Ross Genoch walks through his small cattle herd on a cold, clear January morning near Menahga. The cows, docile and trusting, approach him expectantly.
“They’re hoping for a corn cob. Well, they get treated like pets,” he says with a smile.
Genoch (pronounced guh no) raises corn and soybeans, sells crop seed, drives a school bus and runs a small custom woodworking business. But cattle provide his greatest joy - “I’d be lost without them,” he says - and his mission is keeping them healthy and safe.
That’s harder than it once was. When Genoch was growing up on this third-generation family farm along the Red Eye River on the edge of Minnesota lake country, the cattle were free from wolves. Since the late 1990s, however, his cattle have been threatened by the state’s growing wolf population. Genoch has lost a half-dozen animals to wolves, and worries about losing more.
He sees wolf tracks around his farmstead and hears wolves howling at night.
“It’s an eerie sound. It makes you shiver,” he says.
Genoch enjoys nature and wildlife, and he’s not one to bash wolves.
“They’re a pretty animal, and they have their place, in the wild,” he says.
He prefers nonlethal means to keep his herd safe. He bought a donkey, Donna, as a guard. But he wants the option of using lethal means, too.
“I need to be able to protect them if I have to,” he says.
Genoch and other Minnesota ranchers are on the frontlines in a longstanding controversy that pits the needs of livestock against efforts to preserve the gray wolf. The issue, which ranchers thought was partially resolved in 2012, took on new life when a federal judge recently restored endangered species protection to wolves in Minnesota.
To ranchers, the judge’s ruling was ill-advised. They say it limits their ability to protect their animals and ignores what they think was state government’s effective wolf management plan.
“The program we had was working,” says Tim Nolte, a Sebeka rancher and president of the state Cattlemen’s Association.
Losing cattle is always bad, but it’s particularly painful now that beef prices have soared to record highs, he says.
To gray wolf supporters, the judge’s ruling was the right call. They say it recognizes wolves as a valuable animal that too often gets a bad rap.
“They’re an important apex predator that serves a very important function,” and a species with positive similarities to humans, says Maureen Hackett, president and founder of Howling for Wolves, a Minnesota-based wolf advocacy group.
Disagreement among experts clouds the issue.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ wolf specialist says his agency’s wolf management program, which was shut down after the judge’s ruling, worked successfully.
“We had a depredation program in place that I think was pretty effective,” Dan Stark says. “The wolf population continued to do well. Certainly there was no threat or immediate risk to the population.”
But critics point to a recent Washington State University study, which found that killing wolves to protect livestock leads to more cattle deaths, not fewer, at least initially.
“It just disrupts the pack and leads to more problems for farmers,” Hackett says.
Gray wolves, also known as timber wolves, inhabited most of North America before European settlement. Over time, wolves were eliminated almost completely in most of the country. By the 1960s, only a small number of wolves remained in Minnesota, according to the website of the Minnesota DNR, which manages and conserves the state’s natural resources.
But a precursor to the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1966, and gray wolves were added to the list of endangered species the following year. In 1974, wolves were given broader protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Minnesota’s wolf population subsequently rose from several hundred and now stands at 470 packs and 2,423 individuals, primarily in the northern third of the state, according to the most recent DNR survey.
Ranchers insist the actual number is much higher. Whatever the number, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed, or delisted, wolves from federal protection in January 2012. The Minnesota DNR then took over protection and management of wolves in the state. The state program included giving ranchers more latitude in dealing with wolves that “pose an immediate threat to their livestock.” The program also allowed a statewide hunt.
But the Humane Society of the United States and other animal welfare groups filed suit in February 2014. They argued that Fish and Wildlife’s decision threatened wolves’ recovery in the Great Lakes region. Late last year, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell of Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of the HSUS, calling the 2012 decision to delist wolves “arbitrary and capricious.”
The ruling was based on “technical issues, on how Fish and Wildlife removed wolves from the list, not that wolves are necessarily endangered,” Stark says.
Now, the Minnesota wolf hunt is suspended. And though ranchers can still ask state or federal authorities to kill wolves that threaten their animals, they no longer can take action on their own unless a wolf is threatening human life.
Some ranchers are angry about their lessened latitude. “How would you feel if a murderer or a rapist was breaking into your home and you couldn’t do anything about it?” says Danny Wiese of Flying W Ranch in Pequot Lakes. “How would you feel if somebody was taking the paycheck out of your mailbox?
“People who want to protect the wolves would feel differently if they had wolves in their backyard and they had to protect their children,” he says, adding his ranch began having problems with wolves about 20 years ago.
“We’ve had a terrible time,” losing six to 10 animals a year, he says; most of the losses come in the summer, with relatively small spring-born calves at greatest risk.
Ranchers say wolves are elusive, working mainly at night, which complicates efforts to deal with them.
“They’re night animals. You don’t see them, but they’re definitely out there,” says Greg Leverington, a Pine River rancher. “I’ve taken a few walks and seen a lot of wolf tracks in the snow.”
His ranch has had serious problems for the past three years, losing at least 20 head of cattle in that time, he says.
Determining the exact number of cattle lost to wolves is impossible, ranchers say. Cattle sometimes disappear, especially in large pastures, and there’s no way of knowing for certain whether wolves were responsible.
Many of Leverington’s losses were young calves, “but some weren’t babies you pick up and carry away. They’re 450- to 500-pound calves,” he says.
Adult cattle are at risk, too. Leverington recalls the time “a wolf chased a cow through a wire fence. She was hit by a truck and killed. Her back legs were all cut and bloody. She ran because she was looking for a way to get away from that wolf.”
Like other ranchers who talked with Agweek, Leverington is upset the judge’s ruling took away his right to shoot a wolf that threatens his livestock.
Because wolves are elusive, ranchers seldom have a shot at one. Even so, the ability to shoot would be “an additional tool” for ranchers, says Stark, the DNR wolf specialist.
Opponents of lethal wolf control point to a study released late last year by researchers at Washington State University. It says killing wolves to protect livestock is counter-productive, at least initially.
The study, which analyzes 25 years of data, finds that shooting and trapping wolves leads to more dead livestock, not fewer, the following year.
WSU wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus and data analyst Kaylie Peebles say killing one wolf increases the odds of depredations 4 percent for sheep and 5 to 6 percent for cattle. If 20 wolves are killed, livestock deaths double. The trend continues until 25 percent of wolves are killed.
Killing wolves can affect a pack’s social cohesion, leading to more breeding pairs. As they have pups, the wolves are tied to one place and aren’t as free to hunt deer or elk, causing them to turn, on occasion, to livestock, according to the paper.
To view the analysis, which appeared in PLOS ONE, visit www.plos.org/plos one/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0113505. PLOS ONE is a peer-reviewed, open-access online publication from the San Francisco-based Public Library of Science.
Nolte, the state cattlemen president, says the WSU study might have some merit. But a wolf’s position in its pack’s social structure doesn’t alter ranchers’ need to protect their livestock, he says.
Hackett, with Howling for Wolves, says killing wolves is like removing parents from a human family, leading to problems with the surviving teenage children.
“We’re letting teens run wolf society,” she says.
Wolves have gotten a bad rap for centuries, she says.
“Fairy tales depict the wolves as evil or bad, with voracious aggression or appetite. That’s so contrary to the real nature of wolves.”
Wolves, like humans, live in family groups, operate socially together and establish strong bonds in male-female pairs, she says.
Research shows wolves have an important ecological role, she says.
Their presence discourages livestock from overgrazing environmentally sensitive land, reducing erosion and helping vegetation. Wolves also compete with coyotes, reducing damage caused by too many of the latter, she says.
Hackett advocates nonlethal means, such as the use of donkeys, llamas, dogs and fences, to protect livestock. Too often, however, “It’s just easier to kill wolves,” she says.
Nancy Gibson is co-founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., which describes its mission as providing a “clear, thoughtful presentation of the facts and issues involved,” she says.
“We try to use science-based information. We don’t take positions.”
Minnesota has played a key role in wolf preservation, she notes.
Before the Endangered Species Protection Act, wolves were virtually exterminated in most of the U.S. About 750 remained in Minnesota, however, because wolves traveled back and forth from Canada.
By 2012, Minnesota’s wolf population was “fairly stable,” she says.
Wolves do best when two situations are combined: “a little bit of protection and a healthy source of prey, and that means vulnerable prey,” she says.
The average wolf will take 18 to 20 adult-sized deer per year, she says.
Gibson is familiar with the Washington State University study.
“Like all science, it’s self-correcting. There are other places that say it’s just the opposite. We’ll have to let science and peer-review groups sort that out,” she says. She describes the Endangered Species Act’s intent as ensuring “animals that need to go into the emergency room are cared for.”
“It was the most comprehensive legislation for the preservation of endangered species ever enacted, by any nation,” Gibson says. “But the scope was too broad.”
Restoring a species to its historical range, as the act seeks to do, “isn’t practical,” she says, adding that the focus rather should be on finding places where wolves can exist.
Protecting his animals
Genoch, 37, has lived all his life on the family farm. His grandfather, Otto, bought it in 1961 and his father, Ron, took over in the early 1970s. Ross took over seven years ago.
His parents still live on the farm. Ross, his wife Brenda and their 1½-year-old daughter Samantha live there, too, in another house.
The farm isn’t just a business. “It’s a lifestyle,” one that Ross Genoch says he hopes to pass on to his daughter.
Genoch says he’s always followed state and federal wolf regulations, and will continue to do so. He stresses that he values animals in general, not just cattle.
But he’s a rancher. His job is keeping his herd safe.
“I just want to protect my cattle,” he says. “The way things are now, I have a harder time doing that.”