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Wildlife researchers say they found two collared wolves last month that were killed illegally in the wilderness of northeastern Minnesota and have turned over their findings to state conservation officials for investigation in hopes of finding whoever is responsible.

While a lead researcher, Tom Gable, said he is keeping details about the killings under wraps so as not to undermine the investigation by the state Department of Natural Resources, a DNR report obtained by the Star Tribune disclosed that one of the wolves had been shot in the chest.

The most recent discovery by members of Gable's Voyageurs Wolf Project was made on Jan. 22 slightly north of Grand Rapids.

Wolf V088, a male one to two years old, went missing in early November, based on data collected from the animal's GPS and body-monitoring collar.

The remains were collected, and the researchers conducted a "thorough internal and external examination" that concluded that the wolf was killed illegally, Gable said.

"We suspect V088 did not die right away," the project explained in a Facebook posting, "but rather went a while/some distance before eventually dying."

On Jan. 15, a male wolf two to three years old was found and retrieved from below snow-covered ice 10 inches thick in the Vermilion River near Orr, thanks to its still-functioning collar. This wolf, V086, also went missing in early November.

Post-mortem examination led the project to conclude that this wolf also was killed illegally and then dumped in the river.

A DNR conservation officer who accompanied Gable and two fellow researchers in the search for V086 specified in his report that "in examining the carcass I noted a hole and related trauma in the chest consistent with that of a bullet wound."

The killings were illegal because they occurred about two months before the Trump administration removed Great Lakes wolves from the federal endangered species list last month, handing management rights to the states.

For now, wolves in Minnesota cannot be hunted and can only be killed in defense of human life. Another exception: "Agents of the government" are authorized to kill wolves to protect pets or livestock from being threatened, attacked or killed, according to the DNR.

In neighboring Wisconsin, a national hunting group filed a lawsuit Tuesday to force an immediate start to a wolf season before President Joe Biden's administration restores federal protections for the animals.

Wisconsin law requires that state's DNR to hold a wolf hunt between November and February. The agency is planning a season that will begin in November.

There are about 2,700 wolves in Minnesota, well above the state's recovery goal, accounting for nearly half of the estimated 6,000 gray wolves left in the Lower 48. Gable said the wolf population in the greater Voyageurs ecosystem averages 73 per year and has long remained stable.

The Voyageurs Wolf Project, which relies heavily on funding from the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, is asking that anyone with information regarding the recent killings to call the DNR Turn In Poachers (TIP) line at 1-800-652-9093.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482