By Greta Kaul
It’s not just wolves – coyotes also known to sometimes prey on livestock for food. But with wolves it’s different: If a coyote is after an animal, a farmer is well within their right to shoot it. Wolves, on the other hand, are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, which means only government agents can legally kill them unless they’re threatening a human life.
It’s that distinction that prompted the state to create a program years ago that pays livestock producers for the animals they lose to wolves.
In the last decade, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has paid out an average of $135,000 on about 110 wolf depredation claims each year.
Gray wolves once roamed across much of the lower 48 U.S. states, but hunters and government programs targeted wolves to try to prevent loss of livestock. In the 1950s, gray wolves numbered fewer than 750 in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Minnesota had the only reproducing gray wolf population in the U.S. outside of Alaska when, in 1973, the animals were listed under the Endangered Species Act, protecting them from hunts. In subsequent decades, their numbers have increased to more than 2,000 in Minnesota. The most recent wolf population report from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates the Minnesota wolf population at 2,655 animals.
In 2007, gray wolves were taken off the endangered species list in the western Great Lakes region, but judge’s action re-listed them. This cycle of de-listing and re-listing happened several times between 2009 and 2014.
Every time the issue comes up, there are passionate voices on each side. On the one hand are ranchers, who say wolves have reached healthy population levels and are hurting their ability to make a living. On the other are advocates of the animals, who say despite wolves’ protected status, the animals have not recovered to their natural range, and that they serve as an important part of Minnesota’s ecosystem.
Under Minnesota law, producers can be reimbursed for livestock killed by wolves — as long as investigators can prove that wolves were the cause of an animal’s death. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture gets an appropriation from the Legislature to pay out claims to producers whose livestock have been killed by wolves.
If a farmer suspects an animal was killed by wolves, they’re asked to contact an investigator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Services or the DNR. In Kittson County, sheriff’s deputies are also trained to investigate wolf depredation.
Hallmarks of a kill by a wolf include extensive damage to the animal’s carcass. Sometimes investigators skin carcasses to check for evidence of hemorrhaging beneath the hide, which would suggest heavy trauma associated with a wolf’s powerful bite, said John Hart, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services.
If it’s clear the loss was due to a wolf, the producer can submit a claim to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The Department of Agriculture consults with the University of Minnesota Extension to determine the market value of the loss, then pays the claim.
Federal wildlife authorities also have the authority to kill wolves when they’ve become a significant problem. That tends to happen when there’s a history of wolves killing livestock on a property and potential for future kills, Hart said. The number of wolves federal and state agents have killed in recent years has ranged between 132 and 263, and authorities also use non-lethal means to control wolves, motion-activated flashing lights and alarms and physical barriers. In the last decade, the state has paid out between 60 and 113 claims each year.
In 2019, authorities verified 74 calf kills, 11 cow kills, two sheep kills, two dog kills and 10 “other” animal kills in Minnesota, and 13 animals — mostly calves — wounded by wolves. The state made payments on 78 claims, totaling about $107,000.
Most of the claims come from north-west and north-central Minnesota.
“That conflict zone is the forest-agriculture transition area. Basically where cow habitat and wolf habitat overlap,” Hart said. “If you ran a line from Hinckley to Aitkin to Brainerd to Bagley to Thief River Falls to Lancaster, 50 to 75 miles on either side of that line is where most of it occurs.”
The number of calls to Hart’s department about wolf depredation tends to be consistent, although there do seem to be more wolf kills when the whitetail deer population — a major source of food for wolves — goes down quickly.
Mike Landuyt, the president of the Minnesota State Cattleman’s Association, said the number of wolf kills of livestock is likely vastly underreported because they’re so hard to prove.
“When there’s a kill, sometimes there won’t even be blood. They lick the blood right out of the grass, so that’s what makes it so hard. There’s no legs or bones or even blood to say there was a calf there in the first place,” he said.
One summer, Joe Wilebski, a rancher in Kittson County who has had fairly chronic issues with wolves, says he says he lost 26 calves to wolves, and was paid for eight of them.
Hart said he thinks the presence of a Fish and Wildlife trappers has helped increase the tolerance of wolves in agricultural areas, but conflicts between ranchers and the people who want to protect wolves remain.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has urged producers with wolf problems to apply for grants that help pay for things like livestock guardian animals, wolf-deterring lights and alarms and fencing.
The program is relatively new, but has gotten some positive reviews from some of the participants who have gotten funding already.