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In the hunt to de-list wolves

John Coulter, left, and Ray Hagemeyer, of New London, on a successful elk hunting trip in the west. Coulter, a retired teacher from Tracy and passionate hunter, is the Midwest representative for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and advocates legislation to de-list the wolf. Submitted photo

WILLMAR -- A passion for hunting has led John Coulter from his classroom as a teacher in Tracy to the mountains of the western states, wilds of Alaska and even the African bush.

It may bring him next to the hallways of the nation's capitol.

Coulter, 62, now retired from teaching, is the Midwest representative for Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife. The hunting advocacy group has set its sights on seeing the new Congress adopt legislation to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List.

"They are not endangered," said Coulter.

Taking the wolf off the list, or de-listing, would allow states to manage wolf populations in place of existing federal laws. Adopted when wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1973, the federal laws are aimed at expanding wolf numbers and their range.

Mission accomplished, according to Coulter. He said "science is on our side" in showing that wolf populations have more than rebounded. He said the big concern now -- especially in some western states -- is that wolves are preying too heavily on the big game animals that hunters favor, such as elk.

Coulter has helped guide hunters on big game adventures in the west, and said there are areas in Idaho where he could no longer steer hunters in good conscience. "Right now all they'd get is a nice trail ride," he said.

Coulter is trying to rally hunters to lobby their representatives in Congress to support the de-listing legislation.

Minnesota has a big stake in all of this. It is home to the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states.

The most recent estimate puts the state's wolf population at 3,000, according to Dan Stark, wolf manager for Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The state is in favor of de-listing, according to Stark.

If put back in the state's hands, the management plan calls for maintaining a minimum, winter population of 1,600 wolves in the state. There is no maximum goal, according to Stark.

The state would have separate, north and south management zones for wolves. The southern zone would have fewer protections for wolves, and allow for legal measures to harass and if necessary eliminate wolves when they pose threats to livestock or people.

Minnesota's wolf population has been stable since 1998. The number of depredation reports has been stable for the last 10 years in the state, but the last two years have seen an increase above the 10-year average, according to information from the DNR.

Most Minnesotans may never get the opportunity to hunt big game in the west, but it's another story when it comes to chasing whitetails close to home. Stark said research in Minnesota shows that wolves alone have little impact on the deer population in the state. However, combined with winter severity and hunter harvest, wolves are an important component of deer mortality in the forest deer range.

"Overall, wolves take about 10 percent of the 450,000 deer in Minnesota's northern forests, but are not a driver in the number of deer available to hunters," Stark stated in an e-mail.

Coulter believes individual states are the best stewards of their wildlife populations, and that de-listing will do nothing to harm the viability of the wolf population.

He'd like to see the day when a regulated wolf harvest is allowed to manage the population. It would create a constituency for the wolf to assure its place in the bigger wildlife picture.

And, he doubts that hunting pressure could ever harm its population. "I don't think we would put a dent in them," said Coulter. "It's like trying to catch smoke."

There are other metaphors for getting laws changed in Washington, but on this one Coulter is optimistic. He said the science and the voice of hunters are too strong to ignore.

He pointed out that U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minnesota, is among those who have taken an active role in supporting legislation for de-listing.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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