Still Howling Wolf

Will Westerners finally learn how to live with Canis lupus?

  • CAT URBIKIT, SHEEP RANCHER "Right as darkness started setting in, the wolves started howling on the hill behind the house. So we knew we were about to have problems. It's kind of nerve-wracking to live with wolves. I certainly don't want wolves on our ranch here. Wolves are absolutely not welcome here on our ranch."

    Ted Wood
  • ALBERT SOMMERS, CATTLE RANCHER "Too often natural resource-based decisions are made by judges who don't know siccum about the issues. The difference between grizzly bears and wolves is that bears sleep six months out of the year, and the wolf doesn't. ... I do recognize that he's here now. I recognize that things do change, and that you have to go on forward."

    Ted Wood
  • Rod Merrill, an investigator with the Wildlife Services division of APHIS, inspects a calf belonging to Albert Sommers that was killed by a wolf in the Upper Green River area of Wyoming.

    Ted Wood
  • B.J. HILL, OUTFITTER "I have no use for the critter. At all. Zero. Get it out of here. I feel like we've been lied to. One minute it's 10 packs; now it's 15 packs. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Game and Fish knows that these (elk) calf numbers are plummeting. They know it."

    Ted Wood
  • FREDDIE BOTUR, CATTLE RANCHER "When that steer was taken down, the economic impact to my operation wasn't that I just lost a 950-pound steer. That's all I got compensated for. But the problem comes with the 1,000 other steers that were in with that steer when they were being harassed and predated on by a pack of wolves. Typically a steer will gain 2.1 pounds a day in the time and the season they were at. When they got stressed out like that, they probably didn't gain anything. So I lost two pounds a day for probably two and a half days on a thousand steers. I didn't lose one steer. I lost a hell of a lot more money than that."

    Ted Wood
  • JASON AND RICHARD BALDES, SHOSHONE TRIBE: Richard: "I admire the wolf for a number of reasons. The primary reason is because wolves take care of their own, and I think the tribes will learn from that. If wolves should disappear from other parts of the country, they will always be here. They're going to be protected by the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes. Because they're part of the culture. They're part of the system. The Creator put them here for a reason."

    Ted Wood
 

Page 3

That's not to say that everyone's happy. Take Albert Sommers, a third-generation Wyoming cattleman whose grandfather was a charter member of the Upper Green River Cattle Association, which includes about a dozen ranchers who run cattle during summer months on U.S. Forest Service land near the Green River's headwaters. It's wild country, with grizzlies, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and, as of about eight years ago, wolves.

I meet Sommers on a late July day, and he tells me I'm in luck because his rider just witnessed a wolf kill up the valley on the allotment.

As we bounce up to the scene in his truck, Sommers says his dad was probably about 12 in 1927 when the last wolf was killed in the area. The big predators virtually disappeared. Then, in about 1993, the first grizzly kill happened not far from here. As the protected grizzlies recovered, they killed more cattle, and by 1997, says Sommers, it was "horrendous." (Yellowstone grizzlies were delisted in March 2007.)

Meanwhile, dispersing wolves formed new packs and crossed the Gros Ventre range. In 2000, they made their first cattle kill in the Upper Green about 130 miles south of Yellowstone. The dual whammy hit Sommers hard. Prior to the first grizzly kill, he says, the cattle association averaged about a 2 percent calf loss. By 2005 or so, it had jumped to 7 percent. "I don't have anything against the wolf except the wolf eats my cattle," he says. "The difference between grizzly bears and wolves is that bears sleep six months out of the year and a wolf doesn't."

We arrive at the kill site, where the rider, Leif Videen, and Rod Merrill from the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service stand over the fly-ridden corpse of a calf. Examining the wounds and tracks, Merrill confirms it's a wolf kill. The 28-year-old Videen says he thought the animal lurking around the cattle was a coyote at first. He glassed it with his binoculars, saw a wolf hamstring a Hereford, and drove the predator away.

Videen is a hired hand, so he didn't suffer a financial loss from the kill. Still, he surprises me when I ask him about wolves. "To me, it's just part of the deal, I guess, that there are predators here," he says from his saddle. "I guess I like this country because it's wild country, and that's one of the things that makes it wild is bears and wolves." He adds, perhaps suddenly recalling who signs his paycheck, "I don't like seein' 'em kill livestock. It definitely makes a lot of work for a person."

Sommers says it's important that ranchers like him stay on the land, staving off subdivisions and providing some cultural continuity. Like many locals, he understands that wolves will remain in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, but believes they should be killed when they stray too far. As Sommers sees it, wolves simply can't run free up and down the spine of the Rockies anymore. "Wolves were reintroduced into a landscape that is not what they left. The wolf is now in a landscape that is dominated by man."

Sommers is less angry than he is practical when it comes to wolves. There are compensation programs; Defenders of Wildlife, for example, has paid more than $900,000 to ranchers who have lost cattle to wolves. But they're barely a start, Sommers says. He explains that he loses 3.5 head for every confirmed grizzly kill, and seven head for every confirmed wolf kill. That's because a cow carcass doesn't last long here, between the wolves, grizzlies, coyotes and ravens, and not all wolf predation could possibly be documented.

And not everyone agrees that ranchers should be compensated. Gretel Ehrlich, a former ranch hand, sheepherder and an author best known for her Western elegy The Solace of Open Spaces, says that the country does not owe ranchers that much. "If you raise livestock in a country where there are fierce predators, as there are here, then in a way you make a pact with the possibility of those deaths," she told me at a Pinedale picnic.

Cat Urbikit, a sheep rancher who operates near Big Piney, is a member of the Sublette County Predator Board. She thinks the compensation program is the least that governments can do for ranchers. Her county, awash in gas money, has dedicated funds for compensating ranchers, as has the Wyoming Legislature. But she's not just sitting around waiting to be paid for losses. She's long used Akbash guard dogs against coyotes, but the smallish dogs don't stand a chance against wolves. So she started raising Central Asian Aziats that run to 160-180 pounds. She adopted a pair of wild burros named Bill and Hillary, and trained them to protect her flock. When wolves do show up, she doesn't hesitate to call on wildlife officials to get rid of them by any means necessary. "Wolves are absolutely not welcome on our ranch," she says.

For his part, Sommers seems resigned. "The wolf is reintroduced now," he says. "Things do change, and you have to move forward."

Then he points out one unfortunate, and certainly unintended, consequence of the recent wolf ruling. Sommers' ranch, like much of Sublette County, has been hugely impacted by energy development. He has considered placing a conservation easement on his private land, and has reluctantly found himself in agreement with environmentalists who want to slow the gas-drilling binge of the past decade. But he says that being at odds with the same people over wolves makes it almost impossible for them to work together against the energy companies. "You want to kinda win the hearts and minds of those who live, work and recreate in predator country," he says. By suing to put the wolf back in the feds' hands, he says, the environmentalists burned a tenuous bridge.

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