The Department of Natural Resources has a credibility gap. Just ask any deer hunter in northeastern Minnesota after the worst regular firearms deer season in years. We hear the complaints just about everywhere, as hunters are convinced they know what’s happened to all the deer.
“The wolves got ‘em all,” is a familiar refrain.
That doesn’t fit with the explanation of DNR wildlife officials, who blame the declining deer herd on recent severe winters combined with the lack of “winter shelter,” a term that refers to tree species, like pine, cedar, and balsam fir, that provide for both thermal protection and reduced snow cover for deer in winter. DNR wildlife officials also acknowledge that predation is a factor, although it’s one they tend to downplay, and that’s probably at least in part for political reasons.
We’re always skeptical of simple explanations when it comes to something as complex as wildlife populations across a region. “The wolves got ‘em all,” is the classic simple explanation, but that doesn’t mean that predation isn’t playing a significant role here. We know from recent studies on northeastern Minnesota moose that wolves are a primary factor behind that species’ poor reproductive success in recent years. Back in 2015, we reported on research by Dr. L. David Mech, that linked reduced moose reproductive success to rising wolf densities in his study area.
Could increasing wolf densities be impacting the reproductive success of whitetail deer as well?
It’s hard to know since we don’t really know if wolf densities have been increasing outside the confines of a few study areas.
Anecdotally, hunters we’ve talked to say they’re seeing more wolves than ever on trail cams, which is admittedly an unscientific data point. However, it’s a means that the DNR could utilize to more systematically-determine wolf densities. The Voyageur Wolf Project has been gathering good wolf data using trail cams for a few years now. Hunters already have thousands of cams deployed throughout northern Minnesota and they could be a resource in establishing a truer estimate of wolf densities in the region.
We’ve had enough conversations with DNR biologists to know they’d rather point to factors other than wolves when it comes to deer populations. That may be because they recognize it’s a factor over which they have little control. At least until the wolf is back off the threatened species list in Minnesota, the DNR, unfortunately, has little say over the management of the species. The DNR, by contrast, could do more to retain quality winter cover on timber sales, which is likely one reason that DNR biologists are highlighting that issue.
But when hunters see DNR officials regularly downplay their concerns about wolves, the agency takes a hit in terms of its credibility. Most hunters we’ve talked to put little stock in the DNR’s current estimates of wolf numbers, and with good reason. It’s rough to say the least.
The DNR would do well to take concerns about wolf predation seriously. Yes, recent moderate-to-severe winters have played a role. Loss of winter shelter may be a factor in some areas as well. At the same time, it’s worth noting that northwestern Minnesota has seen severe winters and has significantly less winter cover than the northeastern part of the state. Yet, deer registrations there don’t seem to have collapsed to the extent experienced this year in our region. Excessive predation in the northeast could create a tipping point that keeps the deer from bouncing back.
We recognize there is an apparent biological contradiction at play here. If deer numbers have declined so much, shouldn’t wolf numbers be declining as well? While that’s a principle taught in Ecology 101, it is another one of those “simple” explanations. Wolves are adaptable and when one source of food is in short supply, they can turn to other food sources as alternatives. The growth in the region’s beaver population may be sustaining wolves during the open water season to a greater extent than biologists have understood previously. The Voyageur Wolf Project has helped to document the degree to which wolves are relying on beaver as a food source when they’re available. That may allow wolves to sustain a relatively high population even with lower deer numbers since they’re not dependent on them year-round.
The first step should be to conduct a legitimate and scientifically valid assessment of the northeastern Minnesota wolf population. Such information may provide a better understanding of the reasons behind the struggling deer population. What’s more, it could provide valuable data to make the case for, finally, delisting the wolf in Minnesota. It might also help to bridge the DNR’s credibility gap.
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