Living with Wolves
By Ted Williams
This article first appeared in the Audubon magazine.
Wolves have inspired, haunted, and eluded me most of my life. I’ve looked for them in Russia, Canada, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho, mingled my prints with theirs across a dozen wilderness meadows, picked through hair and bone chips in their scat. Once, in the Bitterroot Range, I heard a wolf howl and was on a high for an hour until another hiker informed me that he had just met a biologist who, on a search for wolves himself, had been trying to “howl one up.” Despite all my efforts, I didn’t encounter a wild wolf until August 16, 2000, and on that day I saw three.
The first was from a pack that hunts the eastern edge of the Red River Valley, where Minnesota’s boreal forest opens into the sparsely grassed bed of ancient Lake Agassiz. She had green eyes, a thin face, long black guard hairs on her back, brown fur on her legs and belly, and a collar of blood where Bill Paul of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services had shot her.
He’d baited his leghold trap with rotten moose liver and concealed it in dirt excavated by pocket gophers. The brush was torn up, but I could see that the struggle had been brief, probably because she’d chewed on the trap and ingested the tranquilizer tab. We weighed her, hanging her upside down from a scale lashed to a shovel handle and raising the ends high above our heads so her muzzle wouldn’t touch the earth. Then Paul sliced open her gut cavity, pulled out her stomach, and retrieved the base of the tranquilizer tab along with calf hide still bearing fur.
At 58 pounds, this wolf, probably last year’s pup, was not the “killing machine” that rancher Gary Mathis of Gonvick, Minnesota, had said she was. And that was part of the problem. Older, more experienced wolves like the three Paul had trapped here earlier in the summer will generally kill a calf cleanly. But this one had been making a bad job of it. Mathis showed me the results–four gravely wounded calves. A fifth had been put down when his abdomen filled with urine. Three of the survivors looked as if they might make it, but the fourth–with a raw, grapefruit-size divot on her rump–appeared terminal. The state would compensate Mathis for the dead stock but not for his vet bills.
Paul killed another wolf 60 miles to the northwest in the town of Grygla, and cattle rancher Terry Cleven brought his young son out to see it. The kid, wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves basketball shirt, was considerably less interested than his dad, who had grown up farming this land. Cleven, too, referred to wolves as “killing machines.” This animal, scarcely bigger than the first, had apparently given birth the previous spring because her nipples were black, but they weren’t swollen, so the pups probably hadn’t lived long. Paul started trapping this farm 15 years ago when Terry’s father, Albert, ran it. Since then Paul and his colleagues have killed about 20 wolves here. In this part of the state you can remove an entire pack and the area will be recolonized in a year or two.
Earlier in the week I’d visited Longville, Minnesota, where not a whole lot happens, unless you’re a wolf. “Welcome to Longville, pop. 224,” read the sign. “Building permits required. Turtle race every Wednesday–2:00 p.m.” Bob Lewis, who drives a cement truck, and his girlfriend, Terri Winger, met me at the One Stop, where Terri works. On the morning of March 13, 1998, they had let their two-year-old poodle, Jake, out to do his business when two wolves appeared by the garden. “I hollered and clapped my hands, and they took off, but then they turned around and came right back,” said Lewis. “Terri started yelling at them, too.”
“One grabbed Jake by the head and the other had him by the rear end, and they killed him,” Winger added. “Bob’s got kids, but I don’t. So what I did was lose my child.”
Lewis and Winger directed me to the former sheep farm of their friend Buzz Lilyquist, a large, white-haired man with a Navy anchor tattooed on his left forearm. He’d just come in from hanging garbage in front of stands he rents to bear hunters. Jelly doughnuts work best, he says; scraps from the butcher shop are a close second, but he quit using them because they attracted wolves, which he thinks scared off the bears. The wolves, Lilyquist claimed, had run him out of the sheep business. “In 1996 I lost 10 head; in 1997 I lost 30,” he said. “You lose 30 head when you’re operating with less than 100 ewes, and you just can’t keep going. I think we should reserve a section of Minnesota for wolves–I would suggest the Boundary Waters [Canoe Area]–and maintain a population there so we could say, ‘Yes, we have wolves in Minnesota.’ But beyond that I say get rid of them. Who needs them?”
Midwesterners are going to have to learn to live with wolves. Each spring, 2,000 pups are born in Minnesota alone, and the 150 to 225 wolves Wildlife Services takes from the population each year won’t even make a squiggle on the expansion graph. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) believes that the state has never had more wolves. That is because there have never been more deer. In fact, the deer population now provides more meat per acre than the wolves’ historical prey base of caribou, moose, elk, and bison. Moreover, 30 to 50 percent of the total wolf population would have to be removed annually just to keep it from expanding. That probably couldn’t be done without bounties and an all-out, 1950s-style air and poison war, a political and legal impossibility.
While wolves are expanding their range elsewhere–particularly in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Wisconsin, and Michigan–they’ve become major nuisances only where humans and their livestock ulcerate the big woods of Minnesota. Unless the state comes up with an effective management plan, the political climate in America will be such that wolf restoration, now under consideration in northern New England and New York, will have little chance.
Most pet and livestock owners in Minnesota haven’t lived with wolves for long, and they’re not very good at it. According to a report in the Minnesota Outdoor News, wolves killed 23 dogs last winter and spring along the shore of Lake Superior in the 15 miles between Hovland and Grand Portage. When deer are driven here by the brutal northern winter, people provide them with food. That keeps them around houses and attracts wolves. Without prompting, Terri Winger, Bob Lewis, and Buzz Lilyquist all proudly informed me that they feed deer in winter. Bill Paul tells ranchers how important it is to bury their dead stock. But carcasses keep getting tossed over fences, setting the table for wolves and giving them a taste for beef and mutton.
Many of the people in Minnesota who are losing pets and livestock to wolves blame the Endangered Species Act. For them, at least, it has worked too well. In 1974, just nine years after the state did away with its $35 wolf bounty, Minnesota’s wolves–at that time the only viable population in the contiguous United States–were listed as endangered. Even Wildlife Services wasn’t allowed to kill them. Instead they had to be trapped and transported to the northeastern part of the state, where they were released in occupied wolf range, a practice arguably less humane than shooting them, because they were killed, maimed, or driven out by established packs.
Four years later Minnesota’s wolves were downlisted to threatened. This meant that federal agents could kill depredating animals, a response that was favored by knowledgeable advocates of wolf restoration because pups can learn from their elders the dangerous and somewhat aberrant behavior of killing domestic stock. But until the wolf is delisted, private citizens who encounter wolves attacking their animals have no legal recourse other than to shout and clap their hands the way Winger and Lewis did.
When the wolves south of Alaska and Canada were listed as endangered 26 years ago, the population in Minnesota was thought to be between 750 and 950, and there was no known pack activity in Wisconsin or Michigan. In due course, a federally appointed team of the nation’s foremost wolf biologists set the following recovery goals: Minnesota would need between 1,251 and 1,400 wolves, and Wisconsin and Michigan a combined population of 100 for five consecutive years. At that point the Minnesota wolf would be delisted (taken off the federal threatened list with management passed to the state), and the Wisconsin and Michigan wolves would be downlisted from endangered to threatened.
In 1998 the most sophisticated census methods available to the Minnesota DNR revealed a state population of 2,450. A year later Wisconsin’s wolf population was estimated to be between 197 and 203, Michigan’s between 175 and 200. With wolves thoroughly recovered in these three states and with roughly twice as many animals as were needed to ensure their viability, the recovery team urged the Interior Department to cancel all Endangered Species Act protection for western lake-state wolves. Nothing happened. “It’s like The Wizard of Oz,” comments recovery-team member Mike Don Carlos of the Minnesota DNR. “You get the ruby slippers, you make it to the Emerald City, and you still don’t get to go to Kansas.”
In 1998 the Interior Department had said it was going to delist wolves in all three states. Now it is talking only about downlisting Michigan and Wisconsin wolves to threatened status. Spooked by the prospect of endless, grossly expensive litigation, the department has a long record of not delisting recovered species when it gets pressured by groups committed to permanent protection of all species and all individuals of all species. The court battles bleed away limited resources, thereby denying effective protection to creatures that really might vanish from our planet. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt recognizes the problem. “This program is like an emergency room and a recovery ward in a hospital,” he declared. “Once the patient’s trauma is past and recovery is progressing well, it’s time for the patient to get on with life. We are at that point with some of our wolf populations. Our goal is not to keep them in the hospital indefinitely. Perpetual protection is not the goal; seeing species reach the point that they can survive in the wild, on their own, is.”
One of the strongest voices for wolf recovery has been that of U.S. Geological Survey senior scientist L. David Mech, North America’s most experienced wolf biologist and a member of the recovery team.The worst thing we can do to wolves, Mech submits, is to let them become pests. What he fears most is a backlash–currently in the making–from the politically powerful livestock industry. “Wolves have filled up all of the wilderness and the semiwilderness in Minnesota,” he told me, “and now they’re getting into the agricultural land. In Poland wolves have been exterminated three times and overprotected three times. So the Poles have gone through three cycles.”
Having experienced one such cycle and hoping to avoid others, the Minnesota DNR created a “roundtable” in 1998. It worked about as well as King Arthur’s. Thirty-three citizens representing every conceivable interest, notion, and superstition about wolves–from ranchers to trappers to deer hunters to environmentalists to animal-rights zealots–were instructed to hatch a plan for managing the state’s wolves, a plan that would placate everyone and at the same time convince the federal government that wolves could be safely delisted. All members of the roundtable had to be in favor of the plan; one “nay” and it would be scuttled. The legislature would then ratify the plan, and the DNR would live by it.
The roundtable process was doomed from the start. The representative of HOWL (Help Our Wolves Live) successfully intimidated the other members into not even discussing hunting or trapping by the public. At the 59th minute of the 11th hour, all hands agreed to a plan that would do nothing to slow wolf expansion into farm country but would at least allow people to shoot wolves caught in the act of attacking their pets or livestock. All roundtable members promised to stand by the plan, including the HOWL representative, although she burst into tears and claimed she’d been bullied into signing. At least the animal-rights people kept their word. The cattlemen, on the other hand, quickly reneged, and unsuccessfully pushed their own bill, which would have cut the current wolf population in half.
The one thing worse than management by public opinion is management by politician. After an agonizing two-year gestation, the roundtable plan was discarded by the Minnesota legislature, which then came up with its own version. If and when the federal government delists Minnesota wolves, the legislature’s bill, signed by Governor Jesse Ventura on May 15, will divide the state into two management zones. In the northern third, where 90 percent of the wolves still abide, people will be able to legally destroy a wolf seen “in the act of stalking, attacking, or killing” pets or livestock. In the southern two-thirds of the state, people will be entitled to state-sponsored wolf trapping if their pets or livestock “were destroyed by a gray wolf within the previous five years,” and “a person may shoot a gray wolf on land owned, leased, or managed by the person at any time to protect the person’s livestock, domestic animals, or pets.” In other words, you get to decide what the wolf might be up to. If you think it looks hungry, that’s good enough. Few people ever see wolves, hungry-looking or otherwise, so the bill won’t affect the population. But even some of its most conservative backers worry that it’s a lousy precedent and a lousy lesson. Still, given the public’s passions about wolves, maybe it’s the best that can be done. Mech thinks it will at least satisfy the Interior Department so that it can delist the wolf and get on with its important work of saving genuinely endangered species.
That may not be enough. Though Minnesota Audubon, the National Wildlife Federation, and other conservation organizations agree that the wolves have recovered here and actively support delisting, other groups are fighting it. On August 17 the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club, the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, the Minnesota Wolf Alliance, and the Friends of Animals and Their Environment announced that they were filing a lawsuit to overturn Minnesota’s wolf bill. According to the Sierra Club, the 2,450 population figure is “based on questionable estimates of average pack sizes and a survey of hunters and wildlife managers in northern Minnesota which asked them how many wolves they thought were living in their area!”
“True?” I asked Mech, who didn’t hesitate to pummel the DNR in the press for trying to manage wolves by public opinion.
“Not true,” he said. “The survey was state-of-the-art. They looked at average pack size and average territory size in five intensive study areas. And then they sent questionnaires to professionals in the field–not hunters–outside those areas to see if wolves were present.”
The DNR’s Mike Don Carlos had this to say: “The methodology we use to survey wolves in Minnesota was plenty good enough for these people when it showed low numbers. The attack on the science only occurs when the science doesn’t support a political agenda.”
Passions about wolves are more easily acquired than knowledge, something I was reminded of repeatedly during my day in the field with Wildlife Services biologist Bill Paul. Not that Paul is without such passions; I believed him when he told me he likes wolves and regrets having to kill those that deviate from their normal diet. But he understands wolves, too, and he understands his role as a buffer between old prejudices and a rapidly expanding wolf population. He says he’d like to save wolves from a Polish-style treadmill of complete protection and near-total extermination.
Paul, a lean, fit man who has been a federal biologist since 1975, is happy for his gray beard and hair because, finally, people don’t say he’s too young to know much about wolves. I watched him inside a farmhouse in Puposky, doing some of his most important work–sitting at a table, drinking coffee, listening, talking, sounding authoritative but not scientific or professorial, and speaking genuine northern Minnesotan, you betcha. The coffee server was John Gilbertson, who had just lost three sheep. Through his kitchen window I looked out at the 526-acre patch of green shaved out of the northern wolf woods. The place is a magnet for deer and therefore wolves, and periodically some of these wolves–like the two Paul had killed here yesterday–sample domestic ungulates. At relevant points in the conversation, Paul would slip in information about how to live with wolves–such as the importance of burying dead animals and making sure pregnant ones give birth inside a barn. It was clear to me that Gilbertson thought this Fed was okay. It was also clear that neither Gilbertson nor any of the ranchers I met that day would be taking the law into their own hands.
But Paul’s effectiveness is going to diminish fast. He has but five assistants for the entire state, and because federal wolf killing is so hated by the general public, it’s one of the first programs to get its funding slashed.
Paul and his crew will respond to a complaint only if the stock owner can produce a carcass. Usually, they can tell if the animal has been dispatched by a wolf instead of a coyote, bear, or bobcat. “We try to investigate all complaints within 24 or 48 hours,” says Paul. “It’s real important to get out there right away. We look for tracks, skin out the animal, and check the size of the canine-tooth holes. Then we’ll look at the feeding pattern. Wolves are heavy feeders. They’ll tear a whole carcass apart, and they can crush the big leg bones.”
Learning to live with wolves is a good idea not just because there is no other choice but because it is profitable–in fact, a huge net gain. In 1999 Minnesota paid $64,918.50 in wolf-damage claims verified on 87 farms, or about one percent of the farms in wolf range. Known livestock losses (and there were surely many others that were unreported and unverified) amounted to 20 cows, 7 yearlings, 79 calves, 3 sheep, and 897 turkeys. Meanwhile, in 1999, about 50,000 tourists who came to the North Woods town of Ely visited the International Wolf Center–a wolf museum with dioramas, all manner of scientific data displayed in easily understood formats, prints and text defining wolf lore and attitudes through the ages, artifacts, lectures, videos, and live wolves. Each nonmember adult paid an entrance fee of $5.50.
Sixteen miles east of the Wolf Center, I stopped in to see my friend Jim Brandenburg, the wildlife photographer–a man made prosperous by Minnesota’s wolves. One wolf you may have seen staring at you from books and magazines (including the cover of this issue of Audubon) essentially paid for the log house Brandenburg built on his 1,500-acre inholding in the Superior National Forest. As we sipped scotch in the living room, I could hear the brook through the photo-quality glass windows as it crashed over a ledge and flowed west and north through wilderness rivers and lakes to Voyageurs National Park, Lake Winnipeg, and Hudson Bay. Ravenwood, as Brandenburg calls his place, is wilder than some of the surrounding national forest and the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area because it is essentially tourist-free. “It represents my cathedral, my dream, my sanity,” he wrote in his book Brother Wolf. “I come here to work and think, and it is very cherished for all of that, but more so because it is a place where wolves live.”
We put down our glasses and wandered out into a windless night fragrant with balsam and wet forest duff. The northern lights glowed faintly through solid cloud cover, and loons yodeled from Moose Lake. We drove to ridges around Ravenwood where we could make out the jagged tops of northern conifers wrapped like torn crepe paper around the margins of obsidian lakes. Each time we dismounted from the van there was no sound save our breathing and the whine of mosquitoes, and then Brandenburg would cup his hands around his mouth and howl–a long wail like the distant whistle of a Canadian-Pacific locomotive. At five locations within 30 square miles, wolves answered him. He didn’t have to howl from Fernberg Lookout; two lonely pups with high-pitched voices were conversing from opposite ends of the valley.
You don’t need to hear or see wolves to appreciate them. Just knowing they’re out there, coursing through unroaded forests, leaving prints in mud or snow, flowing around or over lakes and muskeg, silhouettes against starlight, sensed or imagined–that’s enough for me, and for thousands of people who come to northern Minnesota to find strength and renewal in wilderness. As Brandenburg puts it, “If a country is wild enough for wolves, then it is wild enough for the human spirit.”
It had all been better than I could reasonably have expected. But then something happened that I’d known was about impossible. At midnight a wolf answered Brandenburg from the road, very loud and close. “We may be able to see that one,” he whispered. “Don’t slam the door.” He drove slowly toward it for maybe three-quarters of a mile, and there was our wolf–trotting along a ditch beside the Fernberg Trail, no bigger than the two I’d seen earlier in the day and just as brown. It crossed 30 feet ahead of us, and Brandenburg spun the wheel to keep it in the headlights. Then it melted into the infinite North Woods, and in that instant, at least, all was right in wolf country.
Ted Williams has yet to perfect his wolf howl, but is trying.