Minnesota's wolf population last winter was down some from the previous winter but statistically unchanged, the state Department of Natural Resources announced Monday, Sept 24.

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The DNR's winter population estimate came in at 2,655 wolves spread among 465 packs.

Because the margin of error in the estimate is so big, plus or minus 700, that number is pretty close to the 2,856 wolves in 500 packs reported in 2017.

The fact the changes are subtle from year-to-year "indicate that Minnesota supports a healthy wolf population and the long-term trends demonstrate that the wolf population is fully recovered'' from its near extinction in the 1970s, said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR.

The population survey is conducted in midwinter near the low point of the annual population cycle. Immediately after the birth of pups each spring, the wolf population typically doubles, though many pups do not survive to the following winter. Pack counts during winter are assumed to represent minimum estimates given the challenges with detecting all members of a pack together at the same time.

Survey results suggest pack sizes were the same as last year (4.85 versus 4.8) and packs used larger territories (61 versus 54 square miles) than the previous winter.

Although wolf population estimates have been conducted annually since 2012, the estimate of the size of the range of wolves across the state is only completed every five years. This year's survey estimated a 9,321 square mile increase in total wolf range from the 2012-2013 wolf population survey, but it also found that only about 23 percent of this new area, or 2,175 square miles, was actually occupied by wolves.

Wolves remain a federally protected species in Minnesota, under federal court order, meaning they can only be killed by federal trappers except in emergency cases. While wolf supporters want to see more of the big predators here the state's official goal is a minimum of 1,600 wolves.

Wolf supporters Monday criticized the DNR for not using better science and technology to pinpoint the wolf population.

"The current method of estimating wolves is not only inaccurate, it tells us very little about how our wolves are doing and their future potential to exist in their changing habitat,'' said Maureen Hackett, president of Howling for Wolves, noting that "26 of the 54 wolves collared for this population estimate have gone missing or are dead."