Montana’s wolf population remains mostly on the western side of the state where there is plenty of cover, large game and livestock. Since the reintroduction of wolves over twenty years ago when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 66 wolves from Canada into Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, 31 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and 35 into central Idaho, ranchers have seen the aftermath of wolves preying on cattle and sheep. This year, Washington, Idaho and Montana’s confirmed livestock deaths due to wolves from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are on the rise.
For western Montana rancher Mykal Kirkpatrick, wolves have been hurting her and her husband’s bottom line since shortly after the reintroduction and compensation from the Montana Game, Fish and Parks doesn’t always work.
“Within the first five years, we came off the forest one year and we were 18 calves short,” Kirkpatrick says. “The next year we were 15 calves short.”
Where their summer permit is, Kirkpatrick says is too much country to cover in one day, so there was no way to prove that it was wolves, although both years in question they came home with cows that had been visibly chewed on from what only could have been wolves.
The past few years, the Kirkpatricks have left guard dogs with their cattle and, although it didn’t diminish the problem, Kirkpatricks says that it seemed to have helped. This year after losing their best guard dog, they were forced to bring cattle down off the mountain five weeks early because of wolves.
“We went out and looked around to make sure everything looked okay and we found a calf that had a bite taken out of its hind end,” Kirkpatrick says.
The calf made it home alive, but Kirkpatrick wonders how, because usually when they doctor cattle who have been attacked by wolves, they most often get infected due to how dirty and mangey the wolves are.
Besides the calf, when the Kirkpatricks saw the cow’s reactions to their cattle dogs, they knew they had a wolf problem.
“You always know, because we work dogs and our dogs could be 50 feet off and those cows threw their heads and ran for miles,” Kirkpatrick says.
They also had more than usual dry cows come home this year and lower weaning weights, something that cannot be compensated for, but Kirkpatrick knows it was due to stress from the wolves.
It doesn’t even have to be on the mountain, four years ago, wolves attacked two heifers that were pastured near the Kirkpatrick’s house and the highway. One was dead, one they had to shoot.
“The carnage they left behind was just a bloody battle,” Kirkpatrick says. “And the thing is, the wolves weren’t even eating them, they just killed them and left the whole thing.”
For those heifers, Kirkpatrick says they were compensated just short of 600 dollars per head, nowhere near market value, especially for the 2014 cattle market.
But the confusing thing to Kirkpatrick is, it’s not always the smaller, weaker animals.
“In fact, we’ve had times where we’re like, ‘Why? Why those ones?’” she says. “Our neighbors south of us, wolves have taken down full grown cows, one summer they had nine that they knew of.”
Recently, Washington’s largest sheep rancher was driven off their grazing land due to wolf predation and according to an article published by the Capital Press, the question remains as to whether wolves will do the same to Washington’s largest cattle ranch, the Diamond M, who assumes they will lose 70 head just this year to wolves.
Most of Washington’s wolf packs are in the northeast region, some came from Canada and some from Idaho, with more wolves moving into southeast Washington from Idaho and Oregon according to Sarah Ryan, executive vice president of Washington Cattlemen’s Association. The Diamond M is in the northeast corner of the state.
“The first recognition of wolves by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife was with depredation of livestock in 2007,” says Ryan.
Ryan says that ranchers do use a variety of non-lethal deterrents to minimize, and ideally eliminate, predation on livestock. The WDFW has a list on their website of suggested non-lethal control methods such as: assessing when and where livestock are turned out, and at what age; removing attractants such as carcass pits; confining cows in pens, fencing or fladry; using guard dogs or human presence; or using hazing or scaring devices.
While WDFW report that there is a minimum of 122 wolves in the state, Ryan says that most ranchers in northeast Washington believe there are more and there is no hunting season because the gray wolf is still an endangered species in Washington.
There is a “caught in the act” provision, allowing ranchers to lethally remove one wolf if they observe it attacking their livestock, an extremely rare occurrence, and there is compensation available through cooperative agreements with the state, however Ryan says neither are often used and many ranchers feel the compensation comes with too many strings attached and so they don’t turn in the claims.
Wolves are an apex predator, meaning they are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators, which is why they are difficult to hunt or observe in the act of attacking livestock.
“You never see a wolf by accident, they’re learning something form you,” says Cameron Mulrony, executive vice president for the Idaho Cattle Association, recalling something he heard from a biologist. “That’s how smart these animals are. They’re either learning how to hunt you or how to avoid you. Once they’ve learned how to prey on livestock, they’ll continue until they are stopped.”
Although 17,212 wolf licenses were sold in Montana last year, only 254 wolves were harvested.
“It speaks to their intelligence and that’s why they are so devastating to the sheep and cattle industry,” says Mulrony.
According to Mulrony, Idaho has a good policy in terms of wolf predation on livestock and compensation. If a rancher has a confirmed kill or probable kill, they contact a trapper who is contracted through the USFWS.
“They come out and skin and take the animal and confirm if it is in fact a wolf kill. If it is, we have dollars through the state program to compensate those ranchers for confirmed kills,” says Mulrony.
If a wolf is seen in the livestock, but not in the act of killing, there is nothing a rancher can do, unless it is during hunting season and he or she has a wolf license. In 2011, wolves in Idaho were removed from the endangered species list and management was turned over to the state. Initially, harvest quotas were used to manage the wolves but after seven years of no quotas being fulfilled, harvest quotas were removed for the 2017 hunting season.
Since reintroduction, wolves in Idaho have killed over 700 cattle and over 550 sheep in the state. There were 61 confirmed kills between January and June of 2018 and Mulrony says the data is showing that 2018 will finish out with record high numbers. Unfortunately, like for the Kirkpatricks, that only means there are more problems beneath the surface for Idaho ranchers.
“Cattle are a prey animals, so they go with the fight or flight response and it makes a lot of stress to the cattle, just having wolves in the area,” Mulrony says. “It’s hard to put a number on how many dollars it costs our industry every year because a cow has three jobs: she has to take care of herself, she has to take care of her calf and she has to breed back. Even though we all experience some cows that don’t breed back, that rate is usually higher in areas of wolves because of stress.”
In 2017, MFWP confirmed 49 cattle, 12 sheep and 19 goat losses to wolves. From January to mid-September of this year, 55 cattle, 14 sheep and two guard dogs have been confirmed.
So far, wolves are few and far between in eastern Montana. Farther east, North Dakota and South Dakota both claim to have no breeding population for Canadian grey wolves and the occasional, rare sightings are tribute to surrounding states’ transient wolves.
Mulrony says that it will be a continual battle at this point, to protect livestock from the wolves and he hopes that ranchers across the afflicted states will be allowed to manage the issues to the best of their ability.
“When people talk about going and shooting and hunting them and everything else, not only is it hard to find them, but I tell you what, at the end of the day we’re tired, we don’t need another job,” says Kirkpatrick.