Minnesota paid out a record $154,136 to residents whose livestock or pets were killed by wolves in the past year, part of a gradual upward trend also seen in Wisconsin and Michigan — all states where the gray wolf came off the endangered list in January.
The claims provide further evidence that wolves are thriving in the Upper Midwest, even as animal rights groups protest plans for wolf hunting seasons this fall in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where state officials say populations have recovered enough to support limited hunting.
Minnesota, which has the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states at around 3,000, plans to allow hunters and trappers to take 400 wolves in a season that begins Nov. 3. Wisconsin's season is due to start Oct. 15 with a quota of 201, though a legal challenge there remains unresolved. Michigan hasn't set a sport wolf hunting season so far but its Department of Natural Resources is supporting a bill to do so.
The growth in wolf populations since they went on the endangered list in the 1970s is one reason livestock loss claims are up. Geir Friisoe, who oversees the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's compensation program, said another reason lately is higher livestock prices.
The high payouts also mean Minnesota's fund will likely run out around the end of the year, he said.
Minnesota has paid out a gradually increasing number of claims for wolf depredation over the last several years, mostly for cattle but also for some sheep, turkeys and pet dogs, even a horse and a llama, according to the agriculture department. The $154,136 the state paid in fiscal 2012 was for 111 verified claims.
The state paid 128 claims totaling $102,230 in fiscal 2011 and 104 claims for $106,615 in fiscal 2010, up from $72,895 for 71 claims in 2006. Minnesota has paid out $39,982 on 33 claims so far in the current fiscal year, which began July 1.
"Anytime you have wolves intermix with farming you're going to have depredation no matter what you do," Friisoe said.
The Legislature set aside $300,000 in the current budget to compensate farmers for losses caused by wolves and by elk, which sometimes eat row crops. Replenishing the fund would likely require more money from the Legislature, although in previous years when the fund ran out the state was able to get a federal grant that allowed it to pay farmers' claims, Friisoe said. It's not clear if that would be an option now, he said.
The trend is also generally upward in Wisconsin and Michigan, though payment policies vary from state to state.
Wisconsin, with nearly 800 wolves, has already paid $214,794 on 282 claims this calendar year, which is more than the previous record of $202,844 on 134 claims in 2010. Last year, the state paid $155,063 on 169 claims. One reason Wisconsin has paid more is that it compensates hunters who lose hounds to wolves while bear hunting. Also, there was a jump in claims for missing calves in 2011 that weren't paid until this year, said Brad Koele, a wildlife damage specialist with the Wisconsin DNR.
Michigan, with nearly 700 wolves, paid $22,382 for 46 incidents in 2010 and $15,755 for 35 incidents in 2011. It has paid $9,465 this year for 12 incidents as of June 2, and payments are pending for 11 other incidents since then, said Brian Roell, a wolf specialist with the Michigan DNR.
The rise in claim payments comes as no surprise to Joe Martin, executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association. He said producers' actual livestock losses to wolves are much higher, but the government pays only for losses that are verified to be the work of wolves. Coyote losses aren't covered.
Martin said the compensation fund often has been depleted in past years, forcing producers to wait on their claims until more money became available in the next fiscal year. One of the group's priorities for next year's legislative session is more money to pay depredation claims. Livestock producers also wish the federal government would assume responsibility for compensating them, he said.
Producers don't expect sport hunting to make a big dent in livestock losses, Martin said, but they're happy that revenues from wolf hunting license fees will go to a wolf management account that could be used to pay for professional trappers.
"The wolf hunt is going to help some, but really, to remove problem wolves that are killing livestock it's most effective to get a trapper in to remove them," Martin said.
Maureen Hackett, founder of Howling for Wolves, which opposes wolf hunting and trapping, agreed that livestock producers deserve better compensation for their losses. But she said the government should help farmers pay for nonlethal methods to protect their herds, such as guard dogs and better fencing, instead of resuming the hunt.
Hackett also said the costs of compensating farmers should be viewed in the context of the economic benefits of having wolves. She said they attract wildlife tourism and help maintain the health of the deer herd by removing sick animals and keeping them on the move so they're less likely to congregate and spread diseases among each other.
Another chronic wasting disease scare could cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost deer hunting revenues, Hackett said.
"The cost of $150,000, while it sounds large, is offset immensely by what (benefits) we have from a live wolf," she said.
Associated Press writer John Flesher contributed to this report from Traverse City, Mich.