Wolf damage claims remain unpaid for some livestock producers

Silence greeted Kelly Bellefy Jr. when he went to check on his sheep late one August night on his Bagley, Minn., property. "When I first walked in the pen, I didn't hear any sheep," he says. "That was unusual." The quiet foreshadowed a gruesome d...

Minnesota now has a fund to help ranchers whose livestock were killed by wolves. Stock photo

Silence greeted Kelly Bellefy Jr. when he went to check on his sheep late one August night on his Bagley, Minn., property.

"When I first walked in the pen, I didn't hear any sheep," he says. "That was unusual."

The quiet foreshadowed a gruesome discovery. Part of his flock was dead, eviscerated by local gray wolves.

Bellefy gathered the survivors in a another pen, but a second attack later that night left even more sheep dead. In all, six sheep survived the attack with 27 pregnant ewes, two rams and a few lambs being killed.

The perpetrators didn't disappear into the night but made a third appearance the morning when a Department of Natural Resources official was on scene to collect evidence.


"While we were out there doing counts and taking footprints, the wolves were actually coming up in the middle of the morning -- coming right up on us," Bellefy says. "They were getting pretty close. They were not scared."

Bellefy's troubles were not over.

Normally, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture compensates livestock producers for damage caused by wolves and elk following an investigation by a DNR official.

Last year, the money used for that compensation was tapped out.

In 2012 and 2013, the department was appropriated $150,000 per year by the state Legislature to the fund for elk and wolf damage claims.

For 2014 and 2015, that appropriation decreased to $100,000 per year. The total value of wolf claims alone in 2014 exceeded funding by about $9,000.

"Historically, wolf claims have exceeded elk claims," says department of agriculture spokesman Allen Sommerfeld.

Grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has helped the state catch up, leaving about 15 wolf claims and three elk claims totaling about $48,000 unpaid in February, Sommerfeld says.


Cutting deep

Bellefy remains among those who haven't been paid. He estimates he's out about $15,000 for the sheep.

In the past 20 years, a total of $1.6 million in wolf claims have been paid to producers -- an average of about $76,000 in claims per year. Since 1998, an average of 30 sheep have been killed each year by wolves.

The killing of Bellefy's sheep left him unable to fulfill a contract with a buyer. His loss is made even more bitter because of the way the wolves left the sheep.

"They just tore them up," he says. "They did not eat any of the sheep.'

Bellefy surmises the wolves were teaching their young how to kill. Federal trappers were brought in to help, and killed 12 wolves near Bellefy's property.

Producers in similar situations have contacted state Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, about wolf damage and even sent pictures of carnage. One of his photos shows more than a dozen dead turkeys strewn through a field.

Those constituents do compose a very small portion of the population Fabian represents.


"But the reality is it's a pretty common concern," he says.

With spring calving season around the corner, Fabian says those concerns are increasing.

In total, 544 cattle, sheep and poultry -- valued at about $134,500 -- were killed by wolves in 2013, according to the state agriculture department.

Pending legislation

A recent court ruling also is complicating the state's ability to manage wolf damage.

In December, a federal court ruling required the gray wolf, also known as a timberwolf, be placed back on the endangered species list. The gray wolf was delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlie Service in late 2011.

Again afforded protections guaranteed by the Endangered Species Act, the ruling makes it illegal to kill the wolves unless a human is in immediate danger.

The 2013 Minnesota wolf population was estimated to be 2,211 animals -- 700 less wolves than in 2007, according to the DNR's annual wolf survey for 2013.


Recently, legislation was introduced at the national level to take the endangered distinction away from gray wolves in three states.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., introduced HF 843, which would keep gray wolves from being considered endangered in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Additional legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., would add Wisconsin to that list if passed.

Kline's bill summary notes "the overpopulation of gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes region contributes to the decline of livestock, pets and other animals in the wild."

The legislation is opposed by wolf supporters, including the Humane Society of the United States, but favored by groups such as the Minnesota Farm Bureau and Minnesota Farmers Union

On the Minnesota front, Fabian introduced a bill to the state Legislature to increase the amount of money in the wolf and elk claim fund. He won't know how much money the fund will receive until the appropriation amount is set later this month, but he says he does expect the allocations to be larger than the past biennium.

The state having to cover claim costs is a sticking point for Fabian, who says since the federal government has banned killing wolves then it should have to pay the claims.

"The feds should be picking up the cost of all this stuff," he says. "It shouldn't be the state. If they gave us the control back here, I would be more comfortable with it."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has kicked in grants totaling $80,000 to cover some unpaid claims in the current biennium, according to Sommerfeld.


Back on track

While waiting for the state to pay for his wolf depredation claim, Bellefy said he sought help from a federal livestock disaster assistance program.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency does manage a emergency assistance for livestock, farmed fish and honeybees.

The problem with the emergency assistance program is it compensates less than market value for lost livestock, Bellefy says. The attack on his livestock also occurred close to the agency's deadline and he fears he may not have qualified for the assistance.

The Minnesota depredation claim program seeks to pay for market value of lost animals, though determining that can be a bit of a trick, according to Fabian.

"What's the market value of that calf the day its born?" he says.

Newborn animals are not typically sold at market but later on once they have grown and are weaned. At that point, the value of the animal is pushing more than $1,000.

The bad experience won't stop Bellefy from raising sheep, a venture he's only about two years into. He has plans to purchase more animals, including guard animals such as livestock dogs -- dogs that will live among the sheep.


In the meantime, Bellefy continues to farm and work at Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen. He hasn't heard back from the FSA, which he said isn't sure how much money they could give him for his sheep.

"They really don't know, and that hurts," Bellefy says.

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