Decision makes future of wolf management unclear, Local ranchers continue to deal with conflicts

JEFFERS – Standing in a muddy barnyard on a cool summer morning, Jenny Clark can paint a pretty vivid picture of the scene she and her children stumbled onto last May.

The barnyard and pasture next to her family’s home in Jeffers was the scene of a wolf depredation, which is the official way of saying nine of the Clark’s sheep were killed or injured in one night by a lone wolf.

The morning after the attack, evidence was everywhere – wolf tracks in the mud, bloody sheep scattered through the yard and pasture. Some were dead; some were still alive.

According to wildlife officials, the incident involved one gray wolf from the Cedar Creek Pack. All told, the wolf had killed or injured nine sheep. From the spot where Clark found the first sheep, the spot closest to the house, you could throw a baseball to someone standing on the front porch. You can hear the traffic clearly out on the highway. You are less than two miles from Ennis.

The wolf responsible for the attack was trapped the next day and killed. It was the second time in the span of a year that wolves had come right to the Clark’s doorstep and killed sheep. But dealing with wolves is common for ranchers in southwest Montana.

Since April, at least seven calves and nine sheep have been confirmed killed by wolves in Madison County, mainly in the Madison Valley, Gravelly Mountains and upper Ruby Valley.

During that time, wildlife officials have killed 13 wolves around Madison County related to the depredations. The Cedar Creek pack, which is located east of Ennis, consisted of an estimated 12 wolves this past winter. But due to their propensity to get into livestock, five were removed this spring, according to information from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The most recent depredation occurred last week in the southern Gravelly Mountains. Two calves were killed and as a result two wolves from the Horn Mountain pack were killed by officials.

The agency has confirmed that six packs use the Madison Valley and mountains immediately bordering it.

Clark is careful not to be too vocal concerning her feelings about wolves. But on that Memorial Day weekend, she was faced with a difficult scene. The sheep that were alive were bleeding and mortally wounded. The sheep that were dead were still very fresh. And her kids were there to see it all.

“They’re just sheep, I know, but our kids love these things,” she said.

The frustration comes from trying to figure out what to do to protect the livestock, Clark said. They put them in the corral right next to the house under the big lights and the wolf still got to them. And this is all happening less than two miles from Ennis.

“If I can’t raise sheep in town where can I raise them?” she asked. “It’s just a constant worry, it doesn’t matter what time of year.”

The future of gray wolf management in Montana and the northern Rockies got muddier last week as U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula ruled that wolves in the northern Rockies should be placed back on the endangered species list, stating that it wasn’t legal for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist wolves in Montana and Idaho but not Wyoming.

The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of 13 environmental groups against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the status of the wolf. The lawsuit was enjoined by the states of Idaho and Montana along with agriculture organizations.

Molloy’s ruling reverses the decision last year to remove federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, but leave them in place for Wyoming, since that state didn’t have a federally approved management plan. In his decision last week, Molloy wrote that the wolf population in the entire region must be considered when determining when to remove the wolf from the endangered species list.

The practical ramifications of Molloy’s decision on livestock producers in Madison County and southwest Montana are hard to pin down. The wolf hunt planned for 2010 is likely off the table. However, the population in this part of the state is considered experimental and doesn’t have the same protections as the population in the north half of Montana, which is considered endangered.

The distinction is made because the southern half of the state is assumed to be populated with wolves that either came from introduced packs in Yellowstone National Park or the Idaho wilderness.

The line that divides the two populations is generally Highway 12 from the Idaho border to Missoula, then Interstate 90 to Interstate 15, north to Great Falls then the Missouri River through the rest of Montana.

South of that line livestock producers can still: “kill a wolf that is biting, wounding or killing or a wolf that is seen actively chasing, molesting or harassing livestock, livestock herding or guarding animals, or domestic dogs (any breed),” according to information released by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks this week.

Any wolf killed under these circumstances must be reported to FWP within 24 hours and there must be physical evidence of the wolf attack or that an attack was imminent.

Carolyn Sime manages the wolf program for FWP. Like many with the agency, she is frustrated by Molloy’s decision.

In  an interview on Tuesday, Sime confirmed that a settlement meeting was scheduled for Aug. 18. The meeting was going to bring agencies and groups from all sides of the lawsuit together to see if they could find some middle ground. Molloy’s decision led to the postponement of that meeting.

“It’s was basically a fluke of timing that the ruling came out when it did,” Sime said.

In Montana, it’s very clear that wolves no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act, she said.

“The reality on the ground is very clear, wolves are recovered,” Sime said.

The recovery plan for wolves called for a minimum of 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves in the northern Rockies for at least three consecutive years. According to a statement released by FWP, “this goal was achieved in 2002, and the wolf population has increased every year since.”

The agency estimates the wolf population in the northern Rockies to be at 1,706, with 242 packs, and 115 breeding pairs at the end of last year. This includes about 525 wolves in Montana, in 100 packs and 34 breeding pairs.

Last year both Montana and Idaho held wolf hunts. In Montana, hunters killed 72 wolves. This year that quota was upped to 186.

The goal for Montana is to have wolves be a managed game species like mountain lions or black bears, Sime said. That way hunting can be used as a management tool. With the court ruling, the state is forced back into the position of essentially responding to livestock depredations.

However, the state is continuing to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on options that could include a wolf hunt, she said. Such options may include downgrading the status of the wolf from endangered to threatened under the Endangered Species Act. That subtle shift in listing could open up the possibility for a wolf hunt, Sime said.

Also, a settlement agreement in the lawsuit isn’t off the table either. Right now the struggle is to get all players to the table to talk, she said.

“Any sort of concept of settlement has a couple of requirements,” Sime said. “The first step would be to get the parties to the table and we might not get that far.”

However, she also was emphatic that Montana officials weren’t willing to “give away the farm” in a potential settlement. The state has proven its ability to manage wolves and other predators and also has a public willing to help in that management.

“We’ve got a federally accepted plan, we have a solid program and we have a public that is willing to work with us to manage wolves,” Sime said.

Calls on Tuesday to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeking comment on the ruling weren’t immediately returned. However, a column from its director, Mike Clark, is in this week’s Madisonian.

Jenny Clark knows that wolves are here to stay. Her father, Gary Clark, said there have always been a few wolves, whether the scientists will admit it or not.

From a practical standpoint, Molloy’s ruling will have little direct impact on how they manage their sheep and cattle or their future conflicts with wolves. Ranching in wolf country is simply challenging.

“I feel like we are trying to live with them,” Jenny Clark said.

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