Bangs Responds to Wolf Control Controversy
Dear concerned citizen:
I’m responding to public concern about the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) control actions that have killed 2 wolves near Dillon, Montana; 2 wolves in the Ninemile Valley near Missoula, Montana; 4 wolves in the Paradise Valley north of Gardiner, Montana; and all 10 members of the Whitehawk pack in central Idaho. Wolf control actions are part of the Service’s responsibilities under its program to restore wolf populations to several areas in the United States, including the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In these recent control actions the Service followed all the required procedures and regulations. 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.
The experimental rules under which the reintroduction of wolves to central Idaho and the greater Yellowstone area was authorized, call for the removal of wolves that chronically depredate on livestock. Livestock losses are confirmed by expert professional examination by USDA Wildlife Services of livestock carcasses before any control or [private] compensation is authorized. During the planning effort that resulted in wolf reintroduction, the Service estimated that for every 100 adult-sized wolves about 10-20 cattle and 60-70 sheep would be killed by wolves annually. The Service also predicated that agency wolf control would remove about 10% of the wolf population annually, to prevent the learned behavior of attacking livestock from becoming more widespread among the wolf population. To date, confirmed wolf depredation on livestock and the number of wolves removed for attacking livestock has been lower than our predictions. Unfortunately this year members of the Gravelly, Ninemile, Sheep Mountain and Whitehawk packs developed a pattern of hunting or attacking livestock that we believed could not be stopped other than by lethal control. To keep the overall rate of wolf depredation on livestock low the combination of non-lethal techniques to prevent depredations and lethal control of problem wolves will continue to be required. 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 first control action of 2002 involved 3 uncollared wolves originally from the Gravely pack near Dillon, Montana. In 2001 the pack attacked sheep on numerous occasions. Ultimately the alpha male was killed and the alpha female, a yearling male and 6 pups were successfully relocated to northwestern Montana. Sheep in that area were protected by herders and guard dogs. In February 2002 the 3 wolves attacked sheep on private land again and 2 of the 3 wolves were killed. Later even more sheep were killed by the remaining wolf and it will be killed when it is located. In addition, livestock producers, such as those by Dillon, MT, who have experienced chronic livestock depredations caused by wolves can receive a 45-day permit from the Service to shoot one (in total) wolf on their private property. To date no wolves have been killed by private landowners under this type of permit since they were first issued in late 1999.
A pack of wolves in the Ninemile Valley in northwestern Montana began attacking llamas in 2001, despite living in the area since 1990. Two llamas were killed in 2001 and a wolf was shot while feeding on one of the carcasses. In early March, 2002 three more llamas and a pet dog were killed on private property. Under Service direction, Wildlife Service’s set traps and snares near the llama carcasses but no wolves were captured. In mid-March another llama was attacked and it later died. In response 2 adult male wolves were shot. In early April another llama on the same fenced private property where the other had been wounded, was killed by wolves. Attempts to shoot and trap the grey wolf that was repeatedly seen feeding on the carcass are ongoing.
A sub-group of 3-4 wolves from the 10 member Sheep Mountain wolf pack in the Paradise Valley of Montana was repeatedly seen near livestock and on several occasions was reported harassing livestock. One of the wolves in that group was a former Druid pack member [#224] that had recently dispersed from Yellowstone National Park. While in the Park he was regularly observed and was unusually tolerant of people. He continued to exhibited this lack of wariness outside the Park, and was frequently observed on private land near people, buildings, and livestock.
In an effort to reduce the chances for conflict a biologist for the privately funded Turner Endangered Species Fund that is supervised by the Service helped local landowners try a variety of non-lethal techniques. 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. However, on March 18, the group was confirmed to have killed a calf on private land. In the previous week the group had fed on the carcass of a cow that had been run through several fences and died but was not confirmed to have been directly killed by wolves and the carcass of a calf that almost completely consumed but it couldn’t be confirmed as being killed by wolves either. Both of those incidents were classified as probable wolf depredations and no control other than non-lethal methods was authorized. However, in response to the confirmed calf depredation on the 18th, 4 wolves, including wolf #224 and his 3 companions which were targeted because of their bold behavior and radio telemetry data that indicated they were involved in the depredation, were killed. 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. Non-lethal methods are continuing and as of this time no further depredations have been reported. The Sheep Mountain pack is expected to den in the mountains above the Paradise Valley as they have in the past which should reduce chances for conflict. However, if more livestock are attacked, more pack members will be killed.
The Whitehawk pack in central Idaho began to depredate on livestock in 2001, although some pack members were involved in livestock depredation, as members of other packs, prior to that time. The 6 adults and 9 pups in the Whitehawk pack killed 2 cattle, 16 sheep and 1 dog in 2001. As a result of those livestock depredations 3 wolves were eventually killed in 2001. 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. This year, because of its past history of livestock depredation and because the pack was utilizing an area where other depredations occurred, the Service and USDA Wildlife Services radio-collared most of the pack this winter and used Radio-Activated Guard (RAG) boxes to try and scare the wolves away from an area of private land where livestock calving was occurring. These devices appeared to be working during their first month of operation but on March 31, members of the pack killed a domestic sheep on private land. The next day 2 wolves, including one that the RAG box monitors indicated was likely involved in the attack, were killed. Both of those wolves had wool in their stomachs when they were examined. However, on April 3, the pack returned to the area and killed another calf on private land. Three more pack members were killed. In addition the remaining 5 pack members (the alpha pair and 3 yearlings) were extensively harassed by firing cracker shells (noise-makers) from a helicopter to drive them from the area. However, on the 5th, another calf was confirmed killed by them. On the 7th, the remaining 5 pack members were killed. It is almost certain that other wolves will recolonize this area within the next year. We anticipate, like 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.
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 3 successive years in December 2002. If the states have their wolf management plans completed the process to remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act protections could begin in early 2003. We estimated there were about 563 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in December 2001. In 2001, 40 cattle, 138 sheep and 6 dogs were confirmed killed by wolves in the 3 states. In response 18 wolves were moved and 19 were killed. This or even higher levels of removal will not prevent the wolf population from continuing to increase. Wolf populations can increase despite up to 30% human-caused morality annually.
So far this year 2 wolves have been killed in northwestern Montana because they repeatedly attacked llamas on private land, 2 wolves have been killed in southwestern Montana because they attacked sheep near Dillon, Montana, and 4 wolves have been killed because they attacked cattle near Gardiner, Montana. Ten wolves that attacked sheep and cattle were killed in central Idaho. 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. 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. The return of wolves to the western United States will require continued management, including the lethal control of chronic problem individuals and/or packs.
I appreciate your concern for wolves and wolf population. I assure you the Service 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 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. The Service is committed to restoring and maintaining a viable wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming in a manner that minimizes conflicts between wolves and people.
To learn more about the wolf recovery program please see http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/wolf/annualreports.htm
Again thank you for your concern for wolves and for contacting me.
Ed Bangs, Wolf Recovery Coordinator
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service http://Mountain-Prairie.fws.gov/wolf
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