamics of wolf packs. The disruption of wolf packs by indiscriminate hunting/trapping means that young, inexperienced wolves may disperse and prey on more vulnerable species, such as cattle or dogs.

Furthermore, trapping for the sake of recreation is cruel and inhumane, and impacts many other species that get caught in the traps.

Also, it's possible that increased mining and use of logging and mineral exploration roads by ATV's and snowmobiles may be disrupting moose and wolf territory and/or behavior.

In addition, the DNR is managing the deer population of the area for maximum hunting opportunities (think money coming in from hunting licenses). The wolf population will then rise and fall with the deer population, with a lag if the deer population plummets due to bad winter conditions.

In 1987, author Alston Chase wrote a book entitled "Playing God in Yellowstone" that documents the loss of wildlife due to our agencies believing that they could play God.

We really don't know enough about the interactions of nature and wildlife populations to be establishing a legislative hunting/trapping season, especially one based upon a desire for a recreational thrill. The wolf and moose had established an ecological balance thousands of years before man appeared on the scene. If this balance is so in decline, perhaps we had better look at our own footprint.

Monday, April 27, 2015
snowshoe2

Actually just a comment on deer population and the DNR. The DNR in recent years has actually managed the deer population goal at levels lower than anytime in history. Some area goals were in the 2-5 deer/sq. mile.

That is why deer hunters are upset on that issue this year. They would like a little better opportunity,understanding winters do have a very important role in what happens.

Interesting article in the Duluth paper today on the increasing number of dog kills by wolves. Much of that is caused by wolves getting less afraid of human contact.

We want a healthy wolf population in the future,but also a healthy moose and deer population also.

A wolf kills about 16-18 deer per year. A deer hunter is satisfied if he kills one every three years. So in 3 years a deer hunter kills one deer and a wolf kills 54 deer.

The wolf is very important to the ecosystem,but at times a controlled hunting season is valid.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015