BAXTER, Minn. -- A limping timber wolf recently spotted in Baxter does not appear to be a threat to the public, officials with state and federal wildlife divisions said Friday. "At the moment, from what we've seen, is that it is afraid of people," said Christine Reisz, area wildlife supervisor for the Baxter office of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The Baxter Police Department received calls this week and last from people who spotted the wolf. A Forestview Middle School sixth-grader photographed the wolf while walking to school Monday morning just east of the school building. Police warned the public to stay away from the wolf and report if they see it.
Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted said two additional wolf sightings were reported Thursday and Friday. One was in the area of Highway 371 and County Highway 48 and the other was near North Central Speedway.
Reisz said although the wolf's presence was recently noted, reports about the wolf were ongoing for months previously. A conservation officer reported seeing it a few months ago, she said, with the same limp. Reisz believes the wolf's injury is an old one that has since healed.
"What we would want is people to let us know if the animal starts to act different from what we suspect it's doing now," Reisz said. "At this point, it doesn't appear to be a public safety threat."
Reisz said should the wolf begin to act aggressively toward people or otherwise pose a threat, the responsibility for the federally protected creature falls to the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services.
John Hart is the district supervisor of the Wildlife Services division based in Grand Rapids. Hart saw photographs of the wolf and agreed with Reisz that the wolf's injury was likely healed. "It looks like, to me, like it's missing its right rear foot from some kind of old injury," Hart said. "It's in pretty decent body condition."
Hart said he is in "wait and see" mode following discussions with the DNR, the Baxter Police Department, the Brainerd School District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's not an uncommon occurrence for a wolf to be on the perimeter of a pretty good-sized town," Hart said. "I think a lot of times what's going on is there is a lot higher deer densities."
Both Reisz and Hart said it is not unusual for the wolf to be alone instead of with a pack. Reisz said it's possible the wolf's injured foot made it difficult for it to keep up with a pack. It's also possible it just enjoys living in the city, she added, with access to roadkill as part of its diet. Hart said the lone wolf could be in search of vacant territory with enough prey for it to eat, a common behavior among 1- to 2-year-old wolves. "Generally speaking, Minnesota DNR figures about 15 percent of the wolf population is comprised of single wolves," Hart said.
Hart said dealing with an aggressive wolf or one habituated to people is a rare occurrence and is handled on a case-by-case basis. If a wolf is aggressive toward people, Hart said it would be lethally shot. If it was habituated to people, a nonlethal method of deterring the wolf would likely be tried first, he said. "We might try rubber buckshot to discourage the wolf from hanging around," Hart said.
If that did not work, however, Hart said the wolf would have to be killed to avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Trapping and relocating wolves is not a good option in these situations, Hart said, because it's likely the wolf will continue to exhibit the same behaviors wherever it is relocated. "The other problem with relocation is finding a suitable place to relocate a wolf," Hart said. "Almost all of those areas already have wolves in them. If you drop a wolf in a strange wolf pack's territory, they are likely to get killed by the resident wolf pack that lives there."
If a person were to feel threatened by a wolf, "the message would be, 'Don't run,'" Hart said. "Yell, raise your arms, wave your arms, make yourself appear bigger than you are. Remind the wolf that you are human. ... Just slowly back away."
To avoid habituating the wolf to people, Hart said the public should not intentionally or unintentionally feed wolves and should just admire it from afar and leave it alone. "Wolves are like dogs and they learn to associate very quickly," Hart said. "You don't want to be throwing food out your car door to it, you don't want it to be eating from a deer carcass on your back-40 (acres)."
Hart said a more realistic concern with wolves in cities is the threat to domestic pets. He urged residents to keep a close eye on their pets, especially dogs. "Keep them in at night, keep them kenneled," Hart said. "Don't let them run loose in that area."
Hart pointed to the recent killing of a dog by a wolf in Duluth and said these types of killings are documented quite frequently.
If a wolf is an immediate threat to a human life, Hart said it is legal for the general public to kill it. It is not legal, however, to kill a wolf attacking a pet or one that is on someone's property. "At that point, it's just, try to scare the wolf away," Hart said.