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Wolf trapper spends 30 years between protection and eradication

By John Myers
Finlayson, Minnesota (AP) 9-07

Bill Paul walked down a rutted logging road on a farm north of town, pointing out signs of wolves.

Tracks crossed the soft sand. Scat laced with deer hair was obvious. Yet the half-dozen wolf traps Paul had set the past few days remained unsprung.

Score Round 1 for the wolf. But cut a little slack for Paul, who is retiring later this month after more than 30 years as a federal wolf trapper.

“This is a waiting game. It’s the mind of the trapper against the mind of the wolf. You have to think and act like a wolf,” Paul said with a smile. “It’s not as easy as people think (Wolves) have a home range of about 30 square miles, and we’re trying to get them to step into a trap of about 8 square inches.”

Paul pointed out the bleeding haunches on a year-old steer grazing in a field. Bite marks showed where a wolf had taken a chunk of beef from each hind leg.

Paul was called here by farmer Tom Horsmann, who says wolves are common in the heavily wooded, rolling farm country in northwestern Pine County. Horsmann said he took a rifle shot at a wolf stalking near his 18 beef cows in June. And his steer was attacked last week.

“This is the first time they actually got hold of one. But we see them all the time,” Horsmann said.

Paul first verified that this really was a wolf problem – not dogs or coyotes or other critters as often is the case – and then set about trying to kill the culprits.

Paul hides his traps along wolf travel routes, burying them under a light cover of dirt. He sets a putrid concoction of scented bait near the trap – rotted beaver or moose livers work well, as does wolf urine. Sometimes trappers will leave the dead cow or sheep in the field and set traps nearby.

Paul and his fellow federal trappers cover the northern half of the state and get 250 calls for help each year. It often takes days to trap one wolf on a single farm. One night, he trapped seven on a farm. Sometimes he never gets the cow killer.

Wolves get in the most trouble during spring when calves are born. It heats up again this time of year as wolves move their pups from remote dens to rendezvous sites closer to food sources. Pups are getting big now, 25 or 30 pounds, and are always hungry. The pack needs more meat every day.

The problem is made worse if farmers leave any dead animals that perished from other causes, giving wolves their first taste of domestic meat.

“Wolves would rather eat deer. But especially around these farms (near thick woods) that attract a lot of deer, they’re opportunists. They’ll take livestock if they can,” Paul said.

Over four decades, even as wolves have been protected by federal law, Paul and his co-workers have been trapping and killing hundreds of the big canines.

Paul works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services division, at least until Friday. The agency responds to animal problems across the country, from geese at the Twin Cities airport to coyotes in Los Angeles.

In northern Minnesota, based out of Grand Rapids, the agency’s primary target is timber wolves – a seemingly incongruous job in a region where wolves have been carefully nurtured from just a few hundred animals in the 1970s to about 3,200 today.

Paul has been part of a thin line between wolf recovery and wolf eradication in a state with conflicted feelings toward the big predator. Some farmers and hunters want the animal eradicated, while conservation and animal advocates want them left alone to flourish.

By giving farmers and others an avenue to reduce wolf attacks on livestock and pets and by killing wolves near where problems occur, biologist and sociologists say the federal trapping program has reduced tension that could have spurred broader illegal and indiscriminate wolf killing.

“I’ve tried to be fair to the farmers and understand their complaints and their issues. But I’ve also tried to be fair to the wolf,” Paul said. “The easiest thing to do would be to call every dead animal on a farm a verified wolf kill and start trapping wolves there. But that wouldn’t be fair to the wolf.

“It was sort of a career goal of mine to see the wolf recovered and off the endangered species list. I never thought it would happen, but it has.

“I don’t particularly like killing wolves,” he added. “But I like to think I helped the wolf recover in Minnesota.”

Others agree. Officials from 10 foreign countries, several western states, Wisconsin and Michigan have come to learn how wolf-human conflicts are handled in northern Minnesota.

“Bill has played a key role in the recovery of wolves in Minnesota. He’s got a low-key personality that helps diffuse a lot of tension And he’s very professional in his work,” said Mike Don Carlos, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife research director.

Don Carlos said the DNR probably will continue to use the federal agency to trap problem wolves, because it is so good at it, even though the state regained control of wolf management in March after the animal was taken off the endangered species list.

“Bill earned the trust of the livestock community, and even some of those in the protectionist community who may not have liked seeing any wolves trapped,” Don Carlos said. “He is very good at what he does.”

Paul, 55, grew up hunting and trapping in Itasca County. His career path was blazed when he landed a college internship on the Ely-based research team headed by Dave Mech – cutting-edge work studying the last remnant wolf population in the contiguous U.S.

When Paul earned his degree in wildlife biology from Moorhead State College in 1975, the federal government began a program to trap wolves near where Minnesota livestock had been attacked.

“They wanted someone who knew how to trap wolves and collar them, so it turned out well for me. I didn’t think I’d be doing it for more than 30 years,” Paul said.

At first, the government tried to tranquilize and relocate problem wolves. But many of those ended up killed by wolf packs where they were released. In 1978, the federal government authorized Paul’s team to kill the wolves they trapped. Quietly, mostly outside the media and public limelight, they have killed 150 to 175 wolves each year since.

Karlyn Atkinson-Berg of Bovey, founder of Help Our Wolves Live and among the most vehement wolf supporters in Minnesota, said Paul’s experience will be missed. Paul played a critical role as the federal trapping program developed and matured, she said.

“I think Bill has done a terrific job. He’s developed that program to reduce conflict without declaring war on wolves,” Atkinson-Berg said. “He responds to wolf problems with diligence, but he’s never gone overboard in killing wolves. He’s never been a fan of killing for the sake of killing.”

Paul said he has never had a really close call on the job. Trapped wolves are killed with a .22-caliber shot to the head. Hides, if in good shape, are donated to American Indian tribes, schools or museums. His biggest scares have come trying to release accidentally trapped bears.

His biggest surprise over more than 30 years has been how little livestock wolves actually kill in Minnesota. Of the 8,000 or so farms in northern and central Minnesota where wolves roam, fewer than 150 have verified wolf attacks in an average year – about 2 percent.

“When I started there was a lot of hysteria among livestock producers that wolves would kill all their animals, that wolves and (farmers) couldn’t co-exist in the same area. But we know now that’s not true,” Paul said.

Paul said he has been equally amazed at how wolves have thrived well outside the far north woods.

“They are very adaptable. There was thought back in the ‘70s that wolves needed wilderness to survive; that you couldn’t build roads or you’d cut wolves off. But wolves kept crossing roads and freeways,” Paul said, adding they can live wherever there’s deer to eat and a modicum of forest to hide from people.

Paul said he is optimistic about the wolf’s future in Minnesota. With deer populations at an all-time high, wolves don’t need to eat much livestock. Short of a bounty and legalization of poison to kill wolves, he thinks wolf numbers should remain stable.