Researcher Tom Gable

Researcher Tom Gable, right, holds a sedated wolf as another biologist collects samples and measurements as part of the Voyageurs National Park Wolf Project

The Voyageurs National Park Wolf Project is in jeopardy should the Minnesota Senate follow through with the idea it will not pursue a bill allocating money from the state's Environment and Natural Resource Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources.

The ENRTF is the project's main source money. The fund was created in 1988, when 77 percent of Minnesota voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing it. It's dedicated money is to provide a long-term, consistent, and stable source of funding for activities that protect, conserve, preserve, and enhance Minnesota's "air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources" for the benefit of current citizens and future generations. Since 1991, the ENRTF has provided approximately $700 million to more over 1,700 projects around the state, said the LCCMR website.

International Falls Rep. Rob Ecklund is a member, along with four other representatives, five senators, five citizens appointed by the governor, one citizen appointed by the Senate, and one citizen appointed by the House.

He encouraged people concerned about the funding to email the three LCCMR co-chairs and let them know they would like to see an LCCMR bill passed.

"We do listen to what our constituents say," he noted.

Without an approved bill, the money now designated could be rolled forward into a bill next year, or it would go back into the trust fund, he said.

Ecklund said there it no question about the wolf project's value, but the issue instead is a result of a disagreement between the LCCMR members who want to include wastewater infrastructure funding, and those who believe using the trust fund for wastewater infrastructure would violate the constitutional amendment that established the fund.

"I am hoping there still will be a bill," Ecklund said. "There is time.... It puts people to work in the state of Minnesota. It's a good fund."

He said it takes a super majority of the LCCMR to recommend a bill for funding to the Legislature.

Besides the VNP Wolf Project, funding for a Ranier fishing pier and Crane Lake visitor use facility and campground would also be cut without an approved bill this year, he said.

"If I had to bet now, I would bet we have an LCCMR bill," he said. "This is part of the sausage-making."

Ecklund said he's enjoyed watching the developments of the project on its Facebook page, which project leader Tom Gable reports has reached more than 17.1 million people and currently has 48,731 people following the project since its social medial posts began in 2018.

The knowledge gained by the project is many fold, and he's very interested in how wolves interact with deer and moose, as well as people, which could provide a better understanding of many things, including whether the state needs or should have another wolf hunting season.

Ecklund added he "never dreamed" they ate blueberries and caught fish, revealed on Facebook posts.

Bob DeGross, VNP superintendent, said the park and its partners have been lucky recipients of LCCMR funding in the past, supporting important projects that have improved the ability to wisely manage natural resources and improve visitor experiences with their environment.

He said the park is currently recommended to receive funding in the current cycle for another valuable project, "Do Beavers Buffer Against Droughts and Floods?," that will expand understanding of water storage and availability in the border lakes region.

"Our project partners, the University of Minnesota, are also recommended for funding to continue the collaborative Voyageurs Wolf Project, which continues to provide critical information that we use to meet National Park Service mandates to conserve wildlife species and manage for functioning ecosystems," DeGross said this week. "This project also continues to provide new insights into wolf behavior, and its social media has been outstanding, garnering interest from around the world."

Gable summed up for The Journal the value of the project: "We seek to couple cutting-edge wolf research with highly-effective outreach, which we think has tremendous value to both the scientific and public communities."

The project was started to address one of the biggest knowledge gaps in wolf ecology: What do wolves do during the summer?

"Little is known about wolf predation at this time because of the difficulties and challenges of studying wolf predation during summer - it takes a lot of time in the field, specialized experience, and dedication," he said. "That is, many aspects of wolf ecology and their interactions and possible impacts on prey populations from spring until fall in ecosystems like Minnesota are pretty much entirely unknown."

The project developed rigorous search methods to investigate wolf behavior during the summer by fitting wolves with satellite GPS-collars, he said.

"From search efforts we learn where wolves are killing prey and the locations of den and rendezvous sites for pups, all of which allows us to connect critical facets of wolf behavior during the summer to important ecological factors, prey populations, and human interactions," he said. "Given initial results of our research - which was described as 'a breakthrough' by international wolf experts - we have an unparalleled opportunity to provide critical information for the successful conservation and management of wolves, their prey, and the southern boreal ecosystem. This work benefits not only Minnesota’s iconic north woods, but boreal systems around the globe from North America to Asia."

Gable said the project has always wanted to share the research with experts as well as regular folks who want to know more about VNP and its ecology.

"We think our work helps highlight the amazing natural resources of the Voyageurs National Park, the surrounding area, and northern Minnesota as a whole," he said, noting Facebook posts are being seen by an average of 78,000 people per day, from across the world.

"We firmly believe that the Voyageurs area is a national treasure that too few people know about or appreciate," he said. "Our hope is that our work captures and helps share the wonder and beauty of the area's natural resources with the world. 

Christina Hausman Rhode, executive director of Voyageurs National Park Association, said it's not likely the project could continue without the LCCMR funding because of the broad lack of funding for environment and research work.

"All national parks with wolf populations have sustained and ongoing research and monitoring efforts," she said. "Voyageurs should be no different. Beyond the scientific gains, the project helps engage millions online with Voyageurs National Park. The exposure and human connection to the amazing ecosystems of Voyageurs is immeasurable."