May–June 2021

The Wolves Next Door

Not far from the Twin Cities, the Isanti Pack lived a fleeting existence on the fringe of Minnesota’s expanding wolf range. Wolves are doing well, but can we adjust to them?

Mike Koshmrl

In a lifetime of raising Angus cattle, Keith Krantz had never seen anything like it: A 200-pound calf nearly consumed overnight, its carcass eaten down to the bone. 

The Isanti County man worked two jobs for much of his career, and as a postal carrier who ran a 60-mile, 500-box route for three decades he knew the woodlots, cropland, and wildlife in his neighborhood well. So he correctly guessed that a wild canine was to blame for the devoured calf on a Friday morning in June 2016. He just had the wrong species in mind.

“We thought it was the coyotes that were killing the calves,” Krantz says from a picnic table in view of his modest herd. “Then we come to find out it was the big wolves. I don’t mind the wolves. They’re nice to look at—as long as they leave our cattle alone.” 

The wolves that paid repeated visits to Krantz’s 330-acre backyard pasture in 2016 and ’17 were members of a wolf pack that became known as the Isanti Pack. These animals raised two litters in back-to-back years and grew to a peak of 19 animals while surviving on a territory 45 minutes by car from downtown Minneapolis.

The pack’s existence was fleeting: They started mixing it up with domestic dogs and livestock, and federal trappers were called in to curb the conflict. They were successful. Most adults were caught and killed, causing the pack to disband less than three years after it formed. That human-carnivore clash isn’t remarkable in a state of more than 5 million people and an estimated 2,700 wolves—just shy of the modern-day population high in 2002–2005 of around 3,000. An average of 150 wolves are trapped and destroyed annually after preying on dozens of cattle and the occasional sheep, dog, or chicken. What’s extraordinary is where it occurred.

“It’s somewhere in Minnesota where you don’t expect wolves to be,” says Dan Stark, a DNR wolf management specialist. “People have continued to perpetuate the idea that wolves are a wilderness species. I don’t think that’s the case. We’re learning that wolves are more adaptable, even though they may need a larger landscape than many other species to establish and persist on the landscape.” 

As the fringes of wolf range keep stretching outward from the core population in the north woods, Canis lupus is occupying more conflict-prone and peopled parts of Minnesota. The state’s largest native canine, which once roamed the entire state, is repatriating old grounds from which it was eliminated during the European settlement era, and it’s pressing back into tallgrass prairie and deciduous forest biomes that are now more carved up by humankind. The smaller woodlots that border cornfields, cow pastures, and communities are increasingly also homes for wolves, providing security cover and their most common prey, white-tailed deer. 

Meanwhile, Minnesota state and tribal wildlife management agencies recently assumed full responsibility for the formerly “threatened” species. The agencies work together to sort out how and where humans and wolves can get along. While most Minnesotans believe coexistence is a noble goal, it’s not always realistic. 
Tracks, Then Pups. The Isanti Pack’s territory spilled into Anoka County, which is considered part of the Twin Cities, and it’s just far enough away from the metro area to remain quiet and mostly agrarian. This family group inhabited an area more than 30 miles south of where wolves are regularly found. More than half of the landscape consists of cultivated or fallow fields, and it’s crossed by roads that run along section lines and dotted with homes, working farms, and the beginnings of exurban sprawl radiating out from the United States’ 16th largest metropolitan area. Yet a large wolf pack survived here for a time. 
The first time Jim Krueger saw sign of the Isanti Pack was in 2015, when he was out hunting for shed white-tailed deer antlers with his wife. They were on a walkabout in the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, a 9-square-mile University of Minnesota research site where he works as the building and grounds supervisor. 

“She told me, ‘I saw some wolf tracks,’” Krueger says. “I told her, ‘Oh, no, honey. I know my property and I really doubt you saw wolf tracks.’”
He was excited to be wrong. Soon, Krueger and his Cedar Creek colleagues realized there was an active wolf den in a northern, remote meadow of the reserve—a property that is off-limits to the general public. One of their first sightings came that spring, while Krueger was driving along a two-track with his boss, Cedar Creek associate director Forest Isbell, scouting for the pack.

“All nine pups spilled out on the road right in front of us,” Krueger recalls. “We looked over, and mama was about 30 yards away.”

The apex predator’s return to a landscape that the University of Minnesota has vigorously monitored since the 1940s provided an exciting and invaluable research opportunity for the station’s small staff. Isbell and Krueger started working with esteemed U.S. Geological Survey wolf biologist L. David Mech, and with a grant from Minnesota’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund they bought 100 game cameras that would help keep tabs on the wolves—and learn how other species responded to their presence. They also purchased a GPS collar in hopes of tracking the pack. Isbell and research collaborator Meredith Palmer started devising experiments to explore the concept of a “landscape of fear” ruled by a top predator. They noticed that white-tailed deer appeared to become more active during the middle of the day, when wolves were less likely to be active.

Krueger, who has maintained his own separate network of remote cameras for decades, anecdotally started observing change: Coyotes all but disappeared, and gray fox declined too. Red fox seemed to take advantage of this vacant niche, increasing in number. 

Cedar Creek’s scientists did not advertise their new residents, but some neighbors did see the Isanti Pack periodically, feeding on roadkill and passing by their own backyard game cameras. Plenty of the time, they went undetected. 

“Wolves—I don’t want to say they’re living in people’s backyards—but they’re our neighbors,” Stark says. “In most cases they’re not causing a problem, but when they do it gets noticed.”

The locals who did catch on to the apex predator’s reappearance had predictably mixed views.

“What makes this issue difficult is the differences in the way that different people look at wolves,” Mech says. “To a person who really likes wolves and wants to hear them howl, having wolves in an area like Isanti County, to them that’s really wonderful. But if you’re a landowner with a dog or livestock that gets killed, then it’s a different story.” 

“Part of Cedar Creek.” The gulf in Minnesotans’ attitudes toward wolves tracks with a divide that exists most places wolves live around the globe. Generally, people who live away from wolves like them, but those who share the landscape more intimately with them have more varied views. A recent joint DNR–University of Minnesota survey found that 62 percent of livestock producers and more than half of deer hunters have a dim view of the species, though nearly seven in 10 randomly reached Minnesotans have a positive attitude.

Not everyone fits neatly into those boxes. Almost a third of livestock producers have a positive view of wolves, as do nearly 40 percent of deer hunters. Not only that, roughly 47 percent of livestock producers and 67 percent of hunters agreed that it’s important to maintain a wolf population in Minnesota. Krueger, who’s an avid deer hunter, was indifferent to wolves before they showed up. In no time, he was learning everything he could about the wild canines and amassing hundreds of images through his remote cameras.

“When the wolves came, I became a huge wolf fan,” he says. “In conversation, I would protect them as much as I could. I couldn’t help but feel they were part of Cedar Creek and belonged in Cedar Creek.”
Up the way from Keith Krantz’s place, Oxford Township resident Kendra Rensfeldt grew up an avowed wolf advocate.

“They’re my favorite animal,” she says.

So when Rensfeldt had the fortune of spotting a wolf in a nearby field, she was excited and at the time never fathomed they posed any kind of threat. Rensfeldt learned in 2016 that sharing the neighborhood with territorial large carnivores can come with hardship. Her pit bull mix and service dog, Leon, came out on the losing end of a brutal 4 a.m. tussle right in her parents’ front yard.

The incident left Rensfeldt angry, heartbroken, and traumatized. For three years, her household’s remaining dogs never ventured outside unattended. Still, she’s not vengeful—and has even retained her fondness for wolves.

“They’re just animals doing their thing,” Rensfeldt says. “My dogs defend our territory. It’s just not as big of a territory.”

Bound for Conflict. In the spring of 2016, the Isanti Pack’s den site at the Cedar Creek meadow was vacant. They didn’t altogether abandon their territory, but they had begun denning well to the east, in a heap of privately owned woodland near Typo Lake. The move wasn’t unusual; wolves often change den locations. Retired homebuilder Raymond Bailey lives on the fringes of the woodland, and from his 32 deer stands he spotted the adult wolves and their pups more than once. Occasionally, he’d have fun with the newcomer canines, hauling road-killed whitetails into the woods and fixing a game camera on them to see what would happen. The Isanti Pack always made quick work of the venison, even when it was frozen solid.

“Those wolves were unbelievable,” Bailey says. “They’ve got some jaws.”
The Isanti Pack took up residence in pretty wild country, with nearly impenetrable swamps and wildlife like black bears, bobcats, and fishers and an abundance of deer.

“It’s just a big area back there,” Bailey says. “They had their own little sanctuary.”

But Minnesota’s southernmost wolf pack was also hemmed in by development. Krantz’s cattle and Rensfeldt’s dog were nearby, as were other easy-to-catch domestic targets.

Historically, the gray wolf could survive about anywhere—the species spanned North America, ranging from the Arctic to the desert southwest. It’s humanity’s occupation of wolf range that has changed the equation. 
“Wolves don’t need wilderness, and they don’t need specific habitat,” says John Hart, a district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program, which works to minimize conflicts between wolves and domestic animals. 

Wildlife Services specialists were called in to set foothold traps on the Krantz pasture and beyond after the inevitable depredations occurred. In 2016, they caught and killed six adults and a pup. The animals removed that spring and summer included the breeding female and one whopper of a wolf—a male that tipped the scales at 104 pounds, one of the heaviest Minnesota wolves captured and weighed on record. All the wolves caught were in excellent condition, which told the trappers and researchers they weren’t desperate for food.

“They’re just wolves being wolves,” Hart says. “It’s not because there’s anything wrong with them or they’re mean-spirited or anything like that. It’s just what they do.”

Resorting to lethal action worked, mostly. By the following spring, just three adult Isanti Pack animals remained. They picked off another of Krantz’s calves that May, and two of the three remaining wolves were subsequently trapped and killed. In the aftermath, the Isanti Pack was all but gone—a single wolf remained.

With the wolves mostly out of the picture, the hard data the scientists desired never came through. 

“Unfortunately,” Isbell says, “we were just getting going right as [the wolves] were being removed.”

Hindsight, Foresight. Keeping the Isanti Pack alive and addressing the wolf conflict with a nonlethal method, like building high fencing around Krantz’s pasture, would have been like blowing leaves into your neighbor’s yard, Hart says. The wolves would find other domestic prey nearby. Trapping and relocating wolves was the go-to response to conflict in the 1970s and early ’80s, when the population was much smaller and a federally “endangered” designation did not allow for killing them. 

“It wasn’t found to be very effective,” Stark says. “They came back, caused a problem somewhere else, or were killed—because you put them in a territory of wolves that are well established.”

Still, Minnesota’s wolf managers are turning more and more to nonlethal means of addressing wolf depredation. One technique that can keep wolves at bay is to surround susceptible pastures with a flag-like device called fladry, which flaps with the wind and spooks wary wolves.

“It’s well suited for smaller areas like yards, smaller pastures, calving areas,” Hart says.

Other nonlethal deterrents include using guard dogs or building woven-wire fencing that wolves can’t bound or penetrate, but widespread deployment all across Minnesota would be a tall task.

“There are 15,000-plus premises with livestock present in the Minnesota wolf range counties,” Hart says. “Where do you start?”

Mech agrees there’s no nonlethal panacea: “All these methods that are used to reduce conflict, they all have costs and take time, effort, and money.”  

After losing calves, the Krantz family took its own approach and bought two donkeys, which are renowned for detesting canines and effectively guarding livestock. “That’s why we got them,” Krantz says. “But they really haven’t protected much.”

Where nonlethal techniques do work, investments in coexistence could pay dividends as wolves continue to settle in farther from their north woods strongholds. The DNR is tasked with spearheading this effort, a result of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s January removal of the gray wolf from the federal endangered and threatened species list. The DNR is updating its wolf management plan, which will guide issues like how to deal with depredations on the outskirts of an ever-expanding wolf range. The plan will also help set criteria for the resumption of hunting and trapping, and it will set a minimum wolf population threshold that would trigger protective moves. 

Minnesota’s wolf range has expanded dramatically in the past several decades (see sidebar, page 45), but options are narrowing. Many remaining areas of the state lack adequate forest and security cover to house wolves.

“The potential for wolves to show up in more places in Minnesota may be limited by increased fragmentation and human land use,” says Stark. A few pockets remain, though, where they could turn up, such as in southeastern Minnesota.

“When you get down along the Mississippi River corridor, there are high densities of deer and there’s still a good amount of forest cover,” DNR research biologist John Erb says. “There’s a potential for several packs, but it’s also an area of high potential for conflict.”

Isanti County, home to about 9,500 cattle, is an example of a landscape where it will always be a challenge for wolves to persist. It was unlikely, in Mech’s view, that the resident pack had much of a shot at coexisting successfully, and reasonable to believe they were doomed from the start.

“It was inevitable, I would say, and not surprising at all,” he says. “The surprising thing is they got to the point where we could actually document them.”

What was unique about the Isanti Pack, says Stark, is that its existence “really pushes the potential boundaries of what is likely for wolves” in Minnesota.

At the University of Minnesota’s science reserve, solitary dispersing wolves continue to pass through the Cedar Creek property on occasion, their presence confirmed by Krueger’s cameras. But already, the landscape is adjusting to the pack’s absence. Last summer, a coyote dug out a den in the same meadow as the wolves, just yards down a slope from where Krueger and Isbell watched wolf pups grow up in 2015.

Scientists like Caitlin Barale Potter, the reserve’s education coordinator, hope that someday they’ll have another opportunity to measure what happens when wolves return. The 100 grant-funded game cameras are up and running, and by this point they’ve collected a few years of baseline data about wildlife assemblages and behavior without the native large carnivores.

“We just need some wolves to come back,” Potter says, “and our neighbors to be excited for the wolves being here along with us.” 

Wolf Range Expands
Wolves once ranged across all of what is now known as Minnesota. In the early 20th century, the animals were extirpated in all of the lower 48 states—except Minnesota. A population always persisted in the state’s northeast, and even as the contiguous U.S. population bottomed out, the five northeasternmost counties continued to host hundreds of wolves. By 1988, the range had about doubled. Canis lupus gained another 30 to 40 percent more terrain by 1998. There was a lull in expansion in the ensuing decade, but by 2018 wolves had gained more ground. The most recent surveys suggest that wolves are all the way south to Center City and down to Fergus Falls and have moved beyond Detroit Lakes. “They’re butting up to the Red River Valley and not all that far from North Dakota,” says DNR research biologist John Erb. “For the most part, I think they’ve occupied suitable range in Minnesota.”