Reality Bites 

Minnesota Monthly, August 1998
© 1998 by Greg Breining

BILL PAUL'S WORKDAY begins at 8 a.m. with his phone messages. The voices may be angry or distraught, frantic or simply resigned. Most are farmers who have just set out for their chores, only to discover a dead cow or a slaughtered flock of free-range turkeys. Others are homeowners who have identified the scraps of hair and blood in their yard as the remains of the family dog.

In 1998 the calls began a month earlier than usual. The deer herd, culled ruthlessly by two consecutive hard winters, prospered in last winter's mild weather. In the yin-yang of the food chain, a good winter for prey is a bad one for predators: The combination of fewer and healthier deer made hunting difficult, and the wolves reached spring lean and hungry. With the unseasonably warm weather, farmers turned their livestock out earlier than usual, with predictable results. By mid-May Paul and his crew had verified wolf kills on 28 farms, more than twice the previous year's record pace. Even wolves, it seemed, could be blamed on El Niño.

When I enter Paul's office on a May morning, he is wrapping up a call to one of his part-time trappers and dispatching the rest of his crew. The office furniture is typical government-issue—worn carpet and steel furniture—but the rest of the decor is not. Three pelts hang from the wall: two wolves, one coyote. On a bookcase sit several skulls: two wolves, two bears, a mountain lion, and a coyote. 

Paul's neatly trimmed beard and hair are turning a dignified gray. He wears a gray short-sleeved shirt, with a patch on one shoulder that reads Wildlife Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture. The rest of his uniform consists of blue jeans and a Boy Scouts of America belt. His manner is buttoned-down. He speaks slowly, at times haltingly, choosing his words carefully, as though long explanations are painful. Paul has agreed to take a photographer and me on his daily rounds. The only stipulation, he says, is that we cannot see or photograph any trapped or dead wolves. With the controversy over wolves as heated as it has been lately, he explains, the service's public relations office simply won't allow it.

Today, Paul announces, we will visit a farm near the town of Meadowlands. Several days earlier, the farmer, John Simek, had discovered a Holstein a few yards from the barn. "The wolf attacked and kind of ate out some of its rear end," Paul explains. The size and spacing of the punctures around the wound suggested the predator had been a wolf; fresh prints in a nearby plowed field confirmed it. "That was the first place you could see tracks." Paul set his traps and came up with a coyote and a female wolf. Today he would check his traps again.

Simek's was not the only farm in the area with troubles: A neighbor's dog had been killed. Another farmer was missing a couple of calves. At the latter Paul found tracks, but no carcass. Without a carcass, he couldn't begin trapping and the farmer couldn't apply to the state for compensation—$750 for a full-grown cow.

Paul ducks into another room and reappears with several vertebrae and part of a cow's skull, painted with blood but otherwise clean. "Once in a while we run into cases where somebody might attempt a little fraud," he says. "This was a farm where a guy said he lost like four yearling or heifer animals and a calf in about a 10-day period. Took me there and he showed me some bone piles like this. He was implying that these were fresh kills, eaten up by wolves in the last 10 days. They were totally white. And then it's got this fresh red blood on it. It was obvious to me that the guy poured some fresh blood on these old bones and tried to pass them off as a wolf kill. It's kind of embarrassing. I told him, 'Those carcasses are a lot older than 10 days. It looked like someone had poured fresh blood on them, you know?' He said, 'Who would have done a thing like that?' But he didn't fight it too hard." Paul says he is glad, at any rate, "that the wolf didn't get blamed for doing this damage." 

THE FIRST WOLF Bill Paul ever saw was standing by the side of Highway 1 near Ely. Paul was a teenager, on a fishing trip with his dad. Seeing the wolf for just an instant, he was astounded at its size—a massive head and deep chest perched on tapered legs. He was impressed that he must have ventured very deep into the wilderness to see a wolf so close up and unafraid.

Growing up in rural Bovey, Paul occasionally ran a trapline for mink and muskrats. That experience, along with a biology degree from Moorhead State, helped him snare an internship in 1975 with L. David Mech of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service near Ely. Mech, one of the world's foremost wolf researchers, needed wolves he could tag and fit with radio collars. The easiest and most reliable way to capture them was by using steel leg-hold traps which, contrary to common perception, leave most wolves with only abrasions and bruises. Mech and his assistant taught Paul how to read wolf sign, anticipate their movements, and set traps. His first success was wolf 2407, one of Mech's study animals. "It had been caught and radio-collared three, four times," Paul says. "It was difficult to recapture. I was a rookie trapper and part of it was just luck. I'm not saying it was great trapping." Though Paul isn't prone to rhapsodizing, he admits it was exciting to see his first wolf in a trap, up close. At the same time he was worried it would escape before he could subdue it with a tranquilizer syringe, remove the trap, draw a blood sample, and assess its injuries.

Just a year before Paul began working with wolves, the eastern timber wolf had been placed under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act. Reaction among residents in wolf country—at that time, limited mostly to northeastern Minnesota among the lower 48 states—was strong. Bounties on wolves had been repealed only a few years earlier, and northern Minnesotans didn't like being told they couldn't shoot the wolves near their farms and homes. Wolves were found choked in snares and shot and left in the woods. A wolf's head appeared on the steps of the Duluth News-Tribune. 

Mech started a wolf control program, reasoning that if wolves multiplied, as they would if the Endangered Species Act succeeded, they would soon spread beyond the North Woods into areas where homes and farms were common. The alternative to capturing problem animals was widespread poaching and a revolution in wolf country. So, just a few months after Paul's internship ended, Mech hired him as his first trapper. 

At first, the wolves were tranquilized, caged, loaded aboard pickups, and relocated to suitable wolfless areas of the state. But as wolves increased in number, it became apparent there were fewer and fewer places to resettle them. They would ricochet between the territories of hostile wolf packs until they were killed or headed once again for trouble. "They ended up traveling pretty long distances," Paul says. "A lot of them traveled back where they conflicted with humans again." When the wolf was "downlisted" in Minnesota from "endangered" to "threatened" status in 1978 federal trappers gained one more option for problem wolves: They could simply shoot them. Since most depredation and complaints occur in spring and summer when the wolf's fur is scraggly and thin, the pelts are usually worthless. Paul might save the skull for a school or museum, but usually he would kill the wolf with a .357 revolver and leave it in the woods. 

Although he has caught a lot of wolves through the years, Paul still dislikes killing them. "You're glad you caught him because the two of you play a game, especially if you get a smart one. But then you hate to have to kill him too. Once you got him you'd just as soon let him go, but you can't." Over his career, he estimates, he has captured some 700 wolves. Quite possibly, he has captured more wolves than nearly any other person alive. If, by touching an animal, you gain an understanding of its nature and, perhaps, even some of its metaphysical power, Bill Paul has acquired a deep measure of intimacy with this symbol of wilderness.

JOHN SIMEK'S FARM LIES in the utter flatness of the Whiteface River basin. Dirt roads bisect peat bogs and thickets of spruce, tamarack, and aspen. It is unlikely farmland. His parents arrived here in 1926, not long off the boat from what is now the Czech Republic. "They bought the land-pretty good money for it at that time, really—for $45 to $50 an acre. For wilderness you might say, " says Simek, who stands as short and broad as a barrel, with fingers like dill pickles. Simek points out the place next to his barn where he'd found the dead cow several days earlier. It was fully grown, about 1,200 pounds, worth about $1 a pound. It had dropped a calf just a month ago.

"This isn't the first time John's had trouble," Paul says. "About four years ago, I think you lost three?"

"Four calves," says Simek. "Two were badly mauled. Two did recover."

"Again, the wolves were attacking the livestock close to the buildings here," Paul says. "Some of these environmental groups think, well, the farmer's got cattle out in the brush. But here, they're right in the barnyard. The wolves are coming across pretty open country."

When Paul had first come to the farm to examine the carcass, he'd asked Simek to tow it several hundred yards to the edge of the pasture so he could set traps near the body with less danger to Simek's dog. Now, Paul jumps in his pickup and drives out to check the traps.

Simek and I watch Paul's white government pickup bounce across the distant field. "Years ago they used to have the bounty system," Simek says. "And it seemed like it kept them in check." I asked him if farmers should still be allowed to trap or shoot wolves themselves. "Yeah, it would help. Yeah."

Soon, Paul returns. Only a fox, he reports, which he released. We all drive back out to the carcass. Bloated and fly covered, it gazes at the sky with shrunken eyes. The air is musky with urine, residue of the fox's struggle in the trap. Paul prepares to reset the sprung trap. He spreads a trap on the ground and slips on rubber gloves to keep his scent off the ground and trap. He steps on the steel springs of the trap to open the jaws and flips the catch beneath the pan to set the trap. With a spread of about 6 inches to its jaws, the trap is virtually identical to the classic "number four" designed more than a century and a half-ago by Samuel Newhouse, who viewed his traps as precursor to ax and plow, "the prow with which iron-clad civilization is pushing back barbaric solitude."

Taking a rock hammer from a Rubbermaid bucket holding the tools of his trade, Paul claws at the ground to clear out a shallow pit for the trap. Twirling the hammer over, he uses the striking face to whack the iron stakes securing the trap's drag chain to the ground to make sure they're still solidly anchored. He lays the set trap in the hole and, using a sifter made from a screen and a coffee can, covers the jaws of the trap with loose dirt. He then clears dirt from beneath the trap pan that might prevent it from triggering the trap. At the same time, a spring beneath the pan can stand up to 6 pounds of pressure, which helps keep smaller animals such as skunks and foxes from tripping the trap. Paul lays a plastic sandwich bag over the pan to keep rain from washing dirt under the pan. Using the sifter again, he covers the trap, then sculpts the dirt with a whisk broom until it blends perfectly with the surrounding ground. Standing, he folds the tarp, carries it several yards away and scatters the dirt in a ditch. He fetches a second bucket and slips on a new pair of gloves—these to handle liquid "baits," dark and foul looking, which Paul carries in jars. "The best wolf bait is something that's real rank that you can get down into a small quantity," Paul said. The jars contained, variously, ground bobcat meat, moose liver, rotted beaver.I ask about an almost black liquid in one of the jars.

"Wolf urine, " Paul says. Obtained from captive wolves, it's sprinkled on a trap to trigger a territorial response. "It's kind of what wolves do naturally all the time."

He settles on a concoction of unknown composition made by a trapper out West. He repacks his bucket and we climb into the truck. "Basically you just need something to dig a hole with, sift dirt, and keep things clean. For all the technology, the game between man and wolf hasn't changed a lot from the old Western trappers." 

Western ranchers declared war on the wolf in the late 1800s, and enlisted trappers as their soldiers. These "wolfers" trapped, snared, and poisoned entire territories. They told stories of wolves, trap-wise and wary, that defied civilization to the very end. "Outlaws" acquired names and legends: Big Foot, Rags the Digger, and the Greenhorn Wolf of Colorado; Lobo, King of Curumpaw of New Mexico; the Truxton Wolf and Aquila Wolf of Arizona. Many of these wolves were white, as Barry Lopez notes in Of Wolves and Men : Snowdrift Wolf, Ghost Wolf, Custer Wolf, and Old Whitey. Many learned their caution from the jaws of a trap, such as three-legged Old Lefty and, perhaps most famous of all, Three Toes of Harding County, South Dakota. As Lopez notes, "The death of one of these animals occasioned parades, banquets, speeches, and the awarding of engraved gold watches." 

I ask Paul whether a wolf had ever repeatedly outfoxed him. "There was one wolf that nobody could catch," he says. "We nicknamed it Einstein. We figured it had a really big brain." Einstein, he explained, was part of a small pack that killed several hundred turkeys at a farm south of Roseau. Trappers caught three of the wolves quickly, but a fourth continually evaded their traps. It would kill and then disappear for several days. The trappers would leave; the wolf would return. The traps would reappear; the wolf would vanish. This continued for more than a month. The wolf was identifiable by its small feet, and Paul suspected it was a female. "Everybody tried at that wolf." There were never any gold watches or parades. As far as Paul knows, Einstein was still roaming the farm's perimeter when the farmer shipped his turkeys. The crew picked up its traps and went elsewhere. 

WHEN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT designated the eastern timber wolf an endangered species, about 600 to 700 wolves lived in Minnesota, primarily in Superior National Forest. A scattered few lived in Montana and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. With protection, Minnesota's population grew and expanded, despite occasional poaching. Today, state and federal biologists estimate that more than 2,500 wolves live in Minnesota, mostly north of a line curving from Taylors Falls through Little Falls, Detroit Lakes, and Thief River Falls. One radio-collared wolf made a brief foray into Hugo, a St. Paul suburb, before retreating northward. Likewise, wolves have prospered in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, numbering more than 250. 

The wolf has so surpassed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's recovery plan that the federal government is poised to remove it from the federal endangered species list, provided the states devise suitable plans to manage and protect the wolf.

In Minnesota, the anticipated "delisting" has ignited a display of passion unseen in wolf politics for some time. At a series of meetings the state Department of Natural Resources held earlier this year, wolf-lovers and wolf-haters turned out as if for a sporting event, shouting slogans and insults and bearing placards with such sentiments as Kill Our Wolves; Kill Our Wilderness. But the polarization and righteousness of each side suggested a religious crusade. Indeed, wolf-lovers and wolf-haters each view the wolf as a symbol of wilderness, but in one case it is a wilderness of New Age harmony, and in the other the "waste and howling wilderness" of Cotton Mather. As the wolf population has grown, so too have the complaints from farmers and pet owners, from 31 in 1979 to more than 200 in 1997. The number of wolves killed by the federal wolf control program has also increased, from 6 in 1979 to 216 in 1997. Wolf-protection groups' greatest fear is that the DNR will allow sport hunting and trapping of wolves—any wolves—whether they've been involved in livestock predation or not. Compared to gun- and trap-toting "sportsmen" with a vendetta against all wolves, government trappers look like saviors.

The way Paul sees it, the rising number of livestock kills and the political fractiousness are the price of a successful recovery program. "Clearly there can be no argument that the wolf population is growing and the wolf has expanded its range. So the environmentalists can't say they haven't expanded, aren't living in more areas. We're killing more wolves all the time, but that's the reality of wolf recovery. You're going to have to live with wolves because you're not going to get rid of them."

Sensing that Paul is frustrated with environmentalists (he frequently uses the phrase "these environmental groups"), I ask him which are tougher to educate—the wolf-haters or the wolf-lovers? "They both can be equally bad," he says. "Both sides have extremists. Some farmers have no use or tolerance for a wolf at all. Some environmentalists can't accept a wolf being killed for any reason. The wolf is such a political animal you can't implement biology." He prides himself on a balanced, objective view of the animal. He not only sees the wolf; he sees what it does. "I've worked on wolf research studies—the wolf in a wilderness-type area where they're not preying on domestic animals. But then I've seen where wolves kill domestic animals. Predation on livestock or a dog is not a pretty sight for a farmer or anybody else. So I kind of take a middle-of-the-road approach. The way I perceive what we do is that we're wolf managers. We're not simply trappers that go out and kill wolves. We have a very important role in wolf management here. The wolves we're taking are problem animals. And if those animals weren't taken, then there would be a lot more public controversy, a lot more illegal killing of wolves—and not just problem wolves, but wolves anywhere. By reducing the controversy we allow other wolves to survive."

Paul recounts a recent visit to an elementary school class. The first student to raise a hand asked: "Why do you kill wolves?" "That really puts you on the spot," he says now. You have to tell them that wolves are a predator and to eat they have to kill something and sometimes that's a farmer's cow or somebody's dog. Actually your best hope for educating about wolves is kids. Because older people are pretty set in their ways. They've already got their biases. That can work both ways too. Some people talk to kids and they paint the wolf as just a big furry dog and that's all. The kid never sees a picture of a dead calf or anything that's been eaten. But if you give them the whole story, at least they can think about that." 

THE NEXT DAY BEGINS WITH MORE CALLS: A dog attacked north of Nashwauk. A man from Ponsford complains of losing calves and finding wolf scat with cattle hair in it. A game warden from Cloquet reports that a wolf had attacked a dog and was lurking on the outskirts of town. 

"You haven't heard about this?" Paul asks John Hart, one of his crew. "Wolf attacked a dog. Apparently walked around the squad car."

"Why didn't they just shoot it?"

"They thought it might be a wolf and thought they couldn't shoot it."

Hart will go to Cloquet. Paul decides he needs to stay in the office to handle paperwork and sends me out with Pete Sahr, a seasonal trapper with a master's degree in wildlife biology. Sahr has been trapping on a farm north of Bigfork for more than a week. While he was setting traps around the carcass of a cow near the edge of the pasture, a wolf attacked a calf in the barnyard. "That's what the farmer said anyway," Sahr explains.

Our first stop is the house near Nashwauk, where we are met by a woman named Donna Davis and a whirling pair of collies. The smaller dog is shaved over her rear, with a wound about 8 inches long, closed by sutures.

"Where do you figure your dog was attacked?" Sahr asks.

"I figure right here." Davis points to a windbreak near the house. "She hardly goes anywhere else, just along the treeline. The wolves are normally right back there." She pointed to the woods behind the house. "We can hear them during the summer. They're howling."

Pete examines the tooth marks around the wound. Tough to tell if they were made by a wolf, he says. 

Apparently the dog slept with the wound through the night. "I discovered it Sunday morning," Davis says. "I looked at it and saw these huge gashes, wide open. The vet said she was attacked by a large animal or a timber wolf. I talked to my neighbors over there"—she points across the road to a farm—"and they said they had a couple of timber wolves in their field Saturday night." 

We drive across the road. A woman in a red bandana is repairing a barbed wire fence. Her name is Sharon Laasko. She says they had lost several calves but hadn't found the remains. Sahr asks her if she's familiar with the wolf-trapping program. "It doesn't do any good," she answers. "No one believes you anymore anyway." Her husband, Larry, rides across the pasture on an ATV. He speaks grimly of wolves. "We got timbers right across the road," he said. "I'm afraid to let my dogs out." 

Sahr suggests he call the office if he loses livestock. "Yeah, but what good would it do me? They ain't scared of anybody no more. It's a no-good situation for us. Just a losing battle." At this moment, Larry Laasko is one of the most dour-looking men I have ever seen. Deep lines in his face, like small gullies, seem to have drained the joy from his face long ago. Then Sharon mentions that one wolf transgression or another had occurred when Larry "got back from Finland." I mention that I had been to Finland and had taken saunas from Helsinki to the Arctic Circle. At this, Larry's blue eyes dance in his furrowed face as he begins to talk enthusiastically of authentic smoke saunas. In passing, he mentions that had chased Donna Davis's dogs, the ones that supposedly never wander beyond her driveway, off his property with his ATV.

For the next hour we look for tracks along the dirt roads near Davis's house. Sahr remarks on the irony of looking for evidence of a symbol of wilderness where several tract houses have sprung up recently. Finally, Sahr spots a lone track. It's probably a wolf's, since even the collies would not make a print that size. Nonetheless, he decides against setting traps. The nearby residents and the nomadic habits of the collies make trapping risky. "You know her dogs travel farther than she says they do," Sahr said. "So for right now we'll write it up as a verified wolf attack and see if they have any future problems. If something happens again, we have a little more leeway for trapping." 

A LITANY OF WOLF-CONTROL methods have been tried on Clarence and Hazel Priem's cattle farm a few miles north of Bigfork. Trapped wolves were transported to remote reaches of northeastern Minnesota. They found their way back to the Priems' pastures. Cowhide-wrapped balls of hamburger blended with a nonlethal emetic were spread around the farm. The balls disappeared, but the wolves did not. Flashing lights were strung around the pastures. Neighbors asked if the Priems were building an airport, but the wolves didn't seem to mind the glare. The Priems bought llamas, reputed to scare off predators. They may well have, but since they cost up to $4,000 apiece, the Priems felt they were too expensive to risk in the chanciest corners of their property, and so kept them near the house instead. One researcher even provided them with a Great Pyrenees dog, specially trained to bond with livestock and drive off wolves. The dog now lies in the barn, so as not to spring the traps Sahr has set around the farm.

"We've done everything we could think of to prevent the wolves," Hazel says. 

Skirting vast seas of gray, gluey mud, I follow Hazel Priem, who wears only a flimsy pair of old slip-on shoes. We come to a pasture where a cow was killed and a calf attacked. Hazel and her family run about 180 head of beef cattle, she says, not enough to make a living anymore. They also own more than 200 European elk, for which there seems to be no market at all. They bought their llamas when prices were high, right before they fell. "That was another mistake we made," she says. "If cattle prices don't get better the bank will have it anyway," says her son David, a stocky young man wearing a dirty baseball cap over curly brown hair that had not been cut in a long time. We watch as in the distance Sahr checks his traps, set around the carcass that had been dragged to the edge of the property. The wind is fierce, making conversation difficult. Yet David talks on, about the long history of predation on the farm, the largely failed efforts to deter wolves through nonlethal means, and the ongoing trapping. I ask him whether the trapping is doing any good.

"It holds them down. He'll get the pack that's here. And then when the one pack leaves, the next one will come in. Then they'll start killing. When we find something dead again, we'll have to call them up and get them to come out again."

Pete returns on his ATV. No wolves today. We ride out to look at the carcass in a pickup David has cobbled together from five different vehicles. It has no dashboard, and David has just replaced the body with one from a different truck. Mud sprays up through the floor. Water splashes against the hot manifold and launches a geyser of steam through a jagged hole cut for the gearshift. The carcass is more than ripe. It's covered with flies, and the stench forces us upwind. I look at the mud, the bloated cow. I think of David Priem spending his time moving parts from truck to truck to keep one running. I lean into the tireless presence of the wind and am overcome with despair. 

I LOVE THE THOUGHT OF WOLVES running free over wild country. I love catching by chance the sound of their voices on a dark night, or a glimpse of one by the roadside, or the sight of a deep moist track along a portage trail. Yet I also come from a family of farmers.

What is society's obligation to a farmer raising livestock in the midst of wolf country? To provide control? To provide financial compensation? To say that wolf predation is the cost of doing business there? Or is it to say instead, go ahead, solve your own problem, kill your own damn wolves? The conservationist in me rebels against the rantings of wolf-haters and the wanton persecution of the past. On the other hand, I hate that we make whiners of people. I find myself wishing they could fix things themselves, instead of having to wait for help and a check, as if they were on welfare. Wilderness implies a freedom to act. To many farmers, I am sure, the wolf is not a symbol of wilderness at all, but of impotence.

About a week after I left David Priem, Bill Paul called. He had caught a male wolf on John Simek's place, cleaning out what he believed to be a pair. Pete Sahr had trapped five more wolves from the Priem farm, for a total of seven, probably all the wolves there were. For now.