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Livestock losses leave ranchers worn down by wolves

LIVINGSTON - The magpies tipped him off.

Robert Weber saw them out his kitchen window, hopping in inch-deep snow in the pasture where his sheep were supposed to be.

Out of the house to investigate in the early morning light, Weber saw what had drawn the black-and-white scavengers to his Paradise Valley ranch. The birds were picking away at his dead sheep.

"I counted eight dead sheep and a couple more torn up pretty bad," Weber said, recalling the morning last December. "I could see wolf tracks all over, about five inches long. That's one hell of a track."

The sheep that survived were huddled together and terrified - some are still stricken with fear today, Weber said. The wolves returned the next night to his brother's place next door, scattering 17 dead sheep over a half-mile, according to Weber.

"This was like Pearl Harbor for my brother and me," said Weber, 79. "I've fought coyotes out here for 50 years but they don't hold a candle to these wolves."

Statistically, Weber's sheep would be far more likely to be killed by coyotes, dogs, eagles, diseases, weather, poison or lambing complications, according to 2002-2003 figures from the Montana Department of Agriculture.

But Weber, a lean rancher with thick hands and a wry sense of humor, shares the belief of his neighbors and others that the wolf is capable of significantly damaging livestock operations and, on a larger scale, transforming the way of life for rural people who now share the landscape with wolves.

"Do you know where I can get some poison?" Weber says, only half joking.

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Although wolves are overwhelmingly popular among Yellowstone National Park visitors and others, there is a renewed sense of anger and disenfranchisement among many people who live in wolf country.

In recent months, that animosity has been fueled in part by several livestock killings in Madison Valley; an incident near Meeteetse, Wyo., in which two wolf biologists are accused of trespassing on private property; a stalemate between Wyoming and the federal government over the future of wolves, and delays in removing endangered species protections.

"The frustration level has reached a point where people will try to take things into their own hands. I don't think that's a good thing but some feel like it's the only option left," said Justin O'Hair, a rancher who lives down the road from Weber.

That frustration has spilled out of ranching communities and coffee shops and into county courthouses around the region. Several county commissions, supported by crowds of worried landowners, have passed resolutions stating that wolves aren't welcome and urging the government to give locals more latitude in dealing with wolves.

"We realize wolves are here but we have to control them," said David Davidson, a commissioner in Carbon County, where wolves were recently designated "problem predators."

A few wolf opponents have also taken that anger outside the law. An increasing number of wolves were illegally killed in Wyoming last year and a rash of poisonings apparently aimed at wolves has killed or injured more than 20 dogs in Wyoming and Idaho.

"Everything is kind of hitting a grand crescendo all at once with the refusal of Wyoming's plan and the state lawsuit," said Dominic Domenici, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in charge for Wyoming. "It just kind of whipped everyone into a frenzy."

That heightened animosity has also taken root in Idaho, where interest is growing in an anti-wolf group's proposal to sue the federal government to rid the area of wolves and one Web site with a "wolf-killing ammo" ad and a detailed paper titled "How to Poison Wolves."

In recent weeks, several dogs have died or become severely ill in Wyoming after ingesting poison and three more in Idaho became ill after eating pesticide-laced meatballs in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

When investigators went to the scene of the Idaho poisoning, they found 80 more poisoned meatballs on the forest floor. No one has been charged in the incidents but investigators feel "very strongly" that the poison was intended for wolves, Domenici said. Agents in March executed a search warrant on an Idaho man who is thought to maintain the Web site with the wolf-poisoning information.

Ron Gillet, a member of the Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition, said in a recent letter to the Challis (Idaho) Messenger newspaper that the poison was aimed at the wolves reintroduced to the area by government "criminals."

"It would seem unfortunate that these pets were the victims," he wrote. "However it would seem obvious that the poison was not put out for pets but for Canadian wolves which are devastating our wildlife and also mutilating our pets."

Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said there seems to be an upswing in frustration over wolves lately, both from wolf supporters and opponents. The handful of federal agents who routinely track wolves know the animosity has been inflamed recently, but they don't feel personally threatened, Bangs said.

"These things go in cycles," said Bangs, who has received several death threats because of his involvement in the wolf program. "It's wolves. They drive people nuts."

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Wolves were in the northern Rocky Mountains long before European settlers arrived. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, they were shot, trapped and poisoned to make way for farms, ranches and settlements. By the 1930s, the wolves were largely gone.

The controversial engineered return of Canis lupus in 1995 and 1996 marked a renewed fight over whether wolves could, and should, co-exist with people.

Those questions have become more thorny as the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population - estimated at 761 at the end of 2003 – makes new forays from the core recovery area in Yellowstone to neighboring valleys where people live.

For some people, anecdotes and personal experience among neighbors can be a more powerful force for shaping opinions than scientific data, Bangs said. That's especially true when wolves move into a new area and local residents are faced with a new predator in their midst, he said.

"That gets the rumor mill started and things can get wild on both sides," Bangs said.

Wolves have been spotted several times at Justin O'Hair's place along the Yellowstone River south of Livingston. Although his ranch has only had one confirmed wolf kill – a calf about two years ago – the presence of the predator casts a pall, especially because it's "only a matter of time" before the wolves start making a larger impact on his cattle operation, O'Hair said.

Worse than the individual kills, he said, is that wolves appear to slow the breeding cycle for cattle and cause other problems that are harder to quantify than carcasses.

All of his neighbors have been affected by wolves in one way or another, he said.

"We're in a real bad wreck here. I don't think people know that," O'Hair said. He said he worried that wolves would eventually contribute to a decline on his fifth-generation family ranch and he would be unable to pass it on to his children.

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On the other side of the Absaroka Mountains, Vern and Averill Keller's ranch was one of the first visited by wolves after they were reintroduced.

They lost several sheep that first year before the female wolf was caught and relocated. Things stayed quiet until about a year ago, when two wolves came to their Fishtail ranch and killed 23 lambs. Wolves returned in March and killed another ewe.

"Most of the time we never did see them," Averill Keller said.

Like other ranchers in the region, the Kellers submitted a claim to Defenders of Wildlife, a conservation group, to be compensated for their losses. Last year, the Washington, D.C.-based group paid out more than $68,000 to ranchers who lost cattle and sheep to wolves.

"At first my husband didn't want to open the envelope but I finally deposited it," Averill Keller said. "I thought if they're going to do this to us, somebody's got to pay us."

But the payment, which is aimed at providing market value for losses due to wolves, doesn't take the sting out of losing livestock, Keller said.

The wolves are exacerbating the troubles that ranchers are already facing from other predators, drought and poor grass conditions, Keller said.

"Ranchers are having a hard enough time hanging on," Keller said. "This is just another problem for us."

The result, she said, is that many ranchers may choose to sell or subdivide their land.

"Do you want everything subdivided?" Keller said. "There's no way we can make a living here except by raising livestock."

Lately the wolves have shown up in Roscoe, Luther and others areas near Red Lodge as well as others areas of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

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As wolves move to new territory, sometimes roaming hundreds of miles, wildlife managers have seen an increase in the number of calls they get to deal with them.

"They're increasing," said Larry Handegard, director of Montana operations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, the agency in charge of dealing with problem animals.

The primary increase in wolf business has been in western and southwest Montana, he said. Coyotes still take up a majority of their time, but Handegard's 20 agents are fielding slightly more calls than in the past for wolves.

"It's usually for dead or injured livestock or harassment of cattle by wolves," he said. "One of the problems we see quite often is that too much of the carcass has been consumed so you're unable to tell whether it was a wolf."

Noisemakers, flags and other devices are sometimes put in place to keep wolves at bay but without much success, he said. Most times, the wolves have to be killed or relocated by the government or landowners are issued a permit to kill the problem wolves themselves.

Some people, though, don't want to wait for government managers to remove the wolves or issue a permit.

An estimated 200 wolves have been killed illegally since 1987. Yearly figures have increased as the wolf population has grown and moved into more populated areas.

"This last year has been the worst by far in Wyoming," Domenici said.

Along with lethal control by the government, illegal wolf kills are the leading cause of death for wolves in the Northern Rockies.

An investigation is continuing into the illegal killings of several wolves in northwest Wyoming last summer and fall.

Punishment for illegally and purposefully killing a protected wolf can be as high as a $100,000 fine and a year in prison. So far, about a dozen people have been prosecuted and three or four have been incarcerated.

The first was Chad McKittrick, who was convicted of killing a wolf near Red Lodge in 1995, and was sentenced to six months in jail. McKittrick testified that he thought the animal he shot was a wild dog. A federal judge who heard his appeal said McKittrick's story was not credible; he noted that McKittrick had worn a T-shirt bearing the slogan "Northern Rockies Wolf Reduction Project."

Recent wolf killings, and attempts to poison them, are probably part of a larger frustration that has been simmering for years and only recently targeted at wolves, Domenici said.

"I think a lot of the rhetoric we're seeing is anti-government rather than anti-wolf," Domenici said. "I really feel they're using the wolf to recruit disciples."

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Somewhere in the middle of such a polarized issue – where lawsuits are likely from every side - government officials are left to set policy for wolves.

The federal government has said it's ready to pass management of wolves to the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming but has refused to do that because Wyoming approved a plan that would allow some wolves to be treated as predators and killed without regulation.

In the meantime, federal officials are considering passing some duties over to Montana and Idaho, including giving more latitude for states and livestock owners to be more aggressive with problem wolves.

Predictably, those proposed rules have stirred up controversy.

But there is a middle ground to be explored, said Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife, which works to find on-the-ground solutions to environmental conflicts.

"In the last few years there has been more and more collaboration between the ranching and environmental communities," she said. "The most effective way is usually one rancher at a time."

Admittedly, the anti-wolf group appears to be gaining steam in some circles, she said. But people in the "mainstream ranching community" are made nervous by some statements by anti-wolf groups, Stone said.

"I think it's really driving a wedge between them and the middle," Stone said.

But that middle can be tough to find. For many, wolves are a symbol – either of all that should be protected and preserved in the wild or of unwarranted government intrusion that threatens rural life.

In some cases, it's never the twain shall meet.

"It's almost impossible to change minds," Bangs said. "People use wolves for all these other values. The wolves themselves are pretty boring, but the people are fascinating."

Livestock losses to wolves difficult to figure exactly

It can be difficult to estimate the impact of wolves on livestock. Attacks often happen at night and conclusive evidence that a wolf killed a cow or sheep can be difficult to find. Ranchers and others say losses are usually underestimated.

Each year the Montana Department of Agriculture provides a list of causes of death for sheep and lambs.

According to the state's figures from last year, 500 sheep were killed by wolves in Montana. Coyotes were the leading cause of death with 11,800 kills. Other factors more deadly than wolves were weather, 6,300 deaths; disease, 8,200; foxes, 1,000; eagles, 1,200, and bears, 800.

Compilation of those losses is partially funded by the Montana Woolgrowers Association. Similar statistics are not available for cattle because funding is not available.

Since 1995, 301 cows have been confirmed kills by wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, including a high of 64 last year, according to federal figures.

In response to problems with livestock, 207 wolves have been killed by federal officials, including a high of 59 last year and 46 in 2002.

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