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Hunter shaken by encounter with persistent wolves

December 02, 2009 at 05:28 PM

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

MINNEAPOLIS - The wolves appeared shortly after Scott Wundinich shot and gutted a deer, then climbed back into his stand.

“Four or five, including a pitch-black male, came running out of the woods together,” recalled Wundinich, 48, of Eveleth, Minn. “I looked to my left and saw three more. There were three or four more on my other side. I was stunned. I yelled and screamed, but they pretty much ignored me. They paced back and forth. They wanted my deer and the gut pile.”

Despite firing several shots to try to scare away the wolves, they lurked, sometimes howling and barking, about 50 yards from Wundinich’s stand for 45 minutes.

“I was scared,” he said. “I’ve been hunting since I was 12 and I’ve never seen anything like this. It was a real humbling, eerie feeling.”

Afraid to get down, Wundinich hunkered in his stand until darkness descended on the woods near Lake Vermilion in northeastern Minnesota.

Then, with his rifle still loaded, he cautiously climbed down.

“I could hear them,” he said.

With a small flashlight in his mouth, he scrambled to his ATV about 120 yards away. “I started it up and drove out of the woods as fast as I could go.”

Wildlife officials say the encounter with wolves was unusual. But Wundinich and others, including some northern Minnesota conservation officers, say such encounters and sightings there are becoming more common.

“I’d say almost 50 percent of the deer camps I’ve checked have said they’ve seen wolves,” said Dan Starr, Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in Tower. “That has increased. They (wolves) are getting pretty bold.”

Said Wundinich: “We have an unmanaged population of wolves in northern Minnesota. They are becoming a problem.”

Dan Stark, a DNR wolf specialist, said he hasn’t received more calls about human-wolf encounters . Surveys done in 2007-2008 estimate the state’s wolf population at about 3,000. It’s unknown if that number has increased since then.

He said Wundinich’s experience is unusual because wolves generally don’t stand their ground, even with food present.

“I’ve walked in on wolves feeding, and they scattered,” he said. But a downed deer could affect their behavior.

“I’ve had them bark and howl at me, but they seem to keep a certain distance. I probably wouldn’t get down from a stand and try to drag the deer off.”

Wolf attacks in North America on humans are extremely rare. But that didn’t ease Wundinich’s mind when he was in his stand with a pack of wolves below Nov. 8. Here’s what Wundinich said happened:

With his dad and nephew hunting elsewhere, he shot a small buck about 3:50 p.m. He climbed down and gutted the deer. Because he couldn’t legally operate his ATV until after shooting hours (a half-hour after sunset), he went back into his stand. Tha t’s when the wolves showed up.

He stood up and made noise. “They scampered off a bit, but it didn’t scare them,” he said. He shot his 30.06 rifle twice in the air. “They ran about 45 yards away on top of a hill and started howling.” Unsure what to do, he used his cell phone to call his dad at the cabin, who told him to call Starr, the local conservation officer, whom Wundinich knows.

“He (Starr) said fire some shots to scare them. I told him I had done that,” Wundinich said. “He said to leave the deer.”

After a while, he fired two more shots, then reloaded his rifle. “I told him if I was attacked, I would shoot,” Wundinich said. Wolves are protected and managed under the federal Endangered Species Act, but people can kill them to defend themselves.

Sometime after 5 p.m. Wundinich finally climbed down, got to his four-wheeler in the dark and sped to his cabin, less than a mile away. Armed with his rifle, he and his nephew each drove four-wheelers back to retrieve his deer.

“The gut pile was mostly gone and they bit into the hindquarters and neck and chewed on an ear,” he said.

Wundinich said he was reluctant to tell anyone about the experience because he feared no one would believe him. Starr, however, mentioned the incident in his weekly report, which is distributed to news media. He said he has no reason to doubt Wundinich’s story.

“He was legitimately shook up,” Starr said.

Other conservation officers have received complaints from hunters, saying there are too many wolves and too few deer. DNR officials say deer numbers are down because of recent tough winters and liberal hunting regulations. Stark, the wolf biologist, said a lengthy DNR deer study in the Grand Rapids area showed that wolves kill about 5 to 10 percent of does yearly. Other studies estimate wolves kill 45,000 to 60,000 deer yearly. In recent years, hunters have harvested 220,000 to 250,000 deer.

As for Wundinich, he planned to be back in his stand this weekend, the last of the regular firearms season, with his wolf encounter fresh on his mind.

“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” he said.

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