Wildlife managers in Minnesota are hearing from whitetail hunters upset with a decline in deer season success rates that they blame on the state’s population of gray wolves. A series of public meetings organized by a recently formed group called Hunters for Hunters has drawn crowds of disgruntled sportsmen who want the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to do more to limit wolf numbers.
Billed as “Wolves Versus Deer: Who Will Win,” the meetings have attracted some hunters who want to vent about poor hunting of late and some who are advocating more dramatic responses, from shooting wolves to boycotting next year’s deer season.
“We’re plagued with wolves, and they will not do a thing,” one hunter told Minnesota Public Radio after a Dec. 6 meeting in Carlton, referring to the MDNR. “They say it’s a federal issue. So, I think it’s time the hunters take care of the problem themselves. Whatever it takes to get rid of them.”
Minnesota has a population of nearly 2,700 gray wolves, and wildlife officials say that number has remained steady over the last 20 years. The state’s most recent annual wolf survey, completed in 2022, indicated that population size was unchanged from the previous year but that fewer and larger packs are occupying larger territories compared to the last two winters. Minnesota is home to about 498 wolfpacks, down from more than 600 in 2020 and 2021.
MDNR officials acknowledge that the deer harvest declined this year, especially in northeastern Minnesota, where hunters killed 21 percent fewer deer than last year, and 37 percent fewer than the five-year average. But they say that could be due to a wide range of factors, such as natural population cycles and severe winter weather—and that wolf numbers are unlikely to be a major factor.
“Certainly what we’re hearing from hunters is that they’re seeing a lot of wolves,” MDNR Big Game Program Leader Barb Keller told Northern News Now. But in the last five years, she notes, Minnesota has also seen severe winters that produced very deep snowpacks. Last year much of northeastern Minnesota registered the highest level on the Winter Severity Index, which measures below-zero days and snow depths greater than 15 inches.
“Winter severity on their own can kill deer, but winter severity can also make deer predation worse, because deer have a harder time evading predators,” Keller said.
The gray wolf is a federally protected threatened species in Minnesota, and under current federal guidelines may only be killed in defense of human life. A 10-year wolf management plan adopted in 2022 calls for maintaining a “well-connected and resilient wolf population” while also minimizing human wolf conflicts. Hunters for Hunters, which conducted meetings in International Falls, Carlton, Aurora and Coleraine in early December and has eight more gatherings scheduled through January, aims to ensure that the beef between hunters and wolves is among the conflicts addressed.
“We’re giving the hunters a legitimate voice and credibility,” Steve Porter, a member of the group’s board told MPR. “We have too many wolves. We don’t want all the wolves wiped out. But we need a balance.”