NEAR ORR, MINN. — They say good fences make good neighbors, and Wes Johnson is hoping more than 7 miles of good fence around his cattle ranch here will finally make good neighbors out of the booming local wolf population.
For the past 20 years or so, this is where wolves have been coming to die, more than any place else in Minnesota. They came to eat first, preying on some of Johnson’s newborn calves each spring. But then federal trappers came and killed the wolves — as many as 16 in a single 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 ranch with 450 head of cows and calves has been the poster child for the ongoing conflict between a charismatic endangered species and the rancher who tries to make a living raising cattle among them. It has seemed at times during the ongoing debate over wolves that the two factions couldn’t exist side-by-side.
Johnson and his family have tried flagging, motion-activated sound-blaring devices, hard-kicking donkeys and even daily horseback patrols to keep wolves at bay. They also bury any dead cattle quickly before wolves come in to feast. Yet, every spring during calving season, more wolves came. And more calves died. Then more wolves died.
But if the fencing works and the wolves stay out, Johnson’s cattle ranch could become a showcase example of how seemingly polarized interests can coexist. Work started last summer and, so far, about 5 miles of the ranch’s 7.5 miles of perimeter have been fenced.
Early indications are that wolves are choosing not to cross. GPS-collared research wolves have been tracked moving up to the fence, walking down the fence line and then moving on. Trail cameras also show wolves staying out where the fence is up.
“I think it’s going to work. Hell, it already is,” Johnson said while driving a truck across his land. “We haven’t seen nearly as many wolves around since the fencing started to go up … and our cows are much calmer this year than they have been.”
The final two miles or so of woven-wire fencing are going up this summer.
VOYAGEURS RESEARCH WOLVES KILLED
The fencing was the idea of Thomas Gable, the University of Minnesota researcher who heads the Voyageurs 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 Voyageurs Wolf Project — were being killed on the ranch. Some may have preyed on calves. Others did not. But if they got caught on the ranch after a calf had been killed, they were taken out.
Over the years 26 percent of all the GPS-collared wolves that have died during the Voyageurs Wolf Project research have died on Johnson’s ranch even though it comprises less than 1 percent of the study area. Some 9 percent of all the wolves estimated living within the study area have been trapped and killed at the ranch.
In what started as a tense meeting a few years ago, Johnson and federal trappers at first suggested that Gable move his research project. Gable said that was as impractical as Johnson moving his ranch. But Gable countered by suggesting they find a solution that would help all sides and end the perpetual cycle of wolves wandering on to the ranch, calves being killed and then wolves being killed by trappers.
The Johnson cattle ranch is at the boundary of 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 was just going to keep happening. The wolves were going in to fill the vacuum left by whatever pack they trapped out of here,” Gable said. “I thought there just has to be a better way.”
Gable offered his team of seasonal research staff to help and used his fundraising contacts to find some money. Johnson bought into the plan and has invested some $15,000 of his own money, equipment and time. And John Hart, the Grand Rapids-based district supervisor of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services Division — the top federal trapper in Minnesota — coordinated federal help.
The entire project is expected to cost about $100,000, mostly for supplies thanks to the “donated” labor from the Voyageurs Wolf Project crew and Johnson’s own sweat equity.
“They got a bid at first and it was something like $300,000 for a fencing company to come out and do this. Nobody could afford that kind of money,” Johnson noted.
Support has come from a potpourri of sources, as varied as the U.S.D.A. National Wildlife Research Center, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the International Wildlife Coexistence Network and the Humane Society of the U.S., one of the most vehement pro-wolf, anti-trapping, anti-hunting and anti meat-eating groups in the country.
“I think we’ve ended up with a win-win situation for everyone. But it wasn’t easy to pull together,” Hart said. “The most important thing was to have a producer like Wes buy into it. Otherwise this doesn’t happen.”
FOUR-FOOT FENCE, WOLVES DON’T JUMP
Both 6-foot-high and 4-foot-high fencing is being used on the project. But Hart said previous research by his crews found 4-foot fencing is enough to keep wolves out.
“There weren’t any specs out there for wolf fencing. … But we found that, for whatever reason, even though they could easily do it, they don’t want to jump over,” Hart said. “They would rather dig underneath.”
To prevent that, the entire fence perimeter is also being lined with 2 feet of wire skirting, on the ground outside the fence, to keep wolves from digging their way onto the ranch.
Johnson has been working on this ranch in some way for nearly 60 years. About 30 years ago, he bought the land and expanded a few hundred acres of cleared meadow to a massive 1,600 acres of grazing and crop land. It’s as if someone dropped a chunk of eastern Montana in the middle of the Minnesota north woods, with cows grazing on rolling, mostly treeless hills.
It seems an unlikely location for such a big cattle operation, surrounded by the Kabetogama State Forest and county forest land with Voyageurs National Park 7 miles north as the crow flies and the Superior National Forest just down the road.
“It doesn’t look like anything else around here,” Gable noted.
The Sheep Ranch was at first a horse stable, the place in the early 1900s where logging companies kept their big draft horses in summer between their winter work hauling white pines out of the woods. In the 1930s, it briefly became a sheep ranch, and somehow the name stuck on the lonesome road off U.S. Highway 53 about 15 miles north of Orr.
Johnson started working here in 1963 and his family has raised cattle here since the 1980s. Now his son, Bob, is helping out and granddaughter Savannah is eager to take reins on the ranch someday. Every morning during the summer, Savannah saddles her horse and rides the entire ranch perimeter. She’s ridden up on wolves attacking calves, and even has video of one such attack.
Gable says he believes wolves will get used to the fence and get used to realizing they can’t get around it, then move on to hunting deer and beaver, their usual north woods meals.
“Most of these wolves have never seen a fence before,” Gable noted, adding that it will be critical to keep plugging any low spots — where creeks or ravines cross under the fence — where wolves will try to go under.
Hart said a similar but much smaller fencing project around a sheep pasture near Effie, Minn., seems to have solved a problem where trappers had been called in nearly every year for two decades. Since the fence was installed in 2020, there hasn’t been a single wolf attack on a sheep. And no wolves have been trapped and killed.
Fencing “is not a prescription for every wolf problem out there. It’s not going to work if you have multiple (livestock) producers in one area because you just push the problem over to the next guy,” Hart said. “But this place is so isolated, it works here.”
Wes Johnson agreed.
“Give them credit, they were looking for a solution that everyone could live with,” Johnson said between puffs on a Marlboro. “And it’s working. That’s the good thing. … If it helps their wolves, fine. I just want my calves left alone.”