DULUTH, Minn. -- A new public opinion survey conducted by the University of Minnesota for the state Department of Natural Resources found strong support for wolves among the general public across the state, but, as expected, a mixed reaction on whether there should be hunting or trapping of the big canines.
The survey found 87% of general population residents who responded agree that maintaining a wolf population in Minnesota is important. Only 6.4% disagreed that having wolves is important.
Wolf support was a bit lower among deer hunters as a separate group, of which 66.8% expressed support for maintaining the state’s wolf population. The response from northern Minnesota farmers was more tepid, with 47.2% approval and 42.5% expressing disapproval of the state’s wolf population.
Survey questionnaires were sent to 9,750 homes across the state, including to 5,250 general public residents, 2,000 adult resident deer hunters and 2,500 livestock producers who farm in the wolf range of northern Minnesota.
The survey found:
Among the general public, 86% of those polled want the same, more or even many more wolves in the state, while only 14.2% wanted fewer or no wolves.
Among deer hunters, 40.2% favor the same or more wolves in the state, while 59.8% want fewer or no wolves around.
Among northern Minnesota livestock farmers, only about 27% favor the current number or more wolves, while 72.7% say there should be fewer or no wolves.
The survey found other expected splits among the different groups polled, such as 80% or more of livestock farmers and deer hunters favoring hunting and trapping seasons on wolves if and when federal protections end. Among the general public, only 41% support wolf hunting and only 30% support wolf trapping.
Another portion of the survey found that the general public has the highest trust in the DNR, while livestock farmers in the wolf range the least and deer hunters in the middle.
The survey also asked questions about individuals’ experiences with wolves, their interest in wolf management, their general attitudes toward wolves and reasons for valuing wolves. Respondents were also asked questions about their preference on where wolves should live in the state.
Dan Stark, the DNR’s wolf management specialist, said the survey revealed few surprises.
“The results are pretty consistent with attitudes expressed in previous surveys,’’ Stark told the News Tribune. “There is wide support for having wolves in Minnesota and there are differences in what people think about how wolves should be managed. I think the information will be useful for our wolf plan update process.”
New wolf committee meets for first time
The survey results were quietly posted last week on the DNR website, with no public announcement, in advance of the first meeting of a new state wolf advisory committee assigned with helping the DNR update the state’s 2001 wolf management plan. The 20-member committee is made up of hunters, wolf supporters, farmers, conservation leaders, local government officials, forestry experts and members of the general public.
The DNR is asking the committee to develop wolf management options and preferences, especially on controversial aspects of wolf management such as trapping and hunting. The committee is scheduled to hold its first meeting, albeit online, on Thursday, June 18, and then meet several more times and develop some sort of consensus to help guide the DNR on what to do with wolves in the state.
“Until we are able to meet in person we will be scheduling a series of shorter (online) meetings over the next several months,’’ Stark said. “We are also looking at some options for hosting public input meetings remotely if we can’t do that in person.”
Stark said he hopes to have a report from the committee and a new draft management plan by year’s end, but added that may be an overly ambitious timeline. The DNR hopes to have an updated wolf management plan ready if and when it regains control of the estimated roughly 2,500 wolves in the state from the federal government.
Wolves across all Great Lakes states remain under federal Endangered Species Act protection under a December 2014 court ruling. But the Trump administration, like the three previous administrations, is working to remove federal protections soon, saying the animals have recovered enough to be managed by individual states and Indian tribes.
The opinion survey’s aim “was to obtain timely and accurate information on Minnesotans’ values, beliefs and attitudes toward wolves and wolf management,’’ the DNR said on its website.
Wolf supporters said the survey results show most Minnesotans support wolves as part of the state’s natural heritage.
“Minnesotans treasure our state’s wolves, and these findings send a powerful message to wildlife managers,” Collette Adkins, a member of the advisory committee and carnivore conservation director at the pro-wolf Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Despite consistently strong public support for wolves, officials have too often catered to a few livestock operators who want these magnificent animals killed.
"We hope this report prompts our wildlife agency to do a better job of reflecting the wolf-friendly values of most people in Minnesota.”
Eastern or grey wolves were once common across much of the continental U.S. but were shot, trapped and poisoned to near extinction by the 1960s, when only a few hundred wolves remained, all in Northeastern Minnesota — the last in the lower 48 states.
After they received federal Endangered Species Act protection, wolves expanded in number and range in northern Minnesota and spread out to establish strong populations in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Since then, they also have been reestablished across the Mountain West.
Livestock farmers and some hunting groups support ending federal protections for wolves, saying the animals have become too numerous and their numbers need to be culled to reduce wolf-human conflicts. Many deer hunters in the north say wolves have helped reduce deer numbers to unacceptable levels in some areas.
Wolf supporters say that, while the animals are indeed thriving in the upper Great Lakes region, state agencies moved too fast to kill too many wolves the last time federal protections were withdrawn, from 2012 to 2014. Critics also note that wolves have not recovered across a broad portion of their original range, in more states, as the federal Endangered Species Act appears to call for.