Ranches with wolves
John Helle removes twine from a round bale before feeding his flock of Rambouillet sheep on his ranch near Dillion.

DILLON - When talking about wolves on his ranch in the shrubby foothills here, John Helle points out a stand of pines on a ridge across a ravine.

A few years ago, a three-wolf pack attacked sheep on a neighboring ranch. Government predator-control agents killed two of the wolves, but a black female escaped. Not long after, Helle started finding dead sheep on his ranch with their throats cut out, a tell-tale sign of wolf depredation. As far as Helle could tell, the black wolf had taken cover over on that woody ridge.

After two wolf pups were caught on the ranch in traps meant for coyotes, government agents issued Helle Montana's first shoot-on-sight permit. He used it on a male he spotted from his pickup stocking his flock. After missing the wolf from 350 feet, he tracked it down on a dirt bike he keeps in the bed of his truck.

The black female would eventually be trapped and collared by government agents.

The official toll on the sheep herd was 18, but Helle said he had 200 fewer sheep in his flock by the end of the ordeal.

Helle, a 46-year-old Montana State University graduate whose family has raised sheep in the area since his great-grandparents immigrated to southwest Montana from Austria, said people off the ranch don't understand how vulnerable livestock is on the open range to wolves.

"I don't think people realize the vastness of the area," Helle said as he drove his Ford F-350 across a rutted and rocky dirt road, "or the predator's ability to stay away from us."

With the settlement of the West, ranchers were largely responsible for the eradication of wolves, a fleet and efficient predator that can devastate domestic livestock. And, 15 years ago this month, when wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park, ranchers were the most vociferous opponents to the plan. The U.S. Farm Bureau even got a judge to order an injunction on reintroduction as the wolves were mid-flight from Alberta in January 1995. Until the order was lifted later that night, the wolves had to stay in their aluminum kennels set down in the Yellowstone's Lamar Valley.

But by March of that year, all 15 of the wolves had left the acclimation pen and were in the wild.

Within a year, Helle said, there began to be signs of wolves around Dillon, 72 miles from the western border of Yellowstone. When they came, it was but one more squeeze put on family ranches already feeling the pressure of tighter profit margins and hearing the call of land speculators. Just recently, a land developer from Alabama bought the ranch next to him.

"There were more sheep in this county than the whole state of Montana a few years ago," Helle said. "But ranchers finally say, ‘Heck with it. I'm not dealing with wolves and the Forest Service and the public. I'm selling to a developer.'

"We kind of see the loss of the West as the loss of the family ranch."

As seen through a snowstorm

Since reintroduction in 1995, the number of sheep and cattle killed by wolves in Montana has been climbing. In 2009, 97 cattle and 202 sheep were confirmed killed by wolves, the highest tally yet for both animals.

However, wolves still account for a tiny percentage of livestock loss. In recent years, wolves and other predators accounted for 1.1 percent of cattle losses in Montana, according to the National Agriculture Statistics Service. For sheep, predators accounted for 3.45 percent. Nationwide in 2005, coyotes killed 22 times more cattle than wolves did. A freak April snowstorm during calving season in southeast Montana last year killed thousands of calves over a few days.

Even common birds are potential predators. En route to feed one band of sheep one recent overcast and windy day, Helle came across a ewe that had died. The seasoned woolgrower quickly determined the ewe had been sick - probably an illness brought on by her pregnancy - and was killed by crows in her weakness.

But when wolves hit livestock, they can also hit the bottom lines of individual ranchers hard. After a summer in which they lost 60 sheep to wolves, the Allestad family of Big Timber sold its U.S. Forest Service leases in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness just north of Yellowstone, ending more than a century of continuous sheep ranching in the area. The losses, they explained in a recent interview, had gotten to be too much.

South of Dillon last year in the biggest single depredation in memory, the Rebish/Konen Livestock Ranch lost 120 rams in one attack. Helle's uncle runs that ranch.

"Coyotes are persistent and constant," Helle said. "Wolves are occasionally devastating."

Attempts at coexistence

Everyone, not just the Farm Bureau, expected wolves to kill livestock. But wolf advocates and ranchers have designed a number of schemes in hopes of reducing conflicts, with varied success.

In 2000, government and private biologists on Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch near Gallatin Gateway tried to train three wild wolves to stay away from livestock by shocking them with electric collars every time they got near a cow. The biologists hoped the wolves' aversion to livestock would be contagious when they were put back in the wild. By October of 2001, all three of the wolves were dead - two of them killed because they were preying on cattle.

In the Madison Valley, a plan developed by Roger Lang - owner of the 26,000-acre Sun Ranch -- to allow cows and wolves to live side-by-side was brought into question when one of his ranch hands illegally killed a wolf.

One promising answer may lie in something as simple as rope and orange flags.

Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain region director for Defenders of Wildlife, said his group is seeing promising results by putting the flagged rope around herds of sheep during the night. For reasons Leahy can't explain, wolves are reticent to pass the rope in pursuit of sheep.

Near Sun Valley, Idaho, where three producers run 12,000 sheep across a 1 million-acre area, nine miles of the flagged rope and guard dogs have been used this year. The producers have largely avoided wolf depredation, though a "miscommunication" led to an attack in which 13 sheep were killed, Leahy said.

"You've got some long-term sheep ranchers and a large landscape, and it's worked," Leahy said.

Still, the most common response to wolf depredations is to get rid of the wolf, usually by killing it. Since reintroduction, 578 wolves have been killed because of conflicts with livestock. That includes 145 in 2009 alone. Most of the wolves have been killed by government agents, but ranchers are also allowed to kill wolves they see attacking their livestock or, like Helle, can be issued permits to kill wolves near their herds.

Leahy said Defenders accepts that co-existence models won't prevent all conflicts, and accepts that wolves harassing livestock will continue to be killed.

"We're careful not to tout these things as a complete panacea," he said. "We see it as part of living on the landscape."

Still, he said, looking forward, "coexistence" strategies hold the most promise for ranchers.

"I don't think anyone has the right to sterilize the landscape for their benefit," he said. "I think (wolves) are here for the long term. People are going to have to learn to live with them."

The cost of predation

Programs are also set up to compensate ranchers who lose livestock. Defenders of Wildlife ran one of the biggest until 2008, when it gave the state of Montana $100,000 of seed money to set up its own fund. Between 1987 and 2009, ranchers received more than $1.3 million in compensation for almost 4,000 animals, mostly sheep and cattle.

The intent of the program, according to the Defender's Web site, is to "shift economic responsibility for wolf recovery away from the individual rancher and toward the millions of people who want to see wolf populations restored.

"Animosity and ill will towards the wolf," Defenders says, "can result in illegal killing."

And while many ranchers have commended the program, others are dubious of it. In a February interview, Elaine Allestad, of Big Timber, said her family's decision to stop running sheep in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness was helped along because they were only compensated for a small portion of the 60 sheep killed by wolves.

Helle refused compensation from the Defenders when he lost those 18 sheep.

"They were using it to justify the (wolf) program," he said. "We're not out here to raise wolf food."

But a few years later, when a guard dog needed surgery after brutal wolf attack, Helle accepted the help.

"I guess we're going to have to figure out some ways to deal with the costs," he said.

The philosophy of ranching

Driving across his ranch, Helle says he reads blogs and stories on the Internet about wolves and wolf reintroduction. And, he admits, he has trouble getting his mind around people's infatuation with the animal.

For thousands of years, he notes, humans have been raising sheep to turn grass into clothing and food. For 25 years, he has been keeping computerized records on the wool his sheep grow in hopes of improving the quality of fiber they produce. Most recently, he's been working with Tom Chappell, of Tom's of Maine Toothpaste fame, to create natural wool clothing made entirely in the United States.

Helle identifies types of grass and brush, whether it is native or introduced, and how running his sheep across the area will influence how it grows. He'll stop his truck and conversation to pick up a tin can or plastic wrap on the group.

"People talk about ecosystem management," he muses. "All that is is ranching."

Daniel Person can be reached at dperson@dailychronicle.com or 582-2665.

 

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