Ranchers “taunted” by wolves

By BECKY COOK For the Capital Press


ARCO, Idaho — Ranchers here and across the state say they feel taunted by wolves running amok, in much the same way Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the recently-released video “Catch Me if You Can” stole more than $4 million by cashing fraudulent checks.

The financial toll may be similar, too.

It’s the state’s cattlemen, sheep ranchers and other livestock owners who are reeling from a winter ruling Judge Lyn Winmill of the 9th District Court made about wolves. His edict: No control measures can be taken on wolves on private or public lands within the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

His ruling has statewide impact because wolves don’t stay in the Sawtooths.

According to information from the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association, there are 279 wolves at last count and only 14 collars last year among them. Batteries get old and haven’t been replaced and the wolves have managed to slip older collars, leaving many untraceable. That leaves an ocean-sized wave of wolves running around with appetites that are being appeased by cattle raised for someone’s livelihood.

And that is the crux of the problem.

Ignoring input from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and a former agreement assuring ranchers that they would care for problem wolves, Winmill made the first waves when he decided that wolves deserved the first right of passage.

If a problem exists, the judge ruled, cattlemen should move their cattle. Then in April came the next command when Winmill clarified his earlier decision — Fish and Wildlife officials can offer no wolf enforcement on private land.

“Private individuals can still shoot wolves on their own private ground,” Dave Nelson, Mackey area rancher says. “But the evidence had better be undeniable and indisputable.”

Wolves are in a tricky situation at this point because for the last two decades they have been listed as “non essential, experimental, endangered” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Once the state of Idaho has a plan of action to manage the wolves and can prove the existence of 30 breeding pairs, the animals will be taken off of the non-essential, experimental, endangered listing and their regulation and jurisdiction will go to the state, officials say.

As the state draws closer to the de-listing of wolves from the endangered species act, Winmill’s decision is looked upon by the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association as legislating from the bench, says Jennifer Ellis, co-owner with husband Shawn of the OK Ranch near Blackfoot. Ellis heads up the wolf eradication committee for the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association and she has seen the damage done by wolves personally on their own ranch as well as others.

Ellis says that rather than interpreting the law, the judge rewrote the law by overruling all the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists and their reintroduction plan when he made it impossible to take control measures in the Sawtooths.

The Idaho Cattlemen’s Association said it believes the decision will be overturned but it has taken four years to get the job done through the appeals process, which causes cattlemen to question what can be done now, this year.

“You can’t have something eating you out of house and home,” Ellis says. “(Wolves) are super smart.”

Rick Williamson is the wolf trapping specialist at APHIS and as such is the man responsible for taking care of rogue wolves and also for classifying whether a wolf kill has occurred. With limited funds and working with a staff of 17 to cover the entire state, his job has been difficult.

Williamson says that if there previously has been a wolf problem, there will be again.

“Wolves are strongly habitual,” he says. “If people can’t respond to them they will continue to haunt the same areas they have all of their lives.”

During the early springtime it is common to see the wolves out along the road, seemingly untouchable, Williamson said. They are smart enough to know that if they haven’t been touched at this point, they can keep doing what they have been doing, he added. Come fall and hunting season the wolves are harder to find because they have moved higher up in the hills following their food sources and when they attack cattle feeding in high mountainous areas, the proof can be hard to find.

“If there is a pack running through you will find almost nothing left from a kill,” Williamson said. “Detection is a major problem.”

For cattlemen facing loses from wolves there is funding available to pay for losses — if they can be proved. Williamson said if the kill can be confirmed by himself or a member of his staff, it can be reimbursed by the Defenders of the Wildlife, a private fund separate from any federal reimbursement program.

If the fund is applied to, they will replace killed animals at 100 percent of fall market value — if it is a confirmed kill.

If the kill is classified as only a probable wolf kill, the fund will pay 50 percent of fall market value.

“The problem we have is that a lot of those grazing allocations are way out,” Ellis said. “You won’t get there soon enough to see what ate it.” Williamson admits that there have been problems with the wolves and their management. When a cattleman comes off the range in the fall and is missing 30 calves, it is a major problem.

Once de-listing occurs, the management of the wolves will fall under state of Idaho management and he said he believes there is a strong probability that cattlemen will be allowed to manage their wolf losses by themselves.

Eventually the old adage of shoot, shovel, and shut up may make its way around again, Williamson said.

For cattlemen, it won’t be soon enough.


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