When cattle are killed or go missing from the ranches here in the northwest corner of Minnesota, it's usually state or federal officials who investigate reports that a wolf was responsible.
Those investigations can mean the difference between a rancher getting paid for a dead animal, or simply writing off the loss.
State and federal investigators verify a wolf killed a domestic animal about 50 percent of the time. But, at least in Kittson County, local authorities find a much higher rate of kills.
Sheriff Steve Porter is stepping into the long-running conflict over wolf management in Minnesota.
Ranchers in Kittson County are frustrated and angry, he said, and they need someone to stand up for them.
"They don't want to be the voice for the problem, but they're upset about the problem. So when I talk to these guys, boy, they're bending my ear telling me this is a problem," Porter said. "And if I can use my voice to influence and get this changed back, I would like to do that."
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Porter, who took office last year, believes he and his four deputies can investigate better than the state Department of Natural resources or the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, so he's taking advantage of a Minnesota law that allows the sheriff to investigate alleged wolf kills of livestock.
Farmers and ranchers across northern Minnesota have long complained about wolves taking their livestock.
U.S. Department of Agriculture data show more than 750 confirmed domestic animals were killed by wolves between 2010 and 2016. Between fiscal years 2012 to 2017, the Minnesota Agriculture Department paid out nearly $850,000 in compensation for livestock killed by wolves.
Deputies are trained that specific criteria must be met to verify a wolf kill, according to DNR Large Carnivore Specialist Dan Stark.
"There has to be a livestock carcass, and there has to be circumstantial evidence that animal was killed by a wolf," Stark said, which might include tracks, bite marks and other evidence characteristic of wolf kills.
In Kittson County, Porter is aggressive with his investigations. This fall, a farmer called the sheriff to report two calves missing. He couldn't find them and didn't have time to look because he was in the middle of corn harvest.
"Two deputies went out there, got ATVs, spent three or four hours in his pasture. And what did they find? Two dead calves, torn apart by wolves," said Porter. "The deputies signed off, called the federal trapper. He went out and caught two or three wolves on that property."
And the farmer got paid for the missing calves. While ranchers can't legally kill a wolf preying on their livestock, if a kill is confirmed, a federal trapper will try to remove wolves from the area.
On average, about 200 wolves were trapped each of the last three years across northern Minnesota.
Steve Klopp lost six calves this year. He runs an auto repair shop in the small Kittson county town of Karlstad, and has a beef cattle operation a couple miles west of town. He was reimbursed by the state for three of his calves, but the others were never found.
"Once a wolf takes a calf, normally you can't find anything," he said. "But normally if they die for a natural cause of some sort, you find them."
Klopp remembers the awe he felt the first time he saw a wolf in the woods near the farm some 20 years ago. He says he understands why people want to protect wolves, which have been taken off the protected species list three times in the past decade — a judge has reversed the decision each time.
But Klopp is frustrated that wolves harass and kill his cattle and he can't do much to protect them.
"They're an impressive animal. They're fun to see. It's an amazing animal to see. I'll agree with that," Klopp said. "But they're not so fun when they're killing your cattle."
In the past six years, Kittson County ranchers submitted claims for 45 wolf kills. The state paid nearly $60,000 in compensation.
Porter believes the losses are much greater. His office interviewed 40 farmers who raise cattle on pastures. They identified 118 missing calves when cattle were brought in from pastures this fall.
"You don't even find a bone. That's consistent with the wolf kill and so their best guess is they're missing 118 calves," Porter said. "They don't get compensated for that. That's a big hit."
Porter puts the uncompensated loss to ranchers at more than $118,000.
State and federal officials say it's unlikely all of the missing cattle were killed by wolves.
Several Kittson County ranchers declined interview requests, but Porter says the frustration level is high. He sees farmers carrying rifles on their tractors in the summer.
"I hear rumors quite often where people are shooting wolves, but it's just rumors," Porter said. "I have no factual evidence of it."
And the sheriff is clear that he does not want to investigate a wolf shooting.
"These are honest, hard-working guys who are trying to make a living and they want to protect their livelihood," he said. "So as sheriff, I don't want to have the situation where someone calls in and says someone shot a wolf and I'm supposed to go investigate and throw that young guy in jail. Don't want to do it."