Minnesota's wolves: From hunters to hunted

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2012 - 9:21 AM

Once despised by most, wolves now are revered by many. A November hunt in Minnesota has provoked both sides.

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Called the gray wolf, the animal actually comes in many color phases and can weigh as much as 110 pounds.

"What we most feared had happened. Only the fat of the entrails had been eaten. They were already killing for fun.'' -- Sigurd F. Olson, "The Poison Trail.'' Sports Afield, 1930

Now 75 years old and living in Harris, Minn., John Kullgren was a teenager when he shot what he and others believed was a wolf, which he dropped with a single slug while hunting in Coon Rapids with his dad.

World War II had recently ended, and Minnesota was one of the few states that still harbored remnant populations of Canis lupus -- gray wolves -- or what many people called timber wolves.

With poison, airplane shooting, trapping and night gunning -- a real smorgasbord of killing opportunities long aided and abetted by the state and federal governments -- Minnesota had tried to rid itself of these marauding predators.

But it never could: Wolves that were dispatched were replenished by packs filtering down from Ontario and Manitoba.

"We lived in Fridley, and hunted wolves in Coon Rapids and also in Brooklyn Center,'' Kullgren said. "We'd walk the woods, and when we pushed them into the open, we'd shoot. Also we ran them with hounds. We'd hold the hound until we saw a wolf, then set the hound free to run the wolf down.''

A hunter lucky enough to kill a wolf in Minnesota in the middle of the last century often would transport the carcass to a newspaper office to be photographed for publication to wide public acclaim.

Fast forward to 2012, as Minnesota prepares for its first managed wolf hunt in history.

No longer universally condemned as vermin, wolves -- still the same killing machines that Sigurd Olson once condemned -- today have been upgraded to first-class game status, no different in many ways than ducks, pheasants and deer.

In fact, in a societal twist that defies easy understanding, the wolf today is so revered in some quarters of Minnesota, particularly in and around the Twin Cities, that tens upon tens of thousands of advertising dollars have been spent urging the Department of Natural Resources to stop its wolf hunt -- highly regulated affair that it is, with a limited number of hunters and a 400-animal quota.

Shouts one billboard to passing motorists along Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul:

"Stop DNR Torture. Now or Never.''

Transformation in thinking

Sigurd Olson, who died in 1982 at age 82, is remembered worldwide as a groundbreaking standard-bearer for wilderness preservation.

In his wildly popular books, in his role as president of the Wilderness Society and as the longtime leader of a still-vital movement dating to the 1940s to protect the boundary waters, Olson is recalled today for his view that all plants and animals in an ecosystem are critical to the integrity of the whole.

But Olson didn't achieve this mindset overnight. In the mid-1920s, when he was a young canoe guide living in Ely, his disposition toward wolves reflected the nation's at large; generally, that the best wolf is a dead wolf.

"Such jaws and teeth,'' he wrote in Sports Afield about a winter trip he took with government trappers to pick up dead wolves they had snared. "It was little wonder that they could ham-string moose or deer and drag them down.''

Already the federal Bureau of Biological Survey was on the tail of these miscreant canines. In 1915, it had been given $125,000 by Congress to hire trappers and hunters to target wolves and other predators. Soon thereafter followed the slaughter of tens of thousands of bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes, as well as wolves.

Not everyone agreed with the policy. As David Backes recounts in "A Wilderness Within,'' his biography of Olson, at the meeting of the American Society of Mammalogists in 1923, questions were raised about the important -- but at the time, largely unknown -- role predators might play in the larger scheme of things.

Unimpressed, the Biological Survey charged ahead. In 1930, it asked Congress for $10 million to begin a long march toward the extinction of many of the nation's wild pillagers.

The conflict was predictable.

Vilified since biblical times in lore, legend and writing, wolves in North America had relatively recently lost their primary prey, bison. Now in increasing measure they turned to deer, moose and elk, and also cattle and sheep as people and their livestock moved ever further into rural America.

In return, government "wolfers'' extinguished entire packs of wolves, often with strychnine, a brutal poison that was dumped onto sheep and cattle carcasses and hauled into forest and field, where it subsequently was carried by adults to their dens and pups.

Then, for Olson, times changed.

Frustrated with his early attempts to support his family as a writer, he returned to graduate school. A reluctant student but an expansive reader, he found himself subsequently converted to the ecologist's viewpoint that recognized the value of predators to the broader landscape.

Olson's mentor had been Aldo Leopold, whose similar conversion arguably set the stage decades later for a wholesale rethinking about predators.

In 1949, Leopold wrote:

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf ... When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg ... We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Modern times

Paradoxically, were Olson and Leopold alive today, they might support the limited wolf hunt that begins in Minnesota on Nov. 3. They knew well that all wildlife depends for its continued existence on at least nominal public support.

Protected since 1974 by the Endangered Species Act, the wolf has boosted its numbers in Minnesota about threefold, to an estimated 3,000.

But tolerance for wolves here always has balanced on a knife's edge, and still does, as conflicts anew have followed their population increase.

Northern Minnesotans, for example, complain that cattle and sheep are attacked regularly, costing the state record sums in depredation claims. And whitetail hunters grumble that the region's deer herds are thinned or put to flight.

Generations-old as these grievances might be, total extirpation of the wolf has been tried and failed, and also total protection. This retooled hunt with its fair chase rules will be something in between.

"No one wants to see the wolf gone,'' said retired state Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls, who has shot three wolves, one each when he was 15, 16, and 17 years old.

"Most people in the north respect the wolf. But there are too many of them.''

Maureen Hackett, founder of a Twin Cities group called Howling for Wolves, sponsor of the "stop the torture'' billboards, disagrees.

"The DNR has no business having a hunt for these animals for sport,'' she says.

Forever cleaved between these two factions, and quite indifferent to each, is the wolf.

Always hunting. And now hunted again.

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