BRIMSON — Gary and Jody Hepola knew something was different Wednesday morning. They hadn’t seen the wolf pups.
For the past month, they’ve seen up to seven wolf pups every day near Hugo’s, a bar and general store they own near Brimson, about 35 miles north of Duluth.
“Every day. All day long,” Gary said.
It has become one of Gary’s regular morning chores now to scoop piles of wolf scat from the store’s parking lot. Walking an employee to her car in the dark Tuesday night, Jody said the two were approached by several of the wolf pups, which came within 20 feet.
One recent evening, a man was putting air in a tire in the parking area behind Hugo’s when he felt something touching his back, Gary Hepola said. The man swatted at it, but it persisted. He looked around. One of the wolf pups had been sniffing him, Hepola said.
Apparently a gray wolf pack has established a rendezvous site not far from Hugo’s, at the junction of two rural highways in this quiet piece of boreal forest. Many local residents have seen the pups, which mill about on the road, lie in the road, chase grasshoppers in the road or lie in the shade of a pine tree at Hugo’s.
Some people have been feeding the pups, the Hepolas say.
“We’ve watched people throw food out their car windows,” Jody Hepola said. “Someone put out a bucket of food and a bag of food.”
“That’s why they’re hanging out on the road,” Gary said. “I’ve had to holler at a few people. I tell them, ‘Don’t feed them,’”
That’s the message that wildlife officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources want to get out, too.
“It’s great to see wolves in the wild, but these aren’t behaving in a way we’d expect from wild wolves,” said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR in Grand Rapids. “If the behavior doesn’t change and they don’t move on, it’s going to end poorly for the wolves.”
The situation could have been avoided, he said.
“This isn’t the wolves doing anything wrong,” Stark said. “It’s something people are doing wrong to encourage the wolves’ behavior. It could have been avoided in the first place if people had observed the wolves, said, ‘This is great’ and moved on.”
A cabin owner down the road has fashioned a makeshift cardboard sign and erected it along the road near Hugo’s. It reads: “Do not feed the wolves. They need to learn how to fend for themselves.”
“There were two signs,” Hepola said. “Someone ran over the other one.”
Emotions about the pups — and wolves in general — run to extremes.
“Some people say, ‘Run over them. Shoot them,’” Hepola said. “And others say, ‘We should feed them.’”
Wolves establish a rendezvous site during summer, the DNR’s Stark explained, after the pups get larger and move away from the den.
“It’s a gathering place where the wolf pups stay while the adults may go off and hunt,” Stark said. “It usually happens at this time of year and goes until later in September or October.”
The pups typically remain near the rendezvous site, and the adults bring back portions of whatever they might kill to feed the pups. These pups appear to weigh about 30 to 40 pounds, Gary Hepola said.
The Hepolas say that some residents claim there were eight pups originally. The most the Hepolas have seen is seven. They have seen an occasional adult wolf, too. One pup was struck by a car and killed last weekend, they said.
“Inevitably, if they’re hanging out on the road, they’re going to get hit,” Gary Hepola said.
On a recent night, Hepola and a friend were sitting near a small fire in a clearing behind Hugo’s. The wolf pups milled around the fire for some time, Hepola said.
“We’ve had all seven of the pups laying out under our pine trees,” Hepola said. “We drove up 5 feet from them. Some got up. One didn’t even get up.”
“When they’re not responding negatively to human presence, that’s a problem,” said the DNR’s Stark.
Besides seeing the wolf pups, the Hepolas also hear the wolves howling frequently.
“Hear them?” Gary said. “I’ve seen them (howling). Right in the middle of the road.”
The DNR’s Stark said it isn’t practical to trap and relocate the pups. If they were released not far away, they would probably return to the rendezvous site, he said. If they were released far away, they probably wouldn’t survive without the adults.
A DNR conservation officer has tried hazing and harassing the wolves, Stark said, to get them away from the road. But Stark said he isn’t sure that practice will help.
Paul Sundberg, a Grand Marais photographer, captured several quality photos of the wolf pups on Sunday morning. He, too expressed concern about the practice of feeding them.
“If you start feeding wildlife like that, you’re dooming it to death,” Sundberg said.
Wednesday morning, at least, the pups were nowhere to be found. Gary Hepola took a drive up and down the road, looking for them. At one place along the shoulder, he saw deer tracks and wolf tracks together.
“I’ll bet you they got a kill, and they’re all full,” Hepola said. “They don’t need to hang out on the road if they’re not hungry.”