When Jeremy Woinarowicz joined the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a conservation officer in 2004, most of the wolf depredation complaints he handled came from farmers in the eastern edge of his work area near Grygla, Skime and Fourtown, Minn.

That gradually has changed over time, and complaints have expanded from forested, more traditional wolf habitat to open farm country to the south and west, said Woinarowicz, of Warren, Minn.

The DNR officer's work area roughly extends from the Red River east to the Red Lake Indian Reservation and north to the Manitoba border.

Kittson County long has been a hotbed for wolf complaints, but Woinarowicz said he handles fewer calls in the far northwest Minnesota county these days because the Kittson County Sheriff's Department also has the authority to handle wolf depredation issues.

"It was kind of driven by necessity because they hadn't had a local (DNR) officer there for awhile," Woinarowicz said.

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Last fall, Woinarowicz said he saw wolf tracks while deer hunting along the Red River west of Stephen, Minn. Also, within the past five years, a federal trapper responding to a wolf depredation complaint near Angus, south of Warren caught a lactating female wolf, Woinarowicz said.

"She had pups somewhere there, so they actually had made a den and were going to try to establish a pack this far west and south," he said.

Deer connection

The westward shift coincided with efforts to reduce deer numbers near Skime in the mid-2000s after bovine tuberculosis was found in cattle and subsequently in deer, he said.

Aggressive deer-culling efforts, which included sharpshooting and liberal hunting seasons to lower the risk of spreading the disease, reduced whitetail populations and forced wolf packs to range farther in search of food.

The two species are inextricably linked.

"Very few deer supports very few wolves," said Bill Berg, a retired DNR furbearer biologist who helped develop the state's wolf management plan approved in 2001.

Jeff Birchem, a retired DNR conservation officer who worked stations in Thief River Falls, Warroad and Baudette, from 1988 until retiring in 2013, said responding to depredation complaints was a priority among Minnesota conservation officers.

Wolf kills must be verified before producers can receive compensation for livestock losses and before federal trappers from USDA Wildlife Services can trap wolves on the property, Birchem said.

"We would respond as quick as we could, meet with the livestock producer and see what he found," Birchem said. "There had to be some type of physical evidence that livestock had been killed and that the livestock had been destroyed by a timber wolf."

That evidence could include tracks, bite marks consistent with a wolf and the method by which the livestock was killed. Trail camera photos and personal observations also were helpful, he said.

Except for a three-year period from January 2012 until late December 2014 when the state had control over wolf management, only federal trappers have been able to kill problem wolves in Minnesota.

USDA Wildlife Services in Grand Rapids, Minn., handles wolf depredation issues today. Under state control, landowners could kill wolves to protect their livestock or property or contact state-certified control agents to handle problem animals.

That ability went away on Dec. 19, 2014, when a federal judge siding with protectionist groups placed wolves in Minnesota and the neighboring states of Wisconsin and Michigan back under Endangered Species Act protection.

"When the DNR had control of wolf management, everybody, including livestock owners, conservation officers, federal trappers, hunters and trappers all felt it was a pretty workable solution to a tough situation," Birchem said.

'Absolutely not'

Stuart Bensen, who retired as a DNR conservation officer in 2012 after a 32-year career that included stints in Grygla, Roseau and Erskine, said he recalls three occasions when he responded to depredation complaints and encountered wolves at the kill site.

"The one, I drove right up to it," he said. "I was probably 20 feet from it, and I could have dumped it easy with my sidearm."

That wasn't an option under federal protection.

"I was told a resounding 'Absolutely not-you are not allowed to dispatch this animal, be it in the trap or if it's free-ranging,'" Bensen recalls. "So, I had to let it go. And of course the next day, they had more damage, more kills on their livestock. (That was) quite frustrating."

In verifying wolf kills, all three of the officers said tracks, scat, hair, bite marks and how the livestock was eaten all offered hints, providing a carcass remained. Wolves attack their prey differently than coyotes, and the tracks are huge by comparison, the officers said.

"Coyote jaws aren't super strong so they will usually start at the rectum and eat that way forward, whereas a wolf will kind of bite right through the rib cage and go for the heart, liver and lungs-that high-protein stuff," Woinarowicz said. "And they'll just chew through the ribs and swallow them as they break them, where the coyote will eat ribs like we do, eat around them, and you'll see the rib cage still intact."

Seeking evidence

Verifiable evidence wasn't always easy to find, Birchem said, especially in the summer when hundreds of cattle are being moved from pasture to pasture and away from plain view.

"It seemed like as the season went on, they would get farther away from buildings, and accountability is tough," Birchem said. "No doubt they were losing calves that just ended up being a mystery."

Then as now, wolves weren't always the culprit, he said.

"Something else I saw as a conservation officer was that cattle die for other reasons than wolves, whether sickness, lightning" or something else, Birchem said. "I never knew lightning could kill that many cattle, but it does."

When investigating livestock depredation, Birchem said a trend he observed, especially on ranches that seemed to have recurring wolf problems, was that producers who didn't properly dispose of their dead livestock had the most trouble.

"On almost every farm, when cattle died for whatever reason, the owner would drag them out of the pasture and just leave them out in the woods to rot away," Birchem said. "That seemed counterproductive to our efforts of trying to lessen the issues of livestock and wolves. It always seemed the cattle producer was not helping the situation by this method of carcass removal."

The Minnesota Department of Health recommends burning the carcass or burying it 3 feet underground, he said.

The officers all said they'd like to see wolves return to state control, not only for the increased flexibility it gives property owners, but for the recreational opportunities hunting and trapping provided.

"They're a very cunning animal," Bensen said."Even the people who went out and were not successful said it was absolutely exhilarating."