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Call of the wild: Bringing attention to the natural world

Wolves.

Or, for that matter, bison, bear and other wildlife.

It’s what remarkably ties native Minnesotans Erik Fremstad and Erin Stahler together — one an award-winning wildlife artist and the other a biological science technician.

Fremstad, a Woodbury native and current Victoria resident, has found “a greater purpose in life” via his unique artwork — pieces “that tell a story while still creating something beautiful.”

Stahler, an Orono High School grad, is program manager for Yellowstone National Park’s Wolf Project, doing massive amounts of research, writing and field work in the continuing effort to reintroduce and maintain wolves in that park.

“There is so much more to learn, about wolves and other animals; so much we don’t know,” Stahler said.

Fremstad and Stahler, each 38, reside more than 1,000 miles apart, but recently spoke independently about wolf populations, relevance and dangers; their history, resurgence and value.

IMAGES LEAD TO DISCUSSION

Fremstad has used his communications degree in a variety of areas, including television editing, which he says spearheaded his interest in nature-based photography.

“That photography led me to engage with nature in a meaningful way, a way that I felt I could bring more attention to important issues,” he said, noting mortality as one vital issue.

Fremstad’s nature and wildlife pieces are impressive from a distance, but a closer look reveals so much more — a message that hopefully leads to greater interest and discussion about wildlife.

Several years ago, Fremstad considered creating artwork where the lines of his drawings were actually words; words which told the history and importance of wildlife, such as bear, wolves and bison.

At a distance, viewers see an impressive piece of art. Up close, they recognize that the wolf, bison and bear — and next the rusty patched bumble bee, sea turtle and polar bear — are designed by thousands of words; words that describe their history and episodes of endangerment.

“The stories that these faces tell is not pretty; I mean, animals being slaughtered by the thousands,” Fremstad said. “From a distance, I hear people say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful painting.’ But then, when they get up close and read it, they go, ‘Oh, my gosh, there is so much depth to it.’ The image pulls you into being more interested in it.”

Fremstad spends months on research, filling notebooks with historical data to be used in creating the outline of his works. In his efforts, he writes how an estimated 30 million bison were killed, as were about two million wolves.

Once he believes he has enough information about each subject animal, he uses a pencil to “write” the outline of his artwork.

“There is a lot of erasing that goes on, which is why the pencil works best,” he said with a chuckle, emphasizing that he wants his work to be accurate and attractive. “I stay at this because there is something within me that wants to create things that are important to me; things which I have a connection to.”

Once the outline is complete, he goes over the words with an archival pen and then water colors — a process that takes about three months. In all, it may take a year to complete one project which measures about 29x40 inches.

Fremstad has received “tremendous support” from his wife, Paige Thiesse, as well as naturalist and conservationist groups. He donates a portion of his profits from limited edition prints to those groups.

Fremstad entered his “Canis Lupus” (gray wolf) artwork in this year’s virtual Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Exhibition competition, earning him the People’s Choice Award.

“It’s nice to get the accolades, but the project doesn’t have nearly as much value if it’s only for my benefit,” he said.

“I saw it online and I was amazed,” said Trevor Bielkamp of Victoria, who added that he and his family voted for Fremstad’s exhibit. “After seeing it and reading some of the words and accounts, our family did our own research on it too. I never thought we would get so many facts from an art exhibit.”

BRINGING BACK THE WOLVES

For Stahler, the Wolf Project is one way of restoring the ecosystem in Yellowstone.

“If you want to restore Yellowstone, you have to bring back the wolves,” she said. “They were eliminated by people and bringing them back, where they are a top predator, is making it the way it should be again.”

Stahler, whose husband Dan Stahler is a wildlife biologist at Yellowstone, first imagined being a veterinarian, “but after many chemistry classes, that just wasn’t going to happen.”

She became interested in wildlife biology and spent time learning and working at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, and Superior National Forest before she applied for, and was granted, the opportunity to work with an elk mortality study in Yellowstone.

That eventually led to her involvement with the effort since the mid-1990s to reintroduce wolves into the park. Stahler manages massive amounts of data on wolves’ behavior, including location, survival and breeding. For example, data has revealed the black color coat is a dominant trait, which leads to question about immune systems.

“If black is dominant, why in Minnesota are black wolves not that common, and why aren’t there more black wolves in Minnesota? Those are the kinds of questions I have when I look at the data,” Stahler said.

Yellowstone, a nearly 3,500-square-mile wilderness recreation area mostly in Wyoming, has 124 wolves, according to Stahler. Meanwhile, Minnesota has an estimated 2,655 wolves, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Stahler says animal capture, including wolves, bear, cougar, bison and bighorn sheep, “has kind of become my specialty,” adding that her duties include everything from coordinating helicopters to procuring immobilization drugs, all within proper safety protocols.

“Every day can be unpredictable,” she said, noting that she can be involved with everything from animal capture in remote areas of the park to dealing with elk with garbage can or Christmas lights complications.

But it’s the wolves that garner most of her attention, aside from her husband and their 6-year-old son, Rocco.

Before their reintroduction, the last wolf in Yellowstone was killed in 1926. Several attempts to reintroduce them failed, in part because they were mistaken for coyotes and killed. Reintroduction was necessitated because of an elk herd that flourished without the wolves.

“The wolves were eliminated by people, so the plan was to bring them back so they can do what they do best, hunt elk, which is helpful for the ecosystem,” Stahler said.

So, on a cool mid-September morning, Stahler and others who track wolves, located a pack of about 18 in a meadow along a riverbed. Only those with field scopes or long camera lenses could spot the group, except for one lone black wolf which wandered off. There were plenty of wildlife photographers on hand to witness it all.

“The wolves have brought so many more photographers and other wildlife enthusiasts to the park,” Stahler said. “Wolf watching brings millions of dollars into the economy. There are those who love the wolves and those who do not, but for the park, they are a necessity and a very complicated, social animal.”


Local
Bethesda Cornerstone Village opens doors in Victoria

Kurt Rutzen imagined a place where he could feel safe; where he could be assisted when needed; where he could socialize and feel independent.

For him, Bethesda Cornerstone Village in Victoria is reality to that imagination.

“For too many people with disabilities, all they can do is imagine,” Rutzen said during the recent grand opening of the multi-faceted facility. “Imagine someone with a disability who isn’t scared to death to come home.”

Rutzen, a disability advocate and staff member at Cornerstone who lives in one of the complex’s units, said the residential community “is a concept that the whole community can embrace, and gives people like me a chance for more independence.”

The complex at 1519 82nd Street is the first of its kind in the U.S. Two more in the metro area are in the planning stages — Oakdale and Brooklyn Park. Cornerstone Village developments are expected to expand across the country, with each tailored to those communities’ needs and demographics.

“We are proud to hoist the flag here in Victoria,” said Mike Thirtle, president and CEO of Bethesda, a Wisconsin faith-based organization that since 1904 has provided homes and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“We hope to do dozens of these in the next few years across the country,” he added. “These will provide people the independence to live the lives they truly want to live.”

Cornerstone Village consists of 52 homes, including 37 apartment homes and 15 village homes. Up to 20% of the residences will serve people with disabilities.

The state-of-the-art residences are available for those with developmental disabilities and those age 55 and above.

“These are two groups who can feed off of each other; who will compliment each other well,” Thirtle said. “We anticipate tremendous interaction between those who live here.”

Thirtle highlighted a number of impressive amenities at the complex, especially the community center which will feature a number of activities and will eventually be available for public use.

The $18 million Cornerstone Village consists of 15 apartments in four one-story townhouses, and 37 units in a three-story apartment building on a 4.33-acre site where four vacant Bethesda intermediate care facility buildings once stood.

“It will be a place where people of all abilities live, socialize and even worship together,” Thirtle added. “We could not be more excited about the potential Cornerstone Village has to enhance the lives of people of Victoria.”

As part of the Sept. 24 grand opening, a time capsule including a Bible and various documentation, was buried on the grounds. Also included were a mask, hand sanitizer bottle and COVID-19 statistics for Sept. 1, 2020.