Why did Michigan order wolf killings?

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News
Killing western Great Lakes wolves is a federal crime unless human safety is at stake.

The government deemed a wolf pack so dangerous two years ago that a federal sharpshooter killed three endangered gray wolves, ostensibly to protect a family, in a rare use of that authority at a remote Upper Peninsula cattle farm. 

But now, some key participants say the wolves were actually shot to cut mounting financial losses to the farmer and the state after the predators killed nearly four dozen cows worth tens of thousands of dollars in one year.

Killing western Great Lakes wolves is a federal crime unless human safety is at stake.

"I don’t know that anyone talked like that (about the safety aspect). He (the farmer) certainly didn’t share that with us," said state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who intervened on the farmer's behalf. “He was in a tough spot because he was losing so much, and they were in a tough spot because it was going to cost them a fortune in cattle reimbursements.”

The farm’s manager says the animals were not aggressive to humans, raising questions about the government's actions and whether the killings were appropriate under the federal law designed to protect endangered species. 

“That’s kind of how they (government officials) wrote it up,” said Duane Kolpack, whose wife and four teenagers live at Dykstra Beef Farm in Ontonagon County. “It was kind of thrown together quick because the activists kind of frown on killing wolves when they are federally protected.”

Now, state and federal governments, Casperson and Kolpack disagree on why the wolves were shot using the rare “human safety” exemption to the Endangered Species Act.

The matter is sensitive within the state's Department of Natural Resources. The department’s point man on wolf depredations, Brian Roell, twice did not disclose that wolves were killed when interviewed recently about the farm’s wolf problems. Later, when asked why, he said he did “not want to get into trouble.”

“If you didn’t ask me that, I’m not going to supply it,” said Roell, who handles livestock claims.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act is credited for wolves’ resurgence in Michigan starting in the late 1980s. Their endangered status in the western Great Lakes was lifted in 2012; Michigan’s controversial first hunt was the next year. Twenty-three wolves were killed.

Voters in November 2014 rejected two wolf hunt laws. Pro-hunt lawmakers bypassed them, but a U.S. judge returned wolves to endangered status a month later. The status was upheld on appeal in 2017. Efforts continue in Congress to delist them today.

‘A loss of fear’

Dykstra Beef Farm is the Upper Peninsula’s largest ranch. Black Angus cows, trademarked “Michigan Craft Beef,” are fed leftover tart cherry syrup and wet beer barley. The 2,000 pastured and wooded acres support about 700 head. After a year or two, young cattle are transferred to Moraine Park Farms, a sister operation in West Michigan owned by Tom Dykstra of Zeeland.

Three wolves comprise the area's Ontonagon Pack, likely parents and an offspring, last winter’s census found. Its previous size was not known. They were among at least 662 wolves in 139 packs across the U.P., a level that has been steady in recent years. The population level of the wolves has prompted Congress to weigh removing endangered species protections for the animal in the lower 48 states. 

The predators travel the ox-bowed Flintsteel River. Upstream lie a million acres of old growth timber in the Ottawa National Forest. Downstream the river passes Dykstra’s farm bound for Lake Superior.

Nowhere were more cattle killed by wolves in Michigan than this one farm in 2016 — 46. The remedy would involve two state departments, two federal agencies and one man with a gun.

The wolf raids began April 27, 2016. A two-day-old calf was found dead, the first of the spring calving.

“Both hindquarters were consumed,” the field report says. Two days later, a four-day-old calf was killed. And another two days after that. And three days after that. And so forth.

While investigating the farm’s second calf attack on April 29, DNR wildlife technician Brad Johnson was alerted to a wolf staring at a calf in mid-day elsewhere in the pasture. The wolf was 60 to 80 yards away, the depredation report said. Johnson fired a warning from his vehicle, scaring off the wolf, records show. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“It was close enough and did not show any fear for the technician to make the determination that this could be a human threat and safety threat,” said Anthony Duffiney, USDA Wildlife Services director in Michigan.

Two wolves were trapped, collared, crated and harassed with “cracker” shells in hopes of scaring them away upon release. GPS showed one remained within a mile, the DNR said. More calves were killed.

On May 20, the DNR requested lethal removal. It was approved the same day by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service enforces the Endangered Species Act. The federal service enlisted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, as required.

“Our decision was based solely on people in the field telling us the wolves were exhibiting a loss of fear,” said Scott Hicks, supervisor of the wildlife service field office in East Lansing. “When someone makes a recommendation like that, you have got to take it seriously.”

Four days later, a USDA agent shot an adult male wolf around midnight May 24 as it attacked a calf, tearing its hide, his report says. The agent shot another male four days later. 

The adult female was taken by the agent June 11. Her collar showed she was at least five years old — near to average life expectancy. She was probably the pack’s breeding female, the alpha. Little is known about the males. One had been collared 12 days earlier in the recent scare effort; the other was uncollared.

Deadlines and decisions

Cattle were dying and disappearing so fast in spring 2016, the state could not keep up, according to DNR reports.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which reimburses livestock losses under a 2012 law, had to pay a $5,000 penalty for five claims because they were not paid within 45 days of DNR verification.

A large number of “Undetermined - Missing” claims were also processed for 20 cattle. In all, the Dykstra Beef Farm was reimbursed $29,000, including $13,000 for the missing cattle.

The money was paid by the agriculture department’s Animal Industry Division program. Each year, the Legislature provides $50,000, as Michigan reimburses livestock at “fair market value” based on weight.

In 2016, the Dykstra farm was paid $29,000 for cattle losses under a 2012 depredation reimbursement law.

The rest of the $41,000 in 2016 state payments was mostly for downstate coyote kills, usually sheep.

The Dykstra Beef Farm became the first in the state where wolves were killed for human safety reasons, the DNR confirmed. 

Human safety threat

This is where accounts diverge.

Kolpack, the farm manager, lives with his wife Julie and four children. He said the wolves had not been aggressive to him.

“First, they tried to collar them — and I don’t know whose idea that was — and bring them somewhere else,” Kolpack said.

Casperson noted that “within about a two-week span, (the farmer) had lost like 14 calves and was sending regular pictures, and it was just unacceptable. You can’t wipe out a guy's herd.”

Reimbursing the farm for livestock losses was adding up, added Casperson, R-Escanaba.

“The question became, ‘Who is going to go first? Who wants to take the first shot, so to speak?’ I think he (the U.P. wildlife chief) understood someone had to go first.”

Terry Minzey, the DNR’s U.P. wildlife supervisor, authored the email requesting lethal action, according to state and federal officials.

“The aggressive nature of the depredation on this farm and the brazen attitude toward people is becoming concerning,” he wrote.

Minzey did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor would higher-ups make him available.

Casperson’s help was enlisted and lethal measures approved the next week, Kolpack added. “That kind of diminished our pack here,” he said.

Financial losses were not the consideration, state and federal authorities said.

DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason said he ultimately authorized the killings. Mason said he relied on the only exception in the Endangered Species Act. The exception allows lethal “taking” for “a demonstrable but non-immediate threat to human safety.”

“What (Sen. Casperson) is thinking and what we are using to determine can very well be different things,” Mason said.

Mason said “historic and chronic” problems at the farm showed wolves had become “clearly habituated.” The wolves had become too comfortable around humans, he said.  Casperson and Kolpack are both mistaken about the motivation, he added.

“I can understand why a guy like Mr. Kolpack would say something like that,” Mason added. “But ultimately whatever he thinks is going on and what our professionals are doing in their judgment are two different things.”

He dismissed financial considerations. “$10,000 or $20,000 is not an issue for us,” Mason said, describing it as minuscule within a multi-million dollar budget.

There was no need to publicize the public-safety aspect, added Ed Golder, a DNR spokesman. “We don’t put out a news release on every wildlife decision.”

Wolf advocates accused the state and federal governments of essentially poaching the protected wolves for financial reasons.

“I am appalled,” said Nancy Warren, executive director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition and who helped write Michigan’s Wolf Management Plan. “The killing of three wolves to protect livestock, when there was no threat to human safety, was politically motivated and in violation of federal law.”

Records further show a fourth wolf was killed nearby by a car two weeks after the three wolves were taken.

“That one was probably due to the disruption in the pack,” Warren said. “When a leader is killed, the pack often becomes dysfunctional — similar to teenagers home alone.”