Wolves develop an appetite for beef

  In Montana, ranchers and government officials remain baffled by the Ninemile wolves' appetite for beef. Since April, the wolf pack, originally made famous in Rick Bass's book, The Ninemile Wolves, has been responsible for killing four calves and one 600-pound yearling.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in turn, has been responsible for killing four Ninemile wolves, including the alpha male.


"The alpha male will often be the leader of what is going on. When you remove the alpha male, that prevents him from teaching the rest of the pack," says Joe Fontaine, wolf recovery leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana.


This is the first year since the wolves entered the Ninemile area in 1989 that they have attacked so many cows in such a short period of time. Fontaine says the wolves and livestock were coexisting and even intermingling. "That's what is so perplexing about it now. And this area has an adequate prey base," he says.


Landowners who have suffered losses have been compensated by Defenders of Wildlife, the national nonprofit group. But Fontaine says ranchers hate to raise animals for wolves to eat.


Hank Fischer, regional representative of Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula, Mont., says the group is experimenting with guard burros, which have been successfully trained to protect sheep from wolves. Fontaine says other methods haven't worked.


"We've tried a whole wide gamut of things - lithium chloride in hamburger balls, which makes the wolves ill. Lights and sirens, horns, tape on fences, cracker shells," Fontaine says. "You name it; it has been tried."


Nor has relocation worked well. Only one wolf of the 28 that were relocated has lived, Fontaine says.


But Fontaine is optimistic about the depleted Ninemile pack. "If you remove animals from an area, the surviving wolves know instinctively to fill the void," he says. "A good example is the Yellowstone wolves, where a couple of packs had dual litters and one had a triple litter. Usually the alpha male and female are the only ones to have a litter."


Fontaine hopes the Ninemile wolves will rebound, and that the new wolves won't be attracted to livestock.


Copyright © 1998 HCN and Beth Wohlberg