HELENA - While the debate about how many wolves are enough to ensure a healthy population will again come to a head in a federal courtroom Monday, a Dillon-area ranch is picking up the pieces from the largest known wolf depredation in recent history.

In a highly unusual move for wolves, they killed about 120 adult male sheep in one incident on the Rebish/Konen Livestock Ranch south of Dillon last week.

That compares with a total of 111 sheep killed by wolves in Montana in 2008, according to Carolyn Sime, the statewide wolf coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"This is one of the most significant losses that I've seen," Sime said. "That situation is really unfortunate."

Suzanne Stone with Defenders of Wildlife added that in the 20 years she's been working toward ensuring healthy wolf populations, this is the first time she's heard of such a mass killing.

"I've heard of bears or mountain lions doing that, but what usually happens is the sheep panic and jump on top of one another or fall into a ditch and suffocate," Stone said. "I've never heard of any situation where wolves killed so much livestock in such a short period of time.

"... This is the most extreme case I've ever heard about."

The ranch has suffered confirmed wolf depredations twice in three weeks. In late July, three wolves - two blacks and a gray - killed at least 26 rams. The gray wolf was lethally shot by a federal wildlife manager, and one of the blacks was injured. They thought that would scare off the rest of the pack.

Last week, wolves struck again. This time, they took out 120 purebred Rambouillet bucks that ranged in size from about 150 to 200 pounds, and were the result of more than 80 years of breeding.

"We went up to the pasture on Thursday (Aug. 20) - we go up there every two or three days - and everything was fine," rancher Jon Konen said. "The bucks were in the pasture; I had about 100 heifers with them on 600 acres."

He had some business to attend to in Billings, so Konen told his son to be sure to check on the livestock while he was gone.

"He called me, and said it was a mess up there. He said there were dead bucks all up and down the creek. We went up there the next day and tried to count them, but there were too many to count," Konen recalled.

"I had tears in my eyes, not only for myself but for what my stock had to go through," he added. "They were running, getting chewed on, bit and piled into a corner. They were bit on the neck, on the back, on the back of the hind leg.

"They'd cripple them, then rip their sides open."

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has taken the lead in wolf management from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, and the state agency has a "memorandum of understanding" with the federal Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services to provide damage management services when livestock are killed by wolves.

After the dead sheep were found, Graeme McDougal with Wildlife Services flew in a small plane over the sheep pasture, looking for the one or two remaining black wolves to complete the control work requested by Montana FWP. Within a half-mile of the sheep pasture, he spotted the Centennial pack of three adult gray wolves and five pups.

McDougal shot and killed the one uncollared adult wolf, but wasn't authorized to remove any more wolves.

This was the first known depredation incident for the Centennial pack in 2009.

Konen doesn't want to wade into the debate over the reintroduction of wolves in the Rockies, but said that in his opinion, it's time to stop managing wolves and start controlling them.

"My bucks were on private ground, in a pasture where we've been pasturing them for 50 years. The wolves were intruders that were in the wrong place," he said.

Wolves were recently taken off the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, and both Montana and Idaho have instituted hunting seasons for them this year. Idaho will allow 265 wolves to be taken by hunters, in a season that starts Tuesday. Montana will allow 75 wolves to be taken, with the season starting Sept. 15.

Montana is home to an estimated 500 wolves, while Idaho has at least 850. Wyoming also has wolves, but they remain under Endangered Species Act protection.

In Stone's opinion, hunting wolves could create even more problems for ranchers.

"If the adults are shot, then the young ones are dispersed too early," Stone said. "Young pups on their own might turn to livestock to survive, and that's not a good situation for anybody."

Her organization has put out a book to educate ranchers on proactive steps they can take to prevent livestock loss, like hiring range riders, hanging "fladry" - closely spaced cloth - on fences, and minimizing attractants such as dead carcasses.

Defenders of Wildlife has spent more than $895,000 since 1998 to help pay for installation of nonlethal methods to prevent conflicts.

Since 1987, they've also made 885 payments totaling $1.35 million to ranchers to compensate for livestock killed by wolves.

In Montana, the Legislature has earmarked $150,000 to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to wolves, and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., co-sponsored a bill that includes $5 million in federal funding over five years for depredation losses.

George Edwards, state livestock loss mitigation coordinator, said the Rebish/Konen Ranch probably will receive $350 per dead sheep.

But he added that the loss is more than just monetary to ranchers.

"The compensation still doesn't make up for the loss by any means," Edwards said. "The rancher still needs to make up his breeding stock, and people in town may not realize the attachment livestock folk get to their animals. The emotional toll it takes is just indescribable."

Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at (406) 447-4076 or at eve.byron@helenair.com.

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