When it comes to killing livestock, the wolves recolonizing Montana have a reputation larger than their appetite.
Carter Niemeyer has investigated more
than 100 livestock carcasses where wolves were the prime suspects.
He can count the number of confirmed wolf kills on one hand:
The rest? "Nothing led us to believe
further that wolves were involved," he said. Based in Helena,
Mont., Niemeyer investigates ranchers' complaints about wolves in
Montana, Idaho and North Dakota. He puts 30,000 miles on his pickup
in a year, checking out complaints for Animal Damage Control, a
branch of the Department of Agriculture known best for its
relentless pursuit of predators such as
Earlier this winter, Niemeyer
investigated the death of a two-day-old calf found bleeding on a
ranch near Augusta. The fresh snow around it was full of tracks
identified as those of a single, subadult wolf - the first head of
stock killed by a member of the fledgling Augusta pack. This pack
is one of five which have recolonized Montana since the late
Between 1990 and 1993, Niemeyer
investigated 65 dead cattle, 36 dead lambs and sheep, and one dead
foal, plus four horses and mules that had been chased and injured.
In all the cases, ranchers called him suspecting
He figures that of those, four cows and
one lamb were actually killed by wolves. The others might have been
killed by other predators, disease, weather, or by any of a hundred
hazards that sometimes kill free-ranging
Once he determines a wolf is the culprit,
he works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide how to
react. In the Augusta calf case, the federal biologists decided to
keep closer tabs on the wolves and see if they would try again.
Other times they have captured and moved wolves, with mixed results
(see story below).
Niemeyer said he attempts to
investigate each report with an open mind. "A lot of times the
(news) media have beat me there and there are some very hard
feelings," he said. "Emotions are high. It's almost like a mob
First, he said, he talks to the owner of
the livestock and any witnesses. Second, he looks for clues such as
tracks in the snow that indicate the animal died in a struggle.
Then he skins the carcass, searching for tell-tale
Wolves pull down their prey with bites
from any angle, while a cougar kills with a bite to the neck and a
grizzly with a blow to the head or spine.
investigation occurred near the small town of Fortine, Mont., in
Loggers had seen a pack of wolves feeding
on a cow, and the rancher assumed they had killed it. Niemeyer
peeled back the hide and noticed massive bruising on one side. The
cow had been struck by a vehicle and scavenging wolves fed on it
after it had died. In the end, the rancher said the wolves were
"I try not to leave an
investigation behind where I haven't convinced people of my
findings. At least, that's what they'll say to my face," he
Niemeyer expects conflicts between wolves
and humans to increase as the wolf population grows. So far in
Montana, only one of five packs are denned in an area with
intensive livestock ranching. The other four packs picked the
timbered northwestern corner of the state, where ranching is
Two packs now live in Glacier
National Park, where they feed mostly on whitetail deer. Another
pack in the Ninemile Valley has killed stock, but so far these
appear to be isolated incidents. The pack near Fortine has so far
resisted temptations to kill cattle - so far as anyone
The Washington, D.C.-based group Defenders
of Wildlife has reimbursed ranchers the potential market value of
stock killed by wolves, in order to share the financial burden of
supporting the endangered species. Defenders' Montana
representative Hank Fischer says the organization has paid $12,000
to about a dozen ranchers since 1987.
investigated many of those incidents, and few ranchers have
disputed his findings, Fischer said. "If we had an ADC person we
couldn't trust, it would make the project impossible," Fischer
For more information about Defenders'
livestock reimbursement program, call Hank Fischer in Missoula,
Ben Long is a newspaper
reporter in Kalispell, Montana.