Western ranchers in many regions are suffering increased livestock losses as an introduced wolf population thrives, expanding into previously wolf-free areas.
In central/eastern Idaho, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released Canadian gray wolves in 1995. Theoretically, the wolves were supposed to stay in the backcountry and eat elk, but the wolves apparently didn’t read the fine print.
Two days later, a wolf showed up at a ranch on Iron Creek and killed a young calf. Now, 15 years later, nearly every rancher in Lemhi and Custer counties has seen wolves, while livestock losses are common.
Wolves are efficient killers and often work in packs; they can travel many miles and often kill more animals than they eat – especially when teaching their pups to hunt.
In 1999, Ralph McCrea in Leadore, ID, lost 20 lambs to a wolf that came into his flock on two different nights.
“This wolf was collared and turned loose in Yellowstone Park on a Wednesday. The next day, he went through Dillon, MT, and by Friday night was at my place killing sheep,” McCrea says. More recently, McCrea has been losing big calves on the range, and wolves are coming into his calving pens at night, killing baby calves right next to his house.
James Whittaker, also from Leadore, experienced his first confirmed losses (three bred heifers) in 2007. He was indemnified for those losses, he says, after a wildlife officer confirmed the kills. But, in 2008, Whittaker had another two confirmed kills within a mile of his house. And, in 2009, he had another four confirmed kills on his range.
“It’s hard to find them soon enough on our range to get the losses confirmed by wildlife officers; after all, our range is 35 miles long,” Whittaker says. He says he lost 45 calves that summer, and his annual loss has grown from 2% to nearly 5%.
When you lose an animal to causes other than wolf predation, you usually find the carcass; wolves may not leave anything at all. “It’s like the animal evaporated. We get paid for confirmed kills, but not the ones that disappear or we find too late to determine cause of death,” Whittaker explains.
Bruce Mulkey of Baker, ID, says wolf proponents on a panel discussion at Idaho State University last year claimed wolves were responsible for only 1% of livestock losses, and ranchers lose more calves to disease and other problems. “But if you’re part of that 1% and happen to lose 15-20% of your calves, that’s a huge loss,” Mulkey says.
Jay Smith of Carmen, ID, decided to do some research of his own. He looked at ranchers’ Bureau of Land Management use reports to assess range losses on the Diamond-Moose allotment.
“I documented how much loss ranchers experienced before wolf introduction, compared with losses afterward. Soon after wolves were brought in, some ranchers on that allotment had huge losses,” Smith says.
Among them was John Aldous, who lost 34 calves the first year. “Then the wolves scattered out and hit other ranchers besides me,” Aldous recalls. “Elk population dropped from 300 in Moose Creek Meadows 10 years ago to where now we’re lucky to see 20 elk. USFWS has eliminated the Gerano wolf pack three times but they keep coming back. I think some of the offspring that go off on their own come back and regroup,” he says.
Dale Edwards, who operates a neighboring allotment, says the USFWS trapper has helped with his wolf problems. “He has a camp at my place and comes periodically to find out where the wolves are. We’ve killed two and have a kill order for two more. One of these wolves is radio-collared, and they don’t want to kill it because it allows them to follow the pack,” Edwards says.
Fay and Erin Coiner have a grazing ranch above Salmon, ID; they spend summers there with the cattle. Fay says wolves have been beneficial in one way – reducing the elk that were eating their pasture.
“We used to have more than 100 elk on our ranch. By the third summer of wolves, we were down to 13. Now, we might see five elk. We’ve increased our cattle numbers a little as a result, but we lose at least one calf a year to wolves, even with Erin riding every day to chase them off. He has a permit to kill any that are with our cattle, and he’s shot a few, but they still come back.”
She says wolves don’t kill outright; they bite their prey numerous times (leaving characteristic scratch marks and bruising underlying tissues), wearing the animal down. They often start eating on the animal before it dies.
More than just kills
But the losses and damage extend beyond killed animals. Wolves affect ranchers’ profit even if they never kill a calf. The bigger losses of disrupted grazing, lower pregnancy rates and weight loss are harder to measure than dead calves. Wolves also destroy peace of mind.
Ross Goddard of Tendoy, ID, says his cattle are very unsettled – constantly nervous and on the move. “They don’t graze or gain as much, and I can’t use my range allotments properly. If we put cows in a certain area and they’re supposed to be there for a month, two days later they may all be in the next unit and you can’t get them to go back. It disrupts your whole season’s grazing management,” he says.
Goddard’s grazing use is under strict observation because of fish habitat. “We must keep cattle off riparian areas because of endangered fish, so we shove the cattle into higher country right into wolf domain,” he says.
Bruce Mulkey says once wolves harass cattle, they can no longer be gathered or moved using dogs. “The cows are all stirred up and all they do is fight the dogs,” he says.
In fact, a research study in Oregon with radio-collared cattle and radio-collared wolves indicates wolves harass cattle dozens of times over the summer. The stress resulted in cattle coming off range pastures last year a full body condition score lower than normal.
McRea says that when wolves go through his pastures, cows go crazy, bellowing and running to find their calves. The result is many ranchers lose young calves to trampling by stampeding cows.
“I had a calf run over last spring. He ended up with a crooked neck, but survived. I also had a month-old calf chewed up by wolves, with his intestines hanging out. The vet came out and tried to save him but he only lived two days,” he says.
Cattle that survive a wolf attack, or calves crippled by stampeding cows, must be butchered or sold at a loss. And, ranchers aren’t compensated for costs of doctoring injured animals, cows sold because they lost their calves (making it necessary to raise or buy more replacement heifers), or the lowered weights on market calves.
“Wolves are coming in at night to kill in winter, and my calves lose weight. I have to corral them every night so they’re close enough to where I can get to them when wolves come,” McCrea says. By spring, the cattle don’t want to go back into the corral at night, but he doesn’t dare leave them 1½ miles from his house with no chance to protect them.
“I find it horrible that part of my calving equipment, when I get out in the night to check cows, has to be a rifle on my back. I was once within 25 yards of one wolf, in the corral with the cows, with just a flashlight,” he says. Ranchers are becoming reluctant to be out doing routine tasks without a gun.
“This maneuver by our federal government is stealing from me, my children and our future,” Smith says. “It may destroy our livelihood, and our entire lifestyle is also in jeopardy. I have small children and I like to take them with me to the hills, but that’s now a risk.”
McCrea tells of an incident when his grandchildren were sledding on the hill behind his house. “A couple hours later, I went out to check the cows and found a wolf standing in the herd, just 40 yards from where the kids had been sledding.”
Ranchers have been told that wolves are shy and stay away from people. But a study by Oregon State University, the University of Idaho and state/federal agencies that used collared wolves with global-positioning devices to record position at five-minute intervals shows that wolves often hang around brushy areas or ridgetops overlooking human activity, and travel right past barnyards and homes.
Working with agencies
Ranchers must work with state and federal agencies on handling problem wolves, and a livestock kill must be confirmed before any action is taken.
Rick Williamson, Idaho branch of USFWS, says two rules were established when wolves were introduced to Idaho.
“The 10-J rule applied to areas south of I-90, allowing flexibility in whether we could remove or relocate problem wolves. The 4-D rule applied north of I-90. Those wolves were fully protected. Now things have changed with the state managing wolves,” he says. Things may change again, depending on results of the current lawsuit to halt wolf-population management. (See “Wolves Back On The List”).
“When I’m called to investigate suspected predation, we skin the dead animal and look for evidence, like bite marks and tracks. We determine whether the animal was actually killed by, and not just fed on, by wolves. There are four categories in our evaluation: confirmed kill, probable kill, possible kill, and other.
“Right now, Defenders of Wildlife will indemnify 100% for the loss if it’s a confirmed kill, and 50% for a probable kill. This program is still in place, but they’re waiting to see how U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy rules in the lawsuit. They said they’ll continue to pay for confirmed losses until this ruling is made, or until the state gets a compensation program of its own,” Williamson says.
“Once we confirm a kill, we confer with Fish & Game; they have final authority to tell us whether we can remove a wolf or trap and collar one. We collared a wolf on Dale Edwards’ place and he has a telemetry receiver to check for her presence. If she comes down into his ranch, he can haze her. If he catches her in the act of harassing or killing cattle, he has a right to shoot her. Right now, he’s more interested in leaving the collared wolf alive so we can tell where the wolves are and whether they’re near his cattle,” Williamson says.
“We have other tactics, like radio-activated scare boxes we can put near a den or gathering site to deter wolves. But we have to be careful, because we may be just moving them from one producer to his neighbor. I think the best thing we can do if there’s depredation is to remove problem wolves,” he says.
A few years ago, a graduate student tried to determine how many kills are not found. “He radio-tagged 350 calves on the Diamond-Moose allotment,” Williamson says. “He discovered that for every kill we found, there could be up to eight we didn’t.”
Coiners work closely with the agencies to help manage wolves rather than kill them. “We try to make wolves understand that this is our territory and off limits,” Fay says. “The agencies did a flagging experiment around our ranch to try to deter wolves, but it didn’t work very well because wolves are curious. They came to see what was going on; that summer we lost three calves. We’ve used other deterrents, too, such as rubber bullets and firecrackers to scare them away, but they come right back,” she says.
“Many wolf problems with livestock occur on private property,” Williamson says. “A few years ago, the White Hawk pack was causing problems on Carmen Creek. During a three-year period, there were more than 50 livestock kills and all but two were on private land. When we later removed that pack, it stirred a hornet’s nest of protest around the world. But people need to understand that wolves have no business on private property,” Williamson says.
McCrea says you can’t keep wolves from killing livestock, but it would help if ranchers could get full compensation for missing animals. “If the public insists that we have wolves, they should pay the price and help resolve the problems that wolves create.” Many ranchers feel wolf introduction was a taking of private property by the federal government.
Heather Smith Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer in Salmon, ID.
Control is difficult
Problem wolves are generally relocated or removed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). James Whittaker, a Leodore, ID, rancher, says last year when wolves hit his cattle, government trappers worked all summer trying to get them – and only killed two. “They trapped one and shot one from a plane. If you don’t get them the first time, they hide when they hear the plane coming,” he says.
Allen Bodenhamer, Baker, ID, says wolves were killing calves last year in his barnyard at night and hiding up in the timber during daytime. “Government hunters flew our area six times trying to find them and never got any,” he says. During calving season, Bodenhamer and his wife checked cows every hour but didn’t see the wolves that came in to kill calves. “For wolves to come in between checks with our spotlights, they must have figured out our pattern,” Bodenhamer adds.
Jay Smith’s family runs cattle on 75,000 acres of public land and says that at least one family member is out on horseback almost every day. “We’ve only had close enough encounters for shooting opportunity about 10 times since 1995. If they feel pressured by humans, they kill livestock at night.”
Rancher John Aldous adds, “In our area, there’s so much timber we only get a glimpse of one when we’re going down a trail with a herd of cows, and then it’s gone.”
Wolf hunts won’t help
Most ranchers and sportsmen feel wolf numbers are much higher than game departments estimate. “Official” numbers have increased enough, however, that wolves in the central Rockies were delisted in 2009, no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act. Idaho, Montana and parts of eastern Washington and Oregon were allowed to manage wolves as a game animal and initiate a hunting season, with quotas.
For the first hunt (fall 2009) 26,384 tags were sold in Idaho for a chance to kill 220 wolves. Due to lack of hunting success, several units remained open after the December deadline, and some quotas were still not filled by summer 2010.
Jay Smith says the hunting season is a step in the right direction, but growing wolf numbers render it inadequate for control. “You could open the season year round and wouldn’t put a dent in the wolf population,” he says.
Obviously, wolves are difficult to hunt. “Amateur hunters just make them more elusive,” says James Whittaker, Leadore, MT, rancher. “If you shoot at a wolf and miss, he won’t give you that opportunity again.”
Wolves back on the list
On Aug. 5, wolves’ status in Montana and Idaho changed again. That’s when U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, MT, ruled that the entire region’s wolf population must be either listed as endangered or removed from the endangered list; the designation can’t be different for different states, he says. As the introduced wolves in Wyoming weren’t removed from the endangered list, Molloy ruled all wolves must remain under federal protection.
Last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) turned wolf management over to the states in Montana and Idaho, where the state game departments utilized a hunting season as a means for population management. Wildlife advocates sued the federal government to halt the hunting. Molloy’s Aug. 5 decision sides with them.
Molloy ruled that the Endangered Species Act doesn’t allow USFWS to list only some animals in a species as endangered; therefore, the entire Rocky Mountain wolf population must be protected.
Thus, the fall hunts planned in Idaho and Montana are cancelled. Ranchers are now waiting to learn what other changes might occur regarding their ability to protect their livestock from wolf depredation.