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A fence around this northern Minnesota cattle ranch may keep both calves and wolves from dying

Cooperative effort aims to help cattle rancher, wolves and wolf researchers.

On the Johnson Ranch.
Rancher Wes Johnson, from the left, visits with Voyageurs Wolf Project researchers Austin Homkes and Tom Gable near a section of new fence on Johnson’s ranch north of Orr on Tuesday. A collaborative effort is erecting more than seven miles of fencing around the 1,600-acre ranch to prevent wolves from entering and praying on calves, which has resulted in federal trappers killing dozens of wolves on the ranch in recent years.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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ALONG SHEEP RANCH ROAD — They say good fences make good neighbors, and Wes Johnson is hoping more than 7 miles of good fence around his cattle ranch here will finally make good neighbors out of the booming local wolf population.

For the past 20 years or so, this is where wolves have been coming to die, more than any place else in Minnesota. They came to eat first, preying on some of Johnson’s newborn calves each spring. But then federal trappers came and killed the wolves — as many as 16 in a single year, three already this year, and 86 wolves trapped and killed in this wild patch of northwestern St. Louis County since 2002.

Johnson’s sprawling, 1,600-acre ranch with 450 head of cows and calves has been the poster child for the ongoing conflict between a charismatic endangered species and the rancher who tries to make a living raising cattle among them. It has seemed at times during the ongoing debate over wolves that the two factions couldn’t exist side-by-side.

Johnson and his family have tried flagging, motion-activated sound-blaring devices, hard-kicking donkeys and even daily horseback patrols to keep wolves at bay. They also bury any dead cattle quickly before wolves come in to feast. Yet, every spring during calving season, more wolves came. And more calves died. Then more wolves died.

On the Johnson Ranch.
Calves nose around a roll of fencing on Johnson Ranch on Tuesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But if the fencing works, and the wolves stay out, Johnson’s cattle ranch could become a showcase example of how seemingly polarized interests can coexist. Work started last summer and, so far, about 5 miles of the ranch’s 7.5 miles of perimeter have been fenced.

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Early indications are that wolves are choosing not to cross. GPS-collared research wolves have been tracked moving up to the fence, walking down the fence line and then moving on. Trail cameras also show wolves staying out where the fence is up.

On the Johnson Ranch.
Wes Johnson.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“I think it’s going to work. Hell, it already is,’’ Johnson said while driving a truck across his land. “We haven't seen nearly as many wolves around since the fencing started to go up … and our cows are much calmer this year than they have been.”

The final two miles or so of woven-wire fencing are going up this summer.

Voyageurs research wolves killed

The fencing was the idea of Thomas Gable, the University of Minnesota researcher who heads the Voyageurs Wolf Project, an ongoing wolf research effort that has been uncovering the behavior of northern Minnesota wolves for the past seven years.

On the Johnson Ranch.
Voyageurs Wolf Project researchers Austin Homkes, left and Tom Gable fasten fencing to fence poles on Johnson Ranch.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

In recent years, as federal trappers worked to protect Johnson’s cows, more and more research wolves — including wolves wearing GPS collars as part of the Voyageurs Wolf Project — were being killed on the ranch. Some may have preyed on calves. Others did not. But if they got caught on the ranch after a calf had been killed, they were taken out.

cattle ranch.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Over the years 26% of all the GPS-collared wolves that have died during the Voyageurs Wolf Project research have died on Johnson’s ranch even though it comprises less than 1% of the study area. Some 9% of all the wolves estimated living within the study area have been trapped and killed at the ranch.

In what started as a tense meeting a few years ago, Johnson and federal trappers at first suggested that Gable move his research project. Gable said that was as impractical as Johnson’s moving his ranch. But Gable countered by suggesting they find a solution that would help all sides and end the perpetual cycle of wolves wandering on to the ranch, calves being killed and then wolves being killed by trappers.

Wolf packs in and around Voyageurs National Park
The black star indicates the location of the Johnson family cattle ranch on Sheep Ranch Road in northwestern St. Louis County. The ranch, with hundreds of cows and calves, is located in the middle of multiple wolf packs as shown in this image that uses hundreds of locations of GPS-collared wolves that are part of the Voyageurs Wolf Project research effort. Each color represents the home range of a specific wolf pack. Some 86 wolves, including several from the research project, have been trapped and killed on the ranch since 2002.
Contributed / Voyageurs Wolf Project

The Johnson cattle ranch is at the boundary of several different wolf packs, and along a common route used by lone wolves, some sort of geographic quirk that keeps an endless supply of wolves nearby.

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“It was just going to keep happening. The wolves were going in to fill the vacuum left by whatever pack they trapped out of here,’’ Gable said. “I thought there just has to be a better way.”

Gable offered his team of seasonal research staff to help and used his fundraising contacts to find some money. Johnson bought into the plan and has invested some $15,000 of his own money, equipment and time. And John Hart, the Grand Rapids-based district supervisor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division — the top federal trapper in Minnesota — coordinated federal help.

On the Johnson Ranch.
Federal trappers John Hart, left, and Jack Morawczynski on Johnson Ranch.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The entire project is expected to cost about $100,000, mostly for supplies thanks to the “donated’’ labor from the Voyageurs Wolf Project crew and Johnson’s own sweat equity.

“They got a bid at first and it was something like $300,000 for a fencing company to come out and do this. Nobody could afford that kind of money,’’ Johnson noted.

Support has come from a potpourri of sources, as varied as the U.S.D.A. National Wildlife Research Center, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the International Wildlife Coexistence Network and the Humane Society of the U.S., one of the most vehement pro-wolf, anti-trapping, anti-hunting and anti meat-eating groups in the country.

“I think we’ve ended up with a win-win situation for everyone. But it wasn’t easy to pull together,’’ Hart said. “The most important thing was to have a producer like Wes buy into it. Otherwise this doesn’t happen.”

Four-foot fence, wolves don’t jump

Both 6-foot high and 4-foot high fencing is being used on the project. But Hart said previous research by his crews found 4-foot fencing is enough to keep wolves out.

On the Johnson Ranch.
Federal trapper Jack Morawczynski drives a tractor along a section of Johnson Ranch fence Tuesday. Wes Johnson made the metal cage on the back of the tractor. It includes a winch for lifting rolls of fencing and a center pole so fencing can be easily unrolled along a fence line.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“There weren’t any specs out there for wolf fencing. … But we found that, for whatever reason, even though they could easily do it, they don’t want to jump over,’’ Hart said. “They would rather dig underneath.”

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To prevent that, the entire fence perimeter is also being lined with 2 feet of wire skirting, on the ground outside the fence, to keep wolves from digging their way onto the ranch.

Wolf running.
A wolf moves along the outside of a fence protecting Johnson Ranch on Nov. 3, 2021.
Contributed / Jack Morawczynski, USDA

Johnson has been working on this ranch in some way for nearly 60 years. About 30 years ago he bought the land and expanded a few hundred acres of cleared meadow to a massive 1,600 acres of grazing and crop land. It’s as if someone dropped a chunk of eastern Montana in the middle of the Minnesota north woods, with cows grazing on rolling, mostly treeless hills.

It seems an unlikely location for such a big cattle operation, surrounded by the Kabetogama State Forest and county forest land with Voyageurs National Park 7 miles north as the crow flies and the Superior National Forest just down the road.

“It doesn’t look like anything else around here,” Gable noted.

The Sheep Ranch was at first a horse stable, the place in the early 1900s where logging companies kept their big draft horses in summer between their winter work hauling white pines out of the woods. In the 1930s it briefly became a sheep ranch, and somehow the name stuck on the lonesome road off U.S. Highway 53 about 15 miles north of Orr.

On the Johnson Ranch.
An aerial view of a pasture edged by woods at Johnson Ranch shows new fencing in the foreground and cattle grazing and resting in the distance.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Johnson started working here in 1963 and his family has raised cattle here since the 1980s. Now his son, Bob, is helping out and granddaughter Savannah is eager to take reins on the ranch someday. Every morning during the summer, Savannah saddles her horse and rides the entire ranch perimeter. She’s ridden up on wolves attacking calves, and even has video of one such attack.

Gable says he believes wolves will get used to the fence and get used to realizing they can’t get around it, then move on to hunting deer and beaver, their usual north woods meals.

“Most of these wolves have never seen a fence before,’’ Gable noted, adding that it will be critical to keep plugging any low spots — where creeks or ravines cross under the fence — where wolves will try to go under.

Hart said a similar but much smaller fencing project around a sheep pasture near Effie seems to have solved a problem where trappers had been called in nearly every year for two decades. Since the fence was installed in 2020 there hasn’t been a single wolf attack on a sheep. And no wolves have been trapped and killed.

On the Johnson Ranch.
Savannah Johnson walks across a pasture after checking a cow to see if it had calved Tuesday, June 7, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Fencing “is not a prescription for every wolf problem out there. It’s not going to work if you have multiple (livestock) producers in one area because you just push the problem over to the next guy,’’ Hart said. “But this place is so isolated, it works here.”

Wes Johnson agreed.

“Give them credit, they were looking for a solution that everyone could live with,’’ Johnson said between puffs on a Marlboro. “And it’s working. That’s the good thing. … If it helps their wolves, fine. I just want my calves left alone.”

On the Johnson Ranch.
The fencing installed to keep wolves out of Johnson Ranch include an apron, a section of fence laid on the ground and fastened to the vertical fencing, to keep wolves from digging under the fence.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

About the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division

When wild animals are causing a problem, who you gonna call? The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division.

The agency seeks to use non-lethal measures to prevent conflicts between wild animals and farmers, ranchers and pet owners. But if those don't work the agency steps in with trapping and shooting when necessary.

Last year the federal agency killed more than 1.75 million animals across the U.S. to protect agriculture, human health and vulnerable native species. More than 1 million of those were invasive European starlings that feed on agricultural crops. But the agency also took out more than 100,000 feral pigs, 66,000 invasive European pigeons and nearly 64,000 coyotes.

The Grand Rapids-based regional staff of the federal agency also trapped and killed 152 wolves in Minnesota. That’s down from 216 wolves killed in 2020 and below the average of about 180 annually over the past decade. The program culls about 7% of Minnesota's wolves each year.

While the agency’s efforts are considered critical by many farmers and ranchers, some animal rights groups say it conducts overzealous and unnecessary killing when other options for wildlife control exist.

In Minnesota in 2021 the agency trapped wolves at 76 sites where experts verified that wolves had attacked livestock and, in a few cases, pets. Each case of wolves killing livestock must first be verified by a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer. Many cases aren’t confirmed because the animal is dragged away or because it’s not clear what caused the death. If confirmed, the federal Wildlife Services trappers are called-in, free of charge to the livestock owner. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture also is involved by reimbursing the farmer for the loss of the animal.

Wildlife Services has about 18 employees based out of Grand Rapids, most of them seasonal during the busy April-October period. The agency also culls cormorant numbers on lakes where their numbers have impacted fish populations, traps beaver where roads have been flooded and shot deer as part of culling efforts where chronic wasting disease is found or suspected, such as in Grand Rapids this past winter.

Wildlife Services also removes or hazes wild animals away from airports, such as flocks of Canada geese and deer that can collide with aircraft on or near runways.

In addition to killing unwanted wild animals, Wildlife Services offers farmers and others options for non-lethal wildlife control, such as flagging, fencing and hazing methods and conducts research on methods to keep wildlife out of harm's way near people.

About the Voyageurs Wolf Project

The Voyageurs Wolf Project is an ongoing effort to learn more about wolves and their prey in and around Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota's only national park, especially during summer months when little has been studied about wolf behavior.

The project started small in 2012 as an effort of the National Park Service, with Thomas Gable as a graduate student helper and six GPS collars that gave wolf locations every 12 hours. In 2015 Gable came back, by then a University of Minnesota PhD student ready to dive into the effort with higher-tech, longer-life collars that pinpoint wolf locations every few minutes, every day for months on end. Since 2012 researchers have trapped and collared dozens of wolves from more than 15 packs, then investigated tens of thousands of GPS points where the animals roam, hunt, eat, build their dens and sleep. Some 17 wolves are wearing working collars this summer.

The project also has integrated trail cameras into basic wolf research and has documented many first-evers in wolf and other animal behavior, such us the first documentation of Minnesota wolves catching and eating fish out of a stream, the first documentation of wolves using blueberries as a primary summer food and the first documentation of wolves intentionally ambushing their prey, waiting for hours along beaver trails for a beaver to show up, the first confirmation that wolves don’t just chase what they kill and eat.

Their research also explained how wolves can alter the landscape they live in by limiting beaver numbers and reducing beaver ponds, keeping land from being flooded.

The Voyageurs Wolf Project, officially a realm of the University of Minnesota, has in the past been funded with grants from the state’s Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund that gets a portion of state lottery profits. This year, facing another shortfall, the project is raising money directly from the public with a URaiseMN crowdfunding campaign at tinyurl.com/4kxjvs6d . The campaign sought $100,000 to keep field work moving ahead but, as of this week, had raised nearly $120,000 from more than 2,400 donors.

The Voyageur’s Wolf Project’s Facebook page at facebook.com/VoyageursWolfProject has nearly 185,000 followers.

About wolves in Minnesota

Minnesota has an estimated 2,700 wolves across the northern half of the state, according to a 2020 population survey and estimate by the Department of Natural Resources, by far the most of any state outside Alaska.

Minnesota is the only state in the contiguous U.S. where wolves were not hunted and trapped out of existence, with a remnant population of just a few hundred wolves remaining in the far northern reaches of the state by the 1970s when the animal was given protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Wolves in Minnesota are officially considered threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act after a federal court ruling in 2021. Wolves were briefly off the endangered list after action by the Trump administration, but the judge ruled the government acted too fast in letting states decide to aggressively trap and hunt the animals. Appeals are currently underway.

No public wolf hunting or trapping will be allowed unless the court ruling is overturned or until new legislation is passed in Congress and signed by the president.

The Minnesota DNR currently is developing an updated wolf management plan that will include parameters for any future wolf hunting or trapping seasons should federal protections end.

Threatened status is one step up from endangered and allows the federal trapping program to cull wolves near where verified wolf attacks on livestock attacks or pets have occurred.

About Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park is relatively small at 227,000 acres on the Minnesota-Ontario border, much of which comprises large lakes, including Kabetogama, Namakan, Sand Point and Rainy. It's Minnesota's only national park, and much of it is accessible only by water. Unlike the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Voyageurs is open to motorized boat and snowmobile traffic in many areas but is closed to all hunting and trapping. In addition to wolves it’s an area full of beaver and deer, with a fairly stable but small population of moose.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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