The bill now goes to a Senate environment budget committee, where its prospects are uncertain.
Opponents of wolf hunting won a victory Thursday as a Minnesota Senate panel voted 7-6 for a five-year moratorium on future wolf seasons.
An overflow crowd made up mostly of wolf hunting opponents heard several people argue before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee that the state acted too hastily when it decided to resume sport hunting and trapping after the region's wolves came off the endangered list early last year. Hunters and trappers then killed 413 wolves during the state's first wolf season, which ended in January.
Supporters of the hunt testified the state's wolf population has recovered enough to allow for properly managed hunting and trapping, and they said years of study and legal battles preceded the hunt.
The bill now goes to a Senate environment budget committee, where its prospects are uncertain. No hearing has been scheduled for a similar bill in the House.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Howard Goldman, the state director of the Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged after the vote.
A Department of Natural Resources study in 2007 estimated the state's winter wolf population at about 3,000, and the DNR says monitoring since then shows the population is stable. Another comprehensive survey is now under way.
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, chief sponsor of the moratorium bill, said Minnesota should have stuck with a provision in the state's original wolf management plan that called for a five-year wait on a resumption of hunting and trapping. She said lawmakers circumvented that plan when they voted in 2011 to authorize the hunt.
Former Sen. John Hottinger, now representing the Sierra Club, said the provision was "slipped into a bill that had to pass" during a special session to end the state government shutdown in 2011. He said Eaton's bill would correct "one of the more blatant abuses of our legislative process in recent memory."
But Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, disputed that. She said the same language was in a version of the budget bill that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed, and that it was amply vetted during the 2011 session.
"There were lots of hearings and lots of opportunities for input," Benson said.
Wayne Johnson, treasurer of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, testified that years of litigation to block the federal government from taking the region's wolves off the endangered list accomplished the same purposes as the five-year wait in the state's 2001 management plan. That plan anticipated "delisting" by around 2003, according to the DNR.
"In other words, time served," Johnson said.
But much of the testimony focused on whether the state should allow hunting and trapping of wolves at all, except possibly to protect livestock and public safety.
"There's only one reason for a wolf hunt. And that's sport, trophy recreational killing. No more, no less," Goldman testified.
The bill is largely the work of a group called Howling for Wolves. Its founder, Dr. Maureen Hackett, testified it was misguided for the state to resume hunting and trapping so soon after wolves came off the endangered list.
"The vast majority of Minnesotans value the wolf as an asset to protect for future generations," Hackett said.