Gutsy Wolves Challenge Hunter
The International Wolf Center (IWC) reports that approximately 2,450 wolves lived in Minnesota in 1997-1998 (the most recent year I could find data for). The IWC states that wolf populations in Minnesota are currently increasing at a rate of 3-4.5% per year, giving a current (2009) population of 3,000-4,000 wolves.
According to Minnesota DNR, about a million deer live in Minnesota. Human hunters currently harvest over 200,000 of them each year. The IWC reports that “On average, each wolf kills an estimated 15-20 adult-sized deer or their equivalent per year.” This means that wolves harvest 45,000 – 70,000 deer each year.
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that the human population of Minnesota is currently about 5.2 million. The human population is increasing at a rate of 4-4.6% per year, slightly faster than the wolf population.
More wolves plus more people equals a lot more opportunities for wolves to become habituated to people. While most of Minnesota’s wolf population lives in the northern part of the state where human population density is still low, one situation where habituation can occur may be creating a threat to both species.
A gut pile is part of any successful deer hunt by humans. Minnesota DNR regulations state that:
Hunters who process their own deer may not dispose of carcasses on public land, including wildlife management areas, state forests, road rights of way or in any water body. Deer carcasses may be disposed of in the following ways:
• On private land with the permission of the landowner.
• Through your refuse hauler after checking on how to properly bag the
• At a local landfill.
But as someone who has spent a lot of time hiking in the forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin, I can assure you that far too many hunters adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy when it comes to carcass disposal. After they’ve packed the meat they want out of the woods, a lot of hunters find it easy to “forget” about that gut pile. Especially when getting rid of it properly can mean hours of “pointless,” messy labor. So it’s frustrating, but not surprising, to find that gut piles and carcasses are a regular sight along backroads and wooded areas during deer season.
According to this article in the Detroit News, Wisconsin wolf biologist Adrian Wydevan sees a problem in this trend:
Wydeven said a wolf pack near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border learned to associate the sound of gun shots with food from gut piles. When Minnesota’s hunting season started, they lived in Minnesota. When Wisconsin’s hunting season started, the wolves were in Wisconsin. If you shoot a deer in the afternoon, have a headlamp and be prepared to field dress and remove the animal. If you don’t, the wolves might.
Could increasing habituation of wolves to humans combined with packs of wolves who become conditioned to see gut piles as the vulpine lupine equivalent of fast food, eventually make the northwoods a more dangerous place for deer hunters (and other outsdoorsmen) in the upper midwest?
If a recent news report is true – it’s already happening. Last week the StarTribune reported:
The wolves appeared shortly after Scott Wundinich shot and gutted a deer, then climbed back into his stand.
“Four or five, including a pitch-black male, came running out of the woods together,” recalled Wundinich, 48, of Eveleth, Minn. “I looked to my left and saw three more. There were three or four more on my other side. I was stunned. I yelled and screamed, but they pretty much ignored me. They paced back and forth. They wanted my deer and the gut pile.”
Despite firing several shots to try to scare away the wolves, they lurked, sometimes howling and barking, about 50 yards from Wundinich’s stand for 45 minutes.
Wundinich stayed in safety of his tree stand until it was dark. Still able to hear the wolves, but desperate to escape, he climbed down with a still-loaded rifle, bolted for his ATV, and raced out of the woods (it isn’t legal to operate an ATV in the woods between sunrise and sunset during hunting season). I’m sure he was glad to leave the deer behind, and I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to wait until dark.
Wildlife officials say the encounter with wolves was unusual. But Wundinich and others, including some northern Minnesota conservation officers, say such encounters and sightings there are becoming more common.
“I’d say almost 50 percent of the deer camps I’ve checked have said they’ve seen wolves,” said Dan Starr, Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in Tower. “That has increased. They [wolves] are getting pretty bold.”
Wild wolves usually flee from people, even around food. And wolf attacks on humans are exceptionally rare. Somehow, I doubt that Wundinich found this thought comforting. When the wolves approached his deer:
He stood up and made noise. “They scampered off a bit, but it didn’t scare them,” he said. He shot his 30.06 rifle twice in the air. “They ran about 45 yards away on top of a hill and started howling.” Unsure what to do, he used his cell phone to call his dad at the cabin, who told him to call Starr, the local conservation officer, whom Wundinich knows.
“He [Starr] said fire some shots to scare them. I told him I had done that,” Wundinich said. “He said to leave the deer.”
Wundinich and his nephew later returned to retrieve the deer later that night – armed with rifles.
“The gut pile was mostly gone and they bit into the hindquarters and neck and chewed on an ear,” he said.
Wundinich said he was reluctant to tell anyone about the experience because he feared no one would believe him. Starr, however, mentioned the incident in his weekly report, which is distributed to news media. He said he has no reason to doubt Wundinich’s story.
According to wolf expert David Mech, deer and moose are the main prey of wolves in the area where the incident happened.
While it isn’t legal to hunt wolves in Minnesota, Wundinich could legally have shot any wolves that attacked him. If he was correct that ten or more of them were attracted to his deer carcass, he was probably wise to stay up in his stand and try to drive them off.
To protect their own safety, hunters need to be more responsible about gut pile disposal. Carcasses and gut piles along roads attract wildlife to traffic areas – a situation that is frequently lethal to scavengers. When they’re left in wooded areas, they teach wolves and other scavengers to associate gunfire and the scent of humans with easy food. And that can create situations that are potentially lethal to humans and wolves.
Responsible use of wild lands isn’t always convenient in the short run – but if we’re going to co-exist with wildlife we need to take responsibility for our actions. Teaching wild animals of any kind that people are a safe and easy source of food is a bad idea. Once they’ve become lost their fear of humans, it can be very difficult to re-instill a safe and sensible sense of fear back into animals.
Deer season ended a week ago, but I just shot this pretty buck in my backyard.
He had a healthy sense of fear, and I had to use a long lens.