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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(3) comments

Gadfly
Gadfly

Incredulous: sounds more like dogs or coyotes than wolves; and if wolves, more like unschooled juniors. Coyotes will kill like that. Extremely unusual for wolves. I am wary of "confirmation" process. One good old boy agreeing with another?

reality22f
reality22f

Only 80 of the 122 sheep were confirmed as wolf kills ...... just goes to show you how hard it is to get a confirmation.

Ellowe needs to be held accountable for the damage these animals do..... the way she pimps wolves and horses is disgusting...... It now costs 75 million dollars every year to clean up after the wild horses they think can and should be running amuck. She is morally corrupt in putting animals before people! We have a bloated Federal Government that is 16 trillion in debt yet has 75 million dollars to spend on housing wild horses.... Heck I'd rather that they spend that money on Obama phones.

Ellowe
Ellowe

OMG...what won't you wolf haters do or say to justify and ensure you can continue the slaughter.

Emotionally attached to their livestock? Yeah right...do you get that emotional when you slit their throats before you skin 'em and bag 'em for the dinner table? I think not.

And compensated for your losses? Again, OMG! As a small business owner myself, when I have damaged inventory or losses from "theft", the government doesn't write me a check. I mean, you're all triple dipping, you get to graze on public lands for little to no costs, you're compensated when you lose livestock, you're compensated when you kill a wolf and you get double compensation if you can prove it actually was a wolf that killed your ivestock. And I'll bet it's no problem doing that...you all do realize that this is the 21st century not the 1800's?! Oh yeah, one lies and the other swears to it.

Wolf hating is big business for you folks. Trappers get money from the government for killing wolves, hunters get money from the government for killing wolves and ranchers get money from the government for inventory losses AND for killing wolves AND then the ranchers also get money if their losses are wolf caused...AND then of course there's The Defenders of Wildlife that doled out over a million dollars and what did you ranchers do with the money? You hired helicopter pilots at $350 dollars an hour to do run 'em down and shoot 'em.

Yep, Wolf hating is big business for you folks. And it's always about two things in this sad world of ours, money and power and this over the top kind of hatred you all have for wolves, reeks of both!

In 2002, a George W. Bush speechwriter named Matthew Scully published a book titled Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy that surprised a lot of his fellow conservatives. He argued that no matter your politics or religious preference, caring for the world’s animals is a unique human responsibility.

He was hardly the only one to make this argument, but there are a lot of lessons in the way he did it. As he beautifully, and very correctly, wrote in that book, “We are called to treat them with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t; because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

In other words, this isn’t a partisan question about which interest group wins or loses. Instead of rejecting animal welfare as an environmentalist niche cause or blowing it off as something conservatives aren’t interested in, Scully took the larger ethical view. We should all do the same.

Animals don’t have a political voice except the one that humans raise on their behalf. They don’t vote, they don’t lobby and they certainly don’t buy air time during campaign season. But they are just as important to our way of life as we are. Think hard about what Scully wrote and decide what kind of world we’d live in if survival of the fittest — in which humans have all the advantages — is really the only standard we want to set for the future.

Humans have the rare capacity to kill or mistreat other animals simply because we want to. We have outlawed animal cruelty for many years, but we still hunt elephants and polar bears for sport. We still look the other way as wild horses are harassed and sometimes unnecessarily rounded up. We take a wink-and-nod approach to troubling slaughterhouse conditions that by now are more thoroughly documented than steroids in baseball.

Seen as a whole, mankind’s approach to animal welfare paints an unflattering picture that has implications for political issues across the board. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to understand that animals don’t deserve to die at our hands for no reason. They don’t deserve to experience pain and suffering for our entertainment. More than anything, they deserve to live their lives in peace and be left alone as much as possible.

Recognizing this is one thing; putting it into practice is much more difficult and will bear much larger rewards. When we take a more humane view of animal welfare — whether farm animals, wild animals, endangered species or our own pets — we do ourselves and future generations a bigger favor than we realize. Over time, we’re going to have to treat the world around us less as an obstacle or a source of wealth and more as the only place we have to live.

Biodiversity, endangered species preservation and treating animals well have somehow become politically complicated and controversial. It shouldn’t be. We’re not in a competition with one another, and we’re certainly not in the political race to the death some people seem to think. Painting animal welfare as somehow anti-human — as though every endangered species we preserve costs us thousands of jobs — is not just scientifically wrong, it’s morally blind.

Our long-term success depends on us co-existing with the natural world. That’s not a fringe political position, it’s a fact. It’s why zoos all over the world are starting to focus more of their efforts on research and species preservation and less on entertainment. It’s why medicinal advances still come from the natural world as often as from a test tube.

When we send helicopters to drive wild horses into cramped holding pens, where they miscarry, panic and sometimes die, we don’t just hurt them — we perpetuate the mentality that they’re in our way. Combine that with our disregard for the welfare of animals, which we’ve come to think of strictly in terms of dollars and cents, and you can see why Scully’s argument is so necessary. Animal welfare isn’t about sharing power. It’s about recognizing that we have it all and deciding what we really want to do with it when the stakes are so high.

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