Federal wildlife officials are removing a pack of wolves that established a den and developed a habit of killing calves on a ranch south of Ennis.
The Snowshoe Pack moved in late last fall, said Bar 7 ranch manager George Boyd. He and his hands saw them off and on through the winter. Once calving began this spring, they began to show up more often and calves began disappearing.
Last week, Boyd finally discovered a dead calf with enough evidence that he figured officials would be able to confirm it as a wolf kill.
The field trapper for U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services did confirm it was a wolf kill, and that’s where things got thorny.
Wolf management in Montana is complex. It involves two agencies: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services.
The arrangement has its roots as far back as the initial stages of wolf reintroduction in the 1990s. The two agencies have been involved in wolf management in Montana from the very beginning. Wildlife Services has historically worked with the livestock industry to address livestock depredation from a variety of predators. FWP is the state’s wildlife management agency.
The state first took over management of wolves when they were still listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Montana developed a management plan approved by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and were allowed to take the lead on wolf management within the state.
Last year wolves were delisted completely and FWP took over full management of their populations, similar to other predators like mountain lions and black bears. However, one vestige of the old operating system hung on – USDA Wildlife Services would continue to be integral in wolf management operations, particularly when it came to collaring, trapping and killing wolves involved in livestock conflicts.
So last week when Boyd saw wolf tracks and big bite marks on his most recent killed calf, he had two agencies to call – FWP and Wildlife Services.
Boyd and the Bar 7 are familiar with wolves. They’ve had problems for at least five years. The typical response from FWP is to remove one or two wolves when there are confirmed wolf kills. When the depredation continues and another cow is killed, the agency will remove the entire pack, Boyd said.
In Montana, FWP has the last say in wolf management. Typically when a depredation occurs an official from Wildlife Services or FWP will confirm whether or not it was a wolf kill, then FWP will develop a plan of action that could range from killing a few wolves, trapping and collaring some to try and get an idea of pack location or even removing an entire pack.
Sometimes the field staff for the two agencies don’t agree on a course of action and when that happens, supervisors get involved, said Pat Flowers, FWP region 3 director in Bozeman.
That’s what happened last week on the Bar 7 Ranch. The Wildlife Services field staff felt removing the entire pack was appropriate given the history of wolf depredation on the ranch. The FWP staff member felt removing two wolves would be the best first step.
Ultimately, the situation was jointly reviewed by management from both agencies and the decision was made to kill the four wolves known to be in the pack, Flowers said.
“In this case, after further discussion, further review, we recognized the writing appeared to be on the wall that that’s where we were headed,” he said.
Montana’s USDA Wildlife Services director John Steuber agreed with Flowers interpretation of the situation.
While a course of action was being discussed between the agency officials, Boyd lost another calf over the weekend. But ultimately, the local Wildlife Services official was able to kill two wolves Tuesday morning.
The lag in the system seems to be with FWP, said Madison County Commissioner Dave Schulz. Boyd contacted Schulz after the local Wildlife Services official couldn’t get a response on a course of action from FWP.
“Apparently there’s a very incredible communication block between the two (agencies),” Schulz said.
FWP knew the Snowshoe Pack was denning on the Bar 7 Ranch and the agency knew the history the ranch has had with wolf depredation, he said. FWP officials should have immediately authorized Wildlife Service to remove the pack once a depredation was confirmed.
“The full pack should have been part of the plan right off the bat,” Schulz said.
Schulz’s frustrations reflect the complications that occur when two agencies are involved in joint management of wolves, Flowers said.
“The process is when we get word that there’s been a depredation then we make the call as to how we’re going to respond to that depredation then we relay that to Wildlife Services,” he said.
Sometimes there are conflicts and disagreements.
“There’s a communication problem to the extent at times we don’t agree and at times we have to follow up either with the specialist or their supervisors and we work through it,” he said. “I think it’s the nature of having shared responsibilities on this issue.”
Sometimes things go smoothly and other times they don’t, Flowers said.
“I think the key is we have to be working with wildlife services as effectively as possible to get a quick turn around on decisions and then to get a response on the ground,” he said. “I think our goal is to be as responsive as possible and (act) as quickly as possible. Sometimes that works well sometimes that doesn’t work as well as we’d like … We’re committed to make this work better.”
The two agencies meet at least annually to review their working relationship, address concerns and any changes that need to be made, Steuber said.
“I think the discussions need to continue always,” he said.
Out at the Bar 7, Boyd seems to understand the way things go. He’s lost several calves this spring, at least three that have seemed to disappear without any sign at all.
“It’s really hard to find anything you can prove,” he said. “If you’re seeing them everyday twice a day you can find a calf that hasn’t been consumed … That’s the frustrating thing about this is it’s so hard to say what’s going on if you don’t find the calf.”
Recently either he or his ranch hands have been patrolling the calving grounds at least once a night, but the wolves seem to just show up after they leave.
“They’re coming in right behind us and leaving tracks in the pick-up tracks,” Boyd said.
The recent wolf-hunting season in Montana may have helped some. But he thinks ranchers should be able to shoot wolves whenever they see them on their ranch.
“Even if they’d let the ranchers shoot wolves on their own property, that would help us out at least during calving season,” Boyd said.
Three times this spring he and his hands have seen wolves amongst his cows and calves.
“It’s fighting an uphill battle,” he said. “It seems like the game we’re playing has rules and the decks stacked a little bit against us.”
The removal of the Snowshoe Pack should offer a bit of a reprieve, Boyd said. But he doesn’t anticipate it will last long. Wolves seem to like the Bar 7.
“They always come back within about a year,” he said.
Montana FWP is currently proposing dramatic changes to the wolf-hunting season. This includes eliminating quotas except in the two wolf management units closest to Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, extending the season, allowing more liberal season structure and establishing a trapping season. The agency is also planning to propose legislation in 2013 that would allow hunters to shoot more than one wolf and use electronic calls.
FWP is taking public comment on the proposed season changes through June 25.