The Associated Press
HINCKLEY, Minn. — New research shows that wolf numbers are increasing in the Upper Midwest, and packs may be getting larger and more numerous.
Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan now have an estimated 3,800 gray wolves, experts said at a two-day conference here last week.
While populations grew in all three states, preliminary data for Wisconsin and Michigan suggest dramatic change growth in those states — 14 percent more wolves last winter than a year earlier.
Wisconsin and Michigan still have far fewer wolves than Minnesota, which has an estimated 3,020 of them, up 23 percent since the last major survey in the winter of 1997-98, said John Erb, wolf biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Large populations of wildlife are difficult to estimate, so biologists can’t say how Minnesota’s wolf population has grown from year to year, or if it is leveling off.
The state’s population, while presented as a single estimate of 3,020, could be somewhere between 2,301 and 3,708 animals, Erb said.
Erb said most of Minnesota’s wolves live in about 485 packs averaging five to six wolves each. Their range in central and northeastern Minnesota hasn’t expanded in the past few years, he said, although there have been occasional sightings of lone wolves as far south as Rochester and Albert Lea.
It’s possible that more wolves are surviving in the same range because of the abundant supply there of their main prey.
“Just over the past five years, our deer population was estimated to be 70 percent higher in the overall forested wolf range in Minnesota,” Erb said.
“So it stands to reason that wolves don’t need as much real estate to survive.”
In Wisconsin, the unofficial estimate for this past winter was 425 wolves, 52 more than the previous year, conservation biologist Adrian Wydeven said.
The main surprise in Wisconsin is that the number of wolf packs — about 109 — did not increase and that several packs now have seven to 10 members each, almost twice the typical size, Wydeven said.
Wolf depredation on livestock or pets has been a growing problem in Wisconsin. The number of farms with confirmed cases of livestock killed by wolves increased from eight in 2002 to 14 in 2003 and 22 last year.
“We could probably hold 500 wolves in Wisconsin, and if they’re distributed in the right places we would have almost no (livestock) depredation,” Wydeven said. “But it’s animals in the wrong place at the wrong time that we get these depredation problems.”
Dean Beyer, wildlife biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the preliminary estimate for wolves in his state’s Upper Peninsula in 2004-05 is 408 animals in 86 packs.
Researchers also found a wolf in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula last year for the first time since 1910. It was fitted with a radio collar and monitored for several months before a coyote trapper mistakenly killed it, Beyer said.
The wolf’s recovery in the Upper Midwest is a major reason the federal government is seeking to reduce protection of the animals under the Endangered Species Act. That effort was blocked by a federal judge in Oregon in January, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not decided whether to appeal.