Wolves thriving, but ranchers?

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press


By the Capital Press

Wildlife managers say the recent wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho were successful in every way. They limited the growth of the wolf populations and the amount of damage the predators could do to other wildlife and livestock.

All of which discredits the arguments environmentalists offer that the hunts hinder wolf recovery efforts.

Hunters fell short of taking their wolf quota in either state, dispelling concerns that the hunt would become a free-for-all. In Idaho, where hunters purchased more than 26,000 tags, only 188 wolves were killed during the six-month season. That's 32 less than the 220 statewide limit. In Montana, which had a two-month hunt, 72 wolves were killed, short of the limit of 75.

In the wake of those hunts, the wolf populations in both states remain healthy and continue to grow, managers say. Idaho still has about 840 wolves, and Montana about 532, according to the states' wildlife managers.

But the success of the state-managed hunts is just a part of the picture. Environmentalists say they are using wolves as pawns to force President Barack Obama's administration to deviate from its pledge to manage wildlife based on science and instead bow to their wishes. They say they want 2,000 to 3,000 wolves in the region, according to a PBS video posted on the Earthjustice Web site.

As that political and legal battle continues, wolves continue to prey upon cattle and sheep in both states -- and other states where they roam.

In Montana and Idaho last year, wolves killed 187 cattle, 546 sheep, 20 dogs and three goats. Ranchers, however, estimate that only 20 to 25 percent of wolf kills are ever verified as such.

State managers also killed 252 wolves last year as a result of the depredation.

The need to limit the damage wolves cause to livestock is something even Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States and other environmental and animal rights groups and their lawyers, Earthjustice, readily admit. In a court filing last summer, they said $900,000 had been paid to ranchers since 1987 to reimburse them for livestock losses.

The federal government also recognizes the damage wolves cause to ranchers and others. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set aside $1 million this year alone to help reduce predation or compensate ranchers for their losses.

Unfortunately, those payments only start to make up for the cost and problems the reintroduction of wolves has caused ranchers and others. The grazing patterns of sheep and cattle are disrupted, weight gains are curtailed and ranchers are forced to spend their time defending their livestock instead of developing their businesses.

For example, last summer Jeff Siddoway lost 135 sheep -- including nearly 20 in a single night -- worth nearly $40,000. Wolves also tore apart his Great Pyrenees guard dogs.

The cost goes beyond dollars, he told Capital Press reporter Dave Wilkins.

"The anxiety is the worst part," he said. "You don't know if they're going to come back the next night and do the same thing."

Judging from their rapidly expanding numbers across the West, it is obvious that wolf populations are healthy. Our concern is whether we'll be able to say the same thing about the West's ranchers in years to come.

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