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NORTH OF ORR, MINN. - Julian Brzoznowski isn't easily buffaloed when the subject is wolves. He's watched them kill his cattle, argued about them in court, and seen them trapped by the dozens on his property.
Decades ago, he even found one hung on a fencepost, vigilante-style.
"I don't know how that happened,'' he said. "Couldn't tell you.''
Now retired, with his cattle long ago sent to slaughter houses, Brzoznowski, 71, on Friday saw something he thought he might never see: the removal of Minnesota's gray wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act.
"It's been a long time,'' he said.
Brzoznowski still lives in the house where he was born and can look out his front window across U.S. Hwy. 53, which connects Duluth to International Falls, to the old barn where he, and his dad before him, fed cattle during a lot of tough winters.
"When Dad bought this land in the 1930s, the highway was nothing but a gravel road,'' he said. "Dad didn't want the barn too close to the house, and the road didn't have much traffic then, so he could just walk across to it. We could load cattle easier that way, too, being close to the road.
"Of course, wolves, they went into the barn, too. At night.''
In 1974, when the federal government fully protected Minnesota's wolves, Brzoznowski was a survive-at-all-costs cattleman with a wife and three kids.
His life might have taken a different turn had he accepted a scholarship he was offered to play baseball for the University of Wisconsin.
But the year he graduated from high school, his mother died, and his fate was sealed. He'd be staying home, tending cattle in unforgiving country.
"We always had wolves around here, even back when Dad bought the place, but they were always controlled,'' he said. "We had bounties on them, and two guys made a living trapping them. We could live with the wolves and not lose too many cattle.''
"Then the government put them on the endangered species list, and the number of wolves trapped [and removed] on our property tripled. We were losing thousands of dollars in cattle. And there was no compensation.''
This was one day last week, and as Brzoznowski spoke, a pair of pine grosbeaks picked at a mixture of corn and sunflower seeds outside his kitchen window.
Radios across Minnesota soon would crackle with details of a wolf hunting and trapping season planned by the Department of Natural Resources.
Too late, too little, Brzoznowski says.
"We don't have any deer left. Not anymore. Wolves got 'em.
"Years ago, we had so many deer that the bus running up to International Falls would pull in here to shine its headlights on our fields to show the passengers. We'd have 150 or more at one time in a field, feeding.
"This past season, hunters around here barely saw a deer.''
• • •
The federal government played a lot of cards trying to keep wolves away from Brzoznowski's cattle.
At one point officials placed red flags around his fence line -- all 12 miles of it -- and rigged his pastures with "bangers'' that simulated gunfire.
"All that did was scare the cattle into one corner of the property, where the wolves could get 'em easier,'' he said.
By 1976, northern Minnesota was a hotbed of anti-wolf sentiment. A group called SOS -- Sportsmen's Only Salvation -- sprang up, and soon dead wolves were found splayed in front of government buildings and newspaper offices, their scraggly coats spray painted in large script: SOS.
Wolf head dumped at Trib read one headline.
Fear of Wolves Grips Two Towns read another.
" 'Shoot, Shovel and Shutup,' " Brzoznowski said. "That's how people up here felt about wolves.''
When a "computer projection'' was published saying that wolves would eradicate deer in northern Minnesota by 1985, tempers flared still more.
Brzoznowski had had enough. He filed suit in U.S. District Court in Duluth in 1976 against the federal government, seeking $58,350 in damages for lost livestock.
"At the time the federal government said there were only 300 wolves in the state,'' Brzoznowski said. "That couldn't be true, because that year they trapped 61 on my property alone.''
Wolf expert David Mech said in 1977 if Minnesota wolves could be stabilized between 1,000 and 1,200 animals, they could be reclassified under the Endangered Species Act from endangered to threatened.
When Brzoznowski's case came before federal judge Miles Lord, Lord said: "I think we're all in favor of a healthy wolf crop. But you gotta lay a little buckshot on some of them to get them to stay away.''
Lord ruled for Brzoznowski but was overturned on appeal. Subsequently, livestock owners were compensated by the government for animals lost to wolves.
In 1978, Minnesota wolves were reclassified as threatened, a status they maintained until Friday.
Now the DNR estimates the state's wolf population at about 3,000 -- a figure Brzoznowski says is far too low.
"And the idea that wolves can be hunted, like the DNR is proposing, is a farce,'' he said. "The only way you could hunt wolves in December, as they're saying, is to put hunters into deer yards, where deer gather for winter, and let the hunters hunt at night. That's when wolves hunt, at night.
"And trapping? If they let just anyone try to trap a wolf, all they'll do is educate 'em. You have a bunch of novices out there, and they'll teach 'em to avoid traps.
"Wolves are smart.
"You won't get 'em.''
One more thing, Brzoznowski says.
"I never got my $58,000.''
Dennis Anderson email@example.com
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