A few weeks ago, rancher Dale Lueck noticed four wolves emerge from the trees that surround his 300-acre ranch full of knee-high grass just a few miles north of Mille Lacs Lake.
They were stalking a calf that had strayed away from the herd.
"The calf was just standing there staring at them. He was just mesmerized," said Lueck, who owns 60 cattle on the ranch that's been in the family for generations.
PRIMER: How the wolf hunt will work
Lueck grabbed his rifle, but he was too far away to get a good shot. He sent a bullet flying into the dirt near the wolves, and they backed away.
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"The big thing about what happened on that Sunday morning was I at least had the opportunity to defend my livestock," Lueck said.
Since grey wolves came off the endangered species list Jan. 27, state regulation has allowed ranchers to shoot wolves, any time of year, if they threaten livestock or pets. That was a jailable offense when the federal government regulated the wolf population.
This year, more than just ranchers defending their herd will be aiming at wolves. A state-sanctioned wolf hunt begins next Saturday. Ranchers have been among the strongest supporters of a hunt to manage the state's wolf population.
Farmers and ranchers got record payouts this year to compensate them for livestock lost. Still, some say a hunt won't save their cattle.
Like many ranchers, Lueck said he was angry at the federal government for protecting wolves. Lueck, who's running for the state Legislature, even sued two years ago to force the feds to remove Great Lakes wolves from the endangered species list.
"If they go back under federal management, if that happens again, what am I going to do, run out there with a rubber hose, so I don't leave any bruises on the wolf?" he said with a laugh.
So far this year, according to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources large carnivore specialist Dan Stark, farmers have killed 12 wolves protecting livestock. Another three were killed for threatening pets. Anyone who kills a wolf has to report it to a DNR conservation officer within 48 hours, who then investigates the shooting.
Stark said killing a wolf in the act of taking livestock can be a useful tool.
"If there are other wolves around, and they observe that happening, they're probably going to avoid the area," Stark said.
HUNT TO FUND TRAPPING EFFORTS
But Stark said most ranchers never even see wolves, let alone get a chance to shoot them. They're secretive animals, and farmers can't carry rifles around all the time. That's why Stark said regulated wolf trapping by licensed trappers is the most effective way to protect cattle from wolves.
And ranchers agree.
"We've always said that a hunt is best used to complement the professional trapping program that's been ongoing for years," said Joe Martin, executive director of the Minnesota Cattlemen's Association.
Over the past several years, federal trappers have killed more and more wolves that have preyed on livestock. In 2006, trappers got 122 wolves. So far this year, federal and state licensed trappers together have killed 255 wolves.
But the federal government has significantly cut funding for the trapping program. Last year, it was nearly eliminated. Martin said that's why Minnesota's new wolf hunt is important.
"Because the establishment of a hunting season provides that dedicated revenue source to pay for those services," Martin said.
The DNR's Stark said revenue from wolf hunting applications and licenses will approach $300,000. While Stark said some of that money will likely help pay for trapping, he said it's also needed for the DNR's wolf survey this winter, and other costs.
OPPOSITION GROUP SYMPATHETIC TO RANCHERS
Reyna Crow is with the Duluth-based Northwoods Wolf Alliance, a group that formed recently to oppose Minnesota's wolf hunt. Crow, whose parents were ranchers, said many of the group's members are sympathetic to farmers who lose cattle.
"There's probably a lot of frustration involved when livestock depredation does occur," Crow said.
While she opposes hunting, Crow said she supports the program that traps wolves that kill livestock. But, she does not believe ranchers should be allowed to shoot wolves that threaten cattle or pets.
"If ranchers and farmers want to have livestock in northern Minnesota, I think they need to accept the wolf as being as much a part of the natural environment here, as is cold weather," Crow said.
Many animal rights groups stress they're not anti-rancher, they just want to protect wolves. And many ranchers say they're not wolf haters, they just want to protect their livestock. Minnesota regulators hope a managed hunt, combined with a trapping program, can succeed at both.
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