In Depth: Life with wolves - KMSP-TV

In Depth: Life with wolves

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HINCKLEY, Minn. (KMSP) -

Just an hour north of the metro, a motion-detection camera mounted on a tree takes a snapshot of a wolf on the prowl at a sheep farm just a stone's throw from the freeway outside Hinckley, Minn.

"I can't tell you how many there are, but they are regular visitors here," said the woman who set up the camera on her farm.

The first time Janet McNally actually heard a wolf howling, she was both amazed and alarmed.

"What took my breath away was it was answered by an uncountable number of puppy voices," said the sheep farmer.

That was 21 years ago, but the last time she heard the soon-to-be hunted animal was this past spring.

Many generations have followed that first pack she heard, a sign of the wolf's comeback in Minnesota. The last year the year wolves made a feast of McNally's sheep was in 1999. She lost dozens in just 10 days. She had to do something dramatic to protect her flock, so she started to use dogs to help protect her farm animals.

"They often can be seen cuddled up with the lambs, which is just what we're looking for," said McNally.

The dogs are descendants of a special breed that guarded sheep for thousands of years -- Maremma sheepdogs (Italian), and a crossbreed of Mastiff (Spanish) and Tatra (Polish). The animals stay together for life because after the puppies and lambs are weaned, they become roommates. The two sets of animals become so close, the dogs consider the sheep part of their pack, according to McNalley

The dogs can smell a threat coming from a half mile away. When they sense trouble, they start rounding up the sheep and move them away from the danger.

"The wolf just looks at this crazy dog that is just frothing at the mouth and decides there is probably an easier dinner someplace else," McNally explained.

For added protection, McNally surrounds the grazing area with electrified netting. She says predators like wolves and coyotes typically go through fences, not over them, so the electrical shock they get from the fence is another reminder to move along.

It is still a lot of work to move the protective tools. Every two or three days, the dogs, sheep and fence are located to a new grazing area. It takes two workers and a couple hours to move things, but the payback is worth it.

"We haven't had any losses, but our neighbors are losing calves," McNally told FOX 9 News.

All across the Northern section of Minnesota, livestock and pets are being killed by wolves. In the past year, the state has paid out more than a $150,000 to compensate residents for losses, which included 165 cattle, 4 horses and more than 300 turkeys. That's one of the reasons why the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is planning a hunting and trapping season on wolves this fall.

"From a conservation standpoint, a regulated hunting and trapping season has never been a threat to wolf populations and it won't be," said Dan Stark, with the DNR.

Until recently, wolves had been on the endangered species list -- and some groups aren't thrilled that they're going to be hunted so soon after being taken off. Howling for Wolves, a group against the hunt, put up billboards in the Twin Cities and Duluth and organized a petition drive in the hopes that it may pressure the DNR to cancel it.

"We are just going to trap an iconic, legacy species? It is wrong," said Maureen Hackett MD, from Howling for Wolves.

Howling for Wolves and the Center for Biological Diversity also filed a lawsuit that aims to block the hunting season which is scheduled to start in early November.

More than 23,000 people have signed up for a chance to get one of the 6,000 hunting licenses the DNR will issue by lottery. The season allows for the taking of 400 wolves roughly 13 percent of the total population in the state, according to the DNR.

"I am neither here nor there on having a hunt. The number is too small a number to have a benefit for degradation." said McNally. "It's not going to help farmers out, I don't think."

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