DULUTH, Minn.-Warren Peterson of Duluth Township, northeast of Duluth, was walking his dog Brewer a few weeks ago when the shepherd-lab mix darted off ahead of him.
It would be the last time Peterson would see his dog alive.
"We were just walking down in the morning and he took off and I heard a yelp," Peterson said last week. "By the time I got there, there were about four wolves killing him."
Because of that and other incidents, 15 wolves have been trapped and killed in Minnesota in the past four months in response to verified reports of attacks on domestic animals.
A federal court order in December took wolf management away from states and placed it back under federal control, ending state hunting and trapping seasons and restoring wolf protections under the Endangered Species Act. It also brought the resumption of a decades-old program that uses federal trappers to trap and kill wolves near where livestock and pets have been killed.
Traps have been set in the Duluth and Two Harbors areas after reports of dogs being killed by wolves.
Peterson's dog Brewer was the fifth dog killed in DNR conservation officer Kipp Duncan's coverage area since October, Duncan said. Two of those dogs have been killed in Duluth Township and two in Normanna Township. Duncan's coverage area stretches from Brimson south to Lake Superior and west to Rice Lake.
In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services division has set a number of traps for wolves, including two between Duluth and Two Harbors and one north of Two Harbors. Trappers check the traps daily and euthanize any wolves found.
"They're usually not lethal traps," said Nancy Hansen, the area wildlife manager for the DNR in Two Harbors. "They are meant to catch something and if it's the wrong animal, it can be released."
In 2012, the state DNR took over management of wolves after they were removed from the federal endangered species list. The Dec. 19 federal court order put the wolves back under federal management.
John Hart, district supervisor of Wildlife Services for the USDA in Grand Rapids, said last week that 15 wolves have been trapped and killed in Minnesota since that court ruling.
Trapping a solution?
When a wolf attacks livestock or a pet, the act is known as depredation. Between 2006 and 2012, there were an average of 100 verified wolf depredation complaints annually in all of Minnesota, according to the DNR.
Because wolves in Minnesota are classified as threatened, not endangered, it is the only state in the Great Lakes region that allows federal trappers to kill wolves near where livestock or pets are killed or injured.
Last August, one dog was killed and another was injured in Grand Marais, the Cook County News Herald reported. At least two wolves were trapped in response to the incidents.
The USDA's Hart said trapping has proven effective when wolves pose a threat to domestic animals.
"It seems to have been a pretty successful model over the years," he said. "We've proven we can reduce damages, at least for a time."
Maureen Hackett, the founder and president of Howling for Wolves, a wolf-advocacy organization, said government agencies should not be trapping and killing wolves.
"Killing more wolves in response to killing a pet is not the way to go," Hackett said. "I think we're creating potentially more problems with wolves."
Hackett pointed to a study done by Washington State University researchers, published in 2014, that said it's "counterproductive to kill wolves to keep them from preying on livestock," according to a release from the university. "Shooting and trapping lead to more dead sheep and cattle the following year, not fewer."
"(Using) lethal methods should be a last resort. And here we're using them for pets," she said. "It's a problem."
The federal government and state of Minnesota are splitting the $220,000 cost of the wolf-trapping program for 2015. The program has been used for decades in Minnesota to help relieve concerns of farmers and ranchers, and to reduce tensions over wolf populations in the state.
The program, though, remains in limbo as the issue of wolf management remains unsettled. The federal court order in December has put wolf management back under federal control, ending state hunting and trapping seasons and restoring wolf protections under the Endangered Species Act. The order, however, didn't address the issue of government wolf trapping.
Federal trappers took an average of 163 wolves a year in Minnesota between 2006 and 2014 in response to verified depredation complaints, Hart said; multiple wolves may be trapped and killed for a single complaint. Between 2012 and 2014, while the state managed its wolf population, DNR-certified trappers also took some wolves in response to depredation complaints.
Why the conflict?
Hansen said with deer numbers down, and more deer residing in populated areas, wolves also are being pushed into those populated areas.
"The wolves have had to really move and find where their food is located and that's put them into conflict with more people," she said.
Hansen said feeding animals also can cause undesirable ripple effects. That was the case with some wolf pups during the summer of 2013 in Brimson that set up camp near Hugo's Bar after passersby fed them frequently. Feeding deer also keeps them closer to residences, in turn bringing in their predators.
"Feeding deer, bears or wolves can be detrimental for all of those species," Hansen said. "Wild animals do best when left to their own devices."
Keeping pets safe
Under state management, wolves could be shot by a homeowner if there was an imminent threat to livestock or domestic animals. After the December 2014 court decision that put the wolves back under federal protection, that ability went away. Now, Minnesotans can kill a wolf only if it is threatening a human.
"I think people are feeling kind of helpless or worried," said Dan Thomasen, the DNR district enforcement supervisor in Two Harbors.
There is no way to guarantee an outdoor pet's safety, but Thomasen said some steps can be taken to keep them safe, including keeping them close-even if a dog is well-behaved, it's best to keep them on a leash when walking them.
Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist with the DNR at Grand Rapids, said a fence is the best option-but at the least, outdoor pets should have an indoor shelter. Clearing brush around yards and installing motion-activated lights helps, he said. Using an air horn or other noise-making device can scare wolves away. Finally, Stark said, don't give wolves a reason to visit your yard.
"Keep a clean yard," he said. "Don't dispose of food or garbage in the yard. Don't leave pet food outside and keep garbage secured."