have legs, will travel
Sightings of wolves, black bears become more common
By Dan Butterfass
Just 10 or 15 years ago, if you told area wildlife officials you thought you saw a wolf or bear wandering around in southeastern Minnesota, it might have been dismissed as wishful thinking, a figment of your imagination.
But recently, with the increasing frequency of documented sightings of large predators such as wolves and black bears in our region, state Department of Natural Resources officials have grown less skeptical of such reports.
"The trend over the last five years is that wolf and bear sightings are more frequent, more so than ever before," says John Cole, manager of the 30,000-acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. "I didn't ever hear of any when I first arrived here in the late 1970s."
While confirmed sightings of wolves and bears in the blufflands remain sporadic, Cole and others point to expanding wolf and bear populations in northern and central Minnesota, as well as neighboring Wisconsin, as a likely reason for the increase in local sightings.
As wolf and bear ranges have become saturated in other parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, some juveniles -- usually males -- have pioneered new territories, says Mike Tenney, assistant DNR wildlife manager in this region. The young, pioneering male bears and wolves are likely those that are now being sighted in Minnesota's blufflands, he says.
Wolves and bears probably arrive here by wandering the major river corridors into the region -- down the St. Croix Valley and along the Mississippi from the north, and from Wisconsin by crossing the big river.
"Boaters have spotted bears over the years swimming in both directions across the Mississippi," says Jack Heather, the region's DNR wildlife manager. "The bear population in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin is very healthy and expanding, with the result that young male bears sometimes wander off to pioneer new territories."
Given the rapid expansion of the wolf range during the last decade, experts have speculated that it's only a matter of time before two or three packs attempt to inhabit the southeastern part of Minnesota. So far this hasn't happened, but with two or three viable packs now living near Eau Claire and also just north of Tomah, Wis., "it's not a stretch to think that wolves may eventually wind up here," says Heather.
Sightings in the area have become increasingly common. Three years ago, a mature timber wolf was struck and killed by a truck along U.S. 52 near IBM. Wildlife officials confirmed that it was a wild wolf. Heather, Tenney, and Cole also confirm several other timber wolf sightings in the region in recent years.
In the early 1990s, a Winona County farmer shot a wolf that he mistook for a large dog or coyote. That wolf had been attacking one of his calves.
And in the winter of 1999-2000, a pair of wolves answered a coyote hunter's predator call in the East Indian Creek Valley west of Weaver. One wolf was shot and killed, and later proved to be a female; the other wolf, a much larger one (most likely a male) ran off unscathed. The female had been radio-collared near Tomah, Wis., and probably traveled a major river corridor to get here.
In both shooting incidents, a conservation officer or DNR official was called to the scene. Though it remains illegal to shoot a timber wolf, which is protected under federal threatened-species laws, no fines were levied against the farmer or coyote hunter. Both shootings were clearly cases of mistaken identity. Even wildlife officials admit they were surprised to discover that wild timber wolves were traveling through blufflands farm country.
Habitat and prey
Though wolf biologists and local wildlife experts can't predict with certainty when wolves and black bears might move permanently back into the blufflands, they believe the area has enough suitable habitat, as well as an adequate supply of prey, to support small breeding populations of both species.
Wolves prey primarily on white-tailed deer, which are abundant in the blufflands, and there are still enough remote, nearly roadless areas to support at least a small number of packs.
The region's fragmented mix of oak forest and croplands could even prove to be a boon to bears. Much like people, bears are opportunistic eaters, as well as true omnivores, which means they readily eat both plants and animals.
"The marriage of agriculture and forest we have here is really suitable for bears," says Cole. "They feast on acorns, and we have a vast oak forest out there to feed them. They'll also depredate on crops, oats in their milk stage, and clover fields ... but they often become viewed as a nuisance animal wherever their populations are high."
"That Mississippi River ecosystem is vast," says Tom Ryan, of Olmsted County's Oxbow Park, "and still viable enough to support a few bears, and a few wolf packs, but it will be very difficult for them to sustain a breeding population in this region, and the reason for this is a continued lack of public tolerance of large predators.
"Look how we still vilify coyotes in this region," Ryan says. "Coyotes are often blamed for the stuff that four or five neighborhood dogs running at night are probably responsible for. I'm always chagrined that coyotes still get so much of a bad rap."
Bears would probably not pose much, if any, threat to livestock, other than perhaps an occasional calf or lamb, which makes them somewhat more likely than wolves to be tolerated in small numbers by humans. Bears are also highly adaptable to the presence of humans.
As for the timber wolf, studies show that less than 1 percent of wolves in their current range cause problems for livestock, Ryan said. While the state of Minnesota has made it clear that large predators will remain under protection, the state has also instituted liberal depredation and problem-wolf trapping policies, which favor farmers and ranchers.
In mapping a course for future management of wolf populations in farm areas, Ryan says, "the state of Minnesota is dedicated to making wolf-human interactions as amenable as possible to farmers."
Whether such policies will be enough to appease those farmers and ranchers who might deal directly with the wolf on a daily basis is the crux of the matter.
Coyotes on the rise
The coyote is another species that Ryan and others agree has been on the rise in the area for the past 15 years. Tenney thinks this has a lot to do with the Conservation Reserve Program, which took thousands of marginal croplands out of production, with a resultant rise in populations of the coyote's favored prey, mice and rabbits.
Red fox numbers in this region have dwindled, though, as coyote numbers have increased. In the same way, if a pack or two of wolves moved into the area, coyote numbers would drop. Wolves, in turn, are tolerant of the red fox, and where there are good wolf populations, the red fox numbers remain stable.
Coyotes are the ultimate survivors, and it's for this reason that Ryan and others, including Native Americans whose legends often portray the coyote as an intelligent and cunning trickster, find so much to admire about them.
"In the era of pioneer settlement, we were very systematic and efficient in our methods of trying to eradicate them," says Ryan. "We shot them in great numbers, trapped and poisoned them, flooded their dens, all but eliminated part of their prey-base (white-tailed deer), and the coyote still survived."
The coyote remains the only large mammalian predator that was never driven from the region. Today, there's no limit on the number of coyotes that can be taken by predator hunters, yet they are still thriving.
Indeed, for decades, the coyote, along with the eastern timber rattlesnake, remained perhaps the last easily identifiable symbols of the region's pre-settlement wildness.
Human tolerance might once again become the limiting factor in the eventual return of small, self-sustaining, populations of large predators such as the timber wolf and black bear into the blufflands region.
"Whether we'll see populations big enough to breed and raise young depends on human tolerance more than anything else, and will determine whether we have them in a more permanent fashion," Heather says.
Butterfass is a Rochester outdoorsman and free-lance writer. To contact him, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.