Farmer Troy Salzer of Barnum lost five calves to wolves last fall, and with another calving season coming soon, he's worried he could lose more.
But his concerns are multiplied this year. Salzer and other Minnesota livestock owners are facing a "perfect storm" after a judge in December reinstated wolves to the federal endangered species list. Minnesota's management of wolves ended, and control was turned back to the federal government.
It meant an end to wolf hunting and trapping. But to farmers such as Salzer, it was a much bigger deal.
A wolf depredation program dating to the 1970s has been halted — there are no federal or state trappers that farmers can call to remove problem wolves. Also, farmers are no longer allowed to shoot wolves to protect their livestock. And finally, a state program that compensates farmers for livestock they lose to wolves is nearly out of money, and some claims won't be paid.
"It's really a tough predicament for livestock producers right now,'' said John Hart, a wildlife biologist and district supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, who headed the federal wolf trapping program. "They can't defend their own animals on their own property, nor is there a public program to assist them.''
Salzer has 200 cattle and also is a Carlton County extension agent who appraises the value of livestock lost to wolves.
"There's a tremendous amount of concern out there,'' he said.
Mark Thell, who has 150 cattle and is president of the Carlton County chapter of the Minnesota Farmers Union, was one of about 50 farmers who gathered recently with state and federal officials to discuss the problem.
"We're stuck in limbo,'' Thell said. "You can't even protect your own animals. It's not a good situation.''
The timing also is problematic. Calves generally are born in March and April, and are easy prey for wolves. And the mild winter and smaller deer herd could compound the problem. The lack of deep snow means deer are in better condition and more difficult for wolves to catch.
"And when the deer aren't out there, the wolves will find something else to eat,'' said Thell. Like livestock.
"We usually see higher wolf depredations following a mild winter,'' said Dan Stark, Department of Natural Resources wolf specialist.
Hart's agency has about a dozen seasonal trappers, and they usually start working April 1 removing problem wolves from farms. Last year, they removed and killed 172 wolves. (State-registered trappers took 39 wolves, under a separate program, and hunters and trappers killed another 272.) The federal program has been around since the 1970s, even when wolves were listed under the endangered species act. But federal budget cuts ended funding for the program in 2011.
However, in 2012, wolves were removed from the endangered species list and Minnesota assumed management. Because the federal Wildlife Services had the trappers and the experience, for the past three years the state paid the agency a total of about $500,000 to deal with problem wolves.
But state payments ended when U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., placed the wolf back on the endangered species list Dec. 19.
"State policy has been that we won't pay for wolf control for a federally protected species,'' said Stark. And state statute prevents the state from continuing its own limited wolf-control program as long as wolves are on the endangered species list.
The solution: "We still think the federal government should reinstate funding for the federal [wolf-control] program,'' said Ed Boggess, DNR fish and wildlife division director.
Funding also is an issue, not only for depredation control, but for wolf research, surveys and other management. A large chunk of funds comes from wolf hunting license fees and 50 cents from each deer license sold. With no wolf season, that revenue — $139,000 last fiscal year — disappears.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has filed notice that it will appeal Howell's ruling, and bills have been introduced in the U.S. House to remove wolves from the endangered species list in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., introduced one of the bills, and others in the state's delegation have indicated support.
"Senator Klobuchar has supported delisting the gray wolf, and believes the science and the facts support the delisting,'' said spokeswoman Julia Krahe.
Said Sen. Al Franken: "Our farmers and ranchers are rightfully concerned about losing their livestock — their livelihood — to wolves."
Gov. Mark Dayton's budget has proposed doubling the amount of money — from $100,000 to $200,000 yearly — that would go to the state Department of Agriculture to pay farmers for livestock lost to wolves.
In fiscal year 2014, the state paid for the loss of 107 cattle, 45 poultry, five horses, five sheep, two llamas and one goat. Payments are based on the market value of animals, and generally those prices have been increasing.
For Salzer, the Barnum farmer, the loss of five calves last year was a financial hit. He valued them at $1,500 each. "That's significant,'' he said.
He never found the carcasses, and there was no state compensation money available then anyway, so he didn't file a claim with the state.
"I'm very lucky. There are people with much worse situations,'' he said.