Whitetails, Wolves, Moose & Grizz

Growing up in northern Minnesota, with the great outdoors at my doorstep, facilitated plenty of hunting, trapping, fishing, hiking and canoeing in the vast expanse of woodlands and waterways found there. As a result, I’m no stranger to encountering the region’s predator and prey species, including whitetail deer, moose and wolves. Still, I can count on one hand the close encounters I’ve had with wolves during my lifetime.

Boundary Waters Journal publisher Stuart Osthoff is in the same boat. “In forty-five years of tromping the Boundary Waters backcountry, I have only got close to a handful of wolves, and these were all deer hunting in the fall or winter,” he said.[1] During the last seven Octobers I’ve had the privilege of paddling the Boundary Waters Canoe Areas Wilderness (BWCAW) with Stu and his “Fall Color Tour” crews.

It’s there where I’ve encountered wolves most recently and have frequently heard their mournful cries echoing across the primordial landscape of rock, woods and waterways. I’m not strongly anti- or pro-wolf, but I am happy to live in a country still wild and empty enough to support creatures like wolves and grizz. And like Northern Wilds publisher Shawn Perich wrote, “About the only predators I begrudge are the ones that walk on two feet and are motivated by greed, rather than hunger …”[2]

Wolf Management

“Within the social realm of wolf management are relatively small but opposing camps—those who are intolerant of wolves and other predators, and those who want to completely protect them,” Perich added. “As a result, wolf management is as much a social issue as it is a biological issue.” “Where you have wolves, you need to find the social balance,” former USFWS chief Dan Ashe said. “I’m a duck hunter, but I don’t hate hawks, eagles, or falcons, even though they take a lot of waterfowl. I would hope big-game hunters are the same.”[3]

Like Stu, Shawn and Dan, I accept the fact that the healthiest ecosystems support their full complement of predator and prey species, but I’m also a hunter. Megafauna like wolves—and grizzlies in the western U.S.—compete for some of the same big game species we hunt each fall, although Colorado (where I now reside) no longer has any grizz. In 1959, 17 grizzlies were found in Colorado. By 1962, only ten could be found. A hunting guide acting in self-defense killed the last known Colorado grizzly in 1979.[4]

However, Colorado is preparing for the reintroduction of wolves, although some have already drifted in from Wyoming. Most recently, a pack of eight wolves in north central Colorado (near Walden) have been making headlines.[5] Passed in 2020, Proposition 114 directs Colorado Parks and Wildlife to reintroduce gray wolves by the end of 2023, which will presumably augment the wolves from Wyoming.[6]

There are few places left in the world where you can pitch a tent under the stars and drift off to the haunting sound of howling wolves, not to mention keeping an eye out for grizzlies, but the Thorofare District of Yellowstone National Park (southeast of Yellowstone Lake)—the most distant place from a maintained road in the continental United States—is one such place.[7]

The Thorofare

During September 2008, I encountered both a wolf and grizzly at close range while on a 65-mile, 5-day backpacking trip into the Thorofare District. On Sept. 5, a jet-black wolf stood astride the Thorofare Trail until spotting me and, after an inquisitive glance or two, trotting off. The grizzly (on Sept. 6) was a different animal altogether.[8]

He (or she) was about 150 feet away and headed in my direction. Although we made eye contact, he gave me a nonchalant glance—the same level of attention I might give a ruffed grouse on a portage trail in the Boundary Waters—and kept coming. Not unlike a skittish grouse, I immediately surveyed possible egress routes while slowly walking in reverse to put some distance between me and the closing bruin. Given the bear’s still-relaxed demeanor, I wasn’t too concerned overall.[9]

As Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers founder David Petersen—a former U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot (and author of Ghost Grizzlies: Does The Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado?)—observed: “I’ve never encountered a bear of any species that seemed irrational, gratuitously violent, or insatiable. Humans with those pathologies, however, are commonplace.  I’ll take my chances with the bears.”[10] Me too.

Long story short, I prepared to deploy pepper spray as the grizz closed to within 15-20 feet but dropped my poles while backing up. He stopped next to the poles, took a good whiff, looked up (at me), and then jumped off the trail with a loud Woof!  While crashing through the brush, he threw out a second reverberating Woof for good measure, then regained the trail about 75 yards away and kept going, taking a few quick looks over his shoulder before disappearing around the bend.

Standing there, staring down the trail in a shell-shocked sort of way—while also feeling somewhat weak-kneed with a jackhammer-like pounding heart—I had that grateful and relieved feeling that you get (Steven Rinella says in his book Meat Eater) when you first realize that you’re recovering from the flu.[11] At a minimum, it was the ultimate backcountry adrenaline rush!

The evolutionary fight-or-flight response, triggered by the release of hormones that prepare you to either deal with a threat directly or retreat to safety, was pronounced but manageable.[12] My reactions and thought processes were generally calm and clear, contributing positively to one of my two most memorable predator encounters.[13] The second took place a decade later in northern Minnesota’s BWCAW.

Boundary Waters Wolves

Minnesota is home to 2,500 or so wolves with an estimated 150 wolves living in 20 to 30 packs in the Boundary Waters.[14] During an October 2018 Boundary Waters “Fall Color Tour” trip with Stu Osthoff, we had a once-in-a-lifetime wolf pack vs. moose encounter. Stu wrote about it in the Winter 2018 Boundary Waters Journal.

“David and Diane are in the lead paddling through the V river-channel section between Insula and Alice. I am maybe fifty yards behind them, but as always, I have my big game radar on,” Stu explained. “Up ahead a hundred yards, I see an antlerless moose run/splash across the channel at full speed from left to right … we all paddle forward another fifty yards, when suddenly there is a lot more splashing up ahead in the same spot.[15]

“As we approach to about thirty yards, four large adult brown and white wolves emerge from the water, stop on the left bank, and eyeball us with disdain. Turns out we have interrupted the coup de grace of a wolf pack taking down a moose. The wolves reluctantly slink into the woods, and we paddle ahead to find a shell-shocked moose bull standing in the middle of the channel. His right ear is half-torn off, and he has serious puncture wounds in his snout, but his legs and body all seem to be okay.”[16]

“Most canoe country paddlers romanticize about someday seeing wolves or moose in the BWCAW, but few ever get to witness up close and personal this timeless predator and prey interaction. In forty-plus years of pounding the woods around Ely, I have only seen wolves taking down a deer on one occasion and never a moose. But here today, all eight of us get to observe raw nature at pointblank range ...”[17]

“… it is quite likely that this bull calf was out on his own for the first time in his life. He learned a hard lesson today. We can only hope he survives this attack and learns how to take care of himself out in this unforgiving wilderness. This is why seeing an adult bull moose in canoe country is such a special treat. Big bulls have beaten long odds of brutal winters, loads of ticks, hordes of biting bugs all summer, and wolf packs on their trail year round. It truly is amazing that any of them live five to ten years out here.”[18]

Finding Middle Ground

Outdoor Life contributor Ben Long, who’s also a former BHA North American Board co-chair, says deer and elk numbers are like the stock market–they go up and down. When populations decline, predators are handy to blame. But wolves have lived beside elk, deer and moose for hundreds of thousands of years. If wolves were an existential threat to elk or deer, the prey would have disappeared long ago.[19]

After Minnesota’s wolf population was removed from federal protection in December 2011, the state held wolf hunting and trapping seasons in 2012, 2013 and 2014. “The season was highly controversial, and many Minnesotans opposed it,” said Duluth News Tribune outdoors/hunting columnist Sam Cook. The wolf season was ended when a federal court decision put the wolf back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in December 2014.[20]

“I wish there weren’t so many wolves because I’m a deer hunter,” Stu Osthoff says. “But I’m out there a lot, and from what I see their population is stable. If you hunt them intentionally, good luck. Most wolves taken in my area [from 2012 to 2014] were trapped or shot opportunistically. You might feel better about things if you get one, and maybe you’ll put some fear into them, but you won’t affect their population.”[21]

“I’m not anti-wolf because they’ve been here all along while our deer herd went up, down, and everywhere,” Osthoff adds. “Deer and wolves evolved together. They’ve always coexisted in northern Minnesota, but they needed the Endangered Species Act (1973) to return to northern Wisconsin and Michigan. But when you combine wolves with harsh winters and declining habitat anywhere, deer struggle.”[22]

Public land is chock full of not just wolves but mountain lions, lynx, bobcats, coyotes, black bears and grizzly bears, all happy to dine on venison and elk. It has always been that way. As Stu alludes to, it’s generally not predators (humans included) that drive overall deer and elk numbers, but habitat and harsh winters. In the Winter 1997 Boundary Waters Journal I contributed some wolf-related thoughts that still hold true today, some 25 years later.

Wolf-lovers, flush with victory after the long, hard struggle to return Canis lupus to its rightful place in North America, may tend to forget that wolf reintroduction is only half the battle. Regulating wolf numbers, once they have reestablished healthy, thriving populations (as they already have in Minnesota), is the other half. This is necessary, if for no other reason, to prevent another wolf backlash.

Yes, wolves were unjustly persecuted in the past, but they must be conscientiously managed in the future. This is the only viable solution. And only after wolves have been delisted and their growing numbers regulated (via hunting or other approved means), just as other big game species are managed, will the wolf story have come full circle, only then will it be complete.

Additional/related information:

[1] Stuart Osthoff. “Grand Slam Spring/Summer 2021.” Boundary Waters Journal: Fall 2021, p. 20.

[2] Shawn Perich. “In the company of otters, loons and eagles.” Outdoor News: 5/11/18, p. 11.

[3] Shawn Perich. “Talking wolves, more with former USFWS chief.” Outdoor News: 7/7/17, p. 11.

[4] “Grizzly Bear.” Museum of the West (Grand Junction, Colorado): 7/9/16.

[5] Shannon Najmabadi. “Colorado wolf pup darted and collared to help wildlife managers better understand pack’s behavior.” The Colorado Sun: 2/10/22.

[6] Jake Bullinger. “Wolves and Hunting Can Go Hand-in-Hand.” The Bitterroot Newsletter: 12/3/20.

[7] https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/wyoming/the-thorofare-and-the-south-boundary-trail

[8] “Lien treks in Yellowstone.” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 10/1/08, p. 3c.

[9] David A. Lien. Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking. Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2012.

[10] David Petersen. On The Wild Edge. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005, p. 138.

[11] Steven Rinella. Meat Eater. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012, p. 6.

[12] Kendra Cherry. “How the Fight-or-Flight Response Works.” VeryWellMind: 8/18/19.

[13] “Grand Rapids adventurer will share stories at Grand Rapids Area Library.” Grand Rapids (Minn.) Herald-Review: 6/28/09, p. 10; Presentation on “America’s Wildest National Parks” at the Grand Rapids (Minn.) public library on Thursday, July 2, 2009, from 12:00-1:00 p.m.

[14] Shawn Perich. “Should the Boundary Waters be a wolf sanctuary?” Outdoor News: 3/15/13, p. 11.

[15] Stuart Osthoff. “living on the edge.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2018, p. 38.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Stuart Osthoff. “living on the edge.” The Boundary Waters Journal: Winter 2018, p. 39.

[19] Ben Long. “Finding a Middle Ground on Wolves and Wolf Management: Values and opinions differ when it comes to America’s most controversial predator, but we should all agree on the following wolf facts.” Outdoor Life: 3/6/20.

[20] Sam Cook. “Duluth group sounds off about deer management preferences.” Duluth News Tribune: 2/26/17.

[21] Patrick Durkin. “Why Is Deer Hunting in the Northwoods on the Decline? And Will It Ever Rebound?” Outdoor Life: 1/24/22.

[22] Ibid.

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