Wolf population growing, causing concern in Pine County; Part II: Wolf population up by 25 percent since 2016

April 13, 2018


Last week, we heard from local ranchers who shared their encounters with wolves, as well as what the local Minnesota Department of Natural Resource officials are saying about their observations. This week, the increasing wolf population will be addressed, as well as the decision to put the wolf back on the endangered species list. Measures that can be taken to prevent depredation will also be addressed.


What do the numbers show?

Pine County has had the most wolves taken by federal trappers in the state. In Pine County, 27 wolves were taken in 2017. St. Louis and Kittson (on the Canadian border) counties are next on the list with 25 wolves removed by federal trappers. A total of 199 wolves were taken in Minnesota in 2017.

Minnesota’s wolf population is estimated to be 2,372 to 3,386, and Minnesota has the highest population of wolves in the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wisconsin has an estimated wolf population of 866 and Michigan is estimated at 621.

Since 1978, the wolf range in Minnesota has moved southward from the Canadian border counties to the southernmost range of central Pine County and northern Kanabec, Mille Lacs, and Morrison counties.


“Endangered species”

The wolf population has rebounded in Minnesota, and the wolf had been taken off the Federal Endangered Species list in 2012. But due to successful litigation on behalf of animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, wolves were put back on the endangered species list, under the category of “threatened species” in 2014.


Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at the Humane Society, gave the reason behind the decision stating, "In the short time since federal protections have been removed, trophy hunters and trappers have killed more than 1,500 Great Lakes wolves under hostile state management programs that encourage dramatic reductions in wolf populations.”


“In regards to Minnesota, and from a population standpoint, we don't consider them (wolves) threatened or endangered but fully recovered,” added Dan Stark, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) large carnivore specialist. “The recovery goal is 1,251 to 1,400 wolves in the state, and the population has exceeded that level for several decades. When wolves were first removed from the lists of threatened and endangered species in 2007, it was considered one of the greatest conservation achievements.


“The goal is that we continue to have a thriving wolf population in Minnesota, and if we can implement a hunting and trapping season that doesn't affect the population long term through responsible management, then that is appropriate.”


What happens when the wolves come around?

As a result of the court ruling, only Minnesotans who are defending human life, not livestock or pets, can legally kill a wolf. And only agents of the government are authorized to take wolves if depredation occurs.


“When farmers lose calves, and if I can determine that the calves were likely killed by wolves, federal trappers are brought in to trap and remove the wolves that are harassing the cattle,” said DNR Conservation Officer Bret Grundmeier.


A carcass or injured animal and evidence of wolf involvement is necessary for compensation. Cattle owners are then compensated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for livestock destroyed by wolves. However, often times ranchers will complain of losing an entire calf that is taken by the wolves with no evidence of a carcass.


Among the many calves that were lost or eaten and left for dead by suspected wolves, rancher Dave Jensen of Wolf Tooth Ranch stated, “In October of 2016, I lost two calves. The (mother) cow came up to the gate with significant damage. We never found the calves. I also had colts with fist-sized chunks of flesh taken from their hind quarters and was never compensated for them. I don’t believe the wolves should all be gone, but they have cost me a lot of money.”


“People are so far removed from animal husbandry and agriculture that it’s sad they are influencing judicial action based on emotions,” added Jensen.


Stark said that wolves are generally shy of people and avoid them. However, wolves are large carnivores and can be potentially dangerous. “It is not uncommon for wolves to be located near areas of human activity. Most of the time it is while they are in search of prey and they may investigate areas of livestock or pets. Another attractant can be areas where people feed whitetail deer or where deer congregate near a food source. Normally, once the food sources are secured or moved away, and wolves don’t have access, they will move on without causing problems,” he said.


In some situations a wolf could become habituated and can become a nuisance or threat, added Stark, and habituated wolves (wolves that live too close to humans and lose their inherent fear of people and tend to approach them) usually have to be removed from the population to avoid further conflict. Stark shared the following guidelines to be used to avoid habituation so that wolves do not acclimate to people.

  • Never intentionally feed wolves.

  • Dispose of food scraps in cans with secure lids or inside.

  • Never intentionally leave food out.

  • Feeding deer may attract wolves. Discontinue feeding deer until wolves move out of the area.

  • Hang suet feeders at least seven feet off the ground.

  • Motion sensing lights may help deter wolves; flagging and ribbons can also be introduced as a deterrent that may spook the wolves.

  • Do not leave pet food or pets outdoors unattended. Confine pets in secure pens when wolves are present.

“Presence alone does not mean that a wolf is habituated,” added Stark. “It is the behavior of the animal and how it responds to people that determines habituation.”


Preventing depredation

Unless wolves are taken off the Federal Endangered Species list, a hunting season won’t be allowed in Minnesota, and we can expect the wolf population to continue to grow. Since 2016, the wolf population has grown by 25 percent according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.


State Representative Jason Rarick (District 11B) stated he would fully support a hunting season on wolves should they be taken off the protected list and calls for common sense legislation in protecting personal property.


“We need to allow people to protect their livestock and pets. We are finally seeing some hope that the federal government is ready to take the gray wolf off of the protected list so that the DNR can once again try to control the wolf population in Minnesota,” said Rarick.


Until that time, one means of preventing wolf depredation is by the use of guard dogs and herd management, according to one local sheep rancher. Because of the federal protection of wolves, Janet McNally of Tamarack Lamb & Wool located west of Hinckley, noticed a growing wolf population. A large pack of wolves ended up taking 75 lambs and a dozen ewes in 1999. At that time, the herd was guarded by a llama. And like others, there were few carcasses to show to the Department of Agriculture for compensation.


This forced her to re-examine her practices if she wanted to continue raising sheep.

Her solution was more labor intensive and perhaps more costly, but not as costly as losing lambs and ewes she decided. She changed the pasturing of the sheep from “drift lambing” with sheep spread out in multiple pastures to “mob stock lambing” which kept the sheep in a more condensed area. Temporary fences are used, and the practice of rotating the herds’ grazing location is more labor intensive, but McNally said that this practice has also been good for the fields as she has estimated there is now three and a half times more grass since changing their practice. Along with the “mob stock lambing”, she added a group of livestock guarding dogs. The guarding dogs are a cross between the Aboriginal Spanish Mastiff from Spain, the Polish Tatra from Poland, and Maremmas which are sourced locally.


McNally feels the number of dogs guarding a herd depends on the number of wolves in an area. “I would say a minimum of four dogs is required for most people in Pine County,” she said.  “I had sheep in two locations, so I had a set of four dogs for each location. That was one of the big changes I made in 1999. At that time, I only had one dog per flock; now I try to keep four dogs with each flock. The only time I’ve had a kill was when I spread the dogs too thin, such as breeding time when the sheep are split up into five or six groups, and the dogs just cannot cover them all.”


For over 15 years, even though the frequency of wolf sightings has dramatically increased since the 1990s, the sheep have remained relatively safe, she said. More information can be found on the following website: http://www.tamaracksheep.com/uncategorized/pasture-lambing-in-a-high-predator-population/.


The University of Minnesota also has the following advice for ranchers to prevent wolf depredation:

  • Maintain healthy, well-fed animals. Wolves typically select the weakest and easiest prey. Healthy animals are more difficult to take. Move lame or sick animals to a safe area when possible.

  • Use guard animals. Although not always effective, the presence of guard dogs can be a deterrent. When using guard dogs against wolves it is important to use several dogs, as wolves may kill a single animal. Moving and consolidating sheep, as is done in rotational grazing, can help guard dogs be more effective. Keep in mind, however, that rotational grazing is less suitable during lambing as it may disrupt the bond between mother and offspring.

  • Move calving or lambing activities closer to the barnyard. Newborns are easy prey. Some farmers move calving or lambing closer to the barnyard because it allows for more frequent monitoring.

  • Grants to implement measures to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts are available from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.


*Editor’s note: video footage of a wolf sighting at a Pine County residence can be found at www.pinecountycourier.com after Friday, April 13.

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