Minn. wolf hunters face tough odds of bringing home a pelt

Matt Breuer
Hunting and fishing guide Matt Breuer of Bemidji stands at the spot where he spotted a large wolf a few years ago. Breuer plans to hunt wolves in a late season that begins Nov. 24. The early season for Minnesota's first managed wolf hunt opens Nov. 3, running concurrently with the firearms deer season.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Matt Breuer jumped at the chance to hunt wolves in Minnesota's inaugural hunting season, which begins Saturday.

But he'll wait until the second half of the season, when the forests won't be crowded with deer hunters. He thinks the chances are slim that wolves will show themselves to deer hunters sitting in stands.

"I think the odds are a lot worse than people might think," said Breuer, who runs a fishing and bear-hunting guide service. "They're pretty wily critters and they don't show themselves very often, so it's going to be tough."

It's been nearly 40 years since the federal government banned wolf hunting and placed the animals on the endangered species list. Today, few people know how to effectively hunt the elusive predator.

The three wolf hunting zones cover most of northern Minnesota. The early season runs Nov. 3-18, with the exception of the 200 series deer permit areas, which run along the western edge of the wolf zones. For those areas, the season runs from Nov. 3-11.

More hunters will get their chance in a second season that runs from Nov. 24 to Jan. 31. That one will also include trappers.

About 3,600 people won early season wolf hunting permits through a state Department of Natural Resources-sponsored lottery. Hunting experts predict most of them will come out of the woods empty-handed, as wolves are secretive animals. They typically stay clear of humans.

A RARE BEAST

Although Breuer is an avid outdoorsman, he's only seen a few wolves in his lifetime. He plans to use bait to attract a wolf — the same tactic he uses when he hunts bears.

"I know how well bait works and how animals will slip up from their normal routine once you add bait to the equation," he said. "I'm just going to keep those deer carcasses that me and my family happen to shoot and I'm going to try to use that bait and lure them out."

Baiting wolves is legal under the rules established by the DNR. Hunters can also use calls, where they might howl or emit sounds mimicking coyotes, or a rabbit or fawn in distress. The rules also say both early and late season gun hunting is limited to a half-hour before sunrise and a half-hour after sunset.

No more than 200 wolves can be killed in each season. The DNR will shut the season down if those limits are reached.

DNR wolf expert Dan Stark guesses hunters will kill only about 70 wolves during the early season. That's just a success rate of 2 percent.

Unlike deer, wolves have a large range that can cover 40 square miles or more. Finding them is harder, because they might pass through a particular section of land only once every few days. Stark said few hunters have the skills needed to find them.

"It requires different knowledge and familiarity and I think that's something that's unique about the hunting and trapping of wolves," he said. To really experience it and understand the species and have that appreciation, people are going to have to put a lot of work into understanding and knowing the behaviors and patterns of wolves to be successful at it."

State Sen. Bob Lessard
Former state Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls recalls the days when wolves were vilified. When he was a teenager in the 1940s, Lessard accidentally trapped and killed three wolves on land west of International Falls. He says the iconic status of wolves has grown over the years, but he favors managing the predators with hunting and trapping seasons.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Stark expects trappers will have a success rate closer to 5 percent. That's because trappers can cover wider territory by setting up multiple traps.

Some old-timers still remember the days when wolves were vilified and killing them was not only legal, but was encouraged. Former state Sen. Bob Lessard of International Falls, killed not one, but three wolves, all when he was a teenager.

Lessard, 81, caught the wolves by accident in traps set in the woods west of his hometown. He snagged the first one in 1944, when he was 13.

"I took my .22 and I was about 30 yards away and I shot him in the head and that was the end of it," Lessard recalled. "We didn't think of majestic. It was a big wolf. You see the big animal, you're excited in a way ... The mystique, that might come a little later and all the hoopla and that type of thing. It was a wolf. It was an animal in the woods."

In all his years of deer hunting in the north woods, Lessard has seen only one wolf while sitting in a deer stand. So does he have any advice for wolf hunters heading out this weekend?

"No, I just think it's luck," he said. "It all comes down to plain, ordinary luck."

DEER HUNTERS REACT

Minnesota deer hunters hold a range of opinions on the new wolf hunting season. In the online chat rooms for the "hook and bullet" crowd, some hunters blame wolves for a drop in the deer population.

But DNR biologists say wolves only kill about 45,000 to 60,000 deer in Minnesota each year, or about 10 percent of the deer that live within the wolf range. DNR officials say the biggest factors in the size of the state's deer herd are the number of deer killed by hunters and the mildness or severity of the winter.

Groups like the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, however, contend that wolves do affect deer movements, enough to frustrate some hunters during deer season. But the association's director, Mark Johnson, said wolves belong on the landscape and should be managed and maintained.

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson is director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. Johnson, who has hunted other predators like coyotes, bobcats and fox, says he'd like to hunt wolves, too. He says most wolf hunters will have to learn more about wolf behavior to be successful.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Johnson, who has hunted other predators like coyotes, fox and bobcat since he was a boy, wants to hunt wolves. He tried to get a late season wolf tag but didn't win a slot in the lottery.

But except for one close encounter when a wolf ran by him near his home at the edge of the Grand Rapids city limits, Johnson has mostly only caught glimpses of wolves. He'll never forget that one.

"It had a gorgeous coat," Johnson said. "It looked like it was nine or 10 feet long from the nose to the tip of its tail, just huge and beautiful, bright, light colors to it. And as it ran through the woods, it was like everything went into slow motion, including this wolf, and it slowly loped and did this wave-like action through the woods. I've never seen anything so beautiful."

Some deer hunters want to see the wolves left alone. Among them is Barry Babcock, of Laporte, who has been a deer hunter for nearly 50 years. Babcock said he believes some deer hunters pushed for a wolf season because they see wolves as competition for deer.

"I just don't see why we want to go out and hunt an animal that was brought to the brink of extinction in the lower 48," he said. "To me, the wolf is a symbol of the wilderness, and ... the wolf, in a way, is kind of like the canary in the mine. If we've got wolves left here, it's symbolic that we have wild places left."

FOR ONE HUNTER, THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE

While most wolf hunters may have bought a license just in case they happen to see a wolf from their deer stand, some wolf hunters are more serious.

Jim Gerold lives in Prior Lake, but this weekend he's camped in the remote wilderness west of Silver Bay in northeastern Minnesota. He plans to stay there, living out of a tent, for about eight days, or until he gets his wolf.

Gerold said he'll use coyote calls to try to draw in wolves wanting to protect their territory. The 28-year-old construction worker — who last year killed a moose during a hunt — supports efforts to maintain a strong wolf population in the state.

"I would absolutely be willing to shoot a dozen less deer in my lifetime and be able to share the woods with the wolves," he said. "I love listening to them at night. I don't remember every deer I've seen in the woods while I've hunted, but I remember every single wolf I've seen. I really think they're cool animals."

Gerold sees wolves as iconic animals and fully expects he'll take some heat from people who oppose wolf hunting. But he's proud of his hunting tradition and sees taking a wolf as the ultimate challenge.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.