On the threshold of Minnesota's controversial wolf hunt, state payments to farmers who lost livestock to wolves have hit a record -- and nearly 250 of the iconic canines have been killed in an effort to control the carnage.

A mild winter and early spring helped deer elude hungry wolves, so the predators turned to cattle and sheep instead.

"It was one of the busiest springs we've ever had,'' said John Hart, a wildlife biologist who traps problem wolves for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services.

The state paid $154,136 for 111 claims so far this year for livestock killed by wolves -- up from $102,000 for 128 claims last year and $106,000 for 104 claims in 2010. Cattle prices have increased about 15 percent over the past year, resulting in higher payments even though the number of claims this year is down from 2011.

Meanwhile, federal and state trappers and farmers have killed 242 wolves so far this year -- easily exceeding the previous record of 227 in 1997. There were 203 wolves killed last year.

This year's figure breaks down to 190 wolves killed by federal trappers, 40 by state trappers hired by the Department of Natural Resources and 12 wolves killed by livestock and possibly pet owners, who now can legally shoot wolves to protect their animals.

This year's spike in problem wolves wasn't a surprise and the overall wolf population has remained fairly constant in recent years.

"Wolf numbers are high, though not significantly higher,'' said Dan Stark, DNR wolf specialist. Officials estimated that there were about 3,000 wolves in the state in 2008, when the last survey was done.

"We've seen the pattern before,'' said Hart. "A mild winter correlates to higher depredation rates the following season. Deer are healthy [and difficult to catch without deep snow] so wolves go looking for other food sources.''

In 2011, wolves killed 129 domestic animals, including 75 calves, 16 cows, nine sheep and six dogs. Figures aren't available for 2012.

The number of problem wolves killed by trappers has gradually risen from 122 in 2006.

Payouts draining fund

Minnesota's wolf population has grown since being placed on the Endangered Species List in the 1970s, and livestock losses also have risen in that time.

The payouts mean Minnesota's fund will likely run out about the end of the year, said Geir Friisoe, who oversees the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's compensation program.

Wolves were removed from federal protection in January and their management was returned to Minnesota. The Minnesota Legislature approved the state's first hunting and trapping season in more than 40 years.

Minnesota plans to allow hunters and trappers to take as many as 400 wolves in a season that begins Nov. 3.

"We don't feel that the hunting of wolves this fall will significantly affect the state's wolf population, and wouldn't anticipate this fall's harvest of wolves would have any effect on the number of compensation claims,'' said Ed Boggess, director of the DNR Fish and Wildlife Division.

"In the future, it's possible we may design wolf hunting seasons in a way that might suppress a local wolf population that is causing damage.''

Wisconsin's season

Wisconsin's wolf hunting season is to start Oct. 15 with a quota of 201, although a legal challenge there remains unresolved.

Wisconsin, with nearly 800 wolves, has paid $214,794 on 282 claims this year, which is more than the previous record of $202,844 on 134 claims in 2010.

Last year, the state paid $155,063 on 169 claims. One reason Wisconsin has paid more is that it compensates hunters who lose hounds to wolves while bear hunting. Also, there was a jump in claims for missing calves in 2011 that weren't paid until this year, said Brad Koele, a wildlife damage specialist with the Wisconsin DNR.

Staff writer Dennis Anderson and the Associated Press contributed to this story. Doug Smith • 612-673-7667