From freedom to FedEx: Wolf B13 killed

  • Lemhi County Sheriff Brett Barsalou examines dead wolf and calf/Candace Burns

 

SALMON, Idaho - Just nine days after her release into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, a Canadian wolf found her way out of central Idaho's maze of steep snow-covered mountains.

Sixty air miles from where she had been set free, the wolf trotted straight into Gene Hussey's cattle herd about 25 miles south of here.

She killed a calf, then someone killed her. No one has yet admitted the shooting.

Now, Hank Fischer, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula, Mont., says his organization will compensate Hussey for the calf, despite protests from some members.

"The whole bargain for trying to get cooperation on wolf reintroduction is dependent on controlling wolves that cause problems," he said. "The ranchers' bargain with us is that they won't kill wolves that aren't bothering livestock."

Hussey discovered the wolf about 11 a.m., Jan. 28, while checking cattle in a pasture about three miles from his house. Wearing the blue U.S. Fish and Wildlife radio collar numbered 13, the wolf was lying dead in a pool of blood, its nose just inches from the dead calf next to it.

Ted Koch, who heads the federal wolf recovery team for Idaho, arrived in Salmon a day after the killing. Before notifying authorities, rancher Hussey had videotaped his investigation by a local veterinarian. Using Hussey's videotape, a walk over the kill site, the vet's written statement and an examination of the calf, Koch and Layne Bangerter, who works for the federal Animal Damage Control program, reconstructed the deaths.

Inflated lungs, slightly roughened hooves and mother's milk in the intestines told Bangerter that the calf had been born alive. Black bovine hair in the wolf's stomach, along with bones from the calf, told them the wolf had eaten parts of the calf. Still, said investigators, even though the evidence was damning, they had no proof that the wolf had actually killed the calf. Another predator might have done that.

Once the calf was skinned, though, the story of its death was written in toothmarks. Bangerter determined that the wolf had bitten the calf in three of its four legs, chomped into its throat, then ripped into its stomach while the calf was still alive. Tracks in the snow indicated that the wolf disabled the 66-pound calf before picking it up and carrying it about 100 yards.

Then someone shot the wolf from the road, about 130 yards away.

"Whoever shot it probably thought it was a coyote, and when he saw that it was a wolf, he probably took off," Hussey said. "I think anybody who killed it would be a damn fool to admit it."

If Hussey or one of his "agents' had killed the wolf in the act of wounding or killing his calf on private property, it would have been considered a "legal take" under the Endangered Species Act, as long as authorities were notified within 24 hours.

Koch said he was disappointed the wolf was shot illegally because he wanted an opportunity to show that his agency would honor the rules that allow livestock owners to shoot marauding wolves on their property.

Hussey believes the act's "experimental" regulations aren't as generous as they appear. If a later autopsy had proven that the wolf was only eating his calf and hadn't killed it, then the shooting would have been illegal and the penalty as much as one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Both ranchers and biologists are surprised at having to deal with the deaths - and each other - so soon. But as long as wolves are roaming the mountains and valleys of central Idaho, both groups can see they're going to have to work more closely together. Ranchers say they want to be notified when wolves are in the area. Lemhi County commissioners want better communications with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Koch says he wants invitations to speak to people in Salmon. He says he'll begin writing a weekly column about the wolves for the Salmon Recorder Herald.

David Langhorst, executive director of the nonprofit Wolf Education and Research Center in Ketchum, says that, in this case, his group will not offer a $1,000 reward to anyone turning in the wolf-killer.

"We're more interested in seeing that wolf reintroduction continue and that ranchers' interests are protected, than prosecuting someone on a technicality," he said. However, Steve Magone, a Fish and Wildlife Service enforcement officer, said he will continue to investigate the shooting.

During his visits with locals, Koch told skeptical ranchers that livestock depredation by wolves is rare. He said that in 10 years of Canadian wolf recolonization in Montana only 19 cattle and 12 sheep were killed by wolves. Just after their release, when wolves are disoriented and stressed, is a common time for them to get into trouble, Koch said.

As Koch and ranchers hashed over plans for wolf management, wolf B13 was tucked into a freezer in preparation for her next adventure - a Federal Express ride to a forensic laboratory in Ashland, Ore., where she will undergo one last round of testing.

Candace Burns free-lances from Salmon, Idaho.

A sidebar article, Freed wolves roam up to 20 miles a day, accompanies this news story.

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