It was dawn and the first new calf of the year had been born the day before at the Wolf Tooth Ranch west of Hinckley owned by Dave and Dana Jensen. The Jensens fittingly named the ranch “Wolf Tooth Ranch” because of abundance of wolves they would see on their 540-acre ranch and the losses of livestock that occurred due to wolf predation. Dave Jensen has made it routine to check on expectant mothers at first light and every two hours during the day to keep his calves from the growing wolf population that had grown accustomed to circling his herd, waiting for an opportunity to move in on a vulnerable newborn.
The wild country surrounding his pasture, with the North Branch Grindstone River running through it, had created a prime habitat for the wolf population.
Jensen would normally saddle up his horse to check on a calf, given that a horse can cut a cow off and move easily over rocks and through woods and water and bring a cow and calf safely back to a pen. A four-wheeler can’t. But two weeks ago, he left both behind and walked out into the field at dawn to quickly check on the new calf. With his herding dog, Moon, by his side, he spotted the calf and saw that it was well.
He also spotted a wolf across the field.
Feeling vulnerable without a horse or four-wheeler, he looked for his dog. Moon had already made his way back to the herd, but Jensen was out in the field alone with no protection in sight. The wolf was coming closer. Jensen thought he could climb a tree if one was nearby but nothing was around. The only thing that may help him was the shelter of the fenceline and the saplings that had grown up around it.
The wolf had moved in closer and seemed to put its sight right on Jensen. It came running toward him, so he instinctively ran to the treeline. In what seemed like slow motion and surreal, he looked for something he could throw at the wolf as it was narrowing the gap between them. The only potential defense was what was left of a downed birch tree. He picked up the largest chunk of remains, and though it seemed light as a feather, he cast the large branch in the direction of the wolf who had come in close by that time.
This was enough to startle the wolf and make it saunter off in the direction of its companion who was watching to see how things would play out.
“What a naked feeling that morning,” recalled Jensen.
This was not the first human-wolf encounter in the area. Another Pine County resident from west of Hinckley, Steve Hosna, shared a close encounter he had a few years ago.
“It was September, and I had a colt that broke its leg and had to put it down,” said Hosna. “I heard the wolves were chewing on the colt I left out in the field and walked out with my coffee in hand just to watch. The wolves were staring at each other and they should have ran off. I couldn’t believe that they stuck around. One came running at me. I saw my hay rack but there was no way I was going to make it (to the hayrack). I turned around and started screaming. The other wolf ran off, but the one that was chasing me kept coming. I threw my coffee mug at him, and that was enough to scare him off.”
A growing concern for ranchers
Dan Stark, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) large carnivore specialist, said that cases like Jensen’s and Hosna’s are rare and that typically wolves avoid people, but occasionally wolves and other wild animals don’t respond as you would expect and sometimes may be more bold.
And though human-wolf encounters “don’t happen very often at all”, according to Pete Sahr, wildlife biologist for the USDA Wildlife Services Program, he said that the number of bold wolf complaints have gone up, mostly from people out walking their dogs.
The United States Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, in its 2017 Wolf Damage Management Report, states: “While the overall damage to livestock producers and pet owners is relatively small, the financial losses and personal impact to livestock producers and pet owners can be significant.”
Local DNR Conservation Officer Bret Grundmeier confirmed what seems to local ranchers to be a growing wolf population. “There is a number of wolves that have been hanging around the Hinckley area,” said Grundmeier.
Pine County ranchers, Doug and Susie Fore, who rent land five miles east of Hinckley, have lost eight calves this year they believe due to wolf predation. “It makes me sick. There have been sightings of wolves and track near the areas where the calves were taken. Sometimes you never see the dead calf as they take them away. If you talk to the farmers in the area, many of them have lost calves to wolves. The wolves are everywhere in East Central Minnesota, and it seems to be getting worse.”
Late last fall, added Grundmeier, a farmer west of Hinckley had calves that were likely killed by wolves. He said that this spring, there was a case of calves being killed and eaten by a “decent sized pack of wolves” given the amount of tracks he found.
Grundmeier added that they “have always had a few wolves around Hinckley, but there does seem to be a larger pack right now … I would estimate the wolf pack west of Hinckley to be at least six to eight wolves, possibly even more than that.”
Wolves seem to go where there are a lot of deer and the deer numbers are higher than they have been over the past few years in the Hinckley area.
Though Grundmeier says that it is not uncommon over the 15 years he has worked for the DNR to see wolves in the area and that the population in Pine County has always seemed to fluctuate, statistics say Minnesota, specifically Pine County, has an ever-increasing wolf population.
Next week in part two of the story, we will examine the wolf numbers in the county, state and nation, look at why the decision was made to put wolves back on the endangered species list and what can be done to prevent wolf depredation.