WOLF WEEK: From reviled to revered, Minnesota's changing relationship with wolves

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Few animals on this earth have been as hated and loved by humans as the wolf. 

Wolves have been admired for their beauty, strength and command of the forest and despised for their taste for livestock and fearsome demeanor. 

Generations of people learned to hate the animal through fables, storybooks and art. Killing the wolf for bounty, sport and out of just plain fear was common practice for more than a century.

“The years we trapped, we’d snowshoe in and you’d see a pack of wolves coming across a big lake,” said hunter Frank Brula. 

Brula, 82, remembers those days well. He has spent most of his life hunting and trapping the lakes and forests of the boundary waters around Ely, Minnesota. When he was a young man, the wolf was both a prized and despised animal.

Like the rest of the country, Minnesota found very little value in wolves. So Frank, like many, did his best to kill the animal. The bounty and the challenge made it a worthy prey, and with help, he learned to do it well--etched in history by his old photos.

“Only a very limited number of expert trappers were able to catch wolves,” Brula said. “When I started trapping wolves in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, I was very fortunate to be befriended by some really great trappers."

Hearty men with names like “Hobo Harnan” from Iron, “Jellmer Workala” from Virginia, “Oiyvah Mackey” out of Tower and the most famous, “Bucko Schneider” from Orr. These men, and others, worked the Iron Range of northern Minnesota trapping and killing wolves. 

The understanding of the wolf’s place and importance in Minnesota forests took time. In fact, by the middle of the last century, of the lower 48 states, only Minnesota still had wolves living wild. In the years that followed, for most Minnesotans, the wolf transcended from reviled to revered.

Folks in Minnesota turned the corner on the perception of the wolf long ago. The wolf went from having a bounty on its head to creating bounty in the form of marketing gold here in our state. A once feared and misunderstood animal, the wolf became the symbol of the state’s wilderness and the city of Ely took full advantage. 

More than most, but like many towns and cities across Minnesota, Ely is marked by the image of the wolf. Boutique shops and stores peddle all things “wolf.” Even the high school’s mascot invokes a fierce wolf image.

World-renowned wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg’s studio is in Ely. Inside are some of the world’s most iconic photos of wild wolves, taken near his famous Ravenswood cabin on the outskirts of the city.

Dave Sebesta moved to Ely as a young man. He guided wilderness-seeking guests through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Now, as Ely’s Chamber of Commerce director, the wolf’s attraction—and value—is obvious. 

“They could be a few yards from a wolf and not even know until they hear one howling and the reaction we get from our guests that come out of the woods, out of the Boundary Waters who have had that experience, it’s magical to them,” Sebesta said. 

But while the status of the wolf has come a long way in Minnesota, even to this day, not all appreciate its healthy presence.

Ranchers and hunters blame too many wolves for predation to livestock, white tail deer and moose. For them, seeing a wolf in the wild is a threat.

“No matter how you slice it there are strong emotions when we relate to wolves,” said Dr. Shannon Barber-Meyer, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. 

Much of Barber-Meyer’s professional life is spent tracing the history of wolves in Minnesota and guiding their future—one of steadily increasing numbers. 

Barber-Meyer said she thinks that overall, we are better off with wolves in the wild in Minnesota than without them. 

“It represents wildness to me and that’s something that’s increasingly rare on the planet,” Barber-Meyer said. “So, I celebrate the fact that we live in a place where we have enough tolerance as humans to allow this animal to be here and to live the way it was meant to live, which is killing things and that we allow that to happen in Minnesota and make space for that. That’s really something to celebrate.”

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