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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Billboard’s claim ignites social media controversy

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/4/23

REGIONAL— It’s been a tough few years for northeastern Minnesota deer hunters and that has put the state’s most prominent predator in the cross hairs of a prominent billboard that …

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Billboard’s claim ignites social media controversy


REGIONAL— It’s been a tough few years for northeastern Minnesota deer hunters and that has put the state’s most prominent predator in the cross hairs of a prominent billboard that went up recently along Hwy. 53 in Cotton.
The billboard, which is expected to remain up for a few more days at least, makes a controversial claim— that the state’s estimated 2,800 gray wolves consume 54,000 white-tailed deer fawns a year. It’s an astonishing number that has, predictably, generated plenty of heat on social media from people with widely conflicting claims.
Greg Baty, president of the Sturgeon River chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said he’s been surprised at the response. His chapter, which encompasses much of northern St. Louis County, is the entity that rented the billboard for a month’s run and he said plans are in the works for two additional billboards in the future.
Baty said he’s been instructed not to comment to the rush of inquiries from statewide media and he referred most of the Timberjay’s questions to Jared Mazurek, the MDHA’s state executive director. While the billboard aligns with the MDHA’s policy goal favoring wolf management in the state, Mazurek said it appears to have strayed from the organization’s intent to hew closely to scientific data as it engages with the public.
“They have not been able to provide us with a peer-reviewed source for where they got their number,” said Mazurek, noting that the billboard’s message is not backed by the MDHA as a statewide organization.
In fact, the issue is on the agenda for an MDHA executive board meeting set for this weekend and Mazurek indicated the organization may put some additional ground rules on chapters requiring better vetting of future communication efforts.
While the current billboard is scheduled to run out within days, Mazurek noted that the chapter has two more billboards scheduled in the near future and he said he’s hoping that the message can be tweaked in order to use a more defensible claim. He said the billboard would also benefit from a stronger call to action. “It doesn’t tell readers what to do with the information,” he said. Mazurek said it isn’t clear that there’s enough time to make the changes they’d like to see, which means the original billboard with its unsubstantiated claim could soon be appearing on other major highways in the region.
While the billboard may have created a headache, of sorts, for the MDHA, it has brought plenty of attention and discussion around wolf management and the degree to which wolves may be playing a role in the lackluster deer population recovery that’s been experienced in recent years in northeastern Minnesota. Mazurek said the organization has seen several major media inquiries in the past several days, including Twin Cities news channels, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, as well as the Duluth News-Tribune and WDIO. And that has allowed the organization to spread its message about the importance of wolf management.
“Every species has its carrying capacity,” said Mazurek, noting that the estimated wolf population of approximately 2,800 in the state is well over the DNR’s recovery goal of 1,700 animals.
The billboard has also sparked debate over the role that wolves actually play in the survival of white-tailed fawns. The advertisement’s message prompted a flood of inquiries from members of the public who saw or heard about the billboard’s claim to researchers with the Voyageurs Wolf Project, who have used social media extensively to report on, and raise money, for their ongoing wolf research in and around Voyageurs National Park.
The VWP researchers don’t dispute that wolves eat fawns. In fact, they cite their own data to show that breeding adult wolves can kill up to 30 fawns and even more in a year. But they note that that’s the exception and cite data showing that the majority of wolves are not in breeding status and that those wolves appear to kill very few fawns based on their own research. At least one Michigan study put the average number of fawns killed by a single wolf at under six per year, which would put the total number of fawns taken by wolves in Minnesota in a typical year at under 20,000, or a fraction of the number cited in the billboard.
In a Sept. 24 op-ed published in the Star Tribune, Joseph Bump, director of graduate studies in conservation sciences at the University of Minnesota and Tom Gable, a postdoctoral researcher who leads the Voyageurs Wolf Project, note that in places like northern Minnesota, other even more numerous predators, from black bears to coyotes, take fawns and potentially many more than wolves. They’re hit by hay mowers making their first cut of the season. An estimated 40,000 are hit by vehicles, and another 25,000 are killed each year by hunters come fall.
“Fawns die from many causes and the causes of mortality can compensate for one another. Increased mortality due to one cause often means less mortality from a different cause,” the fellow researchers wrote. “There is appealing, persistent and faulty thinking that because predators kill fawns, fewer predators will increase fawn survival. Research examining fawn survival amid wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin shows that between 45-49 percent of fawns survive summer months. The average survival rate of fawns in North American forests when examined across 30 populations in 16 states was 41 percent, with the lowest survival rates occurring in areas without wolves. Even in some areas free of predators, only 44 percent of fawns may survive past three months.”
In the end, Gable acknowledges that science really can’t determine whether Minnesota should have a wolf season, as many deer hunters and livestock growers advocate. “Ultimately,” he wrote in a Facebook post last week, “whether we should or should not hunt wolves is not a scientific question but rather a question about values.”