Ranches with Wolves
March 18, 2010
By Tess Wiley
Ranchers deal with onslaught of wolvesA few years ago, bloodshed struck the pastures of John Helle's ranch.
It started in the summer, when Helle discovered that nearly 100 of his lambs were missing. He searched but could find no trace of them. He was perplexed about their disappearance until he noticed what looked like teeth marks on some of his remaining sheep. He began finding bloody carcasses of his sheep, and was forced to kill other sheep that he found barely alive, with maggots in their open wounds. Then he discovered the culprits: a pack of five gray wolves roaming the fields of his ranch.
Helle, who manages the Helle Rambouillet sheep ranch in Dillon, is one of many Montana sheep and cattle ranchers who face the daily threat of wolf predation on their livestock. Before the attacks began, he had been unaware that wolves were present in the area. He was now facing a deadly, elusive predator that was jeopardizing the safety of his livestock - and ultimately, his business. He was eventually able to eliminate the pack, but only after obtaining permits to shoot them from the federal government - a requirement by the wolf's protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Montana's wolf population now stands at about 500, a figure that has allowed the government to remove wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wolves were removed from the endangered species list last summer, but under lawsuit from conservation groups, the listing was overturned by Missoula federal court judge Donald Molloy. The Obama administration in May 2009 reinstated delisting of wolves, and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that wolves were to be delisted in Montana, Idaho, and parts of Washington, Utah, and Oregon - an act that has provoked outrage from conservation groups.
While protecting the wolf may be important to environmentalists, ranchers like Helle are more concerned with protecting the livestock they strive to raise for a living. The delisting of wolves will turn the responsibility of wolf management over to the state and should give Montana ranchers some management alternatives when it comes to protecting their livestock from predators.
Jael Kampfe, a cattle rancher who manages the Lazy E-L Ranch in Roscoe, Mont., says the delisting of wolves is essential to ranchers. "Livestock loss is the difference between making it and not," she says. "If it's a difference between feeding your family and not, you're not going to stand by and do nothing. It's important to engage and be proactive."
And now, ranchers in Montana have the opportunity to take a stand against wolves. Kampfe says delisting will give ranchers "tremendous empowerment" over their livelihood. "People who live with the consequences [of wolf attacks] get to be the decision makers," she says. "That's how it should be."
Noel Keogh, a cattle rancher who manages the Keyo Ranch in Nye, Mont., says delisting will give him the "flexibility to manage or protect my own personal property without being a criminal." Keogh says he is dismayed at the battle conservation groups are fighting to keep wolves endangered, despite the fact that the wolf population's quick recovery is considered one of the most successful wildlife recovery programs in U.S. history. "What's wrong with this picture?" he asks. "The radical environmentalists are wasting everyone's time and precious money."
Kampfe agrees that the fight to keep wolves on the endangered species list is unnecessary. "I think that the proponents are a little shortsighted," she says. "We need to be able to manage these wolves."
Helle says conservationists tend to portray the wolf as a "nice, fuzzy, furry little animal that looks good on a poster." But from a rancher's perspective, a wolf is anything but cute.
"Let's say that stealing or shoplifting was legal because we felt that there weren't enough shoplifters out there," says Helle. "All of a sudden, there was no control of shoplifters." To Helle, wolves are the thieves, and his sheep are the stolen merchandise.
"They're killing our private property," says Helle. "It's devastating ... it's like seeing hard work and effort go to waste."
"They kill for sport," says Helle, pointing out that wolves eat hardly any of what they kill, leaving most of the carcass behind.
Helle says a wolf attack also takes its toll on surviving sheep. He says the bite marks he saw on his sheep the result of gnawing by wolf pups, which may frequently harass the sheep by practicing their first attacks. "It must be terrible for a sheep to be chomped on like that," he says.
Helle explains the sheep don't perform as well after a wolf strikes. They become spooked as if fearing further attacks, he says. According to Helle, this puts additional stress on them, causing them to lose weight and even contract diseases - making them less marketable.Keogh recalls an incident when he had been away for a weekend and returned to discover a broken fence between two pastures and some of his cattle grazing in a pasture that had already been sufficiently grazed for the year. "Something stampeded the cattle through the gate," he says - possibly a wolf. Since his lease had expired on the land where the cattle were feeding he was left to pay an additional cost.
Such an incident is an example of what Helle calls the hidden costs associated with wolf attacks - costs that extend beyond the market price of livestock. When a wolf kills livestock, says Helle, ranchers are still left with the cost of the grass they bought for each animal to graze. He says environmental organizations did not account for these costs when they compensated ranchers for their losses while wolves were protected by the Endangered Species Act. Helle says ranchers were only paid the market price of each dead animal (the cost of a sheep is estimated at about $180) - as long as they could provide evidence that a wolf was responsible.
"At the best, the compensation would be 10 cents to the dollar," says Helle. The year that Helle's ranch suffered from wolf attacks, the expenses of his losses totaled to more than $25,000. He says a conservation group offered him "a couple thousand dollars, and we said 'no."
"They're saying 'well, you're getting compensated...what's the problem?'" he says. The problem, according to Helle, is more than just the fact that compensation covers so little of the expenses associated with wolf attacks. Helle says conservation organizations wrongly assume compensation for killed animals is a quick and easy fix.
In a recent press release, the Missoula group Wildlife Watchers claimed that "many conflicts with wolves are the result of irresponsible human behavior...in most cases problems with wolves could be avoided if farmers and ranchers take actions to protect their livestock."
Kampfe strongly opposes the view that losses can be attributed to carelessness of ranchers. While she acknowledges that putting wolf management back into the ranchers' hands cannot completely stop livestock losses, a lack of effort to protect livestock is not an additional cause of losses. "Sometimes there isn't anything you can do," she says. "Sometimes, [a wolf attack] just happens."
Helle says common preventive measures taken by him and other ranchers include 24-hour watch, fencing pastures, and guard dogs. But, he says that a guard dog is "no match for a wolf," and that he's lost about a dozen of them to wolves over the years. "To watch them get mutilated by a wolf is quite traumatic," he says.
Helle, like Kampfe, opposes Wildlife Watchers' claim. He insists that wolves are very difficult to keep track of. "They know how to hide," he says. He also says that unlike the attacks of other predators, such as coyotes, a wolf attack is "very unpredictable."
Helle says that the conservation groups who accuse ranchers of failing to sufficiently stop wolf attacks "don't understand that we [ranchers] have a lot of things going on." He says handling wolves is an added burden to the already large responsibility that comes from managing a ranch.
And according to Helle, dealing with wolves on a ranch comes at a price-literally. "They cost us a lot of money," he says. "They are an expensive animal to manage."
While Helle supports delisting, he is still not thrilled at the prospect of paying to manage a wolf population that is considerably larger than it was 15 years ago. "We're dealing with more wolves than in the past," he says. "We're concerned about the funding issues after delisting.
"It's going to be costly."
The next step, he says, is to figure out how to live with wolves.
"We got this forced down our throats," says Keogh, referring to the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park.
Kampfe says she found herself caught in a "time bomb" once wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s. "We were in the thick of it from the beginning," she says. "We were the only private landowners that had wolves on private property. The question was 'what do we do now?'"
"Like it or not, there's the reality," says Kampfe. "We have no choice but to work with them (the wolves)."
As caretakers of the land and having to share that land with the wildlife that roams it, Kampfe sees ranchers are part of the solution. "Ranchers need to be part of figuring it out, because we're the ones it affects most directly," she says.
And although controlling wolves is difficult, says Keogh, "We should at least have the opportunity."
While wildlife have no borders to where they roam, once they cross onto ranchers' property, the issue becomes theirs. "If the wolf is attacking livestock, it's crossing a line that isn't part of their natural habitat," says Kampfe of the Lazy E-L Ranch. "Once they've crossed that line, they need to be taken out anyway."
Kampfe says the Lazy E-L's guest program gives outsiders a clearer perspective of ranchers' situations. She hopes that by having visitors spend a day with a rancher, she can show them just how essential the well being of livestock is to the successful function of a ranch.