Easy prey: Relisted timber wolves taking a toll on Minnesota cattle

KITTSON COUNTY, Minn. -- It was Sept. 6 when cattle rancher Scott Syverson received a call from his neighbor, Milo Minske. Minske told Syverson he'd seen two wolves feeding on one of Syverson's calves outside his pasture's fence line eight miles ...

KITTSON COUNTY, Minn. -- It was Sept. 6 when cattle rancher Scott Syverson received a call from his neighbor, Milo Minske. Minske told Syverson he'd seen two wolves feeding on one of Syverson's calves outside his pasture's fence line eight miles northeast of Karlstad, Minn.

Syverson went out to check and found the partially stripped calf had been dragged under the barbed-wire fence into the ditch.

"I was disgusted," he says. "They tried to drag it across the highway."

The dense birch woods and scrubbrush there would provide ample hiding for a pack of wolves. Minske, retired, lives behind those woods, and had noticed a big increase in wolves this past year, many of them crossing his own yard, he says. One day, he had counted six wolves traversing his property.

Examining the clues


Back across the highway, Syverson was assessing the situation. He'd taken over the ranching operation from his father three years earlier. In June, he had made a big move, buying 70 more cows, many of them near calving, and put them in a rented 600-acre pasture a few miles from his home.

He'd heard other ranchers in the area complain about losing cattle to wolves.

"I wasn't the first," he says.

A friend of his who ranches two miles outside of Karlstad recently lost 11 animals. The previous year, another neighbor had lost 26 of his herd, he says.

Karlstad lies on the western edge of Minnesota's active wolf range, which covers most of the northern half of the state, except where it borders Karlstad in the northwest corner of the state. About 3,000 timber wolves (also called gray wolves), now live there, according to a 2008 census, and they have been edging farther west the past few years.

Syverson called Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Jeremy Woinarowicz, who told Syverson to "pick it up or cover it up or something along those lines, so the wolves can't drag it off" before the DNR officer could get there the next day.

Syverson put it in the back of his truck and met Woinarowicz the next day at 9 a.m. at the fence line.

"In looking at the calf, what I noted was larger areas of the ribs being consumed, rather than eaten around," Woinarowicz says. "The spine was broken through by large, powerful jaws. There was grass stuck inside the body cavity of the calf, indicating it had been drug around by something strong enough to drag around 200 pounds."


He noted all of this in his report. Looking more closely at the calf's neck, he saw four canine puncture wounds in a pattern representing large canine jaws.

"That was the method of kill, rather than hamstringing and the animal dying of shock," he says. "It was consistent with that of a large carnivore, probably a wolf."

Coupled with the information that Minske actually had seen wolves feeding on it and had seen several wolves in the area, Woinarowicz says all of the evidence pointed to wolf depredation. The officer asked Syverson if he'd lost any more animals.

"At that time, on the 7th, he said he probably had some other ones missing but did not have any other calves to show me while I was there," Woinarowicz says.

Returning to the scene

The pair started to fill out the loss compensation form, which would authorize reimbursement to Syverson for the calf.

"While I was filling that out, a very large wolf crossed the road in front of us, probably 100 yards away, and went into the pasture with the cows," Woinarowicz says.

Just before they left, another wolf, this one to the east, emerged from the woods and stood on the road about 300 yards away.


"It was within 40 or 50 yards of standing cattle in the field. I turned around and was driving towards the wolf, and I scared it away from the pasture back into the woods to the south. I believe that they were coming back to feed on the carcass they had already started. Because the wolf that was 300 yards away was stalking in such close proximity to other cattle, he may have been stalking other calves."

Woinarowicz says he made sure Syverson knew his rights, at the time, regarding protection of his herd.

"If a wolf is on your property . . . that you own or lease for the purposes of production of livestock, then you may protect your herd by shooting a wolf that is actively stalking your cows," he says.

The wolf being in his pasture was enough for the conservation officer to agree with Syverson that the wolf was actively stalking his cows. If the rancher did shoot it, he was to call Woinarowicz within 48 hours.

Syverson spent the next week, rifle in hand, waiting for wolves to make another run at his herd, but they did not come back.

Then the law changed, and Syverson had to put away the rifle.

License to kill

Minnesota's timber gray wolves were returned to the federal threatened species list when a federal judge's Sept. 29 ruling overturned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision in 2007 to delist the entire western Great Lakes population, which includes all of Minnesota's wolves.


Minnesota's DNR had been managing the wolves for four months under the terms of a federally approved state wolf management plan. Under it, ranchers in the western portion where Syverson operates could take any wolf that was stalking his cattle.

Woinarowicz now had to warn all ranchers dealing with wolf predation that they no longer could take any wolves that were attacking their herds, even if they caught them in the act of taking down a calf.

"I would like to have seen the wolves come back to state management," he says. "Under the federal management program, livestock owners cannot legally shoot the wolf unless it is endangering human life. I don't think that's fair."

The legal decision to relist the wolves was based on a legal technicality related to federal rule-making procedures. This will require federal intervention to rescind, according to DNR a spokesman. The ruling had nothing to do with the status of Minnesota's wolf population or the adequacy of state management.

Minnesota's 3,000 wolves represent, by far, the highest number and concentration of wolves in any of the Lower 48 states. The population is more than double the minimum required to delist wolves and, according to the DNR, the state's wolf population is fully recovered.

Yet the Sept. 29 ruling is tying the hands of livestock producers and conservation officers.

Meanwhile, the wolves have returned to hunting Syverson's herd. Another calf and a full grown Hereford were taken, their remains left on his pasture for Woinarowicz to see. But by Syverson's count, some 36 calves and three grown cows also are now unaccounted for while several remaining calves bear wounds on their hind legs, a typical sign of wolf attack.

He is sick with frustration.


"It's them little babies I waited all year for," he says. "You sit out there all winter and feed hay and freeze. But the worst part is getting paid for all these. DNR actually saw two timber wolves, one behind and one in front of us in my pasture. How much more proof do you need? They put people in jail for less proof than that."

Loss and retreat

The problem is that no one has been able to find carcasses of more than those few animals. The main kill site is some 100 yards long and 30 or so yards wide, anchored just inside the fence from where the first calf was discovered. In it are the cow and calf carcasses, both missing legs and heads. The calf carcass has little left besides a few ribs a foreleg and the hide. The Hereford carcass is a hollowed-out shell of ribs and hide. Among the dozens of bones littered around the site are whole legs, an adult skull, small pieces of pelvic bones and sections of spine. All the remains have been picked clean.

But nothing else has been located for DNR investigators to examine. There has been speculation that some calves probably were drug into the nearby woods, possibly to a den of wolf pups, but searches in those wooded areas there have proved unsuccessful.

State regulations require that, for a livestock producer to be compensated for loss of an animal, there must be, at a minimum, a carcass or enough remains to prove loss of an animal to wolf attack. Woinarowicz has confirmed all three of Syverson's animals as wolf kill and submitted requests for him to be reimbursed. The requests will be reviewed with the owner to settle on a price as close as possible to fair market value. Payments are made from the DNR through the state's finance department. Syverson already has his first check.

He is seeking reimbursement on the rest of the missing animals.

"I had 83 cows in that pasture," he says. "That would have been enough to live on. Now, I got to go smooth it over at the bank. They still want their money I owe on them cows."

For the time being, he has moved all of his remaining cattle up into the yard by his father's place, in part for close keeping. Until the wolves are delisted again, he'll have to make some pretty big adjustments. There simply is not enough room to keep any more cattle close to home.


"I have to downsize," he says. As for the pasture on which he had planned to expand his herd: "I won't go there again. I call it the disaster pasture."

Meantime, he's got a family to support. He says he'll probably have to take a job off the ranch to make ends meet.

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