It was supposed to be a simple scouting mission for deer.
“I’m looking for big bucks this year, you know, monsters.”
Monsters. … Enter irony.
“I got to a point where I was cresting the ridge. All of the sudden I saw legs go up through the woods and I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m on track, I kicked a deer out.’ Well, the deer ended up becoming a wolf.”
That’s the beginning of the story as told to AH via a phone call from Matt Nellessen, the Wisconsin man and NRA member who, only a week ago, ended up in a life-or-death fight with three wolves, and walked away unscathed.
Estimates pegged Wisconsin’s wolf population at 800-plus animals in 2012 (the most recent numbers to be found). Of course, based on the visual Nellessen says he gained while searching the area for a dead wolf with biologists from Wisconsin DNR and U.S.D.A. Wildlife Services the day after he was attacked, it’s easy to see why he assumes the state’s estimates may be a bit low.
“The whole ridge was just annihilated with wolf sign, he says, “droppings and tracks, bones and carcasses of things they had been chewing on.”
Wolf populations in the Great Lakes region, including those in Wisconsin, grew numerous enough by 2012 to prompt removal of the species from the federal endangered species list. But a 2014 lawsuit filed by animal-rights groups and anti-hunting organizations prompted the courts to vacate that decision, returning Great Lakes wolves to endangered status.
Upon that decision, all lethal management of wolves ceased in Wisconsin. The ruling affected not only hunters, who bagged a total of 154 wolves in 2014-15 prior to the relisting, but landowners who now find it a federal crime to kill a wolf in the act of predation on pets and livestock. This year alone, there have already been more than 55 reported cases of wolves attacking pets and livestock in Wisconsin. A simple Internet search yields incidents spanning the state.
But it wasn’t a dog that was attacked on Sept. 23.
An avid outdoorsman and diehard deer hunter, Nellessen prefers archery hunting to just about anything. “I live it three-sixty-five,” he says. “To be honest, the only reason I get a gun tag is so I can bowhunt during the muzzleloader season.” But Nellessen decided that rather than hunt that day, he would scout a new location for deer within the Colburn Wildlife Management Area. The 5,000 acres of lowland brush and sedge marsh with areas of aspen and oak forest is located in the north part of Adams County, in the south end of Wisconsin’s now-closed Wolf Harvest Zone No. 5.
Donning his “usual scouting get-up”—military-style boots, blue jeans, T-shirt, water bottle and a “little .380”—Nellessen made his way to a point he had scoped out using aerial photos from the Internet, roughly “1,200 meters” from his truck. It was there he locked eyes with a wolf. Without hesitation, Nellessen pulled his firearm and chambered a round … then two more wolves approached from his left.
“Being a 13-year-veteran, Army and combat veteran, I knew it was ‘go time’ as soon as I realized I was surrounded,” he recalls.
In seconds, the wolves attacked. A swift kick deflected the first bite, and a single shot from Nellessen’s Walther PK .380 sent all three predators, one wounded, retreating into the bush.
Nellessen credits his ability to make it home safely to his military experience and firearm training. “I think I would absolutely be dead without my military experience,” he says. “I train with my carry pistol and all that, but it was all a reaction … . I practice when I draw to rack one while bringing the gun up to aim.”
The knowledge borne of such training convinced Nellessen to tell his story not to a local news outlet but to AH. “I kinda owe it to the gun culture, ya know. I figured, ya know, if I’m getting ahold of anybody it’s gonna be the NRA. Sure, someone didn’t kick my door in and I protected myself. I wasn’t getting shot at or anything. But it’s a legit self-defense story, ya know. Danger comes from anywhere, be it human or mother nature, ya never know.”
Perhaps even more shocking than the ordeal itself are Nellessen’s after-action reflections. First, he doesn’t blame the wolves: “I don’t think that they were stalking me wanting to eat me. I think it was more of a territorial protection thing. But it scared the living daylights out of me.” Nellessen says he hasn’t been so scared since he was in Afghanistan in 2006, but he realizes that he was the one who walked into “their house.” The last thing he wants is for “people to go out there looking for trouble and shooting a bunch of wolves.”
But even more astonishing than his lack of resentment toward the animals he claims would have surely killed him if not for “that single bullet” is his thankfulness that it happened to him, rather than someone else.
“Thank God it was me there. It wasn’t someone else, in the middle of the dark with a treestand on their back and a bow in hand,” he exclaims, “or someone with their kid going out squirrel hunting. Thank God it happened to a combat veteran. … Period.”
Nellessen was scouting for whitetail when he encountered one of nature's other apex predators.