WISDOM - Loren Giem's ranch manager, Ken Wigen, first heard the howling Sept. 20 near a pasture in the Big Hole River valley.
The wolves' chorus made the hair on the back of Wigen's neck stand up. His dogs went nuts. Giem was nervous. But like his father and grandfather before him, Giem is a rancher and rotates almost a thousand head of black Angus cattle through the pastures they use on 20,000 acres here. Most of it is Giem family land, bought throughout the years since his grandfather moved here in the early 1900s.
"We put the cattle in that pasture and three others," Giem said last week, waving toward the rolling sagebrush hills that flow into heavy timber. "Within three or four days, Ken told me there was a problem up there."
That "problem" is one many of Montana's ranchers now face, as wolves become established in the West. They were eliminated from the landscape around the time Giem's grandfather moved here, but almost 15 years after they were reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, more than 360 wolves roam Montana in 74 packs. An estimated 1,500 are scattered throughout the Rockies.
Giem is a lanky, chatty father of two with curly salt-and-pepper hair peeking out from beneath his baseball cap. He earned an engineering degree in the early 1970s, and moved East for a few years, returning to Montana with his wife, Carol, to take up the family business. He hopes to someday pass the ranch on to his children and watch his grandchildren learn to rope and brand.
Last week, slowly bouncing his Dodge truck east down the ranch road toward his pastures, Giem pointed toward the mountains. Up ahead, in a corner of one of his pastures about a mile off the main road, the sagebrush was trampled into dirt and the fence is pushed outward.
"The cattle were balled up on the fence. We were sure we had wolf activity," Giem recalled.
They called Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' wolf management program, looking for advice, and a site visit turned up wolf tracks. Three days later, on Oct. 9, Wigen found the first dead mature cow. A government trapper, Graeme McDougal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, confirmed wolves took it down.
"Numerous wolf tracks, various sizes indicated a pack, i.e. adults with YOY (young of year) at carcass and immediate area," McDougal wrote in his report. "Torn and uprooted sagebrush, several areas of blood indicate a struggle, attack, of approximately 30 yards in length.
"Canine marks present on external surface of hide on left front elbow region and right rear above fetlock Hindquarters and internal organs totally gone from feeding and scavenging. All signs consistent with wolf predation."
Within two weeks, Giem lost five more cows to wolves, and one was seriously injured.
Giem isn't the only rancher who has lost livestock to wolves this year. Since April 15, when the newly formed Montana Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board started compensating people for ranch animals killed by wolves, the state has paid out $79,270 for 213 claims. That includes: 61 head of cattle; 145 sheep and goats; a registered, full-grown roping horse; and two guard dogs. At least four llamas also were killed by wolves and submitted for reimbursement because they were guard animals, but the board decided they didn't fit the definition of livestock covered under the reimbursement program.
In the past decade, a nonprofit organization that compensates ranchers for wolf predation noted that at least 1,140 cattle, 2,100 sheep and about 100 other animals including horses, mules, goats, llamas and livestock guard dogs have been killed in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The Defenders of Wildlife has paid out $1.1 million for those animals, in an attempt to shift economic responsibility for wolf recovery from individual ranchers to the millions of people who want to see wolf populations restored in the West.
Sometimes, the wolves hit a ranch here and there. But other times, as in Giem's case, they're repeat offenders.
In one reported situation, wolves killed 90 sheep last spring on a ranch near Dillon, including 32 thoroughbred Rambouillet rams in three separate instances. In September, FWP reported 15 sheep had died in five incidents on one Reed Point ranch in a month's stretch. In July, wolves killed two llamas and injured a third, which had to be euthanized, near Florence.
"We seemed to have three regions where they hit hard - Hot Springs (on the Flathead Reservation), near Hall and Drummond, and near Dillon," noted George Edwards, livestock-loss mitigation coordinator for the state Department of Livestock. "Now there's a fourth area - Reed Point near Billings. They've been losing a lot of sheep there."
Even if the ranchers are compensated for the cow or sheep, the price paid doesn't take into account other costs to livestock producers. Giem will get about $5,000 for the six dead cows. But he moved the rest of his cattle out of his pastures 10 days early, at a cost of about $2,000 per day in hay. His dead cows probably were pregnant, so he's also out six calves. The harassment by wolves and ensuing stampedes by his cattle, which have pushed through a couple fences, probably prompted some to abort and definitely caused them to lose weight, Giem said.
"These are my replacement heifers; they're the most important thing that we do every year. They're critical, and those animals were tortured," Giem said. "Next spring, I'm going to have about 425 cow-calf pairs to put up here, and just imagine what's going to happen if the wolves come around. The cattle will go nuts, push through fences, and the babies are going to get trampled."
Carolyn Sime, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks statewide wolf coordinator, said she understands ranchers' frustration and anger over their losses. Her agency tries to work with ranchers to use a variety of tactics, from range riders to "flandry" - flagging on electric fences - to help protect livestock. When predation occurs, the preferred course of action is to collar the wolves to track their movements, but Sime isn't averse to issuing "shoot on sight" orders for repeat offenders.
"I know it would sound hollow to say I share their frustration and I'm sorry, but it's true," Sime said. "The reality, though, is life is fundamentally different now. These are very real impacts on very real people with the restored wolf program.
"But to be brutally honest, our country and society has evolved into a world where we really value wildlife. Montana is one place in the lower 48 states where we can have wolves and grizzly bears. Our society wants big things with big teeth, and that's happened here. Yet this is their (the ranchers') land. We're trying to take a problem-solving approach."
Sime said she lies awake some nights trying to figure out how to solve some of the tough livestock-wolf conflicts such as the one Giem is experiencing.
"I wrack my brain trying to figure out how we can come up with new tools or new strategies or find new funding so this producer can hire an extra hand or something," Sime said. "But there are times when our hands are absolutely tied, which is where some of my frustration comes in. We're wanting to help but not able to do much."
Giem has been issued two shoot-on-sight permits, which are good for 45 days. He notes, though, that McDougal has flown the area regularly and hasn't seen a wolf yet. Wigen caught a glimpse of one, but it hightailed out of the area once it was spotted.
"So what good are the permits if you can't find (the wolves)?" Giem asked. "The wolves come out of the forest at night, hit my cows, then go back into the timber in the morning. They're educated wolves now; they've been trapped and shot at, and know to hide when they hear the plane's motors."
He adds that range riders aren't much help because of the timber and the total acres involved. Plus, with the wolves operating under the cover of darkness, they're even more difficult to find.
Still, Giem is pushing for eradication of the pack.
That's always an option, although not the first choice, Sime said. More than 60 wolves have been killed this year, mainly due to livestock predation.
"This is one of those worst-case scenarios. We haven't had one like this for a while," Sime said. "It's important to realize we're not going back to the days of no wolves, but clearly in the management arena, lethal means are needed to address chronic wildlife losses."
Total livestock losses not known
By EVE BYRON Helena Independent Record
HELENA - No one really knows exactly how much livestock wolves killed in Montana this year.
The numbers from the two main state agencies that deal with livestock depredation have conflicting tallies. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which manages wolves in the state, reports about 120 confirmed kills since the beginning of the year. Yet the Department of Livestock, which since April has operated a fund to compensate ranchers who lose livestock from confirmed or probable wolf kills, has processed claims for 213 animals in just seven months.
The discrepancy in figures has some wolf-reintroduction opponents theorizing that FWP is low-balling the numbers to make it seem like wolves aren't killing as much livestock as they are.
But Carolyn Sime, FWP statewide wolf coordinator, said her agency is not under-reporting wolf kills; it's just that the two agencies have different reporting standards. Sime said FWP only reports wolf kills confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services. The state Department of Livestock's report includes confirmed as well as probable cases of wolf depredation on ranch animals.
"We are clear and open about the numbers we are reporting," Sime said. "The difference is that we report a subset of what they report. We have different parameters, because we're trying to be consistent with Idaho, Wyoming and the federal government in what we report as confirmed wolf kills."
But George Edwards, livestock-loss mitigation coordinator for the state Department of Livestock, said only four of the kills the agency reported upon were "probable." He's talked to Sime about the different numbers and said he still doesn't understand why there's a discrepancy.
"We actually cornered her and said, 'This isn't right. Something is really rotten in Denmark here,' " Edwards said. "We discussed this with our board, and Wildlife Services' numbers are really close to mine. FWP numbers are not even close."
The federal government records wolf depredations from the fiscal year, while the state uses a calendar year. But Edwards said they compared the numbers just from April moving forward.
"For the life of me I can't figure out why those FWP numbers are not running right in tune with Wildlife Services' numbers," Edwards said. "There's no reason for that."
John Steuber, Montana director for the federal Wildlife Services, said he didn't have the calendar year numbers available.
What everyone can agree on, however, is that not all of the livestock killed by wolves is reported to officials. Some people don't want to be compensated, since the money in years past has come from the nonprofit national group Defenders of Wildlife, which pushed for reintroduction of the wolves into the northern Rockies. In other cases, the carcasses may never be found because of the remote locale or they're scattered by scavengers.
Even so, the fund used by Edwards to cover livestock-loss compensation in 2008 - $30,000 from the state this year, $50,000 from Defenders of Wildlife and $1,000 from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition - is just about depleted.
As of last week, the Department of Livestock's Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board had paid out $79,270 on 71 claims involving 213 animals, leaving less than $2,000 in its coffers.
Edwards said the Montana Cattlemen's Association plans to give the fund $1,000, and both the state and Defenders of Wildlife have committed the same amount for next year.
Still, Edwards is worried the current funding won't be enough, and Defenders isn't sure if it's going to continue its compensation.
"We think they need to find longer-term sources of funding," noted Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain region director for Defenders of Wildlife. "We don't have plans to contribute beyond the $100,000 we've already given to the state, but we can always re-evaluate that if we need to."
The state Legislature passed a bill in 2006 allowing for the creation of a $5 million trust fund, with the interest from investments of the money to go toward compensation, but didn't allocate any money for the fund.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., recently introduced the Gray Wolf Livestock Loss Mitigation Act, which would authorize federal money for state trust funds, but it hasn't passed. The act also would try to lower the risk of wolf kills on livestock by using federal funds to improve fencing and grazing practices, encouraging more use of guard dogs and other means.
The Bush administration has objected to the legislation, saying it's not a federal responsibility.
Edwards said the Livestock Department has set up a system to accept donations through the state's Web site at www.mt.gov/liv.