From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 3 - April 18, 2002
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FWS responds to concerns about lethal wolf control

by Cat Urbigkit

FWS responds to concerns about lethal wolf control

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a letter in response to complaints it has received in the last two weeks about the agency killing gray wolves that have preyed on livestock in the Northern Rockies.

The complaints were part of an orchestrated campaign by environmental groups, in which e-mails were sent out through an activist network, urging activists to complain to specific agency personnel about the wolf killings. Eight wolves in three packs in Montana and all 10 members of one pack in central Idaho were killed in recent weeks.

Last week, FWS Wolf Recovery Coordinator Ed Bangs issued the response to those public concerns, and posted it on the FWS website.

Bangs wrote: "The Service has little recourse other than to kill wolves that had repeatedly attacked livestock. I also personally believe that control of problem animals is a necessary part of any program to restore large predators, including wolves. Suitable wolf habitat is dependent on local human tolerance."

Bangs said livestock losses due to wolves are less than his agency predicted when it planned the wolf reintroduction program, but this year, members of several different packs "developed a pattern of hunting or attacking livestock that we believed could not be stopped other than by lethal control."

Bangs noted: "Like any wildlife issue there will be a lot of year-to-year variation in the level of livestock conflict and wolf control. Unfortunately, this year is starting off as one that could have higher levels of conflict and control than previous years."

The letter detailed the history of the problem wolf packs, including the fact that the packs had preyed on livestock on private land last year, despite the presence of herders and guardian dogs. In several cases, some of the members of the pack were killed, but the livestock depredations continued. The Ninemile Valley, Mont. wolves have been killing llamas on private property since last year, in addition to killing a pet dog. As more members of the pack are killed, the wolves continue to return to attack the llamas again. One gray wolf remains in the area and attempts to shoot or trap it continue.

Problems also developed with a pack of 10 wolves called the Sheep Mountain pack, which were repeatedly seen near livestock and were seen harassing livestock. One of the wolves in that group was a former Druid Peak pack member that had recently dispersed from Yellowstone National Park, according to Bangs.

"While in the park he was regularly observed and was unusually tolerant of people," Bangs wrote. "He continued to exhibit this lack of wariness outside the park, and was frequently observed on private land near people, buildings and livestock."

A variety of non-lethal techniques were tried to deter predation. According to Bangs: "Flagging was put up near calving pastures, a fence line was "scented" with moth balls, a light siren device was installed, rubber bullet training and munitions were provided, livestock and wolf-killed deer and elk carcasses were removed from areas used for calving, biologists stayed in the area to closely monitor the pack and harass wolves if they came near livestock, and livestock producers were loaned radio-receivers to track wolves if they came near calving areas."

But the first of the livestock kills was discovered March 18 on private land and a cow that had been run through several fences by the wolves died as well.

The male Druid Peak pack member and three of his companions, "which were targeted because of their bold behavior and radio telemetry data that indicated they were involved in the depredation," were killed, Bangs wrote.

"While wolf habituation to people in the park can be a problem, that same behavior outside the park is a serious management issue because of private property, houses, pets and livestock," according to Bangs. If more livestock are attacked, more pack members will be killed.

Members of the Whitehawk pack (six adults and nine pups) in central Idaho killed two head of cattle, 16 sheep and one dog last year, so federal officials killed three members of the pack. According to Bangs: "There were also many efforts to prevent livestock depredations by volunteer ‘livestock guardians’, livestock producers, and the wolf management agencies, and those efforts allowed most of the pack to remain in the wild at the end of 2001."

FWS radio-collared most of the pack and used Radio-Activated Guard (RAG) boxes to scare the wolves away from an area of private land where livestock calving was occurring. The RAGs worked at first, but the wolves began preying on livestock on private land during the last week of March. FWS responded by killing two wolves, both of which were discovered to have wool in their stomachs. The livestock killing continued, despite extensive harassment by wildlife officials firing cracker shells from a helicopter in attempt to drive the wolves from the area. The remaining pack members were then killed.

Bangs wrote: "It is almost certain that other wolves will recolonize this area within the next year. We anticipate, like what has occurred in other areas where wolves were removed by agency control, that new wolves will disperse into the area. Hopefully they will not learn to attack livestock. However, the rules under which wolf reintroduction was authorized in 1995 do not allow wolves to chronically prey on livestock, so further control maybe required."

Bangs pointed out that the wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains is doing very well and will almost certainly achieve the recovery goal of having 30 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming for three successive years in December 2002. FWS estimated there were about 563 wolves in the tri-state area in December 2001. The process to remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act protections could begin in early 2003.

"One of the consequences of the amazing success of wolf restoration and the continued rapid increase in the number and distribution of wolves is the resulting increased potential for conflict with livestock," Bangs wrote. "The service will continue to cooperate with other agencies, private organizations and landowners to reduce the potential for wolf/livestock conflict using a variety of methods, including non-lethal deterrents and relocation. However, sometimes despite everyone’s best hopes and efforts, these methods do not resolve the problem.

"Because of the relatively low success of relocating problem wolves in the past, and the high number of wolves (most of whom do not attack livestock), there are few places left to move wolves that have depredated on livestock. In response, the service will kill most problem wolves rather than attempt to relocate them."

Bangs said his agency is "doing what it can to minimize the number of wolves that must be killed to protect private property.

"However, since the beginning of efforts to restore wolves to the western United States, the service has always been brutally honest about the fact that wolf restoration will involve occasionally removing problem wolves. Management and lethal removal is part of having wolves live in areas that are adjacent to private lands that are extensively used for livestock production.

"While none of us involved in wolf management enjoy this part of the program and I understand the public’s concern, wolf management, including killing problem wolves, is necessary if wolves are to be tolerated by the people that must live with them on a daily basis.

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