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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Northern MN fencing effort could help ranchers and wolves

Rancher Wes Johnson, left, visits a section of new fence on Johnson’s farm north of Orr, Minn., Tuesday, June 7, 2022, with Voyager Wolf Project researchers Austin Homekes, center, and Tom Gable. A collaborative effort is erecting more than 7 miles of fencing around the 1,600-acre farm to prevent wolves from entering and praying calves, which has resulted in federal trappers killing dozens of wolves in recent years. . (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)

Near ORR, Min. – They say good fences make good neighbors, and Wes Johnson is hoping that the more than 7 miles of good fences around his cattle ranch will eventually weed out good neighbors from the growing population of local wolves.

For the past 20 years, this is where wolves have been coming to die, more than any other place in Minnesota. They were the first to feed every spring, hunting some of Johnson’s newborn calves. But then federal trappers came and killed the wolves — as many as 16 in the same 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 farm with 450 cows and calves has been the poster child for an ongoing conflict between a charismatic endangered species and a rancher trying to make a living from them. During the ongoing debate over wolves, it has seemed at times that the two factions cannot coexist.

Johnson and his family have tried flagging, motion-activated sound-blaring devices, hard-kicking donkeys, and even daily horseback riding to keep wolves away. They quickly bury any dead cattle before the wolves come to the feast. Nevertheless, every spring during the calf season, more wolves would arrive. More calves died. Then more wolves died.

But if the fencing works and the wolves stay out, Johnson’s cattle ranch could become an example of how polarized interests can coexist. Work began last summer and so far, about 5 miles of the 7.5-mile perimeter of the farm has been fenced.

There are early signs that wolves are choosing not to cross. GPS-collared research has tracked wolves moving toward fences, walking down the fence line, and then moving forward. Trail cameras also show wolves living outside where there is a fence.

“I think it’s going to work. Hell, it already is,” said Johnson, driving a truck across his land. “We haven’t seen nearly as many wolves since fencing started …and our cows are a lot quieter than they were this year.”

Woven wire fences for the last two miles or so are on the rise this summer.

sailors kill wolves

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

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 Voyager Wolf Project — were being killed on the farm. Some may have hunted calves. Others did not. But if they were caught in the field after a calf had been killed, they were thrown out.

Calves Nose Around A Roll Of Fencing To Defend Against Wolves At Johnson Ranch Near Orr, Minn., Tuesday, June 7, 2022.  (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)
Calves nose around a roll of fencing to defend against wolves at Johnson Ranch near Orr, Minn., Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)

Of all the GPS-collared wolves that have died during Voyager Wolf Project research over the years, 26 percent have been killed at Johnson’s farm, even though it covers less than 1 percent of the study area. About 9 percent of all wolves estimated to live within the study area have been farmed and killed.

What began as a tense meeting a few years ago, Johnson and the federal trappers were the first to suggest that Gable pursue his research project. Gable said it was as impractical as Johnson was growing his farm. But Gable suggests they find a solution that will help all sides and end the constant cycle of wolves killing wolves, calves being killed and then wolves being killed with nets. Used to be.

Johnson Cattle Farm borders 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.

“It just kept happening. The wolves were going to fill the vacuum left by whatever pack was stuck out here,” Gable said. “I just thought there had to be a better way.”

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

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

World Nation News Desk
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