Chris Stoppelman says he'll never get the image out of his mind.
It was early the morning of Sept. 18, and Stoppelman was on a nighttime coon hunt south of Gonvick, Minn., with his friend, Kila Butler, and Brandon Oien.
Oien, 18, who lives nearby, was serving as their guide for the evening hunt, which was sponsored by the Northwest Minnesota Houndsmen Association of Fosston, Minn.
An avid coon hunter, Stoppelman, 26, of Monticello, Minn., was in the woods with his 4 1/2-year-old Treeing Walker Coonhound, Pep-E, while Butler, 23, Menahga, Minn., was hunting her 9-year-old hound, Barney.
This wasn't a hunt in the traditional sense. The hunters in the woods that night were competing for the fastest times to tree coons in a series of different locations, or "drops." Sanctioned by the United Kennel Club, the hunt didn't allow guns, Stoppelman said; besides, coon hunting season was still nearly a month away.
The night had gotten off to a great start, and the two hounds had treed coons within minutes at each of the first two drops.
"We had an hour and a half left, so that was good, and we had a big score," Stoppelman said. "All was going right."
That's when the evening took a serious turn for the worse.
The third spot was in an area near a large swamp, and this time, the hounds had ventured a lot farther from the truck. The hounds were somewhere in the swamp more than a mile away when the hunters heard what sounded like a dogfight.
"Kila's dog has been known to catch coons on the ground before, and we were like, 'What the heck, did they catch one on the ground?"' Stoppelman said.
Then, everything got quiet.
Rules of the hunt require that the dogs bark at least once every eight minutes to keep the trial running, so Stoppelman started the countdown.
"I'm like, 'I've got a weird feeling about this,"' he said. "I started the eight minutes, and as we were standing there, we could hear brush breaking from the swamp."
Knowing there were bears in the area, their guide suggested they walk back toward the truck and drive to the other side of the section to get closer to the dogs. All the while, Stoppelman said, they could hear the brush cracking in the distant swamp.
The eight minutes had passed, and they were back at the truck when they heard growling. They shined their lights to see Butler's dog, Barney.
"He jumped up in the dog box and started growling like something had really scared him," Stoppelman said. "Something was wrong."
The thought that it could be wolves never entered his mind, but that soon would change.
There still was no sign of Pep-E, and so they drove to the other side of the section. The dogs were equipped with tracking systems, and Stoppelman hoped to get a stronger signal closer to the swamp.
That's when Butler noticed the wounds on her dog.
"He had blood all over him, but I couldn't touch him at that point," Butler said. She finally got the hound calmed down enough to get a good look.
"There were some huge bite marks on his leg," Stoppelman said.
As they approached the swamp, Stoppelman's tracking system indicated Pep-E was within 400 yards and didn't appear to be moving.
The trio had no choice but to go in for a closer look.
"I said, 'I really don't want to go in,"' Stoppelman said. "Something's telling me something's not right. Kila said, 'We've got to go in there and see if Pep-E's hurt."'
Oien, their guide, was the first to see the green blinking light emitting from the hound's tracking collar. The dog was down, and what they saw next, Stoppelman said, will forever be burned into his brain.
"I shined my light on him, and all I seen was him laying on the ground," Stoppelman said. "His stomach was just ripped open. All I could do was turn around. Thank goodness there was a big tall tree to hold me up."
Besides tearing open the hound's stomach, the wolves had ripped off one of its genitals, and there were bite marks underneath the chest, by the front legs and on the neck."
"Those images are going to forever haunt me," Stoppelman said.
Time to flee
As Stoppelman struggled to grasp what had happened, Butler retrieved the hound's collars for her friend. Whatever had done this was still out there; they could hear the rustling in the brush not far away.
"I pulled the collars off and I said, 'You don't have time to cry,"' Butler said. "We need to get out of here. This is a wolf kill, and the wolves are still circling."
Because they had to file a report with wildlife officials, they decided to leave Pep-E in the woods and, in Stoppelman's words, "tore booty out of there" and headed back to the clubhouse near Fosston, where he spent the night.
The next morning, Dan Malinowski, conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Fosston, accompanied Stoppelman and a couple of others to the kill site. Malinowski confirmed it was a wolf kill and found two sets of tracks -- one measuring 4 inches across and the other 5 inches across.
The hound didn't appear to have been touched after it was killed.
"The dogs got into the wolves' territory, and they weren't welcome," Malinowski said. "An adult timber wolf isn't going to put up with someone coming into his backyard and playing."
Malinowski said wolves are abundant in his work area, and he's responded to several complaints of livestock depredation this year. Because wolves are federally protected, it's up to sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to handle problem animals.
Stoppelman, who inherited Pep-E from a friend who died of cancer, said he's been in contact with both state and federal officials, who told him there's no compensation for animals other than livestock.
Considering Pep-E was worth nearly $5,000, that's a tough pill to swallow, he said.
"He's priceless because he was my buddy's dog," Stoppelman said. "By losing Pep-E, it feels like I'm losing my buddy all over again."
Stoppelman buried Pep-E at Butler's place. If there's anything to learn from the tragedy, he said, he hopes it's the realization that wolves again need to be controlled and managed. The issue is hugely emotional, but the numbers, at least, support returning wolves to state control. Minnesota, for example, has an estimated 2,900 wolves, more than twice federal recovery goals.
Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued yet another proposal to remove wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin from federal protection and return management to the states. It's happened twice before, only to have the courts reverse the action.
The service is taking comments on its latest proposal until Nov. 15.
Something has to change, Stoppelman said.
"I'm not saying go out and blast every single wolf or anything like that," he said. "Yes, there has to be a balance, but it is a problem."
The worst part, he said, is the feeling of helplessness.
"To lose him to a wolf, and I can't even do anything about it," Stoppelman said. "All the time and money I spent training him. It's one of those things I'm not going to forget probably ever."