The phone lit up Thursday in the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 3 headquarters after people noticed that sheep had returned to a pasture northwest of Gardiner where a collared wolf was shot last May.
Using email and social media, wolf watchers alerted each other to the fact that outfitter Bill Hoppe moved his sheep this week back to a pasture in the northern part of the Gardiner Basin.
Worried that the move would lead to the death of more wolves, groups urged their followers to contact FWP.
“I got the call Wednesday night. There are definitely sheep on the site,” said Wolves of the Rockies spokeswoman Kim Bean. “It's going to be interesting to see what transpires.”
FWP spokeswoman Andrea Jones said she'd fielded a number of calls during the day and told everyone the same thing: FWP is aware of and will monitor the situation.
“Under Montana law, he's in his rights,” Jones said. “We don't presume people's motives. We can't prosecute something that hasn't already happened.”
Montana Farm Bureau Federation spokesman John Youngberg sided with Jones.
“It's private property. He should be able to use it as long as it's not hurting someone else,” Youngberg said. “Can you tell him no? If you do, you've got to compensate him for not using it.”
Hoppe told the Chronicle in April that he purchased his first 30 sheep that month as a gift to his grandchildren. Prior to that, he'd raised only cattle.
After wolves killed 13 sheep in that pasture a few weeks later, Hoppe moved the remainder of the herd to property near his house in Jardine, northeast of Gardiner, which he said had better fencing. They remained there all summer.
Hoppe gained special notoriety among wolf advocates when FWP issued him a kill permit, which he used to shoot one collared Yellowstone wolf. He was authorized to kill two, but he returned the permit after moving his sheep.
Bean said her people would be watching this new situation, paying particular attention to whether Hoppe leaves out any carcasses that could attract predators.
Another concern is the lack of a fence along the river, so there's no barrier to wildlife entering the property, Bean said. U.S. Highway 89 borders the pasture on the east and the Yellowstone River borders it on the west.
While emotions surged, some urged caution.
Wildlife photographer Deby Dixon worried that over-reaction could lead to more wolf hatred.
“My fear is that a lot of angry phone calls to FWP and to the Hoppe residence will only result in more wolves being killed,” Dixon said. “We need to calm down and use our heads.”
Wolf watchers aren't the only ones worried with the start of rifle season a week away.
Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association said Hoppe's sheep pose a disease danger to both bighorn sheep and bison.
Bighorn sheep will move around more in November and December as they enter breeding season and are pushed around by hunters. This could increase their chances of wandering into areas with domestic sheep.
Bighorn sheep are highly susceptible to a pneumonia carried by domestic sheep. One infected bighorn can lead to the loss of entire herds.
A recent U.S. Geological Survey study indicated that bighorns could also die from scrapie, a domestic sheep disease similar to chronic wasting disease.
Bison, on the other hand, can die from malignant catarrhal fever, which domestic sheep can carry without showing symptoms.
Bison will start migrating north out of the park to find food as the snows within the park deepen.
“It's too bad. In my mind, he's not being a good neighbor,” Hockett said. “I think he's been educated on the issue. If not, I would suggest that they tell him about it.”
Jones said Hoppe has been advised on more than one occasion.
Hoppe could not be reached. His wife, Peggy, said he is on a five-week hunting trip.
Peggy Hoppe said the sheep were moved because of grizzly bears at the Jardine property.
Jones said bear specialist Kevin Frye confirmed that grizzly bear activity has been high in the area near Jardine and Gardiner recently.
“It wouldn't be inappropriate to move the sheep and maybe it would be less of a problem farther north,” Jones said.
Grizzly bears will continue to forage for another two to three weeks before most enter hibernation. At that point, the threat of grizzly bear predation should almost disappear.