The first time I ever thought about wolves was when I finished reading Jack London’s
two stories; Call of the Wild and White Fang. Up until then I just don’t remember
ever having thought about the fact that I lived in about the only place in the lower 48
states where a boy had even a chance of seeing wolves. My dad told me they are where
you find them, and you won’t find them sitting in the kitchen. He went down into the
basement and came back with a pair of snowshoes. Dad walked to the kitchen window
and pointed to the dark line of pines which lined the ridge south of town. “You bundle
up and head out on the Lucky Boy Road in back of the hospital. The snow is pretty deep
this winter, so you’ll need these snowshoes to keep on top of things. Find a deer trail and
keep following it. Sooner or later that trail will lead you to a wolf. You can also look for
a flock of ravens,” dad said, “Ravens and wolves are like ham and eggs.” With that sage
advice imparted, dad wished my luck, and then went into the living room.
I snow shoed for about three weekends and if I ever got close to a wolf I wasn’t aware
of it. Once I caught the waving white flag of a startled white tail deer, and there were
always winter birds; gray jays and chickadees following along as I woodenly clacked my
way through the rough country south of town. But I never saw a wolf, and soon I got
tired of trying. I told my dad that I wasn’t having any luck, and dad told me that there
weren’t very many wolves left around Ely. I asked him why, and dad told me that most
people thought of wolves as dangerous predators at their worst, and nuisance animals
at best. They killed a lot of deer and moose, which meant fewer deer to hunt, so we
trapped, snared, and poisoned hundreds of wolves. Thinking it was the right thing to do.
For a few years after World War Two, people even paid to hunt wolves from airplanes.
Any way you got them, the State of Minnesota paid thirty five dollars bounty on any wolf
hide presented to them.
The truth was there weren’t many wolves left in Minnesota back in the 1950’s. People
like Sig Olson, the dean of Ely Junior College, and Milt Stenlund who ran the first real
state study of wolves in Minnesota helped lay the ground work for later people like L.
David Mech. The population of Gray Wolves in Northeastern Minnesota numbered
between five and six hundred animals back then. Most of Minnesota’s gray wolves were
almost all located in the rough and wild country of the northern part of Minnesota where
they were hard to get at. By the time I was aware of wolves they had grown secretive and
wary of people, so they learned to keep away from humans.
One day my dad and I drove out to Winton, about three miles east of Ely, and we stopped
in front of one of the old boarding houses from Winton’s glory days as an important
logging center. There were trees ringing the outside of the edge of the yard, and a
heavy metal cable running from tree to tree. Hanging on that cold metal wire were the
frozen bodies of over twenty wolves dangling limp and lifeless in the winter sunshine.
It was a sight that has never left me. I was shocked and angry that anyone could do
this to an animal, and my dad let me vent my anger. And then we talked about how the
man trapping these dead wolves was working for the state who thought the man was
performing a useful service by ridding the world of a terrible predator. I asked my dad
what he thought. I remember him shrugging his shoulders and saying that you couldn’t
blame a wolf for being a wolf, and that as far as dad was concerned if God hadn’t
have wanted them here for a reason, he wouldn’t have put them here. It seemed a fair
philosophy when I was a boy, and it still does today.
One of the other days I will always remember is the day dad slid the news paper over to
me at the kitchen table and pointed to an article where Governor Carl Rolvag ended the
state’s bounty on wolves by refusing to sign the monetary over to cover the bounty. It
was 1965 and that was the year the bounty on wolves was ended in Minnesota, and the
state stopped paying thirty five dollars for a dead wolf. People could still be hunted for
their hides, but now you can’t harm a wolf under almost any circumstance.
Since there low point of five to six hundred animals, the number of Gray Wolves living
in Minnesota now numbers anywhere from twenty five hundred to three thousand
animals. I don’t claim to be an authority on wolves, but I did work a summer at the
International Wolf Center in Ely, and it gave me a chance to learn quite a bit about them.
That was almost twenty years ago now, and there have been many changes regarding our
attitude towards the gray wolf since I was a boy clacking clumsily about on show shoes;
looking for wolves. Wolves have a much greater presence around Ely now. There are
more of them, and I believe they sense that people mean them no harm.
Wolves are currently protected by the Endangered Species Act; at least they still are in
the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. Since we stopped persecuting them,
wolves have reclaimed a lot of their old territory. They have spread out from their strong
hold in deep woods of Northeastern Minnesota and now there are many people living
in places like Ely who feel the time has come to take Gray Wolves off The Endangered
Species List and let the individual states manage the interests of the Gray Wolf just
as they are doing with gray wolves in the five western states which now have viable
populations of gray wolves.
This year Congress took the Gray Wolf off the Endangered Species List in five western
states where wolves must be doing pretty well. But Gray Wolves are still protected in
Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, which has a lot of people wondering about when
Congress is going to listen to people like Dr. Mech who thinks we have more wolves in
Minnesota than we can properly support, and allow someone to manage the interests of
the gray wolf. Many of us living in Ely wonder why wolves were de-listed out west, and
still considered endangered in the Great Lakes States. It almost seems that some people
think that if we take them off the list that we would once again start indiscriminately
killing wolves again east of the big river. I don’t think that would ever happen again.
I think most people living with wolves realize that they are now an excepted part of a
balanced eco system.
Like almost everything else wolves are now a national political issue which is why
Congress tried to steal a page from the Book of Solomon and tried to cut the issue of
the controlling gray wolves in half by letting western states manage the gray wolves
while those wolves living east of the Mississippi River belong to Uncle Sam. Because
wolves are still on the endangered species list, they really can’t be managed by either
state or federal people, and with an apparent decline in both deer and moose populations
in and around the boundary waters quite a few people here in Ely think someone needs
to manage gray wolves. Most see to think that can be best accomplished by leaving the
matter up to the individual states that have populations of gray wolves. There is no state
with the exception of Alaska that has more gray wolves then we do in Minnesota. No
one wants to return to the days when we were trying to wipe out the last population of
gray wolves left in the lower 48 States, but this blogger believes that the interest of gray
wolves in Minnesota are best served by letting Minnesota manage its own wolves just as
it manages the interests of moose, deer, fish, bears, and many other species of animals.
The federal government has enough to do already, so why not let the State of Minnesota
deal with its gray wolves, and see what happens.