To Kill and Be Killed
The Recovery of the West’s Wild Wolves Is the Feel-Good
Environmental Story of the Past Decade. To Some, There’s Just One
Problem: The Program Worked a Little Too Well.
By Jim Robbins, Jim Robbins is a Montana-based freelance writer. His last
story for the magazine was about coal-bed methane drilling in Wyoming.
One night last January, wolves stole into a pasture at a ranch near
Helena, Mont., and dropped a rust-and-white-colored bull. It’s no
small task to kill a 1,500-pound steer with teeth alone, and for
that reason wolves usually take much smaller prey-calves or sheep.
It was the only bull killed since the wolves began returning to
Montana in 1979.
No one knows exactly how the drama played out, but biologists say
two or three hunters from a wolf pack usually kill large prey while
the rest look on. The wolves patiently parry with big animals until
the animal tires. When they spot an opening, one or two will seize
the hind legs with their massive jaws and a third will clamp on the
throat. As the animal staggers, snorts and shakes its head, the
wolves simply hang on with their crushing bite until the animal
bleeds to death or goes into shock.
Payback was no less brutal. The next night the rancher, using a
night-vision scope, shot a wolf feeding on his $1,500 bull,
mistaking it for a coyote. When he realized he had killed what at
the time was an endangered species, he notified Ed Bangs, who is in
charge of the federal government’s wolf recovery program in the
Northern Rockies. The following night, just after dark, Bangs and an agent
from the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services-which, among other
things, maintains a SWAT team for predators-drove to the ranch. They
climbed a ridge, a vantage from where they could look down through their
own night-vision scope and see the bull carcass, to which they correctly
assumed the wolves would return. Kraig Glazier, the Wildlife Services
agent, trained the crosshairs on an animal and squeezed the trigger. The
sharp crack of a rifle shot reverberated through the valley. One wolf
fell; the rest scattered.
Within a week, all seven wolves in the Castle Rock pack were
destroyed, their whereabouts betrayed by a radio collar that had
been affixed to one of their own. About the same time, federal
agents wiped out four more wolves, part of the Halfway Pack just a
few miles to the north, for the same sin. “Once they start actively
hunting livestock, there is no choice-we need to use lethal
control,” Bangs says. But he adds that shooting wolves is important
for other reasons as well.
“A little blood satisfies a lot of anger.”
The West is getting wild again, and the speedy recovery of wolves, a
once-endangered species, has become one of the most controversial wildlife
issues in the country. A half century after the gray wolf was dynamited in
its den, hunted, trapped and poisoned out of the West with vengeance, it
has reclaimed the northern Rockies in spades. Experts say it could, within
the next decade, re-colonize parts of Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado
and perhaps even California. It’s one of the fastest comebacks of an
endangered species on record, a testimony to wolf reproduction. Bangs’ and
Glazier’s “wolf removal” at the ranch was only temporary-just one day
after the last of the offending predators were finally hunted out, four
new wolves showed up to start the game all over again.
Canis lupus arguably is the most charismatic of what biologists
refer to as “charismatic megafauna”-wildlife with sex appeal and the
fierce public support that seldom materializes when the endangered animal
is the Wyoming toad or the short-nosed sucker fish. Wolves touch something
unfathomably deep in the reservoir of human emotion. That’s partly because
the wolf is a social animal that many people feel has human-like
qualities, such as the way it mates and rears its young. The wolf’s
homecoming offers tourists and naturalists the breath-stealing sight of a
pack of the long-legged hunters loping across a grassy meadow, or sunning
themselves, drunk on meat, on a Yellowstone Park hillside.
“When people start talking about wolves, within seconds they are
talking about something else-their children’s heritage, the balance
of nature, someone else telling you what to do,” says Bangs, who has spent
the past 15 years traveling around the West, meeting with people
passionate about wolves. “A lot of people on both sides get tears in their
eyes and start sobbing. Managing the wolf is managing a symbol.”
But while a wolf’s ululating delights some, it chills others to the
bone. The brutality of a wolf kill can test the mettle of even some
of the most ardent wolf supporters. For example, a saddle horse in
the Ninemile, a valley near Missoula, Mont., was apparently set upon by
wolves. It galloped away, so frantic and blinded by fear that it impaled
itself on the end of a 4-inch-diameter irrigation pipe. It managed to get
loose and run a short way before it collapsed and was eaten. Such killings
have meant the return of a raw frontier-style brutality to the Rocky
Mountain West-not just on the part of the wolves, but also by the people
charged with managing them.
The killing by and of wolves has ratcheted up in recent years as the
number of wild wolves has grown from several dozen in the 1990s to nearly
700 today, increasing about 30% each year. The wolf recovery program is at
a turning point: Federal biologists now consider the wolf a viable
species. After 29 years on the endangered species list, it was down-listed
in April to “threatened,” a final level of protection that the U.S Fish
and Wildlife Service has taken steps to remove in Montana, Idaho and
Wyoming by 2004. Management would be turned over to the states and wolves
could be hunted as trophy animals or shot by ranchers and homeowners if
The wolf’s aggression is not its fault-the animal does what it’s
hard-wired to do. But the species has returned to a Western
landscape far different than the one from which it was nearly
exterminated. While the northern Rocky Mountain region has millions
of acres of federally protected wilderness and parks, much of it is
snow and ice for many months. Wolves, like people, want to live in
more hospitable valley bottoms. The unchecked spread of rural
subdivisions, where people raise everything from llamas to horses to
potbellied pigs, and where ranchers graze cattle and sheep, are too
tempting a target for some wild wolves.
So the species has been allowed to come back on conditional terms.
Wolves can run, for example, but they can’t hide. There are 43 packs in
the three states, with an average of 10 wolves in each pack, as well as
numerous loners and pairs. Lone wolves who take livestock are hunted down
and killed almost immediately, and trespassing packs are trapped, drugged
and harassed. If they continue to range too close to people and their
livestock, the wolves are dispatched with extreme prejudice. More than 150
wolves have been killed by federal agents since 1987, something known as
The government’s goal is to have at least one member of every pack
wearing a radio collar so that the pack’s whereabouts can be
monitored and recorded. Federal agents can then, if necessary, track and
shoot packs, wolf by wolf. The one wearing the collar becomes known, in
the words of its hunters, as the “Judas wolf,” even if, in this case, the
creature isn’t aware of its betrayal. “We’re not proud of it,” Bangs says.
“It’s a necessary evil.”
With such intensive management, some say the Wild West is less than
truly wild. But that may be what it takes to maintain the precarious
balance between man and nature, for there are many who did not miss the
wolf one bit and consider the renewed possibility of the species’
extinction a reasonable idea.
In a cold, cavernous metal barn at the Park County fairgrounds in
Livingston, Mont., under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, a
panel of ranchers and wildlife experts sits before an audience that
consists of mostly men wearing cowboy hats. These two dozen or so
ranchers are from the nearby Shields River Valley. Wolves have not
yet colonized their neighborhood so these cattlemen have come to the
Paradise Valley, north of Yellowstone National Park-a hotbed of wolf
activity with four packs-to drink bad coffee and hear what ranching is
like with a new predator roaming the hills.
Bangs is first to speak. A smart, affable guy, he managed wolves for the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska and learned long ago that his
biggest challenge isn’t the wolves. It’s the people. He offers reason and
fact to those on all sides of the issue who are irrational or fearful or
deeply concerned, or sometimes hysterical, or accuse him of being a
butcher, even the few who have wandered out of the backwoods wearing guns,
stinking of bourbon and screaming about black helicopters and government
conspiracies. Bangs’ rational demeanor calms most of them down, but there
still are hotheads. Threats have come his way-including death threats,
especially in some isolated places. “We had a saying in Alaska,” he says.
“People live at the end of the road for a reason.”
Tonight’s meeting is tense but relatively tranquil. After Bangs
speaks, the meeting becomes the equivalent of “Tales From the Crypt” for
the agricultural set. Three ranchers whose livestock have suffered wolf
attacks quietly relate stories about howling at night, or coming home to
find frightened, bawling, huddled cows at the center of a circle of wolf
tracks in the snow, of a desperate feeling when they see buzzards circling
over their pasture, and of cows who have trampled calves as they fled
approaching wolves. Randy Petrich, a lean, young rancher, has shot four
wolves under several shoot-on-sight permits issued because of numerous
depredations on his ranch.
It’s a return to times past. In the late 1800s, ranchers-some of
them the ancestors of those on the land now-hired professional
exterminators to kill wolves for a bounty of $2.50 apiece. In a good
season those “wolfers” earned $3,000. Between 1883 and 1918, 80,000 wolves
were dispatched in Montana alone. By the 1930s all but the occasional lone
wolf was gone.
But the species found its way back to the West in two ways. In 1979
the first female wandered from Canada down the untamed northern
Rockies into Montana near Glacier National Park. Then, in 1995, the
Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service reintroduced
gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone and Idaho. When the process
began, biologists predicted 450 wolves would be in Idaho, Montana and
Wyoming by the end of 2002. Right now there are 660, not counting this
That may not sound like many wolves spread over that large a region, but
they kill often, because each one needs an average of nine pounds of meat
a day. They also travel far; each pack has a home range of 250 to 500
square miles. Wolves that kill livestock, however, are a minority. Most
stay with a wild diet. But from 1987, when the first attacks occurred,
until the end of 2002, wolves have dropped at least 200 head of cattle,
600 sheep, nine llamas, 50 pet dogs and the one terrified horse.
The challenge for biologists now is not to make the wolf population
more robust, but to make the species palatable to those who suddenly find
themselves in competition with the deadly efficient predator.
A wall of mountains called the Absarokas shoots heavenward and
shadows Jim Melin’s cattle and sheep ranch in the heart of south-
central Montana’s Paradise Valley. These mountains are the source of three
problems for the Melins: grizzly bears, mountain lions and now wolves.
When Melin comes out to conduct a tour of his ranch, his wife and several
of their 11 beautiful, smiling, towheaded children swarm out of the
trailer as well. The 53-year-old Melin introduces them warmly. “The last
three or four I ain’t even had a midwife,” he says with pride. “Jus’ done
His eldest daughter, 15-year-old Laura Dale, and a sister, 13-year-
old Sarah, come roaring up on a four-wheel ATV with a .22 rifle and
announce that they’ve been out “plinking” ground squirrels. “I shot
20,” says a beaming Laura, her long blond hair spilling out from
beneath a baseball cap.
Melin and his clan have grown up working hard on this beautiful but
hardscrabble place. He drives a snowplow and does custom haying to
supplement the income from the ranch. He is far more troubled by
wolves than he ever was by the grizzly bears and cougars that made
their way out of the mountains and occasionally carved up a cow. One night
last year, a pack came down and made a mess. When predators start killing,
they sometimes lose themselves in the frenzied bloodlust and keep
attacking far beyond what they can eat-something biologists call “surplus
killing.” On the way to move cattle in the morning, the Melin family saw a
flock of magpies feeding on 15 dead or dying sheep, their white wool
stained with blood.
“A lot of them, the wolves just grabbed and took a chunk out of, and
[those] had to be killed,” says Melin’s wife, Betsy. One of the dead was
Percy, a bum, or motherless lamb, raised by the girls’ grandmother. “It
makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck to hear 75 or 80 cows
screaming at the top of their lungs,” Melin says. “I never heard a cow
scream until the wolves came back.”
After the kids leave, Melin says he is worried that they will be
attacked by wolves on their way to the bus stop or while sleeping
outside at night. “It’s like the Wild West around here,” he
says. “When the girls go to baby-sit, they are handed a rifle and
told, ‘The wolves were up on the porch last night. Be careful.’ ” He says
he can’t send his dogs out with the kids-as he does to protect against
bears and mountain lions-because dogs attract wolves. Unlike bears and
mountain lions, however, wolves are not known for attacking humans. There
is no conclusive evidence of a wolf ever killing a person in North
America, but there have been attacks.
Melin is heartsick over the return of the wolf and can’t understand
why anyone with the sense God gave gophers would bring back so
vicious a predator. Yet he seems calm as he complains. Faith in God
has gotten Melin through some tough times, and it will, he is fairly
certain, get him through the test of the wolves. “I got the Lord,” he
says, pushing the front brim of his cowboy hat up to reveal narrowed blue
eyes. “Otherwise I’d like to kill someone.”
Ranchers aren’t the only ones hopping mad over wolves in the
Paradise Valley. Some hunters and hunting guides are furious. Elk,
massive and elegant, are a prized big game species outside the
northern border of Yellowstone, home to the world’s largest elk
herd, and hunters from all over the world come to drop one. In
recent years the size of the elk herd has fallen by more than half.
In 1991 park officials estimated the herd at more than 20,000,
perhaps as much as 24,000. This year the count was between 9,000 and
10,000. How much of that decline can be blamed on wolves?
Robert T. Fanning Jr., Bill Hoppe and Don Laubach, all hunters from
the Paradise Valley and founders of Friends of the Northern
Yellowstone Elk Herd, gather for coffee one afternoon to explain
that they think this resource is being wiped out as a result of the
reintroduction of wolves. “If this isn’t eco-terrorism, I don’t know what
is,” Fanning says. While elk numbers are affected by a variety of factors,
from drought to grizzly bears, he believes it is the voracious and growing
wolf population, with its surplus killing, that is the primary cause.
Theirs may be an extreme view, but Fanning and the others want the
federal government to reduce the number of wolves. “No one foresaw
that wolves would reproduce like gerbils,” says Fanning, spitting
the words out like coffee grounds. If officials don’t remove wolves, he
warns, “people will only take so much” before they rise up. “They will
take strychnine and cyanide to the mountains. Ten men can put 1,000
getters [a deadly device that shoots poison into the mouth of a wolf when
it eats bait on top of it] in one day and take care of our problem. But we
would rather the government take care of it.”
The relationship between elk and wolves in the Yellowstone region is
complex and, to date, not fully understood, says Doug Smith, the park’s
wolf biologist, who bristles at unsubstantiated claims about the reason
for the decline of elk. First, he says, the count in the early 1990s was
probably a record high. Those numbers were thinned by a severe drought,
normal population swings and five other predators that prey on elk calves
and/or adults. “Disentangling those things is not straightforward,” says
Smith. “Wolves are not guiltless. But they are not the sole factor.”
The unfolding wolf story isn’t just playing out on isolated ranches
and in rustic Yellowstone. Residents of rural homes, which have
blossomed throughout Montana in the past several decades, have
discovered, literally, the wolf at their door, with wildlife
savagery sometimes playing out in the front yard. The Ninemile
Valley, located 300 miles from Yellowstone, is a small slice of
heaven and home to another wolf hot zone. A helicopter pilot flying
over it once watched as two wolves chased three deer in circles
around a house.
Actress Andie MacDowell lived there for several years in the 1990s
when the wolves were first colonizing the valley. She spoke out in
support, Bangs says, but her enthusiasm waned after wolves
slaughtered the two Great Pyrenees guard dogs she had gotten to
protect her children. One was found half eaten under the swing
set. “She wasn’t against wolves after that,” says Joe Fontaine, a
wildlife biologist who works for Bangs. “She just didn’t speak out
in favor of them.”
Fontaine tools his white government-issue pickup truck down the
Ninemile one day and stops at a tiny maroon house. A license plate
on one vehicle reads “lma mgc,” and Jeri Ball believes the unusual
and imperial-looking llamas in her front yard are, indeed, magical.
She dresses them in costumes and takes them into schools and nursing homes
for educational and therapeutic purposes.
One night earlier this year, some visitors showed up. “Wolves
whacked three llamas there,” says Fontaine, pointing through the
truck’s windshield to a pasture in front of the house. “So we
got ‘em an electric fence.”
He gets out of the truck and begins joshing with Gene, Jeri’s
husband, who works at the local sawmill. When Gene walked out of his house
one night, he came face to face with a wolf feeding on his llama. It
stared at him. And then continued eating. And there was nothing Gene could
do. An element of trying to ease the effects of the wolf’s return has been
to make the rancher or homeowner feel as if they are not powerless.
Except in extraordinary cases, when someone is issued a shoot-on-
sight permit, citizens until recently could not shoot or otherwise
harass a wolf-only federal agents could. But since wolves were down-
listed from endangered to threatened, civilians have been allowed to shoot
them if they are attacking, and can harass them if they come around. Gene
has the full complement of equipment, including a radio transmitter in his
living room that picks up wolf radio collars, so he knows when the animals
are nearby. The electric fence is hot. And now Fontaine is here to show
him and a neighbor how to use rubber bullets, which can go through
half-inch plywood at 40 yards, to harass wolves.
The government is trying to make sure wolf management doesn’t become a
free-for-all. If the number of wolf packs in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming
drops below 30, wildlife officials intend to reassert authority. They will
not allow the wolf to be driven to the brink of extinction again. But
removing the animal from the threatened- species list will not be easy.
The Republican-dominated legislature in Wyoming wants to classify the wolf
as a predator outside of Yellowstone, not a trophy animal, meaning it can
be shot by anyone at any time rather than carefully managed. That outrages
the large number of Americans who consider killing wolves a sacrilege.
Bangs steers a middle course. As human development sprawls into
every desirable ecological niche in America, he says, wolves need to be
carefully managed, but not treated as vermin again. If Westerners are ever
to accept wolves as their neighbors, he says, those wolves that offend
need to be controlled, with lethal means, by hunters and ranchers-by far
the cheapest method. Such aggressive control measures may seem harsh, but
they may help dampen the growing outcry against the wolves.
Bangs says it’s wrongheaded to focus on the fate of individual
animals when whole populations are in trouble. Many wildlife
biologists constantly fight the sentimental-but biologically
unworkable-portrayals in such Hollywood films as “Free Willy”
and “Bambi.” Killing individual wolves that attack livestock means
the population as a whole will be allowed to stay. Nonetheless,
Bangs knows the bloodshed has only just begun.
“If you think shooting wolves is bad, wait until we start shooting
pups,” he says with a grimace.
Environmentalists do not accept the need to kill wolves as a given.
Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, has
lobbied for years to return the wolf to the Western wilds. To try to make
the wolf politically acceptable, the organization has raised more than
$250,000 to reimburse ranchers for dead livestock. But that hasn’t
satisfied ranchers, who aren’t fully reimbursed unless they can prove the
calf or sheep was killed by wolves. If the carcass gets gobbled up, so
does the evidence about the perpetrator. It can be difficult to tell a
wolf kill from a mountain lion kill, and a necropsy, a physical
examination of the carcass, is critical.
Wolf protection advocates have found some ranchers willing to test
their belief that you don’t have to kill wolves to keep them away
from cattle and sheep. The lower sheep pasture at the Melin ranch
recently looked like the opening of a used-car lot, with hundreds of red
flags fluttering in the breeze. This is a European innovation called
“fladry” that usually scares wolves away for a month or two, until the
wolves realize they have nothing to fear. But it’s better than nothing and
can be used at critical times, such as lambing season.
The Defenders’ Wolf Guardian Program in Boise, Idaho, also takes
advantage of wolves’ reluctance to approach humans. Volunteers,
including students and housewives, pay their own way to camp out in
remote mountain pastures when flocks and herds are most vulnerable.
They track signals from wolf radio collars and when the animals
approach, the volunteers whoop it up-yelling, banging pots and pans,
firing off cracker shells, says Laura Jones, coordinator of the program.
There are, however, only so many guardians to go around, so the wolf
killing continues. It’s usually done by Wildlife Services under the
direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The activity creates such
a public-relations problem that the media, which rode with troops in the
Iraq war, aren’t allowed to see what Wildlife Services is doing to wolves.
Teresa Howes, a public affairs officer with the Department of Agriculture
in Fort Collins, Colo., refused a request to accompany an agent on a
lethal control action. “It’s just too emotional,” she says.
Bangs says that after 15 years of helping wolves reclaim a place in
the West, he has no doubt it was a good idea, despite the number of
angry people and the losses of livestock and wolves. For one thing,
the wolf has helped restore a natural balance.
“We make decisions and trade-offs all the time,” he says. “With any
program there are winners and losers. It’s important to have some
areas as wild as they can be. This is just a tiny slice of the
country, but it will always remind us of what we’ve lost elsewhere.”