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WY: Pinnacle Peak wolves, for now, leave cows alone

■ Electric fences go up and — coincidence or not — pack lees private lands.

By Mike Koshmrl

Rain clouds overhead, Zack Strong was on his way to being drenched, striding around the perimeter of an hours-old flagged electric fence on a Walton Ranch pasture, trying to make sure everything was in place.

The fencing, called turbofladry, is intended to ward off wolves that have caused Spring Gulch ranchers to lose sleep for months. And for Strong to be stringing up the equipment alongside U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services personnel marked one of the rare occasions where non-lethal techniques have been used to try to prevent wolf depredations in Wyoming, at least in recent years.

“I hope we can keep as many wolves as we can alive and as many cows as we can alive,” said Strong, a Natural Resources Defense Council wildlife advocate who works out of Bozeman, Montana.

“Studies have shown it works,” he said, “and from what I’ve seen and experienced the last couple years, I just think it’s at the very least worth trying.”

Turbofladry has a good record of protecting calving cows from wolves in places like Montana, Strong said. This year not a single fladry-enclosed head of livestock there was lost, he said. The concept is that the leery large canines steer clear of the foreign, windblown skinny red flags. When they do lose their fear and venture near, the lobos are delivered a jolt.

But the Walton Ranch, which stretches for miles and climbs into the trees, is not a typical landscape for turbofladry, equipment that was originally engineered by Wildlife Services. It’s usually used in small pasture scenarios, and it’s a complicated tool to use on most public land grazing allotments or on large private ranches.

Strong, Walton Ranch hands, Wildlife Service’s state director, Mike Foster, and a handful of other federal employees spent the good part of the day encircling 110 acres of already-hayed pasture land with 2 miles of fladry just north of Highway 22. To remain effective, the equipment will require upkeep: high winds can wrap the flags around the taut line or a herd of elk moving through could knock the single-strand line down. Eventually, once the 540 head of cattle inevitably exhaust the remaining forage in the mown field, it will have to be moved to greener pastures.

A few days after the fladry installation, coincidence or not, the remaining animals from the Pinnacle Peak Pack departed West Gros Ventre Butte and the Spring Gulch area for the first time in nearly three weeks. Radio collar readings suggested the wolves went back to more familiar territory — the National Elk Refuge, where they den and have eked out a living in winters since 2009.

Elk Refuge biologist Eric Cole reported seeing a group of three wolves north of Miller Butte this week and a lone lobo farther north in the refuge’s North Gap area last weekend.

Since spring the well-known wolf pack, possibly the most regularly visible in Jackson Hole, is suspected of being the culprit in at least three cow and six calf deaths, including both Walton Ranch and Lucas family cattle. Until this year the pack had stuck to elk, deer and other natural food sources.

On Monday a Wildlife Services agent who’s been camping out on Spring Gulch ranchland for two weeks left at the direction of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy field supervisor for Wyoming, Tyler Abbott.

“We have not seen a depredation for a couple of weeks, although we’ve continued to see wolf activity through a couple of days ago,” Abbott said. “They may all be back on the refuge or in Grand Teton National Park at this point.

“I hope that in fact we are done,” he said, “but we’ll see.”

It’s unclear what’s left of the Pinnacle Peak Pack.

Having probably produced a double litter this spring, the pack was seen on the refuge numbering as many as 18 animals this summer.

Abbott reported that two members had been trapped and killed the last week of August, but afterward he stopped sharing up-to-date information with the News&Guide about the status of the lethal operations. He reasoned that the dissemination of such numbers would be “distracting from the ability to do our work.”

No authorization to kill more Pinnacle Peak Pack wolves is still standing, Abbott confirmed Monday. But the federal wildlife manager refused to share the number of wolves that were killed, arguing that he wasn’t confident the conflict had come to a complete stop.

“Once I have a chance to finalize everything, I’ll put together a summary report,” Abbott said. “Are the collared animals truly staying on federal lands? Biology is what biology is, and it’s not predictable, so we’ll have to watch and wait and see.”

West Gros Ventre Butte resident Lisa Robertson, whose house overlooks the Walton Ranch, wasn’t pleased with the secrecy.

“It’s too bad, and the lack of transparency is not OK,” Robertson said. “They’re our wolves and we ought to know. The public deserves transparency when any wildlife is taken in this state, and should be told how, when and in what manner.”

One person who has been dubious of the effectiveness of the fladry and other non-lethal wolf-conflict-reduction techniques is Terry Schramm, a cowboy who has worked for the Walton Ranch for four decades.

“The whole thing is kind of a dog-and-pony show,” Schramm said. “Somebody’s going to declare victory because we haven’t lost any cattle since they put it up, but there haven’t been any wolves here since they put it up.

“They’re gone for the moment, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll stay gone,” he said. “It’d take about a half an hour if they wanted to run back across from the refuge.”

Ordinarily, Schramm said, the Walton Ranch lets its cows feed in the trees where the property climbs onto the crest of the butte. This year, he said, they’re “scared to even think about it.”

A deliberate effort to keep a wolf pack alive that’s stubbornly come back to cattle as a food source for months isn’t par for the course in Wyoming.

Fish and Wildlife uses an incremental approach to stopping conflict, authorizing the killing of a number of wolves and then, if that doesn’t stop the bloodshed, targeting more. On occasion entire packs that chronically kill livestock are destroyed.

There’s been more conflict this year than anytime since wolves were reintroduced to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995. Numbers haven’t been tabulated since early September, but Abbott said that at least 200 livestock have been confirmed wolf-killed and at least 80 of the large canines have been removed in response.

Although the numbers haven’t been made public, that incremental lethal approach was applied to the Pinnacle Peak Pack in the effort to halt the killing of Spring Gulch cattle.

Toying with the non-lethal methods — the turbofladry and sending out nighttime range riders — is what was unique about the situation.

“Non-lethal techniques had more of a place in the early part of the program, when you’re trying to maximize the number of wolves out there,” Abbott said.

“The big difference today is that for the last several years we’ve been well above the recovery number for wolves and we know that is the reason why depredations have increased. I’m less inclined to use non-lethal control measures at this point.

“We’re trying to be sensitive to this pack,” Abbott said.