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Species in Conflict: Minnesota wolf management follows bumpy path on road to recovery

Love them or hate them, few animals evoke stronger emotions than the gray wolf.

Iconic without question, a symbol of wild places and revered by people who want them protected at all costs.

But also a top-level predator, scorned by ag producers when wolves raid their livestock and despised by the hunters who believe wolves kill too many deer.

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There's no middle ground on wolves, it seems.

"Something I like to tell people, and I've always been—love 'em, hate 'em, whatever your thoughts on them—I like to think if you have wolves in an area, it tells you you're living in a pretty cool wilderness area," said Jeff Birchem, a retired conservation officer for the Department of Natural Resources in northwest Minnesota.

The recovery of the gray wolf in Minnesota is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act, which protected Minnesota wolves and put them under management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beginning in 1974.

From a low of fewer than 750 animals in the 1950s, wolf numbers by the winter of 1988-89 had risen to an estimated 1,521 and peaked at 3,020 in 2003-2004, results from DNR wolf surveys show. At the same time, the state's wolf range has expanded from 12,000 square miles in the 1950s to more than 27,000 square miles, the DNR said.

Minnesota's wolf population today stands at an estimated 2,856 wolves in 500 packs, based on results from the DNR's most recent survey in 2016-17, released in September.

Factoring in a margin of error of about plus or minus 500, that means the actual population could range from 2,356 to 3,386 wolves.

Even at the low end, that's nearly twice the range of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves called for under federal recovery guidelines, yet—except for a three-year period from 2012 to 2014—wolves in Minnesota remain federally protected, listed as threatened in Minnesota and endangered elsewhere in the western Great Lakes region, according to the DNR.

The history of wolf management, you might say, has taken a bumpy path on the road to the species' recovery.