Living precariously with wolves and cattle

  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 get along.

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 first one 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 governmental powers. 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 mutilations 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. But when we stood to go it rose above the wind, fragile, and something like a howl.

Bryce Andrews is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He 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

Sep 10, 2007 02:06 PM

Misplaced “Rage”

Bryce Andrews experienced “rage” when, after pushing domestic cattle into limited wolf range, some livestock were killed by wolves this summer (“Living precariously with wolves and cattle,” HCN 08/20/07). His own participation in the public lands ranching industry apparently notwithstanding, Mr. Andrews took solace that, by personally killing the alpha male of the local wolf pack, he contributed to a “moderate” solution to wolf-grazing conflicts. We shudder to think what Mr. Andrews would consider an extreme solution.

The livestock industry originally exterminated wolves from the American West; appropriates more than 80 percent of the annual forage resource on some federal grazing allotments; and has protested every step of the wolf reintroduction program in the lower forty-eight states.  Government agents and ranchers eliminated at least 142 wolves in the Northern Rockies to protect livestock in 2006, and 538 wolves have been killed since 1987.

Killing wolves will not reduce wolf conflicts as long as domestic livestock are permitted to graze public lands. The federal government should permanently retire federal grazing permits and grazing allotments in wolf range, finally affording both wolves and their prey the space they need to survive. 

Mark Salvo
Sagebrush Sea Campaign

Dr. Ralph Maughan
Wolf Recovery Foundation

Rob Edward
Director, Carnivore Restoration Program

May 12, 2008 12:19 PM

Congratulations, Mr. Andrews, on a well-written article.  In an arena of strongly polarized opinions, you expressed the pain and compassion and understanding of the importance of both viewpoints which will be necessary for all of us to have as we work toward acceptable, balanced and sustainable solutions.  

Lois Huffman 

May 14, 2008 12:03 PM

My rage may take over, but before it does, I want to gather my thoughts.

 There is a delicate balance that is made in nature.  When a predator is hungry, it kills.  After many long years, probably more like generations, the predator-prey relationship is built.  It is a delicate balance, when there is large populations of prey, the predators' numbers begin to grow.  But once the prey populations drop, so does the predators.  It is a balancing act. 

As humans are brought into the picture, we start to change that balance, shifting things around, all in order for us to survive.  I guess, no matter which way you look at it, the balance that once existed is gone.  With humans in the picture we probably will never be able to gain that historic balance again. 

In the meantime, before humans leave this world, we need to try to strike some balance.  Mr. Andrews tried and succeeded to gain that balance.  Although cattle grazing on public lands may not always be the best use of the land, it is a congressional law.  These areas were designated for grazing long before many of us we born.  I doubt that in many places this type of use is leaving.  But now we have to strike that balance.  For the record, the elk that are roaming most of Idaho and Montana are not the orignal elk that were there.  When Lewis and Clark came into Salmon, Idaho country, they claimed that they could have starved, because no large game was seen anywhere.  Now that area houses more than 7000 elk.  Not to mention, cattle have entered the scene, and they are also not native.  So we have two non native species, neither of which have been there for more than 200 years. 

 Now we release a predator, the wolf.  This predator has been displaced with its prey for many generations, and now he has quite the choice of prey.  Elk, that were not in the great numbers they are now, and cattle, which were not native, and deer.  All the choices, of course the wolf may not always chose the prey he was originally accostomed too.  Now, the balance has already shifted to support the wildlife and cattle, now this predator is back on the scene.  The wolf will grow exponentialy due to the wide variety of food.  A balance that was already created to mirror nature (increased prey means increased predator populations, especially on predators like wolves that do not have many enemies). 

So now we argue that wolves should not be here, or that they should, or that grazing should not be allowed.  It does not look like any of these are an option, so now that the wolves are here, we have to strike a balance.  None of the above suggestions (removing cattle, wildlife, etc) will be the answer.  Mr. Andrews said it, he acted in rage, but not outside of the controls placed on him.  We must respect the balance that needs to be acheived, otherwise we might be fighting a loosing battle.

Thanks for reading this!!!