Grand Rapids, Minn. — It’s a busy time of year for John Hart. With calving under way in northern Minnesota, and beef farmers putting to pasture cattle a few weeks earlier than usual due to early green-up, in some areas wolves will be quick to arrive on the scene, and predation on cattle means Hart, the district supervisor for USDA Wildlife Services and as such a frequent wolf trapper, will be called upon.
But it’s already been a busy year in that department for Hart. For reasons not entirely clear, wolves in northeastern Minnesota have to a greater extent been targeting – killing – pet dogs this year. In fact, eight dogs were verified wolf kills as May 2015 begins.
“We verify wolf kills (of dogs) every year, but there’s definitely a spike this year,” Hart said earlier this week. “So far this year, it’s the same (number of kills) as last year’s total.”
Eight dogs have been reported killed by wolves this year (when limited hunting with hounds is occurring). Hart said Wildlife Services staff have killed 10 wolves in response to those pet deaths. So far this year, a total of 22 wolves in the state have been trapped and killed, he said. Federal trappers in the past routinely have killed between 100 and 200 problem-causing wolves each year in the state.
Hart and his crew just recently resumed the trapping and killing of problem wolves in the state. They began again when a federal judge last December relisted timber wolves in the state as “threatened,” meaning wolves could only be killed by members of the public “in defense of human life.”
That, obviously, eliminates the legal ability to kill a wolf “in defense of pet.” And that’s caused some anger and angst among northern Minnesotans in wolf country. Not only does Hart trap the wolves, but he interacts with those who’ve lost pets to wolf depredation.
“When there’s a wolf on your doorstep, it’s unnerving,” he said. “They feel frustration, and they feel fear when (a wolf is) close to their house.”
He said inhabitants of Minnesota’s northern reaches understand the inherent danger of using a dog for something like grouse hunting in areas wolves exist. But the dogs killed this year haven’t been dogs engaged in hunting; rather, most have been accompanied by their owners, or at least have been in residential yards. One dog killed by wolves was tied up in a yard. But people who’ve watched the killing act have been handcuffed from action beyond yelling at or, in one particular case, trying to chase away a wolf with a shovel.
According to Hart, the dogs killed by wolves have ranged from small to large, including a number of Labradors and a pit bull. One of those, a 12-pound poodle named Curly Moe, was owned by Laurie Anderson, who lives between Duluth and Two Harbors.
“The wolf grabbed Curly by the neck and headed down toward what we call the West Branch of the Knife River,” Anderson said. “And I’ve never seen my little dog again.”
Hart offers a couple reasons why wolf attacks on dogs seem to have increased this years, especially along the North Shore of Lake Superior. For one thing, white-tailed deer numbers are down, he said of one of the wolf’s primary food sources. Also, the mild winter means springtime deer were in good shape. “They’re harder for wolves to catch,” Hart said.
And, fawns haven’t yet been born.
While overall deer numbers might be lower than usual, there still are high numbers in some residential areas, where human-provided food sources are more frequently available. As deer migrate to those areas, wolves follow. And those, too, are places where more people – and their pets – are situated.
“There are a few wolves floating around inside city limits,” Hart said.
More often, wolves kill dogs instinctively to defend their territory. Other times they kill for food. The latter seems to be happening more frequently thus far this spring, Hart said.
Incidences of wolves killing pet dogs is a “fact of life when wolves and dogs are in the same area,” Hart said. The number just has spiked this year; in years past when it’s jumped, the number of incidents also has been notably higher in the North Shore area, as well as in the Ely area, he said.
Hart’s Wildlife Services team includes 12 people, about eight of which devote a significant amount of time to wolf trapping and dispatching. The program, which lacked funding earlier this year, now has $220,000 annually to work with – half from the state, half from the federal government, he said.
According to Dan Stark, DNR large-carnivore specialist, there’s currently about 2,400 wolves in the state. Later this year, the new estimate will be released by the department.
Stark said it appeared most wolf attacks on dogs were occurring in a “small geographic area” north of Duluth.
He said people in wolf country should take some precautions to keep their pet dogs from harm’s way. Stark suggests indoor shelters, especially at night; chain link fences around yards; lights around the yard; and cleared brush around the perimeter of the yard. He suggests if a resident sees a wolf, he should attempt to scare it away with a noise-making device, but not something that could injure the animal.
Wolves, after nearly a three-year run as a state-managed species, were granted federal protections again in December when U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell’s ruled in favor of the Humane Society of the United States, which had sued to return wolves to the endangered species list. While classified as “threatened” in Minnesota, wolves are “endangered” in Wisconsin and Michigan, the other two Upper Midwest states that have wolves.
Earlier this year, a number of members of Congress proposed federal legislation that would remove wolves from the endangered species list. Sponsors from Minnesota included Rep. John Kline and Collin Peterson. As of press time, those bills had progressed no further in the U.S. House.
The Associated Press contributed to this report