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UMN experts say wolves are not cause of decrease in deer population

Hunters for Hunters, a lobbying group, is pushing for wolves to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act after a poor deer hunting season.
Image by Voyageurs Wolf Project
A wolf fitted with a GPS collar. Location unknown.

A hunter lobbying group is pushing for gray wolves to be delisted from the Endangered Species Act after a poor deer hunting season, though experts at the University of Minnesota say other factors are to blame.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the 2023 deer hunting season saw around 158,600 deer killed by hunters, an 8 percent decrease from the previous season and a 14 percent decrease from the five-year average. 

Hunters represented by groups like Hunters for Hunters have lobbied the government to delist wolves so they can be hunted and the deer population can increase. 

On their website, Hunters for Hunters identify themselves as a watchdog organization dedicated to protecting the rights of hunters, landowners and sportsmen and women. 

Austin Homkes, a researcher for the Voyageurs Wolf Project (VWP), lives and works in the project’s study area, and said factors other than wolves are to blame for the decreased deer population.

VWP is a University research project studying activities of wolves during summer and their interactions with their environment in the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem of northern Minnesota near the border of Canada, according to their website.

“It’s been a political thing back and forth for, you know, almost the better part of a decade now, of getting them relisted and back, and it’s just like a pendulum swinging back and forth,” Homkes said. “Right now there’s a strong push to get them delisted so there can be a hunting season.”

According to the International Wolf Center, an education and research organization based out of Ely, wolves in Minnesota were removed from the federal list of Endangered Species in January 2012 after their initial listing in 1974 but were relisted in December 2014. They were removed again in January 2021, which was reversed in February 2022. After the reversal, Minnesota’s gray wolves were classified as a federally protected threatened species.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a threatened species is any species that is likely to become endangered. As such, Minnesota’s gray wolves can only be killed in self-defense.

Homkes said VWP avoids intentionally framing things as right or wrong. Rather, he frames the situation as a matter of values.

“Yes, wolves eat deer,” Homkes said. “There are less of them because of the wolves, and some people don’t like that. They want more deer, and some people like that there are both predators and prey on the landscape.”

Joseph Bump, a professor in the University’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology who studies wolves, said gray wolves are listed as threatened in Minnesota but as endangered in Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan make up the Northern Great Lakes Region, which has its own population segment of wolves. If one state were to delist gray wolves, the other two would as well. 

“Minnesota might do everything right, have all the numbers, have solid management plans and check all the boxes required by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but if our neighboring states are not meeting the same criteria, wolves are not going to be delisted in the Great Lakes,” Bump said.

According to Bump, Minnesota’s wolf population has remained steady at around 2,700 to 2,900 wolves in recent years, making it the largest population within the lower 48 states.

In the 2023 Minnesota DNR wolf population update, the estimated mid-winter wolf population was 2,919 wolves, plus or minus 800. Based on this, the DNR concluded the statewide wolf population was unchanged from the previous winter, indicating a steady population.

“I don’t think the wolf numbers have increased dramatically based on the data that the Minnesota DNR collects,” Bump said. “I do think more and more people use remote cameras, and I do think that on the scale that people monitor and hunt, you could have areas where there are high densities of wolves if they are denning in the area.”

According to L. David Mech, an adjunct professor in the University’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, wolves occupy roughly 30,000 square miles, or a third of the state.

“There is no reason to think that the wolf density, that is, the number that live in any given area, is going to be the same throughout that whole area,” said Mech, the founder and current vice-chair of the International Wolf Center. “Even though the wolf population in general over the whole state is fairly stable, that doesn’t mean that wolves in any given area are stable.”

Mech said the density of wolves in most areas depends on the density of the deer population, which also varies over a large area. 

According to Homkes, the deer population fluctuates a lot more with the weather than it does with wolf predation. Multiple harsh winters can lead to a decrease in the deer population while milder winters may lead to an increase.

“There’s not an excessive amount of wolves relative to what there’s always been,” Homkes said. “From our estimates the populations are fairly stable, both deer and wolves within normal fluctuations of both predator and prey.” 

Mech, who has worked with wolves since 1958, said he has seen the same kind of fear from hunters, that a poor deer hunting season is the result of wolves, many times before. 

“Wolves and deer have lived together forever,” Mech said. “I think that what we’re seeing by this one group of deer hunters now is the same thing we’ve seen over the last 50, 60 years of my career, and yet we still have deer and we still have wolves. I think we will continue to have them living together for many more decades here.”

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  • Dknaffla
    Apr 2, 2024 at 10:03 am

    Deer ticks are more prevalent in northeastern Minnesota as well. I can sit on a hillside in the woods During deer season and count 30 deer ticks crawling on my pants with an inch of newly fallen snow. Could this be another factor to consider? We have wolves and other predators. We have diseases that affect animals. We have a huge increase in traffic along the Northshore. We have many hunters. We have an increase in human population. Conservationists need to find the variables, before they can create an equation. Oh, and money plays into it as well. As for the ones that believe hunting is wrong, and we are killing innocent defenseless animals… cows are raised on farms and then slaughtered to feed the masses. I like venison better. I don’t like killing animals, but my mouth waters when I eat them, whether it be venison, grouse, beef, or chicken.

  • Joy
    Mar 31, 2024 at 12:23 pm

    I understand the obsession w/hunting & killing innocent defenseless deer that you then skin & cut up the meat to eat. Mankind has been doing this for thousands of years to survive. What i don’t understand is that I’ve never met a hunter who feels any compassion for the deer? And the Trophy hunters simply do it for competition which should be banned. When hunters say it saves them money I ask then why do you have so many guns, drive a very nice huge pick-up truck which shows they have plenty of $$$. It’s a sport. But how can it be a sport when only one of the parties involved doesn’t know that but is trying to live their life-eating plants & raising their young.These are beautiful harmless animals who feel love just as human animals do.

    Human overpopulation is the cause of all of our problems because the planet cannot sustain the overdevelopment nationwide which destroys their habitat & brings them into the city in which coyotes start coming.

    If you can’t believe those who have been researching this for over 50yrs it’s because you don’t want to believe what they report. So remember “Don’t believe everything you think.”

  • Dpjkein
    Mar 30, 2024 at 9:23 pm

    I think this group is approaching this wrong. Forget about the deer and focus on the wolf. In the Great Lakes region the wolf met its recovery goals long ago. If the wolf has met the recovery goal then there shouldn’t be any scientific reason not to have a hunt and take out surplus animals like we do with every other game species in the US. The US game management model works

  • Greg
    Mar 30, 2024 at 4:32 pm

    I wish the Minnesota Department of Nature Resources would “manage” the flies, mosquitoes, wood ticks, and gnats.
    Then we wouldn’t have any of them!!!

  • Dknaffla
    Mar 30, 2024 at 3:39 pm

    I live in northeastern Minnesota. I believe traffic increase is a factor to consider. Too many vehicles out there. Solve that.

    Why don’t we have deer crossing signs anymore? Why?

    Mountain lions and wolves have been spotted on the edge of my town, because the deer seek refuge there.

  • wpconway
    Mar 30, 2024 at 9:24 am

    a research project done by the dnr stated that 80% fawn mortality was caused by depredation from coyotes. are you biologists going to tell me that wolves are not in the same classification. Your research is always scewed in the wolves favor and honestly dont believe shit you do anymore. From bag limits of fish all the way to management of land that you are supposedly in control of..
    This is what happens when an organization has no competition or people who speek up to a monopoly!

  • CM
    Mar 30, 2024 at 8:02 am

    Deer population is way down in North Dakota too and guess what, we have no wolves. Management of wildlife based on science is why we enjoy what we have today. Sorry, but I am gonna trust someone who has spent 50+ years studying the species over someone who spends maybe a week in the field with a gun (when not sitting at the bar BS-ing).

    Who do you want to do your quadruple bypass surgery, someone who does it every day or someone who says they know better because the doctors are just in it for grant money and they can do it themselves because they saw it on YouTube? Smarten up people!

  • Richard Nelson
    Mar 30, 2024 at 6:16 am

    Why are you bloodthirsty Neanderthals running around shooting defenseless animals in the first place? Have you used up all your food stamps?

  • usmcm14
    Mar 30, 2024 at 12:00 am

    Just remember all the scientists backing this bullshit survive off GOVERNMENT GRANTS so they are constantly creating disasters like claiming blanket protections on apex predators aren’t affecting whitetail populations

  • Jon Dosser
    Mar 29, 2024 at 8:16 pm

    These biologist are full of BS ..if you have in a great year (population wise) 8 deer per square mile, and a “average wolf pack kills 1-2 deer a week, it’s simple math,in one year a pack would’ve killed 104 deer in a year which just cleared out about 13 square miles of a deer population, leaving ZERO, until they “move on”, which they do, killing the whole time of not just deer but moose,beaver,racoon, fox, coyote, rabbits,mice, ect, ect…they are nature’s proficient killing machines …these supposed “biologist” redact these reports of the true causes of deer mortality which is the WOLFS.. period?

  • Charles smith
    Mar 29, 2024 at 7:11 pm

    Of course a person with the wolf study will not blame wolves.

  • Jeremiah John Hansen
    Mar 29, 2024 at 6:30 pm

    The MN DNR is not doing there job to lobby to the federal government in order to help deter the deer population to a stable herd again.

  • JT
    Mar 29, 2024 at 5:40 pm

    Been hunting grouse in the Orr area for 30+ years and we would see deer every day. I seen 1 deer in a week this year and none last year. Only reason I saw the one was it was in someone’s yard in town. I truly wish all the deer hunters would boycott deer hunting season for a year just to send a message. I haven’t bought a tag for awhile as the wolves are too thick in Nemadji. I believe MN doesn’t want deer hunters then they can say we don’t need guns. It’s a long play for them but I wouldn’t put it past Waltz.

  • Andrew Torkelson
    Mar 29, 2024 at 4:43 pm

    If these are facts then I guess guns kill people not the person that pulls the trigger… stupid people. This pill must be for people that don’t hunt or are out in the woods.

  • Marco Douglas
    Mar 29, 2024 at 12:35 pm

    In that a thousand-fold white tailed rodents (deer) are killed each year by auto’s than Wolves, a new law should be enacted to limit travel speed to 30 mph – for those who illogically complain about Wolves.

    Further, these rodents have brought deer ticks to the north woods which has decimated the Moose population in MN. Less deer, more Moose.

  • Jerry Villella
    Mar 29, 2024 at 12:06 pm

    Are you real? .
    And remind me why were the 7 -9 wolves brought into Isle Royale National Park??
    PS Moose are a lot bigger and stronger to fight off wolves than deer.

    Look at Yellowstone Elk heard population,
    From before Wolves,
    To now..
    Case closed

  • Richard Nelson
    Mar 29, 2024 at 8:35 am

    Mr. Johnson –

    Obviously, you’re a class act all the way.

  • Daniel Mallory
    Mar 29, 2024 at 5:22 am

    I agree with Greg all the way. I’ve seen and felt the damage they have done in the Eastern upper peninsula Michigan. The hunting there will never ever be good there again. That includes the chance at a moose hunt. They don’t belong up there no more than a shark belongs in lake Michigan

  • Greg Johnson
    Mar 28, 2024 at 10:48 pm

    You goddamnbook learning biologists have no idea what the wolves do to deer populations open season on them greg

  • Jim Overby
    Mar 28, 2024 at 7:16 pm

    What are your reasons for the lack of deer. Than? This article is nothing more than someone’s opinion with no explanation for the decline in the deer population. And bad winters is a lame excuse I have been threw 60 years of Minnesota winters and the 60’s 70’s winter snowfall was deep and Temps were colder and there was deer lots of deer. Enough deer for hunters and wolves both. Better managment with everyone’s interests in place would solve this problem .

  • David Rogowski
    Mar 28, 2024 at 4:10 pm

    Its all predators the bear population is up. Coyotes are up. They all take a piece along with heavy snow and cold. Its not possible that the wolf population remains the same year after year. They are so elusive they cant be counted accurately.

  • Jon Utley
    Mar 28, 2024 at 10:24 am

    Just don’t buy a hunting license. Everyone take a one year break ?