‘The Wolf’s Trail’ crosses our path

The Wolf's Trail
“The Wolf’s Trail” by Thomas Peacock (Holy Cow! Press, 2020)

If a wolf could talk, what would it say? Would it have a religion? A folk tradition? What are the values of a wolf? And would they be any different than our own?

Author Thomas Peacock aims to answer these questions in his novel, “The Wolf’s Trail” (Holy Cow! Press, 2020). Here we meet Zhi-shay, an old uncle in a wolf pack whose alpha days are behind him. Now he tells stories to the pups, teaching them the history of their species as they followed the Anishinaabeg people across the continent over thousands of years. His stories describe a partnership between wolves and humans as they found and named the animals of the world.

“To become brothers they had to overcome a natural reticence to be with each other,” speaks the wolf Zhi-shay. “They both acknowledged right from the start that First Human was alpha, the dominant male, and the wolf the beta, submissive only to an alpha. Ma’iingan [First Wolf] would never challenge First Human’s right to dominance, and human never willfully exerted its dominance over Ma’iingan. That was the unspoken understanding they both acknowledged at the time they first met.”

Peacock, who has written extensively on Ojibwe history and culture, weaves a simple story around an old wolf who knows an important secret about humans. He waits to see which of his students will be ready to understand.

On a drive to Duluth this summer I saw opposing political yard signs. This isn’t an election year, however, nor were there any politicians on the signs.

One sign advocated for more aggressive wolf management while the other called for more wolf protections.

I’ve certainly heard an uptick in wolf-related conversation around northern Minnesota these past few years. Fewer deer? Wolves. Moose population decline? Wolves. As you leave the northern limits of any Iron Range town you will find more people who want wolves dead.

But Minnesota puts a lot of money into managing its deer herd, and auto body shops continue to make a pretty penny off deer strikes. One of the problems is that changing habitat encourages deer to live closer to towns where hunting is less common, living fat off modern conveniences. We’re in no position to judge them.

This year the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association announced it would no longer support the Governor’s Deer Hunting Opener event, an annual tradition once seen as nonpartisan. Their beef with the governor: gun laws and wolves. So ends the nonpartisanship of an organization once known for practical, common sense restoration of deer habitat and the preservation of family hunting traditions like mine.

Of course wolves eat deer and moose and always have. But now it is politically fashionable among anti-authority authoritarians to establish wolves as somehow unnatural and menacing to humankind.

Ultimately, this argument leads in one direction: hunting wolves down to minuscule numbers. But this thinking neglects to understand another difference between humans and wolves.

Humans hunt with machines, only rarely for subsistence. We are fully capable of eliminating wolves from the state. We could do so without much effort, and perhaps even by accident. Alternatively, wolves can never eliminate deer. They hunt on foot, eat what they kill, and starve when prey becomes scarce. In the past century, only two people have ever been killed by wolves in the United States, none in Minnesota.

Milder winters, like the one forecast this year, will do more to reestablish deer populations than a pile of dead wolves. Furthermore, hunters might have more success if participation wasn’t so low, and hunter effort weren’t so diminished from 50 years ago.

If you want more freedom to kill wolves that attack or threaten livestock or household pets, I’d support that. Those are the same rules the wolves follow. But as for this obsession with wolf management, we might consider asking whose behavior is more natural — wolves’ or ours?

In “The Wolf’s Trail,” we see purpose of one wolf’s life turn over to the next generation, as young pups became strong wolves who know and tell the stories. Peacock sometimes blurs the line between humans and wolves in his prose, but perhaps that is the most appropriate way to talk about them.

“The Creator said that to forever remember the close kinship of wolf and human,” spoke Zhi-shay, “whatever happened to one would befall the other, for both there would be times of great happiness and great sadness, of hope and despair. That is the way of things. And the Creator said these things that would one day become true: One day, the Creator said, each of you will be hunted to near extinction. Each of you will lose your lands. But those difficult times will not go on forever, the Creator said.”

Much of our growing lamentation over wolves can really be attributed to change. Hunting traditions change. The biological rhythms of the woods change. Our climate and deer habitat also change. We might blame wolves, but wolves and people are in the same business. Ultimately, we are far more dangerous than any pack of wolves.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sept. 9, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. The deer herd is contaminated. Clear it out to save the moose and the hobby farmers. The deer are the threat and have been for quite awhile.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    There aren’t enough wolves to be a significant factor in deer populations. Since wolves tend to search out aged, infirm, and are willing to scavenge already dead deer, they’re more of a cleanup crew. The biggest factor, by far, is deep snow, which in turn has consequences for deer hunters. Stressed does will birth a higher percentage of female fawns to male, resulting in fewer bucks for hunters to kill. The extra females born is the way for a herd to rebuild population.

    When hunters shoot “trophy bucks” they are hurting the genetics of the herd. I’ve seen does run away from young bucks, not wanting to breed with them. The reality is that humans select for the best, while wolves select the worst. When it comes to herd genetics, we humans have a bad effect on it. Wolves are always the easy whipping boy. Yes, wolves were killing moose, but those moose were already dying from other causes. Wolves and moose have lived together for thousands of years with their populations kept in balance. It’s prey that determine the population of predators. The two go up and down in parallel waves slightly out of sync.

    As for that sign down at Cotton that claims wolves “devour” 54,000 fawns a year, remember that the majority of fawns die in their first half year and that the predominant predators are bears and coyotes. Some of the lowest fawn survival rates are in the state of Georgia, which has no wolves. In Minnesota, fawn survival rates in the southern part of the state are no higher than in wolf country. For the deer herd to increase, we’ll need milder winters. For hunter success to increase, they need to get more serious about the task at hand. It seems as if hunting has become a much more casual activity with fewer people really understanding the woods and its animals. Minnesota is becoming more urban and that is at the core of the issue. Don’t blame wolves for your own flaws.

  3. It’s likely that somewhere, buried underneath the complaints, is Koch money for organization. Suddenly a grass roots movement across two states, all encouraging Republicans? Ok. The MDHA sign is a vain attempt at creating feelings for Bambi or angering the guy who didn’t get a deer.

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