RURAL LAKE BRONSON, Minn.-To Randy Coffield, raising cattle is not just a business. It's his life.

"I came in as a greenhorn, and I've learned a lot over the years," the rural Lake Bronson rancher said as calves played in the straw-filled corrals behind his house.

Calving season was starting to taper off in mid-March when Coffield, who lives in Kittson County, said he got three hours of sleep, mostly because he had to get up multiple times in the middle of the night to check his herd of 270 cows.

If the weather cooperates, Coffield will send his cow-calf pairs out to pasture in a month. One of his major concerns is wolves going after calves, especially in wide-open areas.

"They are still pretty vulnerable at that age," Coffield, who started ranching in 1996, said of calves that are several weeks old. "If you don't find them in that first day, you probably won't find them."

Ag proponents believe wolf populations in northern Minnesota, including Kittson County, have increased in recent years, while wolf activists insist those numbers have remained low. Concerns about wolf attacks against cattle have been on the rise in recent years, Kittson County Sheriff Steve Porter said.

"We don't want to lose our cattle farmers, and they can't afford to have calves missing every year," Porter said. "It is a way of life. We at the Sheriff's Office want to do everything we can to help them."

Wolves are federally protected animals and, in Minnesota, a person can only kill a wolf in defense of a human life, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services are authorized to kill or relocate wolves if livestock or pets are threatened.

Wolf attacks haven't forced ranchers to quit, but they can feel helpless when they know they can't do much to protect their herds, Porter said. The calves lost could be the difference between making a living and going into debt, he said.

"They just keep taking it," he said. "The six (Coffield) lost, that didn't go to the bank. ... The six that he lost went to the 20 he is trying to make a living on."

By the numbers

The Kittson County Sheriff's Office contacted 40 cattle ranchers last year in an attempt to measure wolf attacks. The survey revealed 21 confirmed cattle kills by wolves in 2017. By comparison, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture paid out almost $153,400 split among 93 claims for livestock losses attributed to wolves across the state last year as of Dec. 7.

The number of cattle lost to wolves in Kittson County is likely much higher, Sheriff Steve Porter said. Ranchers reported 118 cattle went missing last year, though they couldn't confirm they had all been taken by wolves, according to the Sheriff's Office numbers. Porter said another 15 cattle were killed by wolves, but they weren't reported to state officials.

Coffield said six of his calves went missing last year. Though he can't say for sure, he said it's likely wolves got to the cattle.

As far as Porter knows, no other county has done a survey like Kittson County's, though sheriff's offices are allowed to investigate potential wolf attacks on their own accord. It's possible some of the 118 cattle missing could have died from other causes.

A state Department of Agriculture program compensates lost cattle if a wolf is responsible. Ranchers can receive up to $20,000, though the total limit to be paid out for the 2018-19 biennium is $240,000. The value in each wolf-related loss is determined on a case by case basis and depends on a "market valuation done by a county extension educator," according to the Agriculture Department.

With 13 cattle deaths, Kittson and Beltrami counties had the most confirmed kills by wolves for the 2017 fiscal year - July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017 - in Minnesota, according to the Agriculture Department. The second highest was Marshall County with 10, followed by Pine and Atkin counties with nine.

The Kittson County Sheriff's Office estimated each livestock animal lost to have an economic value of $1,000, meaning if all 154 reports of lost cattle last year in Kittson County were confirmed, the economic lost would be $154,000.

In Minnesota, Kittson and St. Louis counties each had 25 wolves - tied for the second most in the state-taken last year due to verified damage reports, according to the DNR. Pine County had the most with 27.

Managing wolves

Ranchers and Porter have advocated for wolf hunting seasons and have called federal wolf policy a government overreach. A December 2014 federal court ruling reversed the wolf's delisting from federal protections in the Great Lakes region, meaning a wolf season was no longer an option.

Before the ruling, Minnesota offered seasons in 2012, 2013 and 2014, with hunters and trappers taking 413 wolves, 237 wolves and 272 wolves, respectively.

The DNR estimated in a 2016-17 survey that there were 2,856 wolves in the state-with a margin of error of plus or minus 500 animals.

Dr. Maureen Hackett, co-founder and president of wolf advocacy group Howling for Wolves based in the Twin Cities, disputes the accuracy of those numbers, believing the population to be overestimated. Her group has called for the end of lethal methods and snaring tactics used to control wolf populations.

"Mankind has never known how to manage any wild animals or plants ... with good success," she said, adding that humans have taken the stance that wolves must be managed and killed instead of setting up boundaries and leaving wolves alone.

Hackett suggested tactics such as maintaining a human presence, bunching livestock at night, using dogs or other guard animals and removing incentives to return-such as carcasses-to help keep wolves away.

Porter said Howling for Wolves members don't understand the ranching culture or how hard ranchers work, adding the advocacy group is suggesting ranchers put cattle into feedlots all year long and allow wolves to "have the land" a rancher pays taxes on.

"That's just the most foolish thing I've heard in my entire life," Porter said, adding cattle need space to graze. "Where is the voice for our livestock producers?"

He and his staff have been active in asking ranchers if they want to investigate missing or killed calves, and Porter said most ranchers would not kill wolves in fear of repercussions from federal agencies.

"I think there probably are a few people shooting them, but 99.99 percent of our population are such law-abiding good people," he said. "They would never risk doing that."