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Now on endangered list, wolves are difficult to control

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Laurie Anderson and her dog Mandy Mae.
Laurie Anderson clutched her dog Mandy Mae on her property outside Duluth on April 24. A wolf killed Anderson's other dog earlier in the month.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

When Laurie Anderson stepped outside to get the mail earlier this month, her 12-pound poodle, Curly Moe, came rushing toward her, snarling.

Anderson turned around, and from 15 feet away, saw why her dog frantically ran past her.

"There was a big gray timber wolf," she said. "The wolf grabbed Curly by the neck, and headed down toward what we call the West Branch of the Knife River. And I've never seen my little dog again."

There has been a sharp increase in the number of dogs killed by wolves in northern Minnesota. In the last five weeks, six dogs have been killed and four seriously injured. That's more dogs than were killed by wolves in the entire state last year. Most of the incidents have taken place near Duluth.

• Status check: Wolves in Minnesota

The state Department of Natural Resources estimates there are about 2,400 wolves in Minnesota. But options for controlling them are limited since a federal judge placed wolves back on the Endangered Species List in December.

Bob VanGuilder's dog Gus.
Bob VanGuilder holds a picture of his dog Gus grouse hunting, Thursday, April 23, 2015.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Anderson lives on 35 acres in a fairly rural area between Duluth and Two Harbors, where the north woods starts to mix with residential areas. Area residents say they're seeing a lot more wolves than they used to.

One night late last fall, Bob VanGuilder's black lab disappeared. The next morning VanGuilder found the dog's remains on the edge of the woods.

"It was a pretty gross sight for one of your good friends you know and looking into his eyes as he laid there," he said.

Like many of his neighbors, VanGuilder loves seeing wildlife, and loves hearing the wolves — just not so close to his house.

Bob VanGuilder at Gus' grave.
Bob VanGuilder crouches next to a grave he dug for his black lab Gus on April 23, 2015 on his farm outside Duluth. Wolves killed the dog last October.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"We have to do something to control them to keep them out of the residential area, they belong back in the woods is where they belong," he said.

The placement of wolves on the Endangered Species List, however, prevents the state from holding a managed wolf hunt. Now wolves can only be killed in defense of human life.

If an attack on pets or livestock is verified, federal trappers can trap and kill wolves caught within a half mile of the incident. In the past nine years, trappers have killed between 114 and 262 in any given year, said John Hart, who oversees the program at the USDA Wildlife Services office in Grand Rapids.

So far this year, Hart said, trappers have killed 20 wolves, including an 84-pound wolf killed near Anderson's house. Half were in response to attacks on dogs.

"Our goal is to try to remove those wolves that have killed or injured domestic dogs so that more domestic dogs don't get killed or injured," he said.

Wolves primarily eat white tailed deer. But every year, they kill a small number of livestock and dogs. Over the past nine years, wolves have killed about 100 livestock animals and about six dogs a year on average across northern Minnesota.

Kipp Duncan, a DNR Conservation Officer who covers the townships north of Duluth, has investigated five dog deaths since late last fall.

"Within the last half a year, we've had I would say probably a spike of wolves that are coming in and going after some domestic animals," he said.

Wolves sometimes kill dogs to defend their territory. But Duncan said all five dogs were taken from yards; one was chained to a dog house. All were eaten, he said.

"Our deer population is down, we've had some rough winters, and wolves have to eat, of course," he said. "People bring deer in by feeding, the deer come to people's houses through bird feeders, and getting attracted that way, and that brings the wolves closer as well."

That creates more opportunities for conflict between wolves and domestic animals.

"I think it's a function of wolves being hungry and not finding as much food as they normally do in the areas they normally forage in," said John Hart, who supervises the federal USDA Wildlife Services Program in Grand Rapids. "So they're moving to where the deer are which happens to be where the people are."

DNR officials say dog owners living in wolf country should take precautions, but not panic. The state's wolf population is healthy, stable, and near where a lot of people live and enjoy the outdoors.

Dan Stark, the agency's large carnivore specialist, said people need to find a way to coexist with wolves in those areas. He recommends feeding pets inside, fencing yards, and keeping dogs leashed if necessary.

"Wolves live in a lot of different places in northern Minnesota, and don't cause problems, and people rarely have interactions with them," Stark said. "It is just something to be aware of, and in some cases cautious about it."

 Wolves in Minnesota

In Minnesota, gray wolves are protected by the Endangered Species Act. That protection went into effect Dec. 19, 2014, when U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell restored wolf management in the western Great Lakes states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — to the federal government. Howell's ruling overturned a 2012 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the wolf from endangered species protection.

Wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan are listed as "endangered."" Wolves in Minnesota are classified as "threatened."" In all three states, people may legally kill wolves in defense of human life. People may not kill wolves to protect livestock or pets. 

Since 2003, the federal government has tried four times to "de-list" the wolf from the Endangered Species List in the Great Lakes region, arguing that wolves had recovered to sustainable levels. The first three attempts were blocked by lawsuits. It was the fourth attempt, in January 2012, that succeeded. That's when the three states assumed management of their own wolf populations. 

 How many wolves are we talking about? 

A minimum of 5,600 gray wolves now live in the United States outside of Alaska, according to the International Wolf Center. Of those, roughly 3,700 live in the upper Midwest. 

Minnesota's wolf population is estimated at 470 packs and 2,423 animals, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

What happened to the controversial wolf hunts?

Wolves cannot now be legally hunted in Minnesota. That offering was available when the state was responsible for animal management. In fact, Minnesota held three wolf and trapping hunting seasons during the time the animals were taken off the Endangered Species List in 2012. Wisconsin also authorized three wolf hunting seasons. Michigan authorized a hunt, but voters overturned that decision by referendum.

Where are wolves in Minnesota? 

Wolf habitat generally consumes a large swath of northeast Minnesota. Its western edge extends to include Lancaster, Thief River Falls, Erskine and Wadena. To the southeast, the range is on the verge of reaching Little Falls and Milaca. 

 Who can kill a wolf in Minnesota? 

Citizens cannot legally kill a wolf except in self-defense or in the defense of another human being. Only authorized agents of the federal government can kill a wolf. 

What happens if a pet, cow or other animal is attacked or killed by a wolf?

The incident should be reported to a conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Evidence should be protected and documented. 

When did the federal government get involved with wolves?

In the early 20th century, wolves were on the verge of elimination by government efforts to poison them throughout much of the United States, according to the International Wolf Center. 

The wolf population in Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park hovered around 750 animals in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, the gray wolf was placed on the Endangered Species List. They were then protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The animals were reintroduced in western states in 1995 and 1996.