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Before checking out the Bear Lake pack, Thiel decided to stop to visit a farmer who had reported wolf tracks beside his cattle pasture. Alonzo Melton has a nice spread, 120 acres, mostly wooded, and it sits squarely on the boundary between two of Thiel's wolf packs. Melton wasn't home. His son led us through the snow to the north 40, where 10 Herefords were pastured, some apparently ready to calve. A few feet from the fenced cattle we startled crows feeding on a frozen gut pile, dumped after a butchering last fall. Animal tracks radiated from it like spokes on a wheel. One set was large and led into the surrounding forest. Thiel followed it a ways. When he returned he said simply, "They're wolf all right."
A documented case of wolf predation hasn't occurred in Wisconsin since 1976, when several sheep were killed about 10 miles from the Melton farm on the Tamarack River. But if the wolves take hold, Thiel knows that relations with livestock farmers could become strained, as they have in northern Minnesota, where wolves are numerous and are classified as threatened rather than endangered.
When we returned to the farmhouse, Melton was waiting by the back porch. Thiel told the farmer he could avoid some "potential wolf trouble" if he'd move the gut pile and bring in his cows when they were ready to calve.
Melton stood there doing a slow burn. He, in turn, had some advice for Thiel. He wanted the wolves trapped off his property, and he wanted them moved "real soon."
"Look," he said, "the deer are gone. The hunting's no good around here since the wolves moved in. And now that they've wiped out the deer, they'll come after my cows."
Thiel was looking skeptically at the head of a six-point buck propped on a woodpile. He told Melton that the state couldn't remove a wolf until there was an actual case of livestock predation. And he added that Wisconsin, unlike Minnesota, pays no compensation for wolf-killed livestock.
We seemed to be frozen in a familiar scenario: homesteader against bureaucrat. But the roles seemed miscast, the lines of opposition sharper than they needed to be.
"Look, I love wild animals," Melton said, "maybe more than you do. That's why I moved up here. But I need them cows to make a living."
Thiel tried to meet him halfway. He admitted that the law put the farmer in a tough position, and said that he would keep an eye on Melton's farm to see if any more wolf tracks appeared.
Slowly the scenario dissolved. As we left, Melton suggested that someday Thiel stop to talk to his neighbor, who also raised livestock.