Last Tuesday, Betty Staley looked out the window of her house and was shocked by something she’d never seen before.
In one of her pastures near her home, two of her horses were running frantically, being chased by a large grey wolf.
Staley lives on a ranch at the foot of the Tobacco Root Mountains near Laurin in the Ruby Valley. Her passion is horses and she’s a well-known trainer hosting clinics and classes at her ranch.
The incident happened in the afternoon when she saw two of her horses running near her out buildings.
“It happened very quickly,” Staley said. “I didn’t have time to get a loaded rifle.”
The wolf chased her horses and appeared to try and get them to circle. The older of the two horses stopped and one point and faced its assailant.
“The older horse went on the offensive because I think she felt cornered,” she said. “It’s the blessing of God that my horses did not run through a barbwire fence.”
Staley has sensed a change in behavior in her horses since this past spring. She has eight horses and some mules. All the animals have become more “flighty,” Staley said.
“I’m noticing changes in their grazing patterns and in their flightiness,” she said.
Sometimes the horse will inexplicably race in from the pasture to the barn, but until last week Staley had never seen a wolf on her land but long suspected they were there.
“I think they’re getting chased on a regular basis,” she said. “We’ve lived here too long, this is new behavior … I think the animals are stirred up and continue to feel threatened.”
The status of wolves in Montana and the northern Rockies continues to be an ongoing saga. The story has two focuses: big picture – what’s happening in the court with any legislation, and locally – what’s happening on the ground with people who have to raise livestock in and around wolves.
The official status is that the wolf population in Montana south of Interstate 90 is an experimental population under the Endangered Species Act, which means they can be shot when they’re harassing, chasing or attacking livestock.
The status of the wolf under the ESA is part of an ongoing court case involving several interests in Montana and Idaho – state agencies, the federal government along with several environmental and ranching groups are involved.
And all the while the wolf population continues to expand in Montana.
Staley is not the only rancher in Madison County who has struggled with wolves this summer. Livestock conflicts with wolves have been prevalent in the Gravelly Mountains throughout the summer.
Local ranchers have summer grazing allotments in the Gravellys and have struggled in past years with wolves and this summer was no different, except possibly worse.
In response to the conflict, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks removed two wolf packs over the past six weeks – both in the southern Gravellys, said Carolyn Sime, FWP wolf program coordinator.
“There have been conflicts off and on since mid to late summer, so the control action for Horn Mountain (pack) and Horse Creek (pack) finished up last week,” Sime said.
In total, 18 wolves were killed between the two packs and as far as FWP knows, that is all the wolves in the Gravellys for now, she said.
On the weekly Wolf Report sent out by Sime, a rancher in South Meadow Creek west of McAllister reported a probably wolf kill of a calf last week. It is in the same area of a kill from last year, according to the report.
However, FWP still hasn’t documented a pack in the Tobacco Root Mountains, Sime said. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
As fall comes on and wolves and hunters travel the same woods, she expects to hear about wolves in the Tobacco Roots if a pack has established itself.
“The Tobacco Roots are really pretty small when it comes to a wolf pack,” she said. “As we get into the fall season, if there are wolves in the Tobacco Roots we’re going to find out.”
As far as the wolf that chased Staley’s horses, it’s hard to know if it’s a wolf from a resident pack or a single wolf passing through, Sime said.
Staley did report her incident to FWP and two officials came out to her ranch to speak with her. However, the meeting didn’t go well, Staley said.
She felt like the FWP officials were defensive and focused on what things she couldn’t do to protect her animals from a wolf attack.
They did tell her she could shoot a wolf that was attacking her livestock, but if she did there would be a federal investigation, Staley said.
“A federal investigation was brought up several times,” she said. “They emphasized that rather than emphasizing what our rights are.”
Looking back on the incident and the interaction with the FWP officials, Staley said she would like to see them treat livestock owners with more of a helpful attitude and less suspicion.
“I would like to see them, if nothing else, to change toward a more helpful approach with livestock owners,” she said.
Sime expressed regret at Staley’s experience with the FWP officials who came out to her home.
“I’m sorry it was a negative experience for her,” Sime said.
However, it is true that if a landowner kills a wolf, then it is a federal agent that comes to investigate, she said.
Wolves are still listed under the Endangered Species Act and killing one under the wrong circumstances could constitute a federal violation, Sime said.
In southwest Montana, livestock owners can shoot, haze or harass a wolf that is chasing, threatening or attacking their livestock, she said. The incident must be reported within 24 hours and a federal agent will investigate as to whether the evidence on the ground matches up with the story of the incident from the landowner.
“They’re looking for evidence that the killing was justified,” Sime said.
The livestock community in Montana has been very responsible about this flexibility in the law, she said. Typically, when wolves are killed illegally, it’s not a rancher that’s done it.
“My experience has been that the livestock owners are not abusing the flexibility that they have,” Sime said.
In fact, in 2010 private citizens have killed only 12 wolves in Montana.
Wildlife officials have killed another 103 wolves statewide as a result of livestock depredation, she said.
However, despite Staley’s frustration, Sime said that FWP depends on landowners and other members of the public to report wolf sightings.
“In our monitoring work we rely a lot on a combination of our own field work and information we get from area landowners,” she said.
Montana does have a way livestock producers can get compensated for livestock killed by wolves. It’s a fund managed by the Montana Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board. Currently the board has more than $100,000 left to compensate producers for confirmed and probable wolf kills, said George Edwards, state coordinator for the board.
This year the board has paid out more than $70,000 for livestock losses, he said.
The board will be looking for another appropriation from the Montana Legislature next year as well as federal grant money, Edwards said.
This time of year, wolves are on the move as a pack looking for food and patrolling their territory. They adult wolves are now teaching the pups to hunt, Sime said.
It’s a good time of year to see wolves and wolf sign and it’s important for people who see wolves to report those sightings to FWP, she said.
For more information about wolves or to report a sighting, go online to fwp.mt.gov/wolf. For more information about the Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board, go online to www.llrmb.mt.gov. The board’s next meeting is Oct. 18 at the capital in Helena in room 152 at 10 a.m. A link will be posted that morning on their Web site to listen live to the meeting.