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Top wildlife authority talks wolves

Already into the second month of 2024, the ramifications of a poor November deer hunt continue to linger. Fewer deer sightings and harvests in northeastern Minnesota have riled up hunters, and the new Minnesota-based group Hunters for Hunters has capitalized.

The group's ongoing public meetings in small towns throughout northeastern Minnesota draw hundreds of participants, and have turned the focus onto wolf predation of the deer population.

Noticeably quiet throughout the surge in anti-wolf sentiment has been the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

That's been mostly by design, said Kelly Straka, the DNR's wildlife section manager in charge of wild game management, including both deer and wolves.

"It's a really interesting time," Straka said. "We have been accused of sitting on our hands, but until I see this can be a respectful, productive conversation, I will choose to selectively try to dispel anything that is blatantly false."

Straka is the first person in a role as large as hers with the DNR to work outside St. Paul. She resides in Pike Lake, and deer hunts on her own land outside Proctor. Like a lot of hunters, she saw wolves on trail cameras last fall, but also more deer than wolves. She agreed to speak with the Pine Knot about wolves and the outcry generated by Hunters for Hunters.

She worries that some of the fervor is fueled by animosity and misinformation, but she also appreciates the passion.

"I don't want to see that passion go away," she said.

"It shows me there's no apathy in those rooms. Granted, there's a lot of anger, a lot of hostility, and a lot of aggression that we need to rechannel into something productive."

Hunters for Hunters has fueled disenfranchisement with the DNR and other groups, like the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. In Carlton last December, a group of 300 people raised their hands to indicate they distrusted the DNR's tally of 2,700 wolves in the state. Hunters and organizers at the meeting even advocated for shooting wolves despite their federal protection as an endangered species.

Last month, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, told another group of 300 hunters in Willow River that the recovery of the gray wolf ought to be celebrated by delisting them from federal protection - something he's written into legislation he's introduced in Congress.

At the gathering in Carlton, county commissioner Gary Peterson advocated for a boycott of the deer hunt, a move that would hit the DNR in its pocket book and also a position he backtracked on in an article in the Pine Knot.

"I don't want to come off as an extremist," Peterson said in December. "But sometimes you've got to get people's attention."

A lot of what's been said at Hunters for Hunters gatherings is the stuff of social media commentary, including speculation and animosity.

Earlier this month, Jared Mazurek, executive director of the deer hunters association, felt compelled to issue a statement in favor of responsible wolf management and against politicians capitalizing on the outcry.

"If anyone should be held to a higher standard, it should be those elected to lead," he wrote. "MDHA prides itself on upholding factual information when making informed management decisions and firmly denounces any illegal taking of wildlife."

Because of the tenor of the conversation to date, Straka has made a point to keep herself and DNR wildlife managers away from the crowds.

"If you're going to make it a personal attack then no," she said. "That's not fair and that's not right. If your goal is to overthrow the department, you're not trying to figure out how we get a better handle on the wolf population or deer population. You're insulting somebody who is just doing their job and, for the record, doing a good job at it."

Straka described the issue as a combination of factors, including a string of severe winters and habitat issues that can make it hard for deer to get good forage nourishment with the strength to get back to good cover.

"Predation is absolutely one factor - 100 percent we know that," she said. "Predation can be made worse by severe winters and poor winter habitat."

Regarding wolves, which are at up to 2,900 throughout the state according to the most recent survey, Straka said she will always respect and support the recommendations from the DNR's experts, who also rely on a technical committee of outsiders that augments the DNR's own work.

"Wolf management is not done behind a closed door," she said, citing the involvement of trappers, scientists and independent groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, a national organization with offices in Minneapolis and Duluth. "I trust our subject matter experts because they are in close communication with all of these other experts on that technical committee."

One sentiment that Straka wants to correct, is that the DNR is not supportive of delisting wolves.

"We have made it clear that, as an agency, our data supports that wolves are fully recovered in the state," she said. "We support the right for Minnesota to manage a wolf population. That's a really important point people are often missing. Wolf numbers are way above the federal recovery line."

But the DNR is not involved in federal decisions on delisting animals from the list of endangered species, she said.

"Where I've seen some of the most angst and anger is people saying, 'You have to be doing everything you can to make delisting happen,'" she said. "That's not where we're engaging."

Rather, the DNR does things like manage habitats, with projects throughout northeastern Minnesota, she said. And the DNR is also responsible to the rest of the state's residents, not just hunters and trappers. There are the tribes, who have strong feelings on wolf preservation, and folks who are what Straka described as "wildlife watchers."

"People don't realize as a state agency we have to respect the views and perspectives of the entire spectrum," she said.

She described wildlife watchers as non-consumptive people who might live in a metro area and come to northeastern Minnesota to, say, see a moose or hear a wolf howl.

"That group can be very vocal," she said.

To illustrate the point, Straka noted how the last legislative session featured opposing pieces of legislation: one that called for a wolf hunt upon delisting and another that would have prevented a hunt even if wolves were federally delisted.

Regarding the uproar over wolf predation, the newspaper asked Straka if she's seen anything like it before. A veterinarian by trade, she cited previous jobs she's held in Michigan and Missouri.

"I've worked a lot with chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis - both of which, especially 10-15 years ago, were extremely terrifying," she said. "There was a lot of unknowns and misinformation."

She recalled walking into rooms full of cattle producers whose herds acquired a disease that jumped from deer.

"Most of them had suffered greatly," she said. "So, walking into rooms with hundreds of people who are really upset is nothing new. What is new is this is the first time I can think of where it's being driven by one group (versus individual stakeholders)."

The mild winter figures to release some of the pressure on the conversation, Straka said.

"How that results in the dynamic changing I don't know, but I would suspect we're going to have good deer survival through winter which, in theory, would lead to higher reproduction and higher recruitment of fawns in spring," she said. "But again we have those other factors and I don't know how those factors are going to interplay. ... But we got hammered last winter, just hammered, [so] this winter is probably a big relief valve."

Straka described herself as "hopelessly naive and cautiously optimistic," about where things go from here. She's hopeful the rhetoric will simmer down enough to bring all sides to the table together.

"There's passion so let's capitalize on that and figure out what we're talking about," she said.

In the meantime, she noted that 1,000 people signed up for an online webinar Wednesday about wolves and the history of hunting and protections in the state. Another, on winter deer behavior and feeding, takes place from 6-7 p.m. on Feb. 7. (To register, visit dnr.state.mn.us/fishwildlife/outreach/index.html.)

As it stands, the state's wolf management plan features goals to maintain a resilient population, minimize conflict between humans and wolves, engage and inform the public, continue research and fulfill funding needs.

"This is such a polarizing topic," Straka said. "I would ask that people remember what we say and what we do matters. Do you really want your words being said in this moment of passion, this moment of vitriol, to come back? Because anything you write or say, groups that may feel very differently than you can use that."