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Ranchers, wolves clash in rural Montana

by Brandon Roberts & Western News
| November 12, 2008 11:00 PM

A wolf pack’s search for a meal is creating problems in rural Montana.

Back in 1995, a significant gray wolf reintroduction effort occurred with 66 of the endangered animals going to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. At that same time, wolves from the Canadian Rockies had established six packs in northwestern Montana.

One of those six groups – labeled the “Fish Trap Pack” – now patrols the southern border of the Libby Ranger District.

Between Sylvan Lake and Silver Butte lies the 400-acre Bayhorse Ranch. The 50 head of cattle under the care of Brent McCollum have found themselves in the pack’s sights.

“I had them barking and howling at me from right in the trees,” McCollum said. “I ran them off, I shot in the air, shouted and screamed. They were back a couple days after, definitely a nuisance right now.”

Despite McCollum’s efforts to haze the wolves, he recently lost two of his cows, though only one was confirmed a wolf kill.

McCollum said the wolves are frequenting his fields more and more, and neighboring ranchers are seeing the wolves’ presence increase.

One of his young cows was not instantly killed by the wolves; it had sustained bites to the throat and abdomen. McCollum said the cow loaded itself into his trailer. However, by the time he had reached Libby, the animal was on its side and laboriously breathing.

The animal eventually surrendered to the wolf-inflicted wounds and McCollum has filed all the necessary paperwork to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for compensation.

The first casualty he reported could not be proven because the animal was gone.

“I saw it dead on Sunday and when the detective arrived Monday, all that was left was a carcass,” he said.

 “One of the biggest difficulties we have is finding the evidence before it gets eaten up,” said Kraig Glazier, USDA Wildlife Services Western District supervisor.

Glazier said there are steps taken after a report comes into his office.

“First thing we do is outreach – talk to the landowner, and see what they did,” Glazier said. “Then we look into, one – has this place had a history of wolves, and two – are there known wolves in the area?”

The investigation of the carcass helps identify the responsible animal. Glazier said wolves have a specific kill pattern by where the animal was bitten, the canine spacing, along with tracks in the area.

Glazier said the increased frequency of livestock loss this year could correlate to increasing wolf populations as well as more ranchers reporting.

For ranchers like McCollum, his livestock represent his livelihood – an investment. Under current law, the gray wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act, which makes the killing of the animal illegal.

Ed Jonas of Blacktail Mountain Ranch recently had two of his young cows killed by wolves near Kila.

“It is frustrating to not be able to protect your animals,” Jonas said. “We are being overrun by them.”

After an investigation proved wolves responsible for Jonas’ livestock loss, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks state agency determines whether the wolf or wolves are removed. In this case, FWP trapped and killed seven from the “Hog Heaven Pack.”

Jonas believes the current wolf protection laws are incorrect.

“Ranchers and farmers feed America,” Jonas said. “I am not an advocate to eliminate all wolves. When an animal is lost, that is money out of our pockets.”

He explained that the life of one cow has exponential consequences on the herd and generated revenue.

To address the financial impacts of livestock lost to wolves, Gov. Brian Schweitzer appointed a board within the Department of Livestock.

George Edwards, livestock loss mitigation coordinator, said 201 animals were turned in for losses for the period of April 15 through Nov. 7.

“There has been a drastic increase in the number of livestock killed in the past year,” Edwards said. “One owner lost 90 sheep in the Dylan area. In 2007, 27 sheep were confirmed killed by wolves in the entire state.”

This equates to more than 30 livestock owners being paid $63,716. Out of that, $30,000 is pulled from the state’s taxpayer-funded general fund.

The loss mitigation fund began with $81,000, which included the taxpayer portion, $50,000 from the Defenders of Wildlife, and another $1,000 from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

For the past 21 years, the DOW – an organization that lobbied to have wolves listed on the ESA – has initiated a loss mitigation fund for livestock producers. They are now exiting this role with the new Department of Livestock board handling claims.

Suzanne Stone, DOW’s northern Rockies representative, said the organization will grant the $50,000 for the first two years of the state program and then transition into “funding the proactive things we do on helping to cost share. Things like range riders, livestock guard dogs, alarm systems, and other non-lethal proactive alternatives.”

Stone believes the state wolf management plan in Montana is taking the lead and that DOW wants to see ranchers able to use non-lethal hazing.

“It saves livestock and it saves wolves. It is a win-win,” she said.

There is currently a back-and-forth political match between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana FWP. The federal agency has tried to de-list the wolves from the ESA.

“The ironic part, whether the wolf program exists or not, the compensation will have to exist because the wolves are here,” Edwards said. “The livestock losses will not change with delisting the wolves.”