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Keeping the Wolf from the Door

By John Hart, Wildlife Biologist, U.S. Department of Agriculture – Wildlife Services, Minnesota

The positions expressed reflect the views of the authors or organizations cited and does not necessarily reflect the views of the International Wolf Center.

The old phrase to “keep the wolf from the door”, took on new meaning for me recently. A large share of my time on the job as a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Wildlife Services in Minnesota is spent dealing with wolves, primarily those that kill of injure domestic animals. This type of work generally finds me in rural, often remote locations, so it was different to be investigating a complaint of a wolf attacking a dog on a residential street in Cloquet, Minnesota. Cloquet, population 11,000, is a city in northern Minnesota about 20 miles southwest of Duluth. Although Cloquet is surrounded by forest and has resident wolf packs within five miles it seemed an unlikely place to find a wolf, or so I thought.

Our office received a call from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) one May morning. Five years ago, we would probably have written if off as a dog, coyote, or possibly a captive wolf or hybrid that had escaped or been released, but not a wild wolf. However, calls like this have become more common at our office, especially following the severe winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97 which reduced white-tailed deer numbers over much of northern and central Minnesota leaving wolves a little hungrier than normal.

The increased wolf population and accompanying expansion from the forests of northern Minnesota into mixed forest and farmland areas of central and northwestern Minnesota is well documented. An often overlooked portion of this increase and expansion has been occurring internally within the boundaries of wolf range. Just as dispersing wolves are expanding to the southern and western edges of their range to recolonize areas, from our work, it appears that in some areas wolves are “filling in the holes” between current pack territories.

When wolves colonize an area they generally seek three things: no resident wolf pack, suitable prey, and some degree of security from humans. A dispersing wolf that leaves its natal pack usually finds itself in the potentially hostile environment of another pack’s turf. The disperser cruises along smelling wolf scats and scent marks, listening for wolf howling and other signs of an occupied territory. All the while trying to keep it’s belly full and keep an eye out for a possible mate, no small task! If it can stay alive, it’s travels lead it to a place that fits the above criteria. This could be on the southern or western edge of the wolf range, in a remote forested area in the “buffer zone” between two or more established packs, or sometimes it’s closer to towns and cities. Although this seems like an odd place for an animal often considered a wilderness species, it’s happening more and more often. Forested areas close to towns and cities often have higher deer densit ies than more remote forested areas. This is due to a combination of:

  1. excellent habitat created by mixed cover and agricultural crops that provide food,
  2. winter deer feeding programs,
  3. and fewer predators such as resident wolves and bears.

Whether from 25 years of legal protection or the simple fact that more wolves are raised near humans than previous generations, many wolves are making a living remarkably close to people. Callers to our office stating “there are wolf tracks in the fresh snow on my deck” or “I saw a wolf in my driveway” are increasingly common.

I had read about European wolves coming into towns and villages at night to scrounge through garbage for food, and based on reports from our office I suspected it was occurring in Minnesota, but until I examined fresh wolf scats containing eggshells, chicken bones and pet hair in the city limits of Cloquet, I hadn’t witnessed it first hand. At approximately 5:00 a.m. a Cloquet resident who had just turned his collie out in his yard heard it yelp. As he ran outside he saw an animal he thought was a wolf run away. He phoned the Cloquet police who responded to the scene and viewed a wolf walk out of a wooded area about 100 yards from a busy residential street toward a tethered dog at a nearby residence. According to the officers, the wolf appeared very focused on the dog and paid little attention to them as they took photos from their running squad car in plain view 25 yards away. After informing the resident to put his dog indoors the officers contacted their local DNR Cons ervation Officer who contacted our office.

The animal in the police photos appeared to be a wolf, not a coyote or dog. A search of the area revealed wolf-sized tracks and droppings as well as evidence of much human activity. Human and bicycle tracks littered roads and trails, several wooden forts built by local children where discovered, and in every direction I walked for more than five minutes, I ran into something: houses, businesses, apartments, an Interstate highway, a busy residential street. Apparently this wolf was living in this small area close to people, and judging by the sign, it had been doing so for at least several weeks. There were some deer, rabbit and raccoons in the area, apparently enough for this wolf to survive on, along with some scavenging of garbage or compost.

If this had been an isolated incident made by a transient wolf, we probably would not have taken action. But this situation was different, a wolf showing little fear of humans had been living in the city and now had attacked a dog in a residential yard. We decided the wolf should be removed before it attacked another dog or caused other problems.

Wolves attack dogs either for food (they eat the dog) or out of territorial defense (they view the dog as a competitor in their territory as they would another wolf) or a combination of these two. In Minnesota approximately 15 dogs are verified as being killed or wounded by wolves annually, although more are probably taken by wolves but go unreported. This is not very many considering there are an estimated 68,000 households with dogs in Minnesota’s wolf range, but it’s little consolation to the dog owner or their neighbors.

As I returned to the scene of the dog attack after securing permission from the property owner to set traps, I had to remind myself this was “wolf country”. It sure didn’t look like it as I watched the dog that had been the object of the wolf’s attention. It was tied up near a toddler and a man raking his lawn as cars and buses drove by and children played in a yard across the street. I placed signs in the area to warn people that there were traps set in the area. To remove a wolf from this area without causing a major disruption to local residents seemed more like surgical extraction than trapping. I set traps along a stretch of snowmobile trail near the Interstate that had several wolf tracks and droppings on it.

The next morning the traps were empty, but tracks showed the wolf was in the area the night before. The following morning I saw a gray head poking up over the grass near one of the traps. The image seemed surreal, as I stood there a stones throw from the Interstate fence, with the drone of traffic racing by, and a wolf in a trap. If this wolf was part of a population classified as “endangered” it would have been chemically immobilized and relocated. In Minnesota wolves are classified as “threatened” which allows for the killing of depredating wolves such as this one. Finding a suitable place to relocate a wolf in Minnesota would be difficult considering nearly all the suitable habitat is occupied, and in most places to saturation level. Research has shown that there are several problems with relocating a nuisance wolf. Relocating it to an area already occupied by wolves means the wolf is likely to face the wrath of the resident pack, so it’s either killed of forced to m ove on, sometimes returning to where it was originally captured. Once a wolf starts moving, it’s common for them to encounter a situation like the one that got them in trouble in the first place. By avoiding other wolves and still trying to eat along the way, a wolf such as this is likely to end up near people again. A wolf that is used to getting it’s meal near people, and has been in trouble with domestic animals, is likely to end up causing problems again. Relocating a problem animal is often just relocating the problem. By removing the few wolves that are not compatible with humans, hopefully the public will remain tolerant of wolves in general.

The wolf was a one or two year old male that appeared to be a wild wolf, not a hybrid or a former captive raised wolf. The wolf appeared healthy and not predisposed to scavenging by injury or some other factor. Just a single wolf making a living the only way it knew how. Although it’s unfortunate this wolf had to be killed, the continued presence of wolves close to towns and cities is an indicator of a large wolf population and a tribute to the adaptability of the species.