Michigan beef farmer in lone battle with wolves
Ontonagon County — The gray wolf stands its ground, staring. Its muzzle hides jagged incisors.
Tom Dykstra, who owns this Upper Peninsula cattle farm, pauses. Eyes lock; his blue, the wolf’s amber-brown. Maybe 30 yards. They stare, neither moving for 15-20 seconds. An eternity. It is a Friday in September. Dusk is falling.
Dykstra is about a mile from the farmhouse, checking on his cows. The light-colored wolf, brownish gray, finally turns.
“Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ ” Dykstra said. “No, it’s not. It’s fricking scary.”
This three-square-mile farm is like no other in Michigan. Nowhere are there more wolf attacks on cattle than here.
In the worst months, four or five cattle are killed per week. Overall, 76 percent of attacks in Michigan occurred on these 2,000 acres last year, at least 26 out of 39. That is more than all other farms combined.
“He’s just got a pack with a propensity for killing livestock,” said wildlife biologist Brian Roell of the DNR’s Marquette office.
All this comes when the state’s wolf population is stable, at an estimated 618 animals. Yet attacks overall are down, from an all-time high of 49 in 2010 to 14 in 2015.
At Dykstra’s farm, fangs slash in the night, strong enough to break bones, twice the pressure of a German shepherd. The carnage is uncovered at daylight, especially during spring calving. Most casualties are Black Angus specially fed cows, a week or less old. “Michigan’s Craft Beef,” the trademark claims, nourished on leftover tart cherry syrup and wet beer barley. Each calf weighs about 80 pounds at 7 days old, the same, or much less, as many wolves. A 700-pound cow also was taken.
The so-named “Ontonagon pack” roams the area. The state, which tracks pack sizes, does not know how many wolves are menacing Dykstra’s cattle. He thinks there are one or two “bad” wolves. The average pack size in Michigan is five wolves, usually related.
Dykstra, who also owns a farm in West Michigan, describes April and May, his worst months, and “that helpless feeling, when it’s just all crumbling about us, and nobody really cares.”
There were at least nine wolf attacks on the farm in one month, sometimes with multiple kills, DNR records show.
One wolf had to be chased off by a state wildlife technician approaching a kill site. Another wolf was trapped by a federal officer. It had to be released because of transportation complications. A radio collar showed it returned to the farm in two days, Dykstra and the farm’s manager said.
A bloody diary
The first cattle death on Dykstra’s farm last year was found April 27. Four more would occur in the next week, according to DNR records:
■April 27: A 2-day-old calf is dead. “Both hindquarters were consumed” on the 80-pound male.
■April 29: More than one wolf is believed to have “mostly consumed” a 4-day-old calf. A second calf was alive “but chewed up pretty bad.” DNR wildlife technician Brad Johnson, returning with scare-away lights, “had to chase a wolf away.”
■April 30: Two male calves, 48 hours old, are found with large canine puncture wounds, wolf tracks and fresh blood cover ground. “Very little of either carcass was consumed,” the report says. Some say wolves kill for fun. Experts say every act is for survival. No energy is wasted.
■May 1: A 2-day-old female calf is found, canine tooth marks to the carcass’ back and hindquarters, common attack sites.
■May 4: A 2-day-old male calf, 70 pounds, is found with tooth marks on its back and hindquarters. Very little of the animal was consumed.
Later, a 4-year-old family show horse was severely injured. The DNR said the cause could not be determined.
Attacks actually are down from the 2010-12 peak, when Ontonagon farmer John Koski was blamed for inflating statistics. He was accused of leaving dead cattle in the field, deer legs in a pickup bed and other wolf attractants — a smorgasbord. He was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty, accepted a plea deal and sold off the cattle on his Matchwood farm, about 70 miles southwest from Dykstra’s.
Wolves in Michigan have been controversial. They are either an apex predator or a successful return of an iconic canine. They are the genetic parent of all dogs, from poodles to Saint Bernards.
Once virtually eradicated from Michigan, the wolves’ return began in the late 1980s, and the numbers grew. Their endangered status was removed in 2012. Complaints about livestock deaths and wolves’ presence in some neighborhoods led to Michigan’s first hunt in 2013. Dykstra’s farm was in one of three hunting zones. In all, 22 of a maximum 43 wolves were killed across the U.P.
The next year, voters rejected future hunts. A federal judge then returned Michigan wolves to endangered status, protecting them.
Lawmakers in December resurrected efforts to allow hunts if wolves are federally delisted as endangered. A case is pending in federal court.
“We do not need a wolf hunt to manage wolf conflicts when most of those are on one farm,” said protection-activist Nancy Warren, of Ewen in Ontonagon County, adding that she’s heard the Dykstra farm is a “pretty clean shop.”
“In some years, six or seven farms are having a problem. It’s minor. It’s nothing. I don’t think (hunt advocates) are being honest enough about what’s involved.”
Warren, regional director of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition, has been trying to find out how many non-lethal measures have been attempted at the Dykstra farm. The DNR says it has no such records.
Wolf hunts are expensive for taxpayers after DNR and other management costs are considered, she said. “It’s more money going essentially to satisfy trophy hunters.”
Targeting ‘problem wolves’
Duane Kolpack is manager of Dykstra’s farm. By most accounts, including Warren’s, Kolpack and Dykstra are progressive. They have used mules, recommended for their killing kick, to deter wolves. They have used fladry, colored rags hanging from fences, and firecracker shells. They cannot shoot a wolf, even in the process of attacking livestock, unless a human is in danger.
“(Kolpack) monitors his cows and calves as frequently as possible when he is calving. He has control donkeys and he calves as close to the farm as possible,” DNR wildlife technician Brad Johnson wrote in one depredation report.
Kolpack knows where to look for carnage. He sees cows milling about one spot. A mother is the loudest. And there is her calf, little left.
“It’s her baby,” Kolpack says, describing a suddenly nervous herd. “And when a 1,500-pound cow charges you, you move.”
Dykstra believes wolves should be protected on public land. He believes on private farms that stronger, fatal measures are fair. Take out the bad wolves; leave the others alone.
“We think the only protected way is to remove problem wolves. Not all wolves, but problem wolves,” Dykstra says.
Millions have been spent in Michigan to argue whether to kill gray wolves, by the Humane Society of the United States and sporting groups.
Meanwhile, Dykstra is reimbursed by the state about $240 for every calf killed. He estimates it costs him $700 for every calf born.
“We are not in the business of losing money,” Kolpack says.
Wolves and attacks
Estimated number of wolves and verified attacks on livestock and dogs.
Number of wolves, attacks
2002: 278, 10
2003: 321, 6
2004: 360, 22
2005: 405, 8
2006: 434, 13
2007: 509, 17
2008: 520, 14
2009: 577, 14
2010: 557, 49
2011: 687, 44
2012: no count, 41
2013: 658, 20
2014: 636, 34
2015: no count, 14
2016: 618, 29
Source: Department of Natural Resources