By LESLIE KAUFMAN
JACKSON, Mont. — As a fourth-generation rancher, Dean B. Peterson has a complicated relationship with wolves.
In the 1880s, they preyed on his family’s livestock after his great-grandparents arrived as homesteaders along the Big Hole River. By the 1930s, wolves were nearly extinct as a result of traps and poisons. By the time Mr. Peterson was born in the 1960s, the traps had given way to nostalgic tales about how clever the wolves had been.
Growing up, he thrilled to the sight of any wolf and to the sound of an occasional nighttime howl. But as an adult, witnessing a rebound in the gray wolf population, he did not hesitate to shoot one when it passed behind his sons’ jungle gym and headed for the cattle pen.
“I do not dislike or hate the animal,” said Mr. Peterson, who calls wolves “an unreal species that God created.”
Instead, he resents the conservationists who pressed the federal government to reintroduce the gray wolf to the Northern Rockies in the mid-1990s. That decision was shoved “down our throat with a plunger,” he said.
Yet the dynamic between ranchers and conservationists has begun to change, and Mr. Peterson is surprised to find himself acting as a grudging mediator.
The turning point came early this year as lawmakers from some Western states were demanding that the government remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, and cede control of the animal in Montana and Idaho to state governments. In April, they succeeded by attaching a rider to a budget bill.
Aghast, some environmental groups had a moment of reckoning. Had they gone too far in using the Endangered Species Act as a cudgel instead of forging compromises with ranchers?
So a handful began reaching out to ranchers, offering them money and tools to fend off wolves without killing them. And some ranchers, mindful that tough federal restrictions could be reimposed if wolf numbers dwindle again, have been listening. Tentative partnerships are cropping up, and a few that already existed are looking to expand.
Working through Mr. Peterson, People and Carnivores, a new nonprofit group that promotes “co-existence,” has built a five-mile, $15,000 electric fence adorned with flags to protect calves on a neighbor’s property. This summer, it helped pay for a mounted rider to patrol 20 square miles of grazing land shared by three ranches near Mr. Peterson’s as a deterrent.
“A lot of my neighbors think I am wet behind the ears to take money from these people,” said Mr. Peterson, who has not yet accepted aid for himself. “But the wolf is here to stay now, and my feeling is that those people who want it here should share the costs.”
The conflict dates back generations, but tensions soared in 1995 and 1996, when the government reintroduced 66 gray wolves in Idaho and in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The goal was to restore balance to the regional ecosystem: after the wolves died out, elk and coyote populations had increased alarmingly. Elk herds were destroying large tracts of vegetation, and coyotes had reduced second-tier predators like badgers.
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service set a minimum population goal of some 150 wolves, plus 15 breeding pairs, in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. To their surprise, the wolves hit those targets in just seven years and spread beyond the wilderness areas.
Livestock kills began to climb, and the ranchers grew angry. They even blamed the wolves for cows’ weight loss. “They come off the pasture on average about 100 pounds lighter than before there were wolves in the area,” Mr. Peterson said. “They spend so much time looking around, they don’t have time to eat.”
By 2007, the total number of wolves in the three states was 1,513. Surveying the evidence, the Fish and Wildlife Service sought that year to have the animal “delisted” under the Endangered Species Act. But conservationists sued to block that move, saying Wyoming lacked an adequate management plan. A federal court in Missoula, Mont., agreed.
In 2009, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried again to remove wolves from federal protection in all areas except in Wyoming. The court would not allow it, setting the stage for a revolt by lawmakers and this year’s unusual Congressional vote. The Interior Department then brokered a similar compromise in Wyoming.
Wolf hunts began in Idaho and Montana at the end of the summer. Montana set a quota of 220 wolves to be killed, or 25 percent of the state’s total population; the hunting tags sold swiftly, which some attributed to pent-up rage among the ranchers.
The backlash led some environmentalists to question their approach. “I personally look back and say there were a number of things that conservationists did that were not effective and which blew up on us,” said Lisa Upson, executive director of Keystone Conservation, a Montana-based nonprofit group that offers ranchers help with nonlethal control measures. “Now we have to live with this horrible precedent.”
So her group and others are pouring energy into training mounted riders to fend off wolves. They are promoting husbandry techniques that allow calves to grow stronger in penned areas before grazing on the range. Drawing on a folk wisdom that dates from medieval times, they have hung lines of red flags along pastures to deter wolves from approaching.
Most acknowledge that such measures are not a panacea. Michael D. Jimenez, the wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service outside Jackson, Wyo., says federal and state agencies have tried guard dogs, noise aversion (cannons or sirens set off by motion detectors) and “scent aversion,” or placing wolf urine and scat on trees, for years. “Each works in some circumstances,” Mr. Jimenez said, “but are not necessarily a match for a robust wolf population.”
And ranchers may not embrace such tactics. Once, after Ms. Upson thought she had talked some ranchers in the Upper Ruby Valley in Montana into sharing half the cost of a mounted summer rider, she found that they had used the money to pay for fuel for helicopters dispatched for wolf shootings.
Tensions between conservationists and ranchers in the Big Hole area have run especially high. Two summers ago, wolves took about a dozen calves from Mr. Peterson’s herd as it grazed in the mountains. He complained to the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services agency, which responded by shooting only one wolf.
In Mr. Peterson’s view, that was hardly a solution. He says the government’s response has been hampered by too many rules and too little money. Ranchers are often asked by wolf hunters to pay up to $350 an hour for the helicopter fuel, he said.
If wolves are going to be part of the landscape,Mr. Peterson decided, he wants ranchers to get their share of the money “the people in Los Angeles and New York send” to conservationists to find solutions.
So he will continue to work with environmentalists and try to persuade his neighbors to do the same.“I think I should be able to shoot on sight on my land, no questions asked,” he said, but “I am willing to do my part to try and adapt.”