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Rancher and researcher: The two unlikely friends

There's a unique space in Minnesota where both cattle and wolves are abundant. It has the two sides trying to protect their own. It also sets up a unique solution.

ORR, Minn. — In February 2022, Minnesota’s gray wolf, once again, became a federally protected, threatened species. That means wolves may only be taken in defense of human life. That sets up a problem, one as old as time, for those trying to protect their livestock. But it also set up the potential for a solution in northern Minnesota.

“Just always wanted to be a rancher. It’s all I ever wanted to do,” says Wes Johnson, as he leans on a fence at his sprawling ranch just north of Orr.

It’s clear he was meant to be here, on this land, as he watches over his herd. Which brings to mind a saying, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Wes Johnson is living proof that's simply not true.

"If you don't have somebody, you don't get no days off, unless you got somebody to keep an eye on a place. And but you got to enjoy it, you know, because there are some really, really down days. But then you got some really good days,” he says.

Johnson has had cows since he was nine. He bought this ranch, just north of Orr, back in 1993. Right now, he's got 450 head of cattle. Give...or take.

“That's where most of the wolves are coming from... the north,” Johnson says.
Johnson's ranch has a wolf problem.

“Ten years ago, that we know... they took 19 cows, and that was confirmed 19 cows, and it was probably more than that. They hit us really, really hard that year,” he says.

The folks at USDA wildlife services are all too familiar with the unique situation which they believe comes down to location.

"If you go east of here, into more northeastern Minnesota, there's lots of wolves, but there's no issues because there's no livestock. If you go into southern and western Minnesota, there's lots of livestock, but there's no wolf issues because there's no wolves. So it's where the wolves and the cattle overlap in that kind of forest,” says John Hurt, wildlife biologist with the USDA Wildlife Services.

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So when wolves attack Johnson's cows, Wildlife Services traps and kills them, which you'd think would solve the problem, but it created a new one for Tom Gable.

"Two of the three animals that they killed were actually yearling animals that we tagged as pups last year,” says Gable.

Tom heads up the Voyageurs Wolf Project. The University of Minnesota researcher and his team have been collaring and studying the wolves around the park since 2015. His project too is all about location as there are three to four different wolf packs living in the area. So far, one out of every four of their collared wolves that have died were killed on Johnson's ranch.

"So it seemed like there is this sort of endless conflict that is happening every year. Cattle are getting killed, wolves are being removed, and it just seems there's really no resolution in sight. And so, it seemed like there had to be a better way to kind of go about this,” says Gable.

There was.

“So Tom says, what do you think about a fence? I said, I don't have a problem, I think it would be a great idea if it works, you know,” Johnson says.

A fence. Seven-and-a-half miles of fence to be exact. Around the entire perimeter of the property.

Rancher and researcher joined forces with some other unusual partners.
Money for the project came from the U.S.D.A, Minnesota Department of Ag, the International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Wes himself, and get this...the Humane Society.

"And if we didn't have that, if one group said, like, I don't want to deal with that, I think the project would have been dead in the water,” Gable says.

Materials showed up and Tom and team got to work.

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"They go like, son of a gun, oh them kids work hard,” says Johnson, recalling last summer’s heat and the amount of work Tom and his crew were able to complete. They cleared brush, put in posts, and laid the fence and apron.

"This is the apron fencing. It's a 26-inch fence that is put on the back side of the fence to prevent wolves from digging in,” Tom explains. “This will basically just get sort of built into the ground, and we won’t even be able to see it in couple of years. And this will prevent wolves from digging underneath the fence, because they are more likely to dig underneath, than they are to go over,” he says.

They have placed cameras along the fence and video shows that so far, it's working. There's still about a mile and a half left to go and the key will be to make sure there are no gaps. Wolves are sneaky smart.

“We’ve got this one opening here with a couple of feet on each side of this river, and that’s enough to give him an opening to get in here, so just goes to show how important closing up these little areas are going to be to making this project successful,” he says.

What at first seemed like a monumental task, has produced some monumental outcomes.

"I think there's very few instances in conservation where you have solutions that everybody agrees, like, this is great, you know, this is awesome,” says Gable.

And one monumental lesson. Do you what you love, you may have to work, but in the end...it's worth it.

"You can make things work if you try, you know, it just everybody got to work together a little bit,” Johnson says.

You can learn more about the Voyageurs Wolf Project here.

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