Officials give Mont. producers tools to deal with wolves | TSLN.com

Officials give Mont. producers tools to deal with wolves

Nicole Michaels
for Tri-State Livestock News

Nathan Lance is not a greenie.

Nathan Lance is not a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal.

But the state wildlife biologist says he's been called both.

"Nathan Lance is a person," said Lance, a wolf specialist based in Butte, Mont. "And on the subject of the wolf, I am a middle person. I see all sides."

This time of year, Lance is also a busy person. In his job with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, he's logging at least 1,000 miles each month in travel – checking traps, gathering data, and building working relationships with producers.

"It is not my job to tell you to love the wolf or hate the wolf. It is my job to manage the wolf," Lance said.

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Killing a nuisance wolf is arguably more legal and easier to do this year than it was the year before. Lawmakers have empowered property owners to kill up to 100 animals annually, including wolves not actively menacing livestock, and wolves outside of regular hunting season.

Deaths of nuisance wolves taken under the 2013 change will be properly investigated, and certain criteria must be met. But there's plenty of room for producers to use lethal means as a management tool.

In a country where family ranches go back to the sod-busting 1880s, and today's producer grew up with stories about big wolf hunts in the '30s and '40s, shooting the nuisance wolf remains the standard.

"They are beautiful animals and they are only doing what God intended for them to do. But it is in conflict with ranching," said one ranch woman, who asked not to be named.

Taken as a group, other management tools may do more good in the long run, say wildlife officials. Stock is vulnerable in back country pastures this time of year, and officials are working hard to get all available strategies to people in the field.

Range riders are being deployed, and livestock guardian dogs are being introduced into cattle herds with wildlife staff serving as advisors. Producers can get help cleaning up bone piles of fresh carcasses, and the state will connect ranchers with wolf hunters for the next season. Flagging high-density areas such as calving pens also deters the wolf.

Killing a wolf is expedient but temporary at best, says Lance. "You kill one wolf, another animal will likely take its place."

When livestock is taken, it pays to know what predator did the killing. That's a step towards being compensated, because if a wolf did the damage, the government will write a check. Moreover, if a producer misidentifies the predator as a wolf when in fact it's another species, valuable time and resources may be wasted.

Statewide last year, according to wildlife statistics, 50 cattle and 24 sheep deaths were attributed to wolves.

Typical wolf habitat in Montana is 350 square miles and is home to a pack of six wolves. Most of the roughly 625 animals in the state are located in western and northwestern Montana.

Last year, only eight of 75 reported wolf kills were at the hand of producers, so with the new quota and guidelines, there's a lot of latitude to destroy problem wolves. That ought to make ranchers like Jim Hubbard sleep better, but it doesn't.

"They run my cows every night," said Hubbard of the Six Quarter Circle Ranch in Emigrant. "My wolf rider has maxed out the permits."

Hubbard, who says he has cashed many a check from the government for depredation, has a simple definition of a nuisance wolf.

"If I have cows that are grazing happily at night and by morning they are a mile away and all bunched up, it's a problem."

Jeff Cahill of the 63 Ranch outside of Livingston believes ranchers have been criminalized. He finds the new boundaries under the law encouraging. Cahill says he feels more fortunate than his neighbors, who have suffered losses ranging from a single animal to "significant" losses.

"I can't say I have a lot of problems but based on what I've seen, when I start seeing wolves around on a routine basis, I'm going to take action before the first blood is shed."

Cahill rides out with guests that come to visit the working cattle ranch, which is a member of the Montana Dude Ranch Association. He fields questions from out of state visitors pretty regularly, and shoots from the hip while in the saddle.

"Probably more than I should," he says, laughing.

Still, Cahill's forthrightness and sense of humor are part of what people have come to expect from the American West.

So is the value of maintaining local control for local problems, and that's where the state wildlife commission comes in. The commission, whose five members are governor- appointed, translates law into rules and regulations.

Wildlife commissioners met recently to discuss Senate Bill 200 and its use.

As a group, commissioners make balanced decisions. Commission chairman Dan Vermillion said, "We want to keep wolves off the endangered species list but also be mindful of the legislative intent. And whether you are talking about the rancher or the sportsman, or just someone protecting the family dog, we need to give them the tools to help manage the wolf."

The current system is designed so that no single producer bears the brunt of reintroduction. Producers like Hubbard can eliminate nuisance animals without a permit. It's provided for by statute.

Vermillion said even the most vehement wolf critic should not want the wolf run out of town. "That's just asking for them to be relisted," he says, and risking putting the control back in the hands of the federal government.

"Our goal is that over the long term that the wolf population is not a negative thing, and to minimize their impact on the people who live here," Vermillion says.

Officials don't expect the state's wolf population to shift much, even with the hunting season and laws putting more control in the hands of landowners. Wolves are resilient in part because they are difficult to track, hard to trap, and prolific breeders.

Sterile language frames the legal discussion around the species – "kill permits," "defense of livestock," "concern for depredation" – but the wolf has captured the American imagination, and the beast is the stuff of folklore and chilling tales. The animal's mythic quality helps explain why emotions sometimes run high around the subject on both sides of the argument.

If you're a guest at a working Montana ranch, the amenities might include an audio track of wolf cries played by the campfire, just to set the scene. Downstate, modern day cowboys visiting at a branding in central Montana tell stories of good dogs lost or mauled in wolf attack. And in the east, bar talk gravitates to brags about a close encounter.

The details might change from year to year, but the question, says Lance, remains the same. "How do we get them to fit on the landscape?"

As a group, say officials, conservationists and producers agree: Livestock depredation unfolds in real time and it can be a critical situation. Going after domestic prey is learned behavior, say officials. In those cases, a lethal shot may still the best tool out there.

In general, wolf management goes fairly smoothly these days, until a recognizable wolf from outside of Yellowstone Park gets killed. That spells trouble and tends to polarize people for a while, say authorities, and it's not unheard of for wildlife officials to get threatening mail and more.

Ron Aasheim, a spokesman who does a lot of education out of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says the long range management plan recognizes producers are important stewards of the land.

"They're conservationists at heart. If they weren't they wouldn't be successful. The reason we have all this beautiful scenery is in part because of the ranching industry."

In his experience, the department works well with stock and wool growers. It might help that while producers are thinking in stocking rates for domestic species, biologists count up the carrying capacity for native species. "We work to establish common ground," Aasheim says, "although we sometimes have different mandates, and yes, we sometimes butt heads. But for the most part we are moving forward."

The state as a whole is changing with the times to meet the needs of the times. But a loss is still a loss, and for hardworking producers, it hits hard.

"When you are the one who loses one on the ground," says Aasheim, "it doesn't matter what the rest of the state thinks. You just feel badly about the loss and want the problem fixed." F

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