Wolves now firmly established, but debate still lingers
By EVE BYRON Independent Record
During the past decade, gray wolves in Montana evolved from the protected to the prey.
For Ed Bangs, 2009’s first-ever wolf hunting season in Montana and Idaho proved that the federal Endangered Species Act works. As one of those instrumental in their reintroduction in the Northern Rockies in 1995, Bangs viewed the season as evidence that those wolves have advanced from a species threatened with extinction due to poisoning and trapping in the early 1900s to a predator whose numbers are so abundant that they need culling through hunting, like mountain lions and black bears.
That abundance comes with a high price tag for ranchers like Kathy Konen near Dillon, who lost dozens of ewes and lambs throughout the decade due to wolves, including more than 120 mature, prized Rambouilette rams in one fell swoop last summer. The wolves in that incident killed not just to eat, but for practice, for fun or for no reason at all.
Yet to others like Louisa Willcox and Matt Skoglund with the National Resource Defense Council, the claims of wolf recovery remain premature. They believe the reintroduction of wolves in the Rocky Mountain region is a success story in that wolf numbers are back from the brink and people are now talking about how to live with wolves, not whether to live with them as was angrily debated a decade ago.
But Skogland points out that between the hunting season, natural mortality, death for livestock predation and the prevalence of the “shoot, shovel and shut up” mentality, about 40 percent of Montana’s estimated 497 wolves were killed last year.
“We think that the wolf hunt in Montana and Idaho last year was premature,” Skoglund said.
Bangs counters that while there may be only 1,645 known wolves in 95 breeding pairs now on the landscape in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, another 12,000 wolves exist just to the north in Canada, and the populations do interact.
Their wide range of perspectives represents the inherent conflicts that for the entire 20th century clouded the air when Canis lupus loped across the landscape. But Bangs, the wolf recovery specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and Willcox agree that the passions surrounding the 1995-96 reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho have softened and it’s become more of a chronic political tussle.
“The year 2000 was when we first met the minimum recovery goal of at least 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves” in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, Bangs recalled. “What’s remarkable is that was kind of right on schedule for what we predicted.
“I remember meetings early on, with 1,500 people attending, and they weren’t allowed to bring signs, guns, knives, pet wolves or dogs into the meeting room. We had security and it was a big deal. Now people forget how polarized and angry it was. The level of emotion and personification surrounding wolves has become more civil and I think it’s healthy compared to what it used to be.”
Willcox used to park her vehicle at a distance from the meeting halls, not knowing whether she’d be able to flee quickly if necessary, when she worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition a decade ago.
“Before the reintroduction, it was a very hostile climate, with a huge amount of misinformation centered on tales of Little Red Riding Hood, with people saying their children would get eaten,” Willcox said. “Now, the arguments have shifted and the concern about the degree that humans will be threatened by wolves has largely disappeared.”
Wolves were removed from the list of endangered species in Montana and Idaho earlier this year — an act being challenged in federal court by about a dozen environmental groups, including Willcox’s NRDC — but remain listed in Wyoming, where the state wanted them declared predators that could be shot on site in most places.
Konen, the rancher, first felt the impacts of wolves in 1996, when the Nez Perce pack escaped from a containment area near Yellowstone and migrated to her ranch. One wolf had climbed out of the pen using its teeth, then dug underneath the fence to free its pack mates. Eventually they were darted and returned to the containment area before being released into the wild.
“Our earliest wolf kills were in 2001 or 2002, when we had seven come over in the spring right before shearing and lambing,” Konen said. “We lost 45 ewes at that time, and it was so close to lambing that we had a lot of aborted fetuses. They got in and ran them around in the pen. Every year after that, we’ve had trouble.”
They’ve always hired herders to protect the sheep from predators and recently acquired guard dogs too. Yet these days Konen’s family checks the pastures more often and experiences more sleepless nights wondering if the annual paycheck from the sale of their stock is going to be diminished.
As of Dec. 8, wolves had killed at least 353 head of livestock, including guard dogs, in 2009, a rate of more than one per day. Officials with the Montana Department of Livestock add that for every confirmed wolf kill, they believe another seven cattle, sheep or horses are killed by wolves that aren’t found immediately and are fed on by other wild animals, so those deaths are known as unconfirmed kills.
Ranchers are compensated by the government for confirmed wolf kills — more than $128,000 in 2009 — but there are other intangible costs, such as the aborted fetuses, barren wombs from stress or livestock that don’t put on as much weight as they used to.
“When you have wolf attacks, you’re always thinking about it. You raise those animals for a finished product and if you don’t have that product you don’t get paid,” Konen said. “We take good care of our animals, and it’s very painful to see them get killed by wolves.
“When they got our bucks (rams) we had to destroy about 30 to put them out of their misery because they were chewed up so bad. Their throats were bit and they were standing there dripping blood, with their rears chewed up. They were beyond repair.”
Willcox sympathizes with losses like those suffered by the Konens, and said that helping livestock producers and others is where the challenge lies for the next decade. She watched as many of the conservation organizations that pushed for the wolf reintroduction left the playing field once wolves were established on the landscape, and said they need to re-engage.
“We underestimated the nature and number of conflicts with livestock, and there are not enough people on the ground to help the ranchers deal with the conflicts in ways that don’t include just whacking wolves,” Willcox said. “We need to help ranchers do more preventative work with livestock and that will take additional resources. You can’t just put carnivores on the ground and wait for things to happen. We’ve lost opportunities and time by not creating a climate that’s more conducive to helping resolve wolf conflicts with livestock producers.
“This is one of the great conservation success stories in the West in the last several decades,” she added. “We’ve gone from near extermination of wolves to where they’re here, now, in the Northern Rockies. This is a success of our culture and of our country to reverse the sins of the past.”