Wolves becoming an even larger problem for ranchers
May 21, 2009
Ranchers in the Lemhi Valley of Idaho have suffered increased losses from wolf depredation, as wolf numbers expand. Allen Bodenhamer, who raises cattle near Baker, ID lost three calves this past spring. At first he thought the kills were made by coyotes, then realized he was dealing with wolves.
“On one calf, there was not enough left of the carcass to base it on, but the wolf tracks were there,” he says. “The number of wolves that came down into our ranch during calving was astonishing.”
The USDA Fish and Wildlife Service trapper, Eric Simonson, investigated the third incident. “He found tracks in some old snow, and there was very little doubt in his mind that wolves also killed the other two calves,” says Bodenhamer.
Simonson showed Bodenhamer several things about these kills that would confirm whether they were done by coyotes or wolves.
“First of all if there is blood everywhere, it was wolves,” says Bodenhamer. “When coyotes kill a calf they get hold of the back of the neck and basically strangle it. They usually don’t start eating on it while it is still alive. A wolf grabs it by the top of the back or just in front of the hips and is eating on it while the poor animal is still struggling around trying to get away.”
There were no coyotes howling that night, just cows bellowing. Bodenhamer knew something was wrong and started looking.
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“Then I discovered the wolf tracks,” he says. “I found the head and a small part of the neck, on that calf. Simonson cut it down the top, and said look – you won’t see a single abrasion or mark down the top of the neck. These were not coyotes.”
They found the ribcage and backbone some distance away.
“Right down the top of the backbone there were big punctures/bruises and bloodshot areas where they grabbed that calf by the back,” says Bodenhamer. “Then we found a leg. Simonson said that after wolves kill an animal, the first thing they want to do is chew on the ball joints when they get it apart. We could see teeth marks all over those joints where they had been chewing.”
In less than half an hour, the trapper confirmed this was definitely a wolf kill.
“The government hunters flew over our area six times trying to find those wolves,” Bodenhamer says. “They placed snares on the fence, and got me a special permit from Fish and Game to shoot any wolves on sight. But finding them is a challenge.”
So far, none of those wolves have been killed. Tracks showed the wolves were going up into the timber on the mountain behind the ranch (several miles away); they were coming down at night and going back into hiding before they could be found.
“My neighbor said trappers told him that when the wolves hear the airplane coming they lie right down under the sagebrush and won’t move – and are really hard to see. They’ve watched the wolves do that,” says Bodenhamer.
“These wolves came through the ravine right next to our field,” he adds. “Their tracks showed they went along the bluff and right into the cows. When they left, they went up the same little draw, around the edge, and disappeared into all that sagebrush land. We followed their tracks and they were headed back up into those timbered knobs.”
He tried to find a way to call them, but had no success.
During calving season, he and his wife are out checking cows every hour.
“For those wolves to come in between those checks with our spotlights, they must have figured out our pattern. It certainly amazed me,” he says.
The trappers have not yet managed to catch up with this pack.
“I don’t know if the black wolf that people have been seeing around the Baker area is part of this pack. One of these wolves is a huge animal, as indicated by the tracks, and two or three of the others are large, and they have two smaller ones with them,” explains Bodenhamer. “I don’t know how many there are, but from their tracks in fresh snow it looks like at least five of them.
“What’s scary is that we are about to turn our cattle out on summer pasture, and I’m afraid we’ll be like some of the other neighbors and lose about 20 of them on the range – because that’s where the wolves are hanging out. We’ll be sending our cattle right up to the slaughter.”
Rocky Williams, directly across the valley on Wimpy creek, shot a collared wolf in his barnyard earlier in the winter.
“The trappers had chased that wolf through the Bob Marshall wilderness, down through Helena, Montana before he came through here, and he traveled that long distance in an amazingly short time like two weeks,” says Bodenhamer.
“I don’t know how we are going to get rid of them,” he adds. “I have my field glasses and rifle with me every day. I spent a week up on our pivot ground, building fence, and watched every morning to try to see them. But for some reason they temporarily left. They could very easily be over in the Pahsimeroi now, causing trouble over there. Ranchers are having a bad time with wolves right now in the Pahsimeroi and on the East Fork of the Salmon River.”
He thinks ranchers can legally shoot wolves in the night when they’re in with the cattle, but he is leery about pointing a gun across the flat country toward Baker, in the dark. Yet the wolves don’t often show up during the day, so night is the best chance to see them, if you have a good spotlight when you’re out checking cattle. “These wolf kills were not in a remote area; my calves were right down along the highway near Baker,” says Bodenhamer. “The wolves are coming very close to humans.”
Bodenhamers will be reimbursed for the calf that was a confirmed wolf kill.
“We submitted to USDA the receipt from our sale last year – what we got for our calves,” he says. “It is my understanding that they are now paying the full value of the calf, what you would have gotten for him in the fall.”
Bruce Mulkey, just a few miles away, has had several wolves on his place.
“Wolf lovers on a panel discussion at Idaho State University recently said that only one percent of livestock losses are killed by wolves and that we lose more to disease and other problems,” says Mulkey. “But if you are part of the one percent and lose 20 percent of your calves, that’s a heck of a loss.”
Ranchers can do things to prevent or treat disease, but can’t do anything to prevent wolf attacks.
“After the wolves have been in your cows they are all stirred up and hard to handle; if you try to move them all they want to do is chase your dogs,” says Mulkey. The cattle are also very nervous and restless and don’t spend much time grazing; calf weights are lighter in the fall.
Big game numbers in the Lemhi Valley are dropping; Fish and Game will be issuing less elk tags this year because wolves are decimating and harassing these herds.
“The elk this winter on our side of the valley have behaved erratically,” says Mulkey. “A few weeks ago I saw 150 elk behind my ranch and the wolves must have been after them because they were lined out and traveling fast, with their tongues hanging out.”