Sleuth says wolves are usually innocent

  • Howling wolf drawing

    Robert Shetterly

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: five.

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 coyotes.

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 1980s.

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 wolves.

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 stock.

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 scene."

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 injuries.

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.

One investigation occurred near the small town of Fortine, Mont., in 1993.

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 "exonerated."

"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 said.

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 relatively small.

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 knows.

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.

Niemeyer 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 said.

For more information about Defenders' livestock reimbursement program, call Hank Fischer in Missoula, 406/549-0761.

Ben Long is a newspaper reporter in Kalispell, Montana.

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