Congressional budget cuts have defanged the federal wolf-control program in Minnesota, stunning state officials who say they aren't allowed to trap, kill or remove wolves that prey on livestock or pets.

The recent changes would effectively end efforts to control a growing population of Minnesota wolves that killed record numbers of pets and livestock last year.

The Department of Natural Resources was notified Monday that Congress last month wiped out the U.S. Department of Agriculture's program to remove wolves that attack or threaten farm animals and pets. Only authorized federal trappers are allowed to trap or kill the wolves, which otherwise are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

The 10 trappers, all but one of whom are Minnesota residents, were still on the job Tuesday, but could be pulled out of the field at any time, state officials said. If the program ends, the timing couldn't be worse, officials said. Cows are birthing, and the newborns are vulnerable to wolves.

"It puts the state in an untenable position, and puts the DNR in a box because we can't do anything as long as the wolf is under federal authority,'' DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Tuesday. "It was totally out of the blue.''

The USDA's Wildlife Services division trapped and killed 192 wolves in Minnesota last year, when wolves killed about 100 cows and sheep and 15 dogs, according to the USDA. Twenty animals were injured, including eight dogs.

The agency has received 32 complaints this year.

Landwehr wrote to Minnesota's congressional delegation Tuesday, asking that funding either be restored or that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service efforts to have the wolf taken off the Endangered Species List be approved so the state can assume responsibility for dealing with problem wolves.

"Although the state of Minnesota is fully prepared to assume wolf management ... it is irresponsible to suspend funding of this important program while wolves in Minnesota are still protected,'' he wrote. To do so will have "significant impacts'' on livestock producers, he said.

Currently the state reimburses farmers who lose livestock to wolves. Suspension of the federal program will result in an increase in damage caused by wolves, Landwehr said, and in more claims for compensation.

"We're dealing with record high wolf population and wolf damage -- and as large of a wolf range as we've ever had,'' said John Hart, Wildlife Services supervisor in Minnesota. "We're fielding two to three times as many complaints as in the early 1990s. To try to handle that with declining funding or loss of funding has been challenging.''

The state's wolf population is estimated at between 2,200 and 3,500.

Funding for the $727,000 program, which also pays for wolf depredation efforts in Wisconsin and Michigan, was cut March 18 in a continuing resolution passed by Congress to fund the government through April 8. Minnesota's share was about $209,000. The program once received more than $1 million yearly.

Linden Zakula, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Klobuchar spoke with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking that he "find a way to continue funding the important Minnesota wolf management program."

But in a letter sent to the state this week, Gary Nohrenberg, state director of USDA's Wildlife Services, said efforts to find other federal funding for the program have been unsuccessful.

"Even if a funding source is found,'' he wrote, "it will only cover our wolf management activities through Sept. 30, which is the end of our current fiscal year.''

Doug Smith • 612-673-7667#