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Senate enters wolf debate

In this July 16, 2004, file photo, is a gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Legislation introduced Thursday by group of senators seeks a five-year moratorium on Minnesota’s wolf hunting season and calls for other options to control the wolf population. Dawn Villella | Associated Press

ST. PAUL — Legislation was introduced Thursday to place a five-year moratorium on Minnesota’s wolf hunting season and call for other options for wolf population control.

The bill seeks to reinstate a five-year waiting period between when the federal government dropped wolves off the endangered species list — which happened in 2011 — and a potential hunting season. That five-year delay was supported by a wolf task force, the Department of Natural Resources and the 2000 Minnesota Legislature, but was erased by the 2012 Legislature.

Under the Senate bill, there could be no wolf hunting until July 1, 2018.

“After that time, the commissioner may prescribe open seasons and restrictions for taking wolves, but only if population management is deemed necessary and other means for controlling the wolf population are explored,” the bill states. “The commissioner must provide opportunity for public comment.”

DNR officials maintain that the public had the opportunity to voice opinions about the wolf season early last year. And because the delisting process took several years, the five-year waiting period wasn’t necessary, said Chris Niskanen, DNR communications director.

“The five-year waiting period was established in 2000,” Niskanen said. “Delisting was expected in 2003, but the first delisting didn’t occur until 2007. The gist of this is, the state has proven it can manage wolves in a sustainable way. Like the management of other species, we can do it sustainably through hunting and other management practices.”

An influential group of senators is backing the five-year moratorium: The chief sponsor is Majority Whip Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center. The co-sponsors include Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, Senate President Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Sens. David Senjem, R-Rochester, and Terri Bonoff, D-Minnetonka.

“This is about fairness and doing the right thing for the majority of Minnesotans that do not want a wolf hunt,” Eaton said in a statement released Thursday morning. Some 79 percent of respondents to a non-scientific DNR survey opposed the recreational hunting, trapping and snaring of wolves.

“Minnesotans want to have a reasonable dialogue on this issue and a five-year wait will allow us to determine how best to manage our wolves responsibly,” Eaton said.

So far there is no House version of the bill, which faces an uphill battle considering it was the Legislature that essentially ordered the DNR last year to start the hunting and trapping season. However, there are 50 new legislators serving this session.

A total of 413 wolves were killed in the first season, plus more than 200 killed by certified trappers near where farm animals had been killed along with any illegal shooting, collisions with vehicles and natural mortality.

Wolf advocacy groups including Howling for Wolves say the total kill could add up to one-quarter of all wolves that live in the state, according to the DNR’s population estimate.

The DNR and wolf biologists say the hunt will have no impact on the long-term viability of the state’s wolf population and that the total harvest each year can be carefully regulated. The DNR currently is conducting its first major wolf population estimate in more than five years.

The legislation comes one week after wolf advocacy groups filed suit in federal district court against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, saying the feds must take back wolf control because Minnesota has gone too far in killing too many wolves under state control.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, who entered the lottery for a wolf hunting license last year but didn’t get one, told the Associated Press he expects the bill will get a hearing. But that doesn’t mean he’s on board.

“Most people where I live would say the wolf is a game species. That’s how it’s defined in law,” Bakk said. “A game species is no different than other predators or deer or grouse or birds — they’re populations that need to be managed.”

-- John Myers, Forum News Service

Reporter Sam Cook contributed to this report.

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