LaHOOD – The LaHood Bar and Steakhouse was standing room only Thursday night with local ranchers and stock growers who gathered for a Lower Jefferson Watershed Council meeting where Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks was invited to discuss wolf management issues.
FWP Regional Supervisor in Bozeman Pat Flowers began by explaining that the department is learning how to structure a wolf-hunting season as they go along establishing what is and is not effective. He implied that they would like to see some legislative changes made, such as the use of electronic calls and the cost of licenses for non-resident hunters.
“We’ve really only had two seasons to work on this, and frankly we need the support of ranchers, sportsmen and general citizens to make this work,” Flowers said.
FWP Region 3 warden captain Sam Sheppard attempted to clarify some of the legal issues involved with defending livestock from large predators like wolves. Montana law currently allows people to kill wolves that are seen in the act of attacking, killing or threatening to kill livestock. But Sheppard explained that it’s a fine line between what is or is not considered a potential livestock predation.
“The thing about ‘If a wolf is breathing, it must be thinking about eating something’ is not going to meet the requirements of what a reasonable response is in response to a depredation,” he said. “If he’s just looking, sitting in your field, don’t shoot him, but get him the heck out of there.”
“If they’re coming and testing your cows, your sheep, your horses, your dog or yourself, and it’s going to attack, protect yourself,” Sheppard continued. “Protect your livestock.”
Many people in attendance claimed first-hand experience with wolf depredation on their livestock, and expressed concern about legal consequences they could potentially face in preventing a depredation.
Jefferson County commissioner Leonard Wortman was visibly frustrated with the problem wolves present for livestock producers throughout the region.
“They’re a wild animal. When they’re coming into civilization, that’s what creates the problem,” he said. “They don’t belong where they can go up and pull Fluffy off the back porch.”
Wortman went as far as claiming that “if they’re looking at a cow licking their lips, they’re stalking em” before he was quickly interrupted by Sheppard.
“Nope. Not gonna do it,” he said. “I’m just going to tell you that’s not gonna meet what the statute says.”
“All I can tell you is that the statute is pretty clear that they have to be doing something more than just moving,” Sheppard continued.
Montana law provides that the first conviction for the illegal killing of a wolf is a misdemeanor punishable by fines not to exceed $250 and $1000 restitution.
The difficulty in part of effectively managing the states wolf population is the elusive nature of the species. One local rancher in attendance claimed to have suffered four livestock losses, but had yet to see the animals actually responsible for it. Another said 25 percent of his cattle aborted their calves due to pressure from wolves.
Chad Hoover, a government trapper for USDA Wildlife Services, offered his insight on the issue, explaining that many of the wolf problems that occur in Madison County take place on the public lands.
“July through September, it’s pretty bad in the Gravelly Range and a lot of those places,” he said. “Radio collars and helicopters are the keys to solving wolf problems quickly.”
“Typically the first year we know there is a wolf pack in an area, it seems like we don’t have much trouble. The second year, we’ll confirm a couple. The third year, watch out,” Hoover continued.
Flowers said that the solution to the issue is anything but easy, if one can be found at all.
“Ultimately, our main goal in managing wolves is to manage them to a number where we’re not seeing unacceptable, undue levels of depredation and that we have prey populations at the levels that we want them,” Flowers said.
“Realistically, no matter what I do, I can’t guarantee you or anyone else that you’re not going to lose a calf to a wolf.”
However, Wortman was less than satisfied with Flower’s answer. He cited the statute in Montana law establishing the policy for management of large predators – legislative intent. According to the statute the primary goal for FWP in order of priority, is first, to protect humans, livestock and pets; second, to preserve and enhance the safety of the public during outdoor recreational and livelihood activities; and third, to preserve citizens opportunities to hunt large game species.
“There is nowhere in this statute, under the policy for the management of large predators, that says the goal is to have just enough wolves so they’re not killing everything,” Wortman said.
While a permit is not required to shoot a wolf caught in the act of preying on livestock, FWP must be notified within 72 hours of a kill or attempted kill on a wolf. Jefferson County Deputy Attorney Dennis Owens emphasized that landowners and stock growers must do what they can to preserve the scene of an incident for a follow-up investigation.
“You can’t have enough documentation and a chronology of events and credible witnesses who can confirm and corroborate what you’re saying, because this is what the peace officers are going to be gathering and bringing in to our office, and they will make a recommendation one way or the other,” Owens said.
For now, Sheppard encouraged people to use their best judgment in choosing a course of action. In his time with FWP, he said he’s never seen anyone prosecuted for shooting a wolf to protect his or her livestock. While he encouraged people to shoot wolves that exhibit behavior that may lead to a depredation, he emphasized just as strongly the importance of acting inside the law.
“It’s like the animals know when they’re being hunted or not, and I think your cattle and your livestock are going to give you a real good indication of what’s what,” Sheppard said.