DNR: State's evidence for 2016 wolf kill overstated

John Barnes
Special to The Detroit News
Killing western Great Lakes wolves is not permitted under the U.S. Endangered Species Act unless human safety is at risk. Violations carry a maximum criminal penalty of one year in jail and a $100,000 fine, or $200,000 per organization.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is now admitting it misled a federal agency into killing three endangered gray wolves in 2016, following a Detroit News investigation that raised questions about the shoot. 

The department has confirmed it exaggerated a wolf sighting into a dangerously close encounter while persuading the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve shooting three of an Upper Peninsula pack’s six known adults in 2016.

The admission adds to evidence, first reported by The News on Dec. 12, that suggests the DNR skirted federal law by embellishing reasons to eliminate the protected animals and was not forthcoming about how it handled the incident. Wolf attacks on cows at the Ontonagon County farm were costing the state tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements.

Even after the state's admission, the federal authority that authorized the killings believes the decision was the right one.

Killing western Great Lakes wolves is not permitted under the U.S. Endangered Species Act unless human safety is at risk. Violations carry a maximum criminal penalty of one year in jail and a $100,000 fine, or $200,000 per organization. The incident illustrates a conflict as the state's most controversial predator re-establishes its niche up north. 

On one side are those who believe Michigan wolves are a success story and ought to be taken off the endangered species list so they can be closely managed. Opponents say any supposed recovery is fragile and conflicts can be managed by non-lethal means. 

“It is apparent these wolves were killed for political reasons rather than public safety concerns, and it is a disgrace that Michigan DNR misled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services," said Nancy Warren, executive director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition and a resident of Ewen in the Upper Peninsula.

DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the December story by The News led to an internal review that discovered a “miscommunication” between the Wildlife Division’s Upper Peninsula supervisor, Terry Minzey, and two staff members. 

“Minzey has no clear recollection of exactly how he got the initial report,” Golder wrote in an email. “Minzey said the difference in the exact details of what occurred in the farm field were not clear to him until November 2018 when inquiries were made for the news story.”

Neither DNR Wildlife Chief Russ Mason, who directed lethal removal, nor then-Director Keith Creagh knew the wolves' threat to humans was overstated, Golder said.

Golder maintained the department still would have sought to have the wolves killed. 

“It’s critical to note that the contact between a DNR wildlife technician and a wolf at the farm was only one factor involved in drawing the conclusion that the wolves posed a threat, although not immediate, to human safety,” Golder wrote. 

“The wolves were removed only after ... numerous methods and unsuccessful attempts were employed to try to resolve the problem by non-lethal means.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service emailed its agreement to kill three specific wolves at the DNR’s request on May 20, 2016. The agency’s decision was based heavily on one sentence from Minzey. 

“In one case, the wolf was sufficiently bold as to enter the pasture and kill a calf at the very moment one of our wildlife technicians was in the same field investigating a previous kill,” Minzey wrote in an email sent a few hours earlier.

The DNR now acknowledges the encounter did not occur. No one was startled by an attacking wolf. No calf was killed. The worker drove to where a passing motorist reportedly saw a wolf chasing cattle. One shot fired from 60 to 80 yards out scared the animal off.

“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, before the state disclosed what actually happened. “When someone makes a recommendation like that, you have got to take it seriously.”

The pack

Wolves had been a problem the fall before the 2016 killings at the Dykstra Beef Farm in Ontonagon County. 

Operator Tom Dykstra trademarks his Black Angus calves as “Michigan Craft Beef,” pasture-grazed without genetically modified feed, hormones or antibiotics. Feed is supplemented with leftover tart cherry syrup, apples and wet beer barley. 

The U.P. farm has 2,000 wooded and pastured acres bordering the Flintsteel River, eight miles from Lake Superior. It is home to one of 139 packs with 662 wolves in the U.P, according to the 2018 minimum winter count.

In 2016, the DNR says six adults were seen at the farm.

There had been problems with the pack, but the previous two years were relatively quiet, with four verified wolf attacks on livestock, state records show. 

That changed on Sept. 29, 2015, after wolves presumably ate five calves that went missing.

Premium beef 

Lost cows cost the state money. Each year, the state sets aside $50,000 to reimburse farmers for livestock killed by wolves, coyotes and, if necessary, cougars. By law, the taxpayer fund also pays for missing livestock if prior wolf attacks have been verified.

At first, the depredation program paid $1,750 total for the five missing calves, based on weight and market comparisons, records show. Dykstra, however, argued his specialty beef was more valuable than other feeder cattle. 

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development agreed. The department, which administers reimbursements, added a $3-per-pound premium, from $1.25 to $4.25, based on his “unique business” and “niche” market, appraisal reports show.

The state’s reimbursement more than tripled to nearly $5,000 — then doubled again for missing a 45-day payment deadline.

In short order, the fund had just gone over budget for the first time by almost $10,000 as there had been other costs for wolf attacks elsewhere in the U.P. and for downstate coyote kills, usually sheep.

“They (higher-ups) said, ‘Don’t do that again,’” said Jim Bowes, deputy director of the agriculture department’s Animal Industry Division, in regards to the budget. Bowes took over the indemnification program in 2016, and on March 14 developed a memorandum of understanding with the DNR. The effort was to “assure all claims are processed in a timely manner” and “reduce livestock depredations at high-risk farms,” the annual report said.

All this was being negotiated when calves started dying at the Dykstra farm on April 27, 2016 — the encounter that would be distorted came two days later.

Michigan farmer Duane Kolpack

'A serious threat'

Wolf raids are usually limited to a handful of farms, and generally fewer than 15 cattle fatalities are verified annually, depredation records show. At Dykstra’s farm, wolves claimed one or two calves seemingly every other day in May 2016.

Under the Endangered Species Act, wolves may be killed only in the immediate defense of human life. The rare exception is if they are judged a potential future danger; or a “demonstrable but non-immediate threat to human safety.” 

Central to the wolves’ lethal removal was the email sent by Minzey, the DNR's U.P. supervisor, to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency enforces the Endangered Species Act. 

“The Michigan Department of Natural Resources feels strong (sic) that the three wolves frequenting the Dykstra Farm should be euthanized before they develop into a serious threat to human safety,” Minzey wrote.

The email detailed “brazen” behavior of the wolves at Dykstra Beef and said 12 calves were killed and four injured in the previous couple of weeks, which depredation reports corroborate.  

The email then described the deadly daytime attack that supposedly occurred on April 29, 2016, in the presence of veteran DNR wildlife technician Brad Johnson. The description appears to dramatize two visits by Johnson to the farm the same day.

In reality, Johnson had been in that pasture about three hours earlier, investigating an overnight attack that killed one calf and injured another. He returned to the farm with “scare away” lights at about 12:30 p.m., his report says.

“I don’t think he could see the field from there,” Duane Kolpack, the farm manager, told The News in December.

Johnson, in fact, drove up to three-quarters of a mile to where a motorist reported seeing a wolf, then drove another 100 to 200 yards into the pasture, Kolpack said. Johnson stopped 60 to 80 yards away, the DNR now acknowledges.

It’s not clear what he saw. The DNR’s version evolved from the disproved attack to a wolf “staring down a calf, preparing to kill it” to a mother cow “fending off the wolf.”

Johnson’s two-sentence report merely says he “had to chase a wolf away.”

Former Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba

‘Thrown together quick’

That’s about when then-state Sen. Tom Casperson became involved.

The farm was in the Escanaba Republican’s nearly U.P.-wide district until Casperson’s term-limited retirement in December. He now is chief of staff for successor Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan.

The farm’s losses were “just unacceptable,” Casperson told The News, and the state was “in a tough spot because it was going to cost them a fortune in cattle reimbursements.”

The question was, “Who wants to take the first shot, so to speak?” added Casperson. “I think (Minzey) understood someone had to go first."

The day after the pasture incident, the DNR contacted Casperson and then-Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, to inform them “we were on top of the issue,” DNR deputy spokesman John Pepin said in an email on Jan. 30.

 “I can also confirm conversations between the DNR and Senator Casperson and the DNR and the USFWS during the week of May 15-21, 2016,” wrote Pepin.

That would be the week when the DNR on a Monday conducted mandatory relocation attempts and by Friday exchanged the emails that greenlighted the killings.

An email from Minzey that week also did not make clear where the wolves were released. 

“The DNR did not move wolves from the farm,” Pepin clarified. 

Federal wildlife agent Don Lonsway examines a problem wolf in 2012.

Four hours later

The emailed request by Minzey to kill the wolves was sent four days later, sometime after 1 p.m. on May 20, Pepin said.

The reply at 5:38 p.m. from Hicks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife supervisor in East Lansing, praised the “exceptional efforts” to address the wolves and agreed “action should be taken before the human safety risks become more serious or immediate.”

Brian Roell, a wolf specialist for the DNR, spotted the false narrative almost immediately, the DNR now confirms — a fact the department did not initially disclose. 

“Brian Roell said he likely knew on May 20, 2016, that the details provided by Terry Minzey to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were incorrect,” the DNR's Golder wrote. “However, since it was late on a Friday, it may not have been until Monday, May 23, 2016. Brian remembers providing the corrected information to Terry at that time.” 

Roell also says he had a “conversation” with federal sharpshooter Don Lonsway about the “difference in details of the incident prior to wolves being killed,” Golder added.

Lonsway, a longtime wildlife agent and wolf handler, shot the first wolf the next day on May 24.

The male wolf was reportedly attacking an 80-pound heifer, leaving a 3-inch tear, when shot near midnight. The second male was shot four days later on May 28. The female was third, on June 11. 

Defense of the decision

It is unclear why DNR and federal higher-ups say they did not learn of the misleading narrative until media inquiries. 

Neither the DNR’s Minzey, Roell nor Johnson responded to repeated requests for explanation, nor did Lonsway or his supervisor, Anthony Duffiney, Michigan director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. The agency, with the DNR, investigates suspected wolf predation.

Hicks, who authorized removal, said in a Nov. 8 interview: “Our decision was based solely on people in the field telling us the wolves were exhibiting a loss of fear.”

His conclusion has not changed.

“It sounds like you are talking with people who perhaps have a different opinion, but here is the bottom line: I am satisfied with the information the Michigan DNR provided me about this issue, and I am confident the decision to take the wolves was fully in accordance with the (Endangered Species Act),” he said. 

The DNR initially offered a detailed timeline explaining its actions. The timeline, however, did not disclose that Roell raised flags; that the shootings began anyway; and that higher-ups purportedly were not told of the inaccurate account.

Golder said the exclusions were not intentional. Pepin, the deputy spokesman who prepared the document, defended the omissions.

“The timeline was intended as a summary for your reporting purposes, not a comprehensive account,” he wrote.

John Barnes is an investigative reporter in Grand Rapids.