Living precariously with wolves and cattle

  • Bryce Andrews


Through the end of June last year, we got along fine with the wolves. I was working on a ranch in Montana's Madison Valley, where the wolves ran elk to exhaustion in the high country while yearling cattle fattened on the lower pastures of the ranch. Peaceful coexistence with predators seemed within our grasp, and that was our goal, just to stay out of trouble.

Near the middle of July, we gathered 780 heifers from the grassy flats by the river and drove them onto the Squaw Creek Allotment, a crumpled tablecloth of tree-covered draws, bare ridges and seeps at the base of the Madison Range. We settled our herd and left them munching Forest Service grass.

Within 24 hours, we were in trouble. On the first morning, a heifer stood apart. As I walked her up the fence, I saw the bloody stripes just under her tail, gaped at the rip in her bag that opened to darkness with every step. From then on, life accelerated to a blur. What I recall clearly is that the animal corpses appeared with maddening frequency. One lay bloated in a stream. Two others were gnawed to bare bone. I couldn't help it: My rage grew with the body count. I thought of Aldo Leopold's famous line about a fierce green fire in a wolf's eye, and I wanted to see it die.

After performing an autopsy on one of the cows, Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued a shoot-on-sight permit for two wolves. A few days later, with a borrowed 30-30, I filled half of it.

I killed the wolf at South Squaw Creek, which begins as a quagmire of thick undergrowth, fallen trees and shadow. Through this, deft and massive, came the wolf. We saw each other simultaneously, and then I fired and watched his hind end go limp and collapse. He dragged doggedly toward shelter. I shot again and hit a tree. I shot a third time, and he tumbled out of view. I found him breathing out his last in a clearing not 10 feet across. He seemed to fill it. A moment, and he was gone, leaving me heartsick with the shot ringing in my ears.

I'd killed the alpha male. The following day, another ranch hand shot a half-grown pup. Afterward, it took a while to restart my mind. When I closed my eyes, the scene appeared, the trigger-pull, impact. I heard again the hiss of air from punctured lungs and wondered if something that felt so wrong could be positive in any sense.

Removed from the moment, I take solace in our success. Within days of the shooting, the rest of the pack retreated to the mountains. We killed two wolves, but by ending the string of depredations, spared 11. Other ranchers in the valley took notice. For these reasons, I consider the killing of the wolf to be the most effective conservation act of my life.

I wish the story ended there, with a moderate example set and the wolves dining permanently on elk. It was so until Sept. 18, when an early winter storm pummeled the valley. After the snow stopped flying, and the fog lifted, I found two limping heifers with their backsides chewed away. We put the cattle down, and, caught shorthanded in a busy season, turned the wolf situation over to the government hunters. They trapped and radio-collared a young male feeding on one of the carcasses. As we gathered and shipped our heifers, an aerial gunner killed the collared pup and two others.

Achieving equilibrium with wildlife on the margins of a domesticated world is an imprecise and sometimes violent undertaking. Wolves and cattle die. Ranchers lose sleep, money and their tempers. But so long as places like the Madison Valley remain open and undeveloped, there's hope in the turning seasons. We can try to do the whole thing over, wiser for the lessons of a troubled summer.

This April, I crouched with a friend near a wolf den. It was dug into a steep hillside, its entrance framed by the roots of a pine. We thought the den was empty, but when our conversation lapsed, the pups mewled faintly from the dark. I thought of the heifers that would graze here in a month, and I recalled the depredations and the rage I felt last summer. Here was a new generation of culprits. In a year they would be grown and hungry. They would maim and then vanish. We might have killed them if not for that muffled sound. When we stood to go, it rose above the wind, fragile, and something like a howl.

Bryce Andrews lives in Seattle, Washington, and begins graduate school in environmental studies next month at the University of Montana, Missoula.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Aug 21, 2007 11:49 PM

The first two paragraphs of Bryce Andrews’s essay (August 20, 2007) set the stage for the tragedy that follows.  If  “peaceful coexistence with predators” was the goal, then why in hell did the rancher drive his herd of heifers up into the high country where the wolves were running elk to exhaustion and then leave them “munching Forest Service grass”?  It seems quite naive to expect that the wolves would rather continue chasing after wily elk rather than investigate these truckloads of slow-moving, inattentive creatures left all by themselves  to gather in sluggish clots along the streams and seeps of Squaw Creek:  A “tablecloth” landscape indeed! 


If you set out a bunch of tasty hamburgers on a public table at lunchtime and then go away,  what do you expect to find when you return?  How can you get angry at the wolves?  If you lure carnivores with meat, you should expect to be fined to the full extent of the law for creating a dangerous nuisance.  Try leaving your picnic table in Yellowstone set with food while you sleep and see what the rangers will do.


The real culprit here is the rancher who stubbornly refuses to adjust to the fact that there are now wolves back in our forests.  It’s an outrage that the wolves were shot because the rancher refused to manage his herd properly for wolf country.  It’s an outrage that Fish, Wildlife and Parks condones such irresponsible behavior.  It’s equally all too telling that this behavior is not condemned by other public-lands ranchers who make little effort to protect their heavily subsidized investment. 


Yes, Mr. Andrew, you should be angry, but not at the wolves that were so cruelly lured to an easy meal.  There may be a time and place when killing a predator is appropriate, but this example was not one of them.

Feb 15, 2008 11:36 AM

I am uneasily in agreement with with Andrew that he "saved" 11 wolves by shooting two but still -- cattle and predators? They just don't go together very well. Buffalo and wolves, now that is a much better match! (and the way nature intended it)

If ranchers are going to leave cattle in OPEN LANDS, they need fences or 24 hour security!

Does your local store leave its doors wide open  for any thieves to enter and take what they want? Of course not.

The whole mentality of ranching in open lands, and freaking out when predators attack the animals is beyond comprehension! Again,, as the previous commentor said, "It's like leaving a steak dinner out and shooting the animal that goes for it!"

Also, I find it ironic that ranchers get so upset over seeing blood and gore when a predator attacks their animals.

What do they think their animals look like after they've been slaughtered? That sure can't be a pretty sight either!

Oh, sorry, that's for PROFIT though. So it isn't as disturbing, right?

NOTE:  Andrew and your friends! Please look into Keystone Conservation, a nonprofit dedicated to educating livestock owners about non-lethal control. It is unfair to kill animals for what they are doing naturally.