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Look plainly at the wolf issue, and we can see the source of the conflict:

1. Wolves are revered.

2. Wolves can cause serious harm.

This animal whose howl at the moon elicits within us spine-tingling wonder is the same one that would latch its jaws onto your dog.

It's hard managing something beloved yet potentially harmful, especially when those at odds also belong to opposing demographics. But now let's turn the volume way up. Like singing a lullaby with a megaphone, so is conducting social discourse in these early years of the internet age, leading to societal strain and fragmentation across all issues.

With exaggerated sides more vocal, bad policy echoes while attempting good policy has become thankless — and more needed than ever.

Today, wolves in Minnesota are plentiful, deer numbers are down, and modern technology exaggerates the imbalance. Caught in this storm of internet-based hype, cross-cultural conflict and a government's struggle to manage, this wolf debate is less about them and more about us. This call of the wild is calling us out — but it also points us toward solutions for today's chaos.


The internet has been good for wolves.

Countless individuals, now with immediate feedback at their fingertips, express their ready admiration for these awe-inspiring animals. Instagram accounts such as "wolves.realm" have hundreds of thousands of followers loving the photos of these royalty of the forest, cheering on the news of their numbers rising and territory spreading.

Such bite-sized media lacks the breadth to include the trade-offs of wolves' presence. Yet like the balance sought in nature, this unfettered pro-wolf sentiment in the overarching sphere of the internet is being countered on the ground in Minnesota by a growing grassroots force.

Last fall, soon after his son started a hunting club for northern Minnesota and Wisconsin called "Hunters for Hunters," a call came in to Steve Porter.

"They wanted to know if we'd come give a talk on the wolf issue," said Porter, 57, owner of Steve Porter's Trophy Whitetail, a deer farm in Lake Bronson, northwest Minnesota.

"They" were from tiny Squaw Lake in north central Minnesota, population 98. This event on Nov. 18 packed the community center.

"With one week's notice, 300 people came," Porter enthused.

Immediately following were calls for events in International Falls, Carlton and Aurora — where the school janitor arranged the event in the gymnasium, filling the bleachers.

These "Wolf Predation Meetings" have now been hosted across the state in 17 communities eager to express their concerns about wolves damaging their hunting and threatening their livestock and pets.

On Dec. 18, Hunters for Hunters followed the wolf conflict south to unincorporated Morrill, 30 minutes northeast of St. Cloud. Given what I had read about the conflict's epicenter in the northeastern part of the state, I didn't think this event would attract as many people. I attended and found I was wrong. The event hall was jam-packed with that slice of Minnesota less dominant in culture today but no less iconic.

More than 150 people alone had to stand.

Dressed in a brown T-shirt and blue jeans, Porter presented his slides, asking Minnesota political leaders in D.C. to help remove the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list. Then, he urged state policymakers to initiate a wolf hunt to effectively manage the threat.

But are wolves even a threat?

"Deer numbers have gone down," Thomas Gable agreed matter-of-factly.

Gable, 32, is Project Lead at the Voyageurs Wolf Project, a study focused on understanding the ecology and populations of wolves in the Greater Voyageurs Ecosystem, a 2,000-square-kilometer area adjacent to the Canadian border. This project's own Instagram account often boasts those posts that go viral, including some recently addressing the question about wolves' effect on deer.

Gable and the Wolf Project are not shy about discussing the matter.

"I shot my first deer with a bow when I was 12," Gable said, originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. "I like deer hunting."

To the question of why deer numbers are low, he said it's not about the wolves.

Being predators, Gable explained, wolves see their numbers rise and fall as their prey population does. As a lagging indicator, strong wolf numbers today indicate the recent history of abundant deer.

This sudden drop in deer numbers, then? This isn't explained by a sudden surge in wolf population — which the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has estimated to be around 2,700 the past several years. Gable said this points to another explanation.

"Winter severity is the largest issue impacting deer," he said, adding that North Dakota's deer numbers are also down despite no wolves being there.

But it's difficult for affected folks to deny their eyes, especially with more and more to see.

The corpse of a large, black dog prone on the ground is shared on a post on Porter's "Trophy Whitetail" Facebook page. Another series features Stella, a white, medium-sized dog lying on a veterinarian's table, about half her body shaved to treat the many gaping wounds from a wolf attack. Then there's Romeo, the Bernese mountain dog disemboweled by wolves in front of his owners, who shared their story on a video chat with Porter.

More scrolling reveals photos of deer kills covering (and coloring) square yards of snow, testimonies of exasperated hunters not seeing a single deer for consecutive seasons, and Porter's posts promoting his events with copious comments cheering him on. The power of social media is pushing back on the wolf.

Back in Morrill, the hall reverberated with these concerns. Afterward, one hunter showed me photo after photo of wolves captured on trail cameras on his nearby property.

This, said Gable, explains the rising perceived threat of wolves.

"We have so many more ways to monitor what's going on in the woods," he argued. "I've heard for the past nine years that the number of wolves is going up. And you know what? It's not going up."

But with deer numbers down, wolves find food elsewhere, encroaching into human spaces and spreading to new regions of the state.

So the question becomes: Is this current imbalance severe enough to warrant intervention?

This is the crux of the issue in more ways than one.

First, the sense of urgency differs widely between a rural family losing their pet and an unaffected urbanite who just loves wolves. Beyond the anecdotal and emotive, the science also conflicts. While common sense dictates 100 fewer wolves means 100 less mouths killing and eating deer, a recent study from the University of Montana looked at 52 predator removal experiments and found their effect on ungulate populations (deer, elk, caribou, etc.) was only a 7.8% increase. Nature is a complex system of many variables playing out over many years. Maybe this year's record-mild winter will see deer numbers bounce back in ways a wolf hunt wouldn't touch.

Yet outside the natural world, we have a whole other angle on intervention — one that addresses this conflict's more insidious consequence: our society continuing to slowly come apart.

"There is this animosity around wolves," Gable said, describing arguments he sees on their social media accounts. "[People] just want to devour each other."

As we've seen repeatedly — whether with COVID, climate, guns, immigration and wolves — the internet has enabled opposing sides of an issue to distance and enhance that sense of the other side truly being an "other."

"Stay away from Minnesota if you right-wingers don't like the way we do things here," read a comment on a recent story covering the Hunters for Hunters events.

Downstream from a public this polarized are its political representatives tempted to intervene by codifying the division. While Hunters for Hunters urges policymakers to open the door to a wolf hunt, the DFL lawmakers last year introduced a bill for a permanent ban on public wolf hunting and trapping.

Wolf advocacy organization Howling for Wolves stated the bill was "a huge step forward in the treatment of wolves and also in allowing us to coexist with them with less problems."

It's difficult to hold that statement in mind while also recalling the pictures of bloodied Stella. But balancing such disparate views is what good policy is all about. So the Minnesota DNR came out publicly against this unprecedented stretch of state authority, which never made it into law.

For the sake of managing a strained society, policy interventions should work to address the rising concerns of residents — not fan their flames and accelerate division.


Like nature, human systems feature many dynamics in play. For example, data may point a society toward a course of action, but it is of little use if people no longer believe the source of the data, care to cooperate with one another or are moved by social media to act otherwise.

Yet within these same aspects of fragmentation and proliferation of information also lie the solutions — as revealed throughout the creation of this story.

While Gable noted how more cameras give the impression of more wolves, he also saw the opportunity for more people to partake in the science.

"A hunting organization [like Hunters for Hunters], they could put out cameras," Gable suggested. "Do it in a way that allows you to assess change in a systematic, robust way."

Such an initiative could offer a beneficial way forward by distributing scientific research and authority, reducing the risk of ideological capture, allowing for higher volume, lowering the barrier to entry and adding more voices.

Building upon such research, then, could be policy.

This was brought up in Morrill when an attendee asked, "They legalized pot, why can't they legalize a wolf hunt?"

Demonstrating this modern trend of smaller governments breaking away from their larger jurisdictions, Minnesota recently defied federal drug policy. With our state having almost half of the gray wolves in the contiguous U.S., there is a good case for a state-specific approach in this area as well. We could localize even more. Given that wolves affect some parts of the state more than others, let's refer to the recent precedent across the country with sanctuary cities (immigration) and counties (firearms).

Modern technology makes social activity — sharing ideas, posting photos, organizing events — more rapid and fluid. This adds pressure to the existing systems in place. (For example, when the idea that marijuana should be legal reached some parts of the country before others, these parts didn't wait for federal policy to change.) But by embracing technological adoption and decentralization, we can proactively relieve some of the pressure by increasing the capacity for activity and allowing for more flexibility.

Or we can get caught up in the pressure of outrage and reaction and become tempted to double down on existing, ineffective methods.

Gable invited those who were critical of his work to set up their own research projects.

State lawmakers attempted to pass a bill of unprecedented restrictions on others whose values happen to be different from their own.

Which way to the future, fellow Minnesotans?

Decentralization is happening. What we get to decide is how we approach it. It would be better to use this trend to our advantage (i.e., more localized policy) rather than as a means for rebellion, isolation and division.

A more connected world means more exposure to those we may not like — especially in a diverse society. If we wish to all exist under a shared political structure, this requires tolerance and flexibility.

Brandon Ferdig shares human-interest stories and social commentaries. He lives in the Twin Cities and can be reached at brandon@theperiphery.com.