AGASSIZ WILDLIFE REFUGE -- Two packs of gray wolves have carved out an unlikely home on this 61,500-acre refuge in extreme northwestern Minnesota.
Surrounded by agricultural land including 25 ranches, some neighbors feared for the safety of their livestock when wolves migrated back to the area for the first time in at least half a century.
Federal biologists initially had recommended that the area be kept "wolf free" to reduce potential conflicts between wolves and people.
"The most intriguing fact about the Agassiz wolves is that the population ... has shown resilience to detrimental factors such as disease and human persecution," said Andreas Chavez, a wildlife ecology graduate student from Utah State, who has extensively studied the packs with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials.
A study being analyzed now suggests the worries about livestock kills may have been overblown. In the past decade, local residents have reported 11 wolf attacks on livestock, including five kills during the time of the two-year study.
That was despite regular wolf trips near livestock areas from mid-April through mid-November, the time when the animals typically are more vulnerable because they are in pastures instead of in or closer to a barn.
The study didn't take into account that some livestock simply disappeared during that time. And occasionally, wolves scavenged on already dead livestock. But tests on wolf feces showed deer was their overwhelming food source.
From 1997 to 2000, the number of packs has fluctuated between one and three, with a total of 12 to 21 wolves.
At least seven wolves died of mange and 10 were killed either legally or illegally by humans. Five were trapped after livestock kills, four were illegally shot and one was run over by a snowmobiler.
"The Agassiz wolves have for sure taken some of this beating, but despite this they continue to have a foothold," Chavez said. "The refuge literally serves as a refuge for them."
Much of the wolf observation was done from a hand-built brown and white blind on the edge of a crop field on the refuge. Chavez spent so much time with the animals that they would respond to his howls.
In North America, wolves had until recently been limited to heavily wooded, lightly populated areas like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota. Major wolf studies have been done in the BWCA, tracking the wolves mainly by airplane. At Agassiz, they were tracked 24 hours a day -- primarily by truck.
"We found that during the day, they could be bedded in people's back yards," Chavez said. "They're not just restricted to the refuge."
Biologists spotted wolves in the Agassiz area in 1981 for the first time since the 1930s or 1940s. They'd been keeping a curious eye on the packs ever since, but weren't able to track the animals until a grant came through in 1998.
During the spring, summer and fall of 1998 and 1999, they tracked seven radio-collared adult wolves that lived in and around Agassiz.
The animals spent about 70 percent of their time on the refuge and adjacent state Wildlife Management Areas and the rest of the time wandering around neighboring farms and other areas. The home ranges were about 56 miles for one of the packs and 87 miles for the other.
"These are much more closely tracked than any before," Gary Huschle, wildlife biologist at the refuge, said while glancing in the rearview mirror of the truck he was navigating.
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