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MSU specialist predicts 'wolves in every county'

By PERRY BACKUS Montana Standard http://www.mtstandard.com/

DILLON - Within a decade, ranchers from throughout Montana should expect to see wolves showing up in their back 40.

As that occurs, the state's government trappers - now known as wildlife services agents - upon whom ranchers rely to hunt and kill livestock-eating wolves, are going to be spread mighty thin. That's according to Jim Knight, an extension wildlife specialist with Montana State University's Animal and Range Sciences Department.

And the onus on identifying a wolf kill and preserving the evidence is going to fall more and more on the livestock producer, Knight said.

Knight spoke to ranchers at the third University of Montana-Western Ag Conference and Expo in Dillon this week.

As of 2003, Knight said 43 breeding packs with an estimated 663 wolves were in Montana and Idaho. Wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995. In 2000, breeding packs totaled 30 in the two states, he said.

"I'm predicting that there will be wolves in every county in Montana in the next 10 years," Knight said. "We've got a whole pile of wolves."

>From a rancher's viewpoint, Knight said it is important for wolves to be removed from the federal endangered species list. Once that happens, management of wolves will become the state's issue. That, according to Knight, should help provide additional leeway for ranchers to control problem wolves.

Ranchers area allowed to shoot a wolf if they catch it in the act of harming their livestock, Knight said.

But it's a fine line. Ranchers had better not open fire if their livestock is already dead and wolves are feeding on the carcass.

"You can't shoot a wolf for scavenging," Knight said.

"Proving that animal was killed by a wolf is one thing. Paying an attorney is something else."

Ranches can get permits to shoot wolves on sight after repeated, verifiable livestock losses. Wildlife Services determines when those permits are justified, he said.

If ranchers discover an animal they deem likely killed by wolves, they need to be careful about preserving the evidence.

"You don't want to go willy-nilly up there, stomping around and destroying all the tracks," he said.

Ranchers should put a tarp over the carcass and carefully cover predator tracks in the dirt or snow with cans or buckets. They should also photograph or video the scene, and record other observations with written notes.

Knight said ranchers should call Wildlife Services at 406-657-6464 if they believe a wolf has killed their livestock.

"Don't call the Fish and Wildlife Service or Fish, Wildlife and Parks," he said. "Call the USDA Wildlife Services ... they are in the business of protecting livestock for producers."

Knight is critical of the government's decision to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone and central Idaho. Wolves were already beginning to relocate into Montana when the decision was made to bring in additional wolves from Canada in the mid-1990s, he said.

The wolves that were already here were genetically predisposed toward avoiding man,

Knight said. The wolves captured in Canada and brought to Yellowstone were kept in pens temporarily; and depended on people to bring them food.

"They were able to accept life in pens and accepted food from humans," he said. "They were doing things that don't happen in the wild."

"We've created an unnatural segment of the wolf population and maybe jeopardized the natural segment we have," he said. "Part of the wolf population is artificial and we may have messed with natural selection."

"I'm not anti-wolf. I'm anti-wolf reintroduction," Knight said. "I'm very concerned about the over protection of wolves."

Ranchers need to take part in future discussions on wolf management, he said.

"The whole wolf thing has been a source of futility for a lot of us," he said. "But as soon as we throw our hands up in the air and say we give up, then the wolves have won and we've lost."

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Reporter Perry Backus may be reached via e-mail at perrybackus@yahoo.com.

Saturday, January 10, 2004