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By Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio News, Published February 25 2010

Growing number of wolves renews protection issue

ELY, Minn. – The growing number of gray wolves in Minnesota and other north-central states is fueling a backlash against the predator, which is still protected under federal law.

In Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, thriving wolf packs are blamed for killing cattle and household pets. A large number of wolves were shot illegally during the past deer hunting season. Now there are efforts under way to make it easier to legally shoot problem wolves.

For many people, seeing a wolf in the wild is a rare opportunity. To Phil Miller, it’s another day’s work.

Miller is a Wisconsin DNR pilot who helps track wolves here in his Piper Aircraft. On a recent sun-washed morning, Miller was flying along the northern Minnesota-Wisconsin border listening to a radio for the faint pings transmitted by a wolf’s radio collar. These days, it’s getting easier to find wolves.

“I think when we first started, you know, we were tracking maybe five or six, seven animals, something like that,” he said. “This year we were up close to 30, 32 just out of our station.”

These days Miller is also finding more dead wolves. Federal wildlife officials say 16 were known killed illegally in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan during the deer hunting season late last fall. That number is probably a fraction of the total number killed.

As impressive as wolves look from hundreds of feet in the air, they can be terrifying a few feet away – and deadly.

Approximately 3,000 wolves roam Minnesota, with another 600-plus each in Wisconsin and Michigan.

It was a different story in 1974 when Minnesota was home to the last 1,000 wolves in the lower 48 states, and they came under federal protection.

Minnesota’s current recovery plan calls for a population of at least 1,251 wolves; a number exceeded many years ago.

Three times the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to remove federal protections from Great Lakes region wolves and three times they failed, thwarted in federal court by conservation groups arguing the wolves still need protection.

Now, opponents of federal protection are heading to court.

Ely resident Gerald Tyler said wolves have lost their fear of people and present a danger to people, livestock and pets.

In mid-January, Tyler and cattle farmer Dale Lueck of Aitkin filed notice of intent to sue to get a court to end federal protection of wolves. Tyler says the wolf has rebounded well past the point that it needs protection.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has not followed the law. The law requires determining when recovery has taken place, then to act accordingly,” he said. “They have not done so.”

Tyler is part of a trend that shows attitudes toward wolves, which had been improving, are changing for the worse, Wisconsin state wolf biologist Adrian Wydeven said.

Removing the wolf from federal protection has wide support among state wildlife managers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, but not much from conservation groups. The wolves were de-listed for a matter of months in 2007, while the Humane Society of the United States blocked the last move to de-list the gray wolf.

De-listing would mean increased opportunities for state game managers to kill problem wolves, and the potential for some people to shoot wolves to protect their own pets or livestock.

Monica Engebretson, senior program associate with Born Free USA, said de-listing could mean open season on wolves: “The act has worked, and so we just want to make sure the species has completely recovered, and there’s no rush to de-list any of these populations before we are sure that they have recovered.”