Wolf seen pursuing snowmobiles in Voyageurs National Park

A wolf has been following, running alongside or possibly chasing snowmobiles in Voyageurs National Park, prompting officials to reroute several miles of trail Tuesday.

A wolf has been following, running alongside or possibly chasing snowmobiles in Voyageurs National Park, prompting officials to reroute several miles of trail Tuesday.

The wolf hasn't attacked anyone and officials said they don't think it's dangerous, but the behavior is rare - unheard of in the national park along the U.S.-Canada border east of International Falls. After a third incident was witnessed in less than two weeks, park officials Tuesday decided to close several well-used trail sections and reroute traffic while they try to determine what's up with the wolf.

"We are taking precautions for the protection of the visitors and the wolf," park superintendent Mike Ward said.

Several segments of snowmobile trails have been closed around the Ash River area, about halfway between International Falls and Crane Lake. But the park's network of trails - which accommodate some 15,000 to 20,000 sleds per season - still allow snowmobilers to navigate the park, Ward said.

"It's a few more miles for them to ride while we separate people from this wolf and a 2- to 3-mile area and investigate."


Ward said park officials have received reports of three incidents "with witnesses" that involved a lone wolf following or running alongside snowmobiles.

"I don't know whether I'd call it chasing," he said, noting that none who saw the wolf is an expert. "We have one report it was actually playful in manner. We have another report that it seemed more aggressive. ... We would not categorize these as aggressive at this point, but it's something we haven't seen before."

"What it sounds like is a dog chasing a car, doesn't it?" quipped David Mech, a senior research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey and one of North America's foremost wolf experts.

Mech, who's been briefed on the Voyageurs wolf, said the behavior is a mystery to him. Almost invariably, wolves avoid motor vehicles, a trait possibly resulting from generations of natural selection. "Wolves doing things like this can end up being killed, either by accident or intentionally."

Mech said several hypotheses probably can be discounted. For example, he's aware of one case in northwestern Canada where a rabid wolf chased a motor vehicle. But he said there's no record of a rabid wolf in Minnesota, and the disease probably would have killed the wolf in the 10 to 11 days between the first and last Voyageurs incident.

Mech also said the descriptions of the incidents are inconsistent with territorial behavior; wolves almost always protect territory in numbers. It's unlikely mating or denning behavior; the wolf mating season is coming to an end, and the denning period - when pregnant females establish dens to give birth - won't start until late April.

He said he suspects the wolf is a young animal that has dispersed from its pack, as both male and females do in their second or third year, and is on its own.

"My guess is it's practicing, practicing its hunting behavior, which is running fast after fast prey," Mech said, clarifying that he doesn't believe the wolf is seeing snowmobilers as actual prey. "There's no food reward in this. I don't know if we can call it playing, just practicing. But we really don't know."


The wolf population in and around Voyageurs is in constant flux, as animals freely travel across frozen lakes and rivers to and from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the east and the Canadian backcountry to the north. In recent years, there have been between five and nine packs of between 30 and 50 wolves.

Some of the wolves in the park wear research radio collars, but the snowmobile-following animal does not.

Ward said a team of park officials, including an expert researcher, on Tuesday headed into the park to attempt to track the wolf and learn more about its behavior. He said he didn't know if that might entail tranquilizing the wolf, if encountered, to examine it, but he said there are no plans to kill the wolf.

"Just rerouting the snowmobiles - removing the human interaction - might take care of this," Ward said. "It's our hope the wolf is going to continue to live a happy life in the park and our snowmobilers can continue to enjoy the park."

After several years of being legally hunted, wolves in the Great Lakes region, including Minnesota, returned to the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act after a judge's ruling in December. Today, it is legal for citizens to kill a wolf only in defense of human life.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

RELATED CONTENT: More details about Northland snowmobile trails rerouted because of wolf

What To Read Next
Get Local