Wolves At The Door: Ranchers Uneasy

 

December 30, 2002

 

WOLVES AND PEOPLE

The Salt Lake Tribune

P.O. Box 867

Salt Lake City, Utah 84110

801-257-8800

Fax: 801-257-8515

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Caption on photo that may be viewed at originating website: Dan Hooper, owner of the River of No Return taxidermy shop in Salmon, Idaho, says he does not hate wolves, just what they do to elk herds and his business. The sign shows a crossed-out wolf above words telling sandal-wearing, Subaru-driving, ponytailed people to get lost. (Skip Knowles/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Salmon, Idaho - In Yellowstone National Park, biologists can tell when wolves are near. The elk bunch together.

The same can be said of people living in wolf country.

Polls show most Americans are hungry to see the wolf return and to hear its howl at twilight in their national forests -- a powerful signal that some past wrongs in the American West have been righted. But the sounds of the big carnivores bring chills to the Baker family for different, more primal reasons.

Wolves are literally at their door, and they sleep with the window open through the bitter winter nights, listening with dread.

Their 2,000 acres on the East Fork of the Salmon River became a battleground after wolves were released into the wilderness north of here in 1995. The Bakers' plight became a flash point in a cultural war of Old West versus New, galvanizing ranchers and elk hunters from central Idaho against wolf proponents.

The Bakers' land covers high mountain valleys that form a natural wolf funnel of prime game habitat. Twice, wildlife officials have come in and completely wiped out entire wolf packs, shooting them from helicopters.

The Bakers earned tremendous public enmity. The wolves, among them a big white female named Alabaster, were beloved by wildlife watchers.

Six generations of Bakers have ranched here. Photographs of bighorn sheep and other wildlife decorate the modest living room of Dick and Betty Baker. A 1934 black-and-white photo shows Dick at a nearby lake holding long, thick trout.

In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the official numbers on livestock depredation are low -- less than one-third what was predicted when the federal government studied wolf recovery in the three states.

But ranchers say wolf kills of livestock are difficult to trace, evidenced mostly by an absence of calves coming home after herds graze national forests. This keeps the highly-praised program of compensation by the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife -- which has paid out more than $250,000 since 1987 -- from meaning much to some ranchers, who can rarely confirm kills in the forest.

For the Bakers, wolf attacks sometimes occur in the back yard.

Their grief started on public land, like most, as mother cows came home alone and walked around bawling for days with swollen udders and no calf. Then, wolves started taking livestock in the valley. Wolves killed a niece's prize-winning sheep as it tried to hide in a herd of cattle, and a one-day-old calf was killed behind the house beside a barn in a corral. One Baker spread lost eight calves on private ground.

The White Cloud pack came first, and was exterminated after relocation failed. The White Hawk pack moved in the next year, killing cattle as deterrents failed.

"They really got after them with rubber bullets and helicopters and spent a lot of money," Dick Baker says. "Then we see wolves lay right up there on the bench watching the cattle and waiting for dark."

The Bakers -- wildlife lovers who do not like seeing wolves shot -- praise wildlife officials for trying everything before pulling the trigger.

Fortunately, the Bakers' troubles are an exception in an otherwise successful story of wolf reintroduction.

In the three states targeted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for wolf recovery, the biological goals have been met. The agency will soon upgrade the animal's status from "endangered" to "threatened."

Later next year, the wolf may come off the endangered species list altogether, depending on whether the agency decides the states can maintain wolf numbers without federal protection.

So far, Montana and Idaho, after 17 tries, have wolf management plans acceptable to Fish and Wildlife. Wyoming, however, is balking. Its proposed open hunting season on the wolf outside Yellowstone and federal wilderness areas is unacceptable, says Ed Bangs, Helena, Mont.-based director of the federal wolf recovery effort.

Old West vs. New: The problem is animosity between the Western states and the federal government.

"Wolves biologically aren't a big deal," says Bob Loucks, a former Lemhi (Idaho) County commissioner and a 33-year veteran agricultural extension agent for the University of Idaho. "Politically, they're a huge deal, a symbol. To the city dweller, they're a big beautiful animal. To the country people, it's the g _ _d _ _ _ed federal government telling us how to live our lives."

Loucks knows ranching economies, and he wishes Idaho had no wolves, but he is a voice of reason in a vitriolic debate.

Salmon is a cow town, and local business is supported by ranching, not the fleeting tourist season. The black shapes of scattered cattle fill the valley in herds that stretch for miles. Flocks of magpies, hawks and the occasional deer are seen in December, while elk stay high until the snow falls.

It is the Rocky Mountain West people dream of -- golden foothills falling away from timbered mountains and a broad grassy valley with wandering streams full of ocean-run fish. The hopes of the New West, populated and urban, are coming back, represented by packs of wolves.

The predator has returned beyond expectations in a place where gubernatorial candidate Cecil Andrus campaigned with a "no wolves" platform and tried to block Fish and Wildlife planes from landing when the agency first attempted to bring the first of 35 wolves into the state in 1995.

"The problem is [the wolves] did too d_ _ _ed good," says Jay Wiley, a rancher with 290 acres on the Salmon River. He loses calves in the forest each year to wolves on his national forest grazing allotment north and east of town.

"The population just exploded, and they've lost control," Wiley says. "They [USFWS] don't have time, money or personnel to capture or keep collars on them."

Living With Wolves: Idaho wolves number about 300 now, but ranchers hardly trust that number because only packs with radio collars can be tracked.

Mistrust of wolf advocates' motives is as fixed as the mountains behind Wiley's ranch.

"They blew so much smoke about how they'd release them and they'd stay in the wilderness," he says. "It took them two days to leave Frank Church [River of No Return Wilderness] and kill a calf on private ground in Iron Creek. They did exactly what we said they would do and the opposite of what the wolf people said they would do."

Loucks predicts wolves will have "tremendous impact on a few ranchers and a few elk herds. A few elk hunting guides will go out of business. But overall there will be very little impact. Individual ranchers will have to be bought out of [grazing] allotments, and a few wolves will have to be killed. Wolves will simply never be able to exist in areas with concentrations of livestock."

But few ranchers are losing livestock to wolves, and depredation is actually lower than wolf advocates expected.

And although elk numbers are down in some areas around Salmon, hunters still harvest more elk annually than made up the total elk population before the 1970s.

Wolves and ranchers can coexist in the West, Loucks says.

"You don't have to kill them all, just make them scared of people."

'Getting out': Wiley counts himself lucky. His neighbor John Aldous lost two dozen calves grazing public land last year -- about $12,000 worth -- in a business that has not seen a real price increase in decades.

Aldous says that with sage grouse and bull trout headed for endangered listing and weak beef prices, his wolf loss is pushing his operation over the edge.

"I'm looking at getting out. They should never have brought [wolves] here," Aldous says. "I'll have to sell my place and help make this look like Sun Valley."

Nationally, public lands grazing receives little sympathy, and Aldous knows it. But outsiders should care because subdivisions will replace ranches, Wiley says.

The New West is breathing down their neck, with trophy homes sprouting like mushrooms on the benches. A development near his house is home to a California cellular phone businessman, a banker, a government worker and someone who works in Antarctica.

"They're good people," Wiley says, "but they're all cow haters, and now we have [domestic] dogs running the hell out of our cows." Aldous' land was homesteaded by his family 110 years ago. His son, John Junior is making a go of ranching but without high hopes.

"It's a business of such tight margins you throw in wolves and that can kill your operation," he says.

The Jureano wolf pack eats his calves in the mountains and is re-forming after almost being killed off. Ranchers will not do the same, he says. His brother, Jacob, fixes cars and sees ranching as a losing bet.

"I don't think anybody will make it, to tell you the truth," Jacob says.

Calves that are not killed on the Aldous allotments sometimes come out of the woods with their rear ends torn out, hideous wounds filled with maggots. Rarely are they saved. Ranchers say they are victims of wolf pups training to hunt.

Pawn in a Larger War: Still, most ranchers do not hate wolves. Almost all say the wolf would have returned on its own terms. They say these "natural" wolves would have been better accepted and possess a stronger fear of people. Instead, a bigger, badder animal from Alberta with no fear of people was introduced, not for the wolves' sake, the ranchers say, but to get cattle off public land.

Biologists say natural recolonization would not have occurred for decades, if ever.

An anti-wolf sign outside the River of No Return taxidermy shop on Main Street in Salmon shows a ghoulish wolf with a red cross-out across its face above words telling sandal-wearing, Subaru-driving, ponytailed people to get lost.

The shop's owner, Dan Hooper, a burly elk hunter, sells a lot of the signs. Elk hunting is big business in the West, and those invested in hunting do not like competing with an old predator.

The days of huge elk herds may be ebbing, but the bottom line is that elk and wolves coexisted for eons, says biologist Isaac Babcock, who worked for the Nez Perce tribe, which stepped in to help administer wolf recovery in Idaho after the state refused. "Wolves just generate animosity or love from people."

Counting Sheep: Lava Lake Land and Livestock company is trying to live with predators while grazing sheep on 24,000 acres in central Idaho. Biologist Mike Stevens is chief manager of the company, formed in 1999 from five historic Hailey-Ketchum area ranches.

Lava has suffered two wolf attacks. A pack killed 14 animals over three nights in June. Then, shortly after, a wolf killed two lambs near a herder.

"We're new at this," Stevens says, "but we want to stay away from lethal methods."

Sheep flock tightly but are easy to kill.

Can a sheep rancher live with wolves?

"There is a good incentive to do so, with predator-friendly marketing," Stevens says. "Organic, predator-friendly lamb" has a nice ring, and Stevens hopes to accomplish that by knowing where the wolves are, keeping a herder with the sheep at all times, and using herding dogs and Great Pyrenees, 130-pound guard dogs.

People living in wolf country face another issue: fear, though documented wolf attacks on people in North America are almost nonexistent.

Idaho state Sen. Brad Little argues that people are in more danger from wolf-chased elk crossing the road than from actual attacks by the reclusive carnivores.

A rancher heavily engaged in the wolf debate, he found a drowned, problem wolf tangled in a leg-trap chain in a creek on his land.

"It was this big, beautiful silver wolf, just a gorgeous animal," he says. "A big son of a gun, big paws."

But the romance of the wolf soon wanes.

"My in-laws have lost well over a hundred head of sheep," Little says. "My wife and kids slept out with my in-laws' sheep one night to try and keep the wolves out. Two wolves came in and killed sheep while they were sleeping."

Living With Wolves: Gathering shed antlers is a huge esteem-booster and moneymaker for Salmon kids, but Melanie Baker, Dick and Betty Baker's daughter, will not let her children do it anymore based on reports of wolves showing aggression around their kills. Another friend packs a gun while cross-country skiing, at the insistence of her husband, who had a run-in with snarling wolves on a kill.

"A lot of people in our area are very fearful," Melanie Baker says. "Last Monday a gal who lives near here said the wolves killed an elk calf where she walks and she was scared to go up there now."

At the Bakers' spread, ranch hands are dreading spring. The wolves do the most damage in April, and they are certain a new pack is forming in the ridges above their home because hunters have seen them. Wolves killed a deer 40 yards from their porch last January.

"It's a lot of no sleep, and it ain't too fun to see how them little calves is chewed up," Dick Baker says. "The cows start bellowing in the middle of the night, and the sons-a-bitches are barking and growling and the cows are all herded up."

The bedroom window will stay open well into spring.

(c) 2002, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

http://www.sltrib.com/2002/Dec/12302002/utah/utah.asp

Note from John Nelson (Idaho): Here is my version of "Wolves At The Door:"

Jon Robinette manages a ranch south of Yellowstone National Park, where he and his wife Debbie have lost seven dogs.

One dog was killed within fifty feet of Debbie, 200 head of cattle, a horse that was attacked and killed inside the corral near the ranch house. Many of the killings are directly related to wolves, although proving it is difficult because the elusive nature of wolves.

Despite the vast beautiful views that invite people outdoors on the ranch, their grandchildren are not allowed outside to play on the lawn without adult supervision.

The wolves are not shy. While watching television one night, a black wolf came halfway through the front door and backed two family dogs into a comer, Jon chased it off with a shotgun.

Other dogs were not so lucky. A herding dog was gutted about 200 yards from the house. Another dog is covered in scars from the attack near the barn. The dog had two broken ribs. Debbie has taken it very personally and said, "I want them eliminated ." If the Diamond G ranch is a test of whether ranchers and wolves can coexist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed this test. The owner Stephen Gordon is suing the Interior Department. Ed Bangs says it's the worst case of wolf predation on livestock he's ever seen.

Note from Dorothy Bartholomew (Wyoming): [I] read with interest your commentary on Jon. All the stories are true and probably more. When he was issued a permit to kill wolves he was threatened with the death of his grandson. His cattle have also been shot. Sheriffs Dept., has done nothing. Debbie may want the wolf eliminated but Jon has stated publicly that we can live with them. Maybe he has had a change of heart.