State of wolves

Lia, a gray wolf at the Minnesota Zoo. Video courtesy of Voyageurs Wolf Project.

In Minnesota's North Woods, where wolves were never eradicated, researchers are unlocking the secrets of how wolves behave and how people can live with them.

Unlocking the secrets of the wolf, Minnesota's ancient predator

Minnesota has about as many wolves as the rest of the Lower 48 states combined, and is the only state outside Alaska to never exterminate them. The mysterious predators and the people who live alongside them hold the secrets to coexisting and show just how much more there is to learn.
he wolf waited silently, caught in a trap a few yards into the woods.
Biologists Thomas Gable and Austin Homkes approached slowly, carrying a sedative attached to the end of a long pole.
The wolf, thinking it was the nearby branches that trapped him, gnawed at every twig and stick he could reach. He looked thin, as all Minnesota wolves do in the late spring, and was likely young, judging from the way he kept his tail between his legs as the two researchers crept in.
He was a lone wolf, following an overgrown logging road through the outskirts of another pack's territory. That's dangerous ground — wolves will try to kill or chase off any others that step into their territory.
The wolf pivoted within what little leeway he had, trying to keep both men in front of him. Gable stayed in front; Homkes crouched behind. A quick jab with the needle and the wolf fell asleep.
"It's a good capture," Gable said. "Everything looks in good condition."
Scientists have learned more about wolves in the last 50 years than in all previously recorded history. A great deal of that — perhaps most of that — was learned in Minnesota, the only contiguous state to never exterminate them. And yet, in recent years, much of what has been known and discovered has been ignored or downplayed as two vocal and opposing camps have politicized the gray wolf like no animal before it.

No animal has been both as beloved and as hated, as steeped in myth and cultural tradition. Native American tribes of the Great Lakes long considered the wolf a peer, a brother who hunted the same game and whose fate was intertwined with their own. European settlers came and saw them as a scourge, an unwelcome obstacle for deer and elk hunters, ranchers and fur traders, and spent more than 400 years trapping, shooting and poisoning the wolf to the brink of extinction.
The federal government intervened in the 1970s, when all wolves outside Alaska were dead except the few hundred hanging on deep in Minnesota's northern woods and on an island in Lake Superior.
Those federal protections did not resolve the lingering fights over the future of the wolf, spawning decades of lawsuits over its status and hunting rights, bouncing the animal on and off the endangered species list.
Today, the wolf's future on the American landscape has become as much a political question as an ecological one. Misinformation abounds from both those who would protect every wolf and those who would drastically reduce their numbers.
Minnesota has as many wolves as the rest of the Lower 48 combined, and biologists have flocked to the state for decades to study how they behave and survive. Yet most Minnesotans will never see one in the wild. Wolves remain remarkably hidden even as they have rebounded from the brink to a population approaching the limit of what their human neighbors appear willing to tolerate.
If there is any place that offers the nation answers, and a way out of the quagmire of lawsuits and court battles, of de-listings and re-listings, of tossed-aside state management plans and population goals, it is here, in Minnesota's northern woods, where wolves have always roamed.
"A lot of people say they don't mind wolves, but they just don't want so many of them," Gable said. "Some people will say the science says this or the science says that. But really they're talking about ethical questions, values questions. What do you value?"
As other parts of the country fight over the future of the ancient predators, they can look to the knowledge gained by researchers and wildlife managers in Minnesota, home to an astounding 2,700 gray wolves. The sheer number of them, so close to civilization, along with improved tracking technology, offers unprecedented insights into how humans can live with them.
Yet even in Minnesota, there remains so much more to learn.

Catching and tagging O1T

"It's a good capture. Everything looks in good condition," said biologist Thomas Gable. Follow Gable and Austin Homkes of the Voyageurs Wolf Project as they trap a wolf for research. Click to read more about each photo.

On the trail of wolves

Voyageurs National Park has about eight wolf packs at any given time. The park, more water than land, spans about 300 square miles of lakes, islands and towering red pine and aspen forest at Minnesota's border with Canada. Each pack is small, made up of a breeding male and female along with their offspring that survive and stick around — typically no more than three or four, but often just one or two. They seem to carve out their territories in large circles, each about 50 square miles, and rarely venture outside of them.
Running into another pack is so dangerous for a wolf that deer have learned to avoid them by staying in contested grounds — along the territorial boundaries that wolves tend to avoid.
A few years before catching the young lone wolf, Gable and Homkes trapped and collared the top male of that area — known as V071 — the breeding wolf of the Lightfoot pack.
V071 had just taken over his corner of the woods when the two biologists started the Voyageurs Wolf Project in 2015. He'd either killed, wounded or frightened off the older wolf that had held that corner before him.
V071 had a wide face and lion-like mane. He, too, had chewed all the trees and branches he could reach. But he did not silently pace as the researchers approached. He stood, hackles up, ready to fight. He stared Gable in the eyes and unleashed a deep, contemptuous bark.
"The more dominant wolves can take on an 'I'm going to kill you' mentality that young wolves and lone wolves typically don't," Gable said.
The young wolf caught last year did not try to stay near V071's territory.
Gable and Homkes pulled the unconscious 2-year-old male out of the trap. Ticks covered his neck and chin. Homkes laid him on a tarp, weighed him — 65 pounds — and took a blood sample.
Then they checked his teeth — a wolf's only weapon, and the great governor of their lives. If wolves can stay accident- and disease-free, they will generally live as long as their teeth will let them, until they are too rubbed down, cracked or broken to lunge face-first at the deer and moose they need to survive. That's usually eight or nine years.
The researchers put a camera on his collar before returning him to the wild, gaining a rare first-person view of a few weeks in the life of one of nature's most extraordinary and versatile predators.
They watched him nap, sip from streams and devour newborn fawns. He stumbled across an old deer skull one early morning and laid down and crunched on it. He kept moving, in almost random directions, searching for a place of his own.
Gable and Homkes started the Voyageurs Wolf Project — almost entirely paid for by the state's lottery revenue that goes to the Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund — to fill a great knowledge gap in wolf ecology: How do they behave and survive in the summer?
Almost nobody sees wolves during summer. They are nearly impossible to spot, even with radio collars, under the thick brush and foliage of the northern woods. They stop hunting in packs, too. The females hunker in dens to defend their pups while the males bring back smaller meals, such as beaver, fawns, moose calves or even fish.

A wolf's path

Wolf O1T roamed dozens of miles after being collared on May 24, 2021, south of Lake Kabetogama. The short videos from his collar, which tracked him for about a month, gave researchers a new window into wolf behavior, sometimes revealing individual quirks.

Location 1
Location 2
Location 3
Source: University of Minnesota, Voyageurs Wolf Project
Their summer research became possible only when advances in GPS technology, battery life and trail cameras allowed Gable and Homkes to pinpoint the exact locations of the wolves.
They plot every spot where one of their collared wolves stopped for more than 20 minutes — long enough to eat. Then the biologists bushwhack for miles along deer trails and beaver ponds, through deer tick nests and bogs, biting flies and mosquitoes, to every one of those spots to search for tufts of fur or bone or blood or anything that will tell them what the wolf just ate.
Their efforts have revealed individual quirks, traits and skills that wolves and sometimes entire packs develop to survive, said Joe Bump, who has worked with Gable and Homkes since 2017 and brought the project under the umbrella of the University of Minnesota.
"You think, 'wolves are wolves,' but we know that's not the case," Bump said. "We still don't know why certain wolves kill more beaver than others. Is it all age or experience? Is it learning? Is it ones with bad teeth, or do some wolves just like the taste of beaver?"

Revealing the unknown

One wolf in the Cranberry Bay pack that rules the northwest corner of the national park is an all-star beaver hunter. He killed 42 beavers in the summer of 2020, where most wolves would do well to catch a handful. Some wolves fail to get any.

Roaming for miles

Source: University of Minnesota, Voyageurs Wolf Project
The Beaver Hunter (VO83, below), tends to stay in a tight area on the shores of Rainy Lake and subsists largely on beaver. In September and October 2020, scientists confirmed it made 13 beaver kills.

The Highway Wolf (W1T, above), travels farther afield but rarely crosses highways 53 and 217 southeast of International Falls. In September and October 2021, collar data showed it only crossed a handful of times, usually following closely alongside instead.
Wolves hunt the large rodents more like cats than dogs, waiting downwind to ambush them along trails when they come up from the water to gnaw down trees.
Why some are so proficient and others so bad at hunting beavers is one of the questions that keeps Gable hiking long hours through humid forests, swamps and bogs each summer.
The disparity makes sense if you think about it, he said. Just look at the range of habits and athletic traits in humans. Comparing one beaver-hunting wolf to another may be like comparing Michael Jordan to a rec-league basketball player.
Wolves are as idiosyncratic as any other creature.
One of their collared wolves refuses to cross a highway. It has roamed hundreds of miles, back and forth, following the highway, but only ventured across it a handful of times.
Still others will hang out in the back parking lots of Walmarts and taverns.
One wolf stockpiled fish, catching one at a time, squirreling it away, going back to the river to catch one more, never pausing while the fishing stayed hot. Then, the wolf feasted on them all at once.
All that data may eventually help the state and public answer some important management questions.
Why have moose populations fallen nearly everywhere in Minnesota except in Voyageurs National Park? Because beaver are so abundant there, it's possible that wolves are spending more time trying to ambush them and less time chasing moose calves, Gable said.
The project may someday have enough data to see how, or if, beaver, moose, deer and wolf populations all influence one another.
"You need a really robust data set to dive into that," he said.
Many long-term questions may take years to answer. Why do wolves disperse the way they do? Sometimes it seems random; other times, pack mates start out in opposite directions and travel separately for hundreds of miles, only to meet up with each other again.
What happens to pup survival over the decades? "You can learn what pup survival was this year, but it won't tell you anything," Homkes said.
Homkes once approached a clearing that had been a wolf rendezvous point — a place where yearlings too big for a den and too small to hunt wait for their parents and packmates to return with food.
He was sure the wolves had abandoned the spot by then; still, he howled into the woods to find out. Surprisingly, young wolves ran out to him, yipping.
An old wolf walked out, too. It didn't appear to notice Homkes. The yearlings turned to the old wolf, which began regurgitating food for them.
After they left, Homkes searched the trampled grass for what the old wolf had brought the pups. Blueberries.
"We've always thought of berries as more of a starvation food source," Homkes said. "But this shows that they're not just that. This wolf was eating them to bring them back."
Who knew?

A story in the snow

Gable woke to a mortality signal on an early January morning. One of the collared wolves hadn't moved in so long it was likely dead.
It was 30 below zero outside. He followed the GPS ping to a spot just off a road and snowmobile trail. He suspected the animal had been poached or hit by a car.
Instead, he spotted a blood trail in the snow and realized the death wasn't caused by humans. He followed the blood away from the body, back to where it started a dozen yards into the woods, where thick snowdrifts covered fallen cedars.
More than one wolf had left tracks. The animals had packed the snow into a hard surface under the weight of a fight. Blood speckled the trunks of the trees, the twigs of the little branches.
Reading the story in the snow, Gable surmised that two wolves had attacked one.
They could have been fighting over a kill, or territory. The winners walked back into the woods. The loser, fatally wounded, staggered out toward the road. He collapsed in a snowbank, got up, and fell over again. He inched back into the woods and died under a leaning pine tree.
It was V071.
The breeding pack leader with a wide face and lion-like mane was 7 to 9 years old, a long life for a wild wolf. He had ruled his turf for at least five years before passing his prime.
The researchers are not sure how long it took the wolf to die.
Gable recalled when he first became fascinated by wolves. He saw one in the distance, from his family's cabin, walking out among the shadows of frozen Lake Huron.
After years of setting traps, of missing and catching wolves, of studying their tracks in the mud and snow, he may know as much as anyone about wolves in the wild. But he still has so many unanswered questions, he said. Maybe more than when he started.
"We're so close to knowing them, but we can't quite get there," he said. "The mystery around them — it's like if I can just know this or know this, I'll have it. We're just chasing that allure of wanting to figure it out."
Researchers say emotions and politics get in the way of understanding these complicated creatures.

Hooper, a gray wolf at the Minnesota Zoo, investigated a piece of meat. Wolves will curl their upper lip – often mistaken for a growl – to draw in scent.

ome day, the old wolf sleeping near a mound in the back of a pen may finally kill Peggy Callahan. Callahan knows it. The wolf knows it.
All he needs is a chance.
"I bottle fed him," Callahan said, standing outside the fence as the wolf named Vlad eyed her. "He was 10 days old when he was taken out of the den. He was a baby."
The now snarling Vlad, with more white fur than gray, ignored the dozen other people around him at the Wildlife Science Center — home of the most captive wolves in North America — and noticed only Callahan, standing by his fence.
He walked up to the fence, just inches from her face, and roared.
It's the bottle-fed wolves that will kill you. The ones that were born and raised wild never seem to care enough about a human to try, she said.

Wolves are complicated, as is their relationship with one another, their prey and the greater ecosystem. Callahan and other researchers have tried to uncover and teach those nuances, which are often missing from the larger emotion-driven debate over wolf hunting and population goals.
Wolf supporters will often overstate their benefit to the environment, while detractors claim they kill far more deer, elk and other prized game than they do.
The fiercest fights have been in western states, where wildlife agencies reintroduced wolves and they have no federal protections.
Animosity has been growing, too, in the Upper Midwest, where wolves remain on the federal endangered species list.
The politically appointed board that runs the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources directed a rushed wolf hunt in 2021, and allowed nearly double the intended number of animals to be killed.
Even Minnesota, where the wolf population has been remarkably stable for decades, and where some towns and counties have never known life without them, has been increasingly swept up in the national divide over how many wolves people can live with.
Both sides have their propaganda, Callahan said: Those who seem intent on saving every wolf and those who want to kill as many as they can as quickly as possible. Neither side seems able to recognize wolves for what they are — a scarcely seen native animal of Minnesota's woods, she said.
"It's so frustrating," Callahan said. "For some people, the wolf has to be this perfect animal. They believe they only eat rats, and they can't kill each other. Then wolf haters are convinced that they are these savage animals."
Callahan and her captive colony have been vital to the understanding of how wolves behave, survive, communicate and breed. She's used her wolves — which include orphaned rescues and problem animals that were relocated after killing horses and livestock — to set standards and invent tactics used across the United States.
She and her crew test the fences and deterrents that can keep wolves from causing trouble on ranches and in backyards. They developed the doses for a sedative cocktail, a mixture of ketamine and xylazine, that are now used widely around the nation to tranquilize wolves. Callahan was the first to attach those tranquilizers to the end of a pole, ending the practice of shooting wolves with darts at point-blank range, which led to broken femurs, infections and other injuries.
Before biologists at Yellowstone National Park reintroduced wolves there in the 1990s, they came to Callahan to learn how to handle and sedate them. Before Thomas Gable and Austin Homkes captured wolves to collar and study in Voyageurs National Park, they went to Callahan.
She noticed misinformation starting to grow after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. The most common forms of it are incorrect descriptions of wolf behavior — or outright lies — that paint them either as heroes or villains, such as a photo that's become popular on social media that claims to show a female wolf heroically defending the throat of her mate from an attacking wolf. In fact, all three wolves in that particular picture were male, and the supposed heroic wolf was submitting to the dominant one as he put the two younger ones in their place, according to Lori Schmidt, their caretaker at the International Wolf Center near Ely, Minn.
Other persistent myths exaggerate wolves' impact on the environment. A video viewed more than 44 million times online claims that wolves restored river bank vegetation, aspen and willow trees in Yellowstone by reducing elk numbers and changing the way herds move, preventing them from overgrazing. But that claim doesn't account for human hunting, drought, bears, cougars and a plethora of other changes that affected elk.
Any impact wolves have on the greater environment is more subtle and complex. Scientists have been debating the extent of that impact for years. While wolves certainly play a role in the behavior of their prey, there is no consensus on whether they influence deer and elk enough to improve plant life.
Misinformation got worse in 2014, when the predators see-sawed on and off the endangered species list. Somehow support for the animals turned political — with Republicans typically leading the charge to reduce wolf numbers and enable more hunting.
"Wolves became Democrats," Callahan said. "I don't know how that happened, but it did."

Research revolution

Wolves have always been polarizing, said L. David Mech, one of the world's top wolf biologists. The only time Americans were close to united over their fate was in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when most people wanted to kill them, he said.
Modern wolf research really began with Mech — pronounced "Meech" — who is the senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor for the University of Minnesota. He started what would become the Wildlife Science Center with a captive colony of about 40 wolves in 1976.
He wanted to learn more about how they communicate and needed a place to test their blood, urine, anal secretion glands and a dozen other things. Callahan was a young biologist hired to help. More than 40 years later, she and a small staff that includes her daughter, Meg, now take care of about 120 wolves.
Mech was the first to track wolves by plane in the late 1950s over Lake Superior's Isle Royale, just him and a pilot, following packs of wolves by sight.
Minnesota still paid bounties for dead wolves then, but it was the only state outside Alaska that hadn't killed them all.
Mech was the second person to ever put a radio collar on a wolf, starting a revolutionary study on their population, movement, pack sizes and prey relationships in Superior National Forest that continues today.
Before radio collars, researchers relied on ear tags. If they were lucky, those tags would let them know two things — where the animal was caught, and where it died.
Radio collars were "a total revolution," Mech said. "Even in the earliest days, they let us follow that animal around — you could stay right with it."
Mech grew up in New York state and was raised a fur trapper. When he started radio collaring wolves, he knew he needed to catch a lot of them quickly. So he hired the best trapper in Minnesota — Bob Himes. He learned Himes' secrets for a year, and then taught them to his assistants and technicians.
Wolves are wary and so cautious that they won't step on a twig if they can avoid it. But it wasn't so much the trapping or the bounties that knocked wolves to the brink of extinction, Mech said.
It was poison.
The state dropped strychnine-tainted meat from airplanes. Ranchers and cowboys would leave out dead carcasses laced with poison. Everyone was worried about Minnesota's deer population then, Mech said. The hope was that without wolves, the deer would flourish — a common thought around the country.
"People did terrible things to wolves, everything they could to get rid of them," he said. "They burned dens. They put fish hooks in pieces of meat — and worse things than that. They hated wolves."
Minnesota paid trappers $35 per dead wolf throughout the 1950s and early '60s. The hides were usually worth another $10, said Bob Carlson, an avid hunter and fur trapper who lives in Ely.
Carlson now traps beavers and sells them to the International Wolf Center, where the meat has helped feed their beloved wolves for years.
But when Carlson was in his 20s, he would go after the bounties. If he could just trap two wolves in a week, he would double his take-home pay from the mine. By then, there weren't many wolves left, and trappers rarely saw them, he said.
"As soon as wolves walked out of the backwaters, guys were after them," he said. "They were very wary and very smart."
One winter he was after two wolves — a male and female. Whenever they were together, the male always walked in front, so it was no surprise that he was the one to spring one of Carlson's traps. Somehow, he was able to slip it. Carlson never came close to catching him again, even though he kept seeing the pair's tracks in the snow.
"But from then on he was always behind the female," he said. "He made her go first after that."

Time for a checkup

The Wildlife Science Center in Stacy, Minn., is home of the most captive wolves in North America, including orphaned rescues and problem animals that killed horses or livestock. Follow center staff as they safely sedate a wolf to do a health check. Click to read more about each photo.

A shift in opinions

Public attitudes toward wolves changed during the environmental reckoning of the 1960s. The state outlawed poisoning wolves. In 1965, it ended its bounty program.
Minnesota's wolf population, after falling to an all-time low of 300 to 500, immediately began climbing. Once the federal government added endangered species protections in 1974, the growth accelerated, said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"By the early '70s some estimates had it up to 1,000 wolves," he said.
It's important to remember how quickly wolf numbers can grow, Mech said. When they have space and prey, they can double their population in a year or two.
In parts of Alaska and Canada, for example, wolves rebound so quickly that wildlife officials have been trying to thin them to help a struggling herd of caribou. They need to kill 75% of the wolves each year just to keep them at bay, Mech said.
Wolves have done so well in Minnesota that the administrations of each of the last four presidents — Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump — have tried to remove them from the endangered species list. Each time, courts reversed the decisions, saying wolves haven't returned to enough of their original range, which spans the continent.
Wolves most recently lost their federal protections in 2021.
The state of Wisconsin held a hunting season just a few weeks later. Hunters there primarily used hounds, a practice banned in Minnesota, to chase and kill wolves. Those hunters — and their dogs — killed 218 wolves in three days, 83% more than the licensed quota.
The hunt proved that states are not capable of managing their wolves, advocates argued in lawsuits filed around the country. The courts agreed, and restored protections in February 2022.
The Wisconsin hunt raised terrible ethical questions, Mech said. Callahan called it a legalized and glorified statewide dog fight.
But even killing 218 of the roughly 1,100 wolves that were in Wisconsin will not make a serious or lasting dent in their population, Mech said.
That's because wolves have just about run out of places to go in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Young wolves are constantly dispersing and searching for new territory where there is enough prey and little competition, quickly replacing the wolves killed by hunting.

Prey attracts predators

Mech's studies have taken him to the Arctic — to Ellesmere Island — where wolves were so unused to human beings that they were practically tame. Researchers could pick up a pup by hand and bring them inside a tent, while the mother wolf would just stand outside waiting.
He's followed the wolves in Yellowstone, where, unlike in Minnesota, they can be seen from miles away and where hundreds of citizen scientists have been photographing and filming their every move for decades.
Every place wolves are studied, it's been proven time and again, Mech said, that their populations depend almost entirely on available prey. They primarily kill the young, old and sick in a herd — animals that are less likely to survive winter even if the predators weren't around. During especially harsh winters, with deep snow to slow prey, wolves will be more successful and kill more.
A wolf pack will have about six pups a year. If there is enough to eat, the pups will stick around for a few years and the pack will grow. If not, young wolves will disperse and keep traveling until they find space and prey or run into trouble against ranches, farms or, in recent years, suburbs.
Minnesota wolves may be at their saturation point — the limit of what society will accept. Their population hasn't changed significantly in nearly three decades, hovering between 2,400 and 3,000. When wolves disperse to find a new place to live, they don't survive long.
"Cedar Creek is a prime example of that," Mech said.
Two wolves found each other in Cedar Creek, a science reserve just 20 miles north of Minneapolis, in 2014. They had a few litters of pups over a couple years and expanded their pack to 19 wolves, all within a short day's wolf walk to the homes of more than 2 million people.
A pet dog was killed. Then a cow. Then a few calves and two more dogs.
Federal trappers were called in to wipe out the wolves.
"That's what happens on the frontier," Mech said.
Wolves attack livestock and pets – but not as often as you'd think, and people are finding ways to live with them.

Wes Johnson ranches just south of Voyageurs National Park. Every year he loses calves to the wolf packs surrounding his land.

es Johnson found the dying deer in the early morning as he was driving out to feed his cows.
Wolves had dug into its hindquarter, and it had deep stomach wounds, yet the deer still managed to leap the new fence that will soon wrap Johnson's entire property.
The fence was just 4 feet high where the deer had crossed onto the ranch — and had a 26-inch skirt that kept critters from digging under. The wolves attacking the deer never made it across.
After more than 15 years of trouble, Johnson may have finally found a way to keep wolves from eating his calves.
"They don't jump," he said. "They dig and they dig, but they don't know to back up that 26 inches. It's quite a deal."
Minnesotans in the Superior National Forest, in towns such as Grand Portage, Ely, Grand Marais and Kabetogama, live among some of the densest known wolf packs in the Western Hemisphere. For the last 20 years, the state's wolf population, roughly half of America's wolves outside Alaska, has remained near a stable peak — the highest number that available prey and human tolerance will allow.
Those who live among wolves know well the costs, dangers and rewards of keeping them around. They've developed ways to keep conflicts to a minimum and methods that may need to be adopted elsewhere if wolves continue their return to other parts of the United States.
Wolves are so often painted as enemies that it can be hard to see them for the shy creatures they are, said Kelly Applegate, natural resource commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Even in the woods of central Minnesota, where wolves are bountiful, they are hardly ever seen, and then often no more than as a flash of fur near the side of a road or as a moving shadow crossing a frozen lake, he said.
The Ojibwe have long said that their fate is tied up with the wolves, that they are not only brothers, but that what happens to one will happen to the other, Applegate said.
"Much like tribal people, they're so misunderstood," he said.
They mirror humans in many ways.
"They have leaders, and parents and a very organized family structure where each of the members has a role," Applegate said. "They truly are a reflection of man in the wild. That brothership is so close."
Some of that interdependence stems from the Ojibwe creation story, said Anton Treuer, professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University.
"There was this figure, half-human, half-spirit, who traveled around the earth with a wolf, naming everything," he said. "When they finished their job and everything was named, there was this prophecy that they would part ways and never live with one other again. But they would have parallel lives."
It's hard for Indigenous people not to see parallels with their own story, he said, being forced into boarding schools or prisons just as wolves were killed off and put into zoos.
"But there will be a resurgence," Treuer said the story concludes.
Lake Mille Lacs lies on the fringe of wolf range. The predators returned there over the last 20 years, spreading south from the northern woods. The Mille Lacs Band does not tag them or follow them, content just to know that they are there, listening, at times, to their howls and seeing their prints in the snow.
Conflicts do happen, but not as often as many would think.

From fences to trapping

Wolves generally prefer natural prey to livestock and can often live near ranches or farms for years before attacking cattle.
In Minnesota, wolves attack cattle at about 90 farms each year, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA). That's between 1 and 2% of all livestock operations in wolf range.
Over the last 10 years wolves annually killed an average of 70 calves, 10 adult cows, seven sheep and five dogs, according to federal officials.
Taxpayers pay ranchers market value for any loss that can be verified — an average sum of about $131,000 a year. Then, federal trappers kill the nearby wolves.
While wolves are a small problem overall, they can become big problems for individual ranchers when they home in on certain locations.

A ranch in wolf territory

A satellite map of Wes Johnson's ranch land south of Voyageurs National Park shows where it sits at the intersection of several wolf pack ranges.
Source: University of Minnesota, Voyageurs Wolf Project
Johnson, who found the dying deer last winter, owns a 1,600-acre ranch just south of Voyageurs National Park.
He worked the ranch in his youth and bought it outright in 1993, expanding it by more than 1,100 acres.
"For the first 15 years, people would say, 'I can't believe you've had no trouble [with wolves],'" he said. "Then once they started, it's been nothing but trouble."
If there is a nonlethal way to keep wolves from attacking his 750 head of cattle, Johnson has tried it.
He uses flags and alarms. His granddaughter rides a horse around the property regularly because human scent has been known to scare them off. He even has guard donkeys, which will bray and charge a wolf on sight.
Still, every year wolves will kill calves on his ranch.
"It's not pretty," he said.
His granddaughter lost her dog, a little blue heeler. They heard a single loud yelp one night and then never heard, or saw, the dog again.
Sometimes cows get so worked up in the chaos when wolves attack that they break their legs. Sometimes the bones can be mended; most of the time they can't.
Johnson has put down many animals that the wolves didn't finish off.
After each attack, federal trappers come to bait, catch and kill whatever wolves happen to be in the area. USDA trappers kill about 200 wolves in Minnesota each year, twice as many wolves as live in all of Yellowstone National Park.
Things calm down for about six months, Johnson said, before the wolves attack again.
He knows where he lives — in a clearing in the heart of the oldest wolf range in the Lower 48.
"I have no feeling either way if they have a hunting season," Johnson said. "I wouldn't buy a license to shoot a wolf. I don't hate them, I just don't want them in my place."
The cattle attacks are also a problem for Thomas Gable, leader of the Voyageurs Wolf Project, because the federal trappers kill some of the collared wolves researchers follow every year.
So the Wolf Project and Johnson set out to try something new.
They, along with the USDA, raised enough money — about $70,000 — to barricade the 7.5-mile perimeter of Johnson's land with a woven wire fence that ranges from 4 feet to 6 feet tall, plus a 26-inch skirt that keeps wolves from tunneling under.
Gable and Austin Homkes, another researcher, are installing most of the fence themselves. They hope to finish it this year.
Why that height? That's what was tested by Peggy Callahan at the Wildlife Science Center in Stacy, Minn. For whatever reason, wild wolves never seem to try to jump a fence of that height, only to dig under it.
Even when half-finished, the fence appeared to be working, Johnson said.
A collared wolf was among those that had wounded the deer and chased it to the ranch. The collar data showed the wolves tried to dig under the fence for nearly six hours, but were stopped by the underground skirt.
Eventually, they walked away.
"Once we get that fence up, it will be pretty rarely that we get a wolf in here," Johnson said, excitedly. "It's going to save a bunch of wolves for the people that like them."

International Wolf Center

The center in Ely, Minn., takes an up-close, matter-of-fact approach to wolves, hunting and conservation. Click to read more about each photo.

Shifting nature's balance

If wolves lose federal protections again, it will give the Minnesota DNR a chance to bend wolf management to the ecological and cultural priorities of citizens in different parts of the state.
For the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, for example, the fate of moose is a more immediate concern than that of the wolves north of Lake Superior near the Canadian border.
Logging and the urbanization of Minnesota over the last century, along with the shorter, milder winters of a changing climate, have boosted the deer numbers there to artificial highs, said Seth Moore, biologist for the tribe.

Brother Wolf

Native American tribes of the Great Lakes long considered the wolf a peer, a brother who hunted the same game and whose fate was intertwined with theirs.
Deer bring a brainworm parasite that spreads to moose and kills them. The high deer numbers also prop up an artificially high wolf population, Moore said, and the wolves eat moose calves.
If the state could tweak predator populations in the core moose range during the six key weeks of moose calf vulnerability, it's possible that the state's shrunken moose numbers could start crawling back, Moore said.
"Stable isn't good enough," he said. "Moose are a primary subsistence species for the band."
To bring wolves back under state control also comes with risk.
The state's management of wildlife has often been shortsighted, trying to out-manage things that naturally control themselves, Treuer said.
"It's like we want to kill off wolves so there are more deer for people to kill, and they keep managing it that way," he said.
But that's not the way the world works. Woodland caribou, a once common wolf prey, were hunted out of Minnesota shortly after European settlement. But before they died off, one of the state's last herds held on, for a time, on tribal land in Red Lake, Minn.
"It was not an accident that the place with the highest population of caribou also had one of the highest populations of wolves at the same time," he said. "Sometimes we just have to actually let Mother Nature manage things a little more."
In Ely, wolves are one more topic among many, from Donald Trump to mining, that divide the town.
Lori Schmidt, who has taken care of the captive wolves at Ely's International Wolf Center for more than 30 years, said it seems like people are losing a willingness to tolerate other opinions.
"You see it with the people who love wolves and hate hunters and with the people who are more consumptive of resources, who don't see the value of watching a wolf cross a snowy field," she said. "That's disheartening."
But there still are people willing to engage. The Wolf Center itself is proof of that.
The popular museum — neutral and matter-of-fact on questions such as hunting and trapping — was the brainchild of L. David Mech, one of the top wolf biologists in the world, because so many people wanted to travel with him as he studied wolves in northern Minnesota.
Bob Carlson, a lifelong hunter from Ely, believes the state should work to thin wolf numbers near towns and farms where depredations are a problem, while leaving wolves alone where deer populations are too high.
Carlson used to trap wolves in the 1960s, when the state offered bounties for them. He now traps beavers, which he sells to help feed the wolves at the Wolf Center.
"Wolves aren't much of a problem, with some exceptions," Carlson said. "If we could just bring some kind of control, especially around towns where people are having problems with their dogs and for some of these farmers."
Wolves attack dogs because they are triggered to defend their territory from competition of other canids. But they are so frightened of people that they pose little risk to human life.
There have been only two known wolf-caused fatalities in North America, one in Canada and the other in Alaska.
A wolf bit a teenager camping at Lake Winnibigoshish in north-central Minnesota in 2013. The boy was sleeping and kicked the wolf off him. It ran into the woods. The boy needed stitches, but the wounds were not life-threatening.

Roaming the North Woods

Steve Piragis of Ely lost a dog to wolves, and still regrets it, but he doesn't blame the wolves.
Piragis is an outfitter — owner of one of the last stops before the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — and has an ear for mimicking wildlife.
On a hike one day, he heard yipping not far from a trail. He parroted the yip back and two wolf pups bounded up to him. He had stumbled onto a rendezvous site.
An adult wolf came, too, and looked him over, standing a few feet away. She turned tail and the pups followed her back into the birch and aspen.
Piragis knew wolves were in the area, but still let his dog, Sophie, outside for too long one day. He never found a trace of her.
"It was really our fault and it was really stupid," Piragis said.
He built a fence, and knows there is still a chance that Jack, his new young bearded collie that goes with him and his wife on hikes and ski trails, could also get attacked.
"You can't just live in a bubble," he said.
Few people who travel through his store every summer on the way to the Boundary Waters will ever see a wolf.
Source: Voyageurs Wolf Project
But they might hear them.
"They're a reason why there's a mystique about this place," he said. "You go to the Boundary Waters and disappear inside the wilderness, where mysteriously these wolves are not seen, but they've been since time immemorial.
"You can hear loons anywhere.
"But where are you going to hear a pack of wolves?"

About the project

State of Wolves explores the significance of Minnesota's thriving wolf population and the scientific research underway here that could provide lessons for the rest of the United States.
Star Tribune journalists spent more than a year photographing and reporting on wolves across the state, from the Minnesota Zoo to the North Woods, speaking with leading researchers and people whose lives are affected by the mysterious predators.
In Minnesota's North Woods, where wolves were never eradicated, researchers are unlocking the secrets of how wolves behave and how people can live with them.
Researchers say emotions and politics get in the way of understanding these complicated creatures.
Wolves attack livestock and pets, but not as often as you might think — and people are finding ways to cope with them.


5 Key takeaways
Minnesota's wolves have played a big role in research and the species' recovery.
Learn more about wolves
Read up on wolves, follow them on social media or see some in person at places around Minnesota.


Reporting: Greg Stanley
Photos: Anthony Soufflé & Christine Nguyen
Videos: Voyageurs Wolf Project
Design: Dave Braunger & Josh Penrod
Graphics: C.J. Sinner & Mark Boswell
Editing: Katie Humphrey & Eric Wieffering
Copy editing: Catherine Preus & Maren Longbella
Digital engagement: Anna Ta, Nancy Yang & Tom Horgen
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