The growling stunned Dale Finck as he pushed through thick northern Minnesota woods Saturday while hunting ruffed grouse with his German shorthair, Sage.

Then all heck broke loose.

"Sage was running 100 miles per hour at me, full bore, and there's a wolf right behind her,'' Finck, 43, of Bertha, Minn., said Wednesday. "It was within a foot of her, and they both came straight at me. One more stride and he's practically in my lap. It was unbelievable.''

Finck instinctively shouldered his semi-automatic 12-gauge shotgun and fired four rounds of birdshot -- tiny pellets designed for hunting small birds -- as his dog sped past. He dropped the wolf just 15 feet in front of him. His fifth and final shot finished the animal.

"I wanted to make sure it was over,'' he said. "I don't know if I was protecting my dog or me. The whole thing took three seconds. You just react. This is the last thing I wanted to do, shoot a wolf. I didn't have another option.''

He said the wolf apparently nipped Sage on the hind quarter, but otherwise the dog was uninjured.

Close encounters with wolves are extremely rare in Minnesota, and law enforcement officials said Finck was justified in killing the wolf to protect himself and his dog.

"This was a bizarre, fluke event,'' said state conservation officer Samantha Hunter, who investigated the case Saturday near Park Rapids.

Dan Stark, Department of Natural Resources wolf specialist, said wolves are predators and territorial.

Can be risky to hunt with dogs

"We know wolves can be aggressive toward dogs, and hunters need to be aware of it,'' he said. "It's an inherent risk hunting with dogs in wolf country.''

Since 2009, wolves have killed 40 dogs and injured at least 12 others, according to state reports. Most of those occurred near rural homes, Stark said.

"Over the last three years, the number of incidents have been higher,'' he said. "Whether more people are reporting them, or whether there's been an increase, we're not sure.''

Finck, a fifth-grade teacher, said the wolf appeared focused on his dog, and he doesn't know if the wolf ever saw him.

Said Stark: "Wolves usually will avoid humans, but if they are in pursuit mode, they can have blinders on and not necessarily see a person. They are focusing on the dog.''

Finck collected Sage and his other dog, Cody, which had been working the woods nearby, and hiked a half-mile back to his truck. He and his dad, Dick, 61, had split up, and Dale reached him on his cellphone.

"He said 'I just flushed a grouse.' I said 'I just shot a wolf,''' Dale Finck said.

They immediately called the DNR to report the shooting. Hunter came to the scene and investigated.

"He was justified doing what he did,'' she said.

An unsettling encounter

Since the state assumed management of wolves in January after they were delisted from the Endangered Species Act, people can shoot them to protect themselves or their pets and livestock. That wasn't the case prior to delisting.

"You couldn't shoot one in defense of a pet,'' Stark said, but people could defend themselves if threatened.

Finck is aware of the often emotional controversy that Minnesota wolves inspire. He hunts deer and coyotes, but didn't apply for the state's first-ever wolf hunting and trapping season set for this fall. "I had no desire to take a wolf,'' he said.

Still, the encounter was unsettling. Had he not been there, he believes the wolf would have killed his dog.

"It's part of the food chain, I get that,'' he said. "I don't know how I feel about it. We seem to have our fair share of them [wolves]. This was just 40 miles north of where we live.''

He knows it's unlikely he'll encounter a wolf again, but said it's hard to shake the image of Sage running for her life.

"Will it stop me from hunting? No,'' he said. "But it's absolutely going to affect me.''

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667