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With more Minnesota wolves, and more attacks on livestock, program out of cash

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn.—With a rising population of wolves and more of them attacking livestock and pets, a federal program to trap and kill problem wolves in northern Minnesota has run out of money.

While Great Lakes-region wolves are currently protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they are listed as officially "threatened" in Minnesota — a step below endangered that allows U.S. Department of Agriculture trappers to kill wolves where livestock and pets have been killed.

But that Grand Rapids-based program, which has for decades killed about 180 wolves in Minnesota annually, blew through its budget this year and stopped operations last Friday.

On Wednesday, Minnesota lawmakers urged U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to find money elsewhere in his agency budget to continue the wolf-control effort in Minnesota.

"We urge you to locate, shift, or transfer the resources necessary to allow wolf depredation services to continue in Minnesota. This support will help address concerns with predatory wolves in the short-term," the lawmakers wrote.

The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken as well as Reps. Rick Nolan, Collin Peterson, Tim Walz and Tom Emmer.

Tanya Espinosa, a public-affairs specialist for the USDA, said the Minnesota wolf trapping program has killed an average of 179 wolves annually over the past 10 years. This year that number hit 197 before trappers were told to stop their field work, with 11 weeks remaining in the year.

While some wolf-advocacy groups oppose sport hunting and trapping of wolves, the federal program has generally been backed by both farming and conservation groups as a well-focused effort to solve conflicts between wolves and humans. The Agriculture Department program is the only legal way to trap and kill wolves in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last month reported the state's wolf population at about 2,856 wolves spread among 500 packs, up 25 percent from 2,278 wolves in 438 packs in the 2015-16 survey. The DNR credits an increase in deer in the north woods, as well as three years of no public wolf hunting and trapping, for the increase.

With their numbers in Minnesota up from a low of about 500 in the 1970s to more than 3,000 by the 2000s, wolves were officially removed from the endangered list in 2012, opening the way for three seasons of hunting and trapping in the Great Lakes.

But a federal judge in December 2014 ruled wolves in the Great Lakes warranted renewed protection under the Endangered Species Act. That ruling was upheld by an Appeals Court decision. But efforts are underway in Congress to pass legislation that would override the court decision and declare wolves fair game in MInnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and neighboring states.

The Minnesota wolf control program has run out of money in past years as well, with intervention my the state's lawmakers generally spurring increased funding. The Wildlife Services wing of the U.S. Department of Agriculture killed some 2.7 million animals in 2016, an analysis reported in March, the vast majority of which are birds that do damage to crops.

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