Why Minnesota's wolf population went up significantly for the first time in years

Here's why that happened for the first time in years.

The number of gray wolves in the state has jumped about 25 percent – the most significant rise in years. 

The DNR said Monday its 2016-17 survey counted 2,856 wolves, which is nearly 600 more than the previous one.

After four years of almost no change in the population, the new figures show there are more wolf packs in the state, the average pack is a little bigger, and they don't have to range over quite so many miles to fill their bellies. 

Why the increase?

It's mainly because there are more deer, the DNR says. 

John Erb, a wolf researcher with the agency, said in the DNR's release that when wolves' main prey was declining from 2005 to 2014, wolf numbers were down too.

But now that trend has turned around. 

The state has tightened deer hunting limits in recent years to help boost the number of whitetails. The DNR says in the part of the state where wolves live (north-central and northeast) deer were up 22 percent last year – an increase almost as big as they saw with wolves.

Will wolf hunting return?

Deer hunting is big business in Minnesota, but wolf hunting and trapping has disappeared.

That's because wolves are currently a federally protected species, thanks to a court ruling from this past summer – so wolves remain federally protected and no state can have a hunting season. (You can read about the history of wolf protections here.)

In places where wolves are preying on livestock or pets, the government sends in trappers to remove them. 

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is a co-sponsor of a bill that would take wolves off the endangered list in four states but there's been no movement on that in Congress recently. 

The DNR says the current wolf count of more than 2,800 is well above the population goals set by the state (1,600) and federal (1,251 to 1,400) governments.

The group Howling For Wolves, which opposes a hunting season, said in an emailed statement the DNR's new population estimate is "encouraging news for an endangered, vulnerable, and valued species in Minnesota."

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DNR working on framework of first wolf hunt

The Game and Fish bill signed into law Thursday allows Minnesotans to legally hunt and trap wolves for the first time in nearly four decades. The legislation gives the DNR authority to set harvest limits and conduct a hunter lottery. About 3,000 wolves live in Minnesota right now and the agency plans to reduce the population by about 400 this fall. The gray wolf was removed from the Federal Endangered Species List in January.