On January 22, a driver passing near Floodwood on Highway 8 noticed a heap of bloody gray fur in a ditch. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the frozen, decomposing carcasses of three gray wolves piled one on top of the other, snare wounds around their necks.
The driver called the Department of Natural Resources tip line, and an agent was dispatched to the scene.
Gray wolves of the western Great Lakes are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Minnesota is designated as a critical habitat, which means that as of 2014, wolves here can only be killed in defense of human life.
Local, state, and federal investigators are pursuing the case with the same fervor of a human murder probe, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' Tina Shaw.
Investigators have looked at tire tracks and boot prints along this lonely highway stretching between two small towns. They've taken evidence from the animals' bodies, and submitted to the national forensics lab in Ashland, Oregon — the only crime lab for animals in the United States. They're sending a renewed call for tips now from anyone who might have seen or heard anything. There's a reward of $2,500 for information that leads to arrest and conviction.
The evidence shows that the wolves were killed elsewhere and moved to the ditch, Shaw says, as if someone pulled over by the side of the road, hauled the carcasses out of a vehicle, and dumped them.
While Shaw can't say exactly what motivated the culprit in this case, she says some agents believe that the wolves might have been killed to make a statement. "They wanted these wolves to be found," she says. "This is not something that an ethical hunter would ever do."
The long and at times controversial history of gray wolves' on-again, off-again protected status offers some context for how their blatant killing could make a political statement.
Once, Minnesota was home to the last wild wolves in mainland America. Conservation brought Minnesota's wolf population up from 750 in 1950 to about 2,400 currently.
In 2012, wolves were de-listed from the federal register, and Minnesotans hunted them for three consecutive years. In the winter of 2014, a federal court ruling shielded them once again.
Meanwhile, northern Minnesotans have complained of an increase in the number of pet dogs that have been eaten off their chain or attacked in the woods.
If poachers are found and convicted, the penalty for killing one gray wolf is a maximum of six months in prison and a $25,000 fine.