Experts analyze wolf repopulation

Posted: Friday, February 25, 2000

DULUTH, Minn. -- About 700 wolf scientists, wildlife managers and wolf advocates gathered this week for an international symposium to consider how many wolves are enough.

There are now an estimated 150,000 wolves in some 40 nations, with their numbers increasing in 83 percent of those countries, according to the International Wolf Center in Ely.

The days of humans overtly persecuting wolves to oblivion appear to be over. But with more wolves comes more interaction with people, livestock and pets.

In Minnesota, for instance, wolves have rebounded from about 500 just 30 years ago to about 2,500 today.

Wolves are expanding in Yellowstone National Park. They've been reintroduced in Arizona and will be soon be released in Mexico, where they've been extinct for decades. They're thriving across much of Alaska and Canada. They also are increasing in Spain, Italy, the Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Poland, Saudi Arabia and a dozen other nations.

With wolves occasionally inside the city limits, Duluth is one of the largest metropolitan areas with wolves at its door.

Yet Minnesota is still trying to get the wolf removed from the federal endangered species list. Farmers and northern lawmakers want more wolf killing measures in a new state plan, while wolf advocates are fighting for state protections similar to federal rules.

''We did such a good job telling people that wolves should be accepted that it's become a difficult transition for many people to make to go to management,'' said David Mech, renowned wolf researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey's biological service's division. ''If you've recovered a species, and wolves are recovered, you have to manage them we don't want them to become a nuisance species like Canada geese or deer have become in many areas.''

When people stop shooting, trapping, poisoning and otherwise persecuting wolves on a wanton level that the animal has an amazing ability to rebound, Mech said.

Despite the wolf's comeback, many experts say it's too soon to leave the wolf to fend for itself. Wolf advocates note that Minnesota is only a few decades away from the days of official state bounties, aerial shooting, using explosives to ruin dens and poisoning and trapping wolves.

Supporters note that an estimated 100 to 200 wolves are illegally killed in Minnesota each year, even with strict federal sanctions for the few poachers who are caught.

''We have more wolves now than 30 years ago,'' said Karlyn Berg of Bovey, a wolf advocate and symposium presenter. ''But all of the unfounded hostilities that nearly drove wolves to extinction are still out there, in Minnesota and around the world.''

Sweden and Norway share about 60 wolves, Berg noted, yet are sending a delegation to the Duluth conference to deal with their wolf ''problem.'' The two nations already are saying that their level of wolf depredation on livestock is unacceptable.

''If they're yelling and screaming about 60 wolves, what hope is there for the wolf to really recover there?'' said Berg, who has studied wolf issues since 1973.

The symposium will include a presentation on human population growth. One need only look at areas around Duluth, Ely and the North Shore to see how recent development has pushed far into traditional wolf country.

''Whether a farmer shoots a wolf on his farm won't affect the wolf population,'' Mech said. ''I'm concerned for the long-term viability of all the natural world, whether there will be enough space for all of us, including wolves.''

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