Fall of the wild 

What's to be done with the wolves of the Ninemile Valley?

Spring is a tough time for the wolves of the northern Rockies to behave themselves. Their prey are getting strong and fast from munching green shoots all day, soon there will be pups to feed, and all those slow, fuzzy animals in people’s yards just gave birth to soft and juicy babies. Not surprisingly, spring is the time of year when wolves exact their heaviest toll on livestock herds, and this year is no exception. In response, federal wolf managers have resorted to “lethal control” tactics to keep the wolves at bay.

In early April, the entire Whitehawk pack in central Idaho was slain. Closer to home, at least four wolves have been killed in the Ninemile Valley in response to the deaths of llamas, sheep, dogs, and other domesticated animals. For many Ninemile residents, the issue won’t be settled until the entire pack is eliminated. But as wolf lovers in the Ninemile and around the world push for ways for the two species to coexist, all sides are begging the question: “Is there enough room in this valley for humans and wolves?”

A love/hate relationship
The relationship between humans and wolves predates recorded history. Myths and stories that feed our collective unconscious tell of the lethal guile of wolves, while others tell of wolves who raise human orphans in the pack, such as Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. Whether or not we acknowledge the maternal, nurturing side of the wolf, none can refute that the wolf is the genetic ancestor of man’s best friend, and much of what we love in dogs comes from the wolf.

When we speak of the wolf, we are speaking about an animal that has more often rivaled our place at the top of the food chain than any other in history. Because of this ancient relationship, humans learned much about survival by watching the wolf. The Skidi Pawnee of the Plains, for example, were among the wolf’s finest students, thus the hand sign for “Pawnee” in Plains sign language is the same as for “wolf.”

But the Pawnee faded as European settlers pushed west across North America, slaughtering buffalo and replacing the herds with livestock. The settlers brought with them the cultural baggage of the Middle Ages, from Little Red Riding Hood to the execution of suspected werewolves. A fierce and wild intelligence, the wolf symbolized everything the settlers prided themselves in taming, and was demonized.

In response to the loss of bison herds, wolves sometimes turned to livestock for prey. The resulting conflict was aggressively settled in favor of human interests. Wolves were labeled vermin and shot, trapped, and poisoned by ranchers, government trappers, and sport hunters. When captured alive, sometimes their jaws were torn out, their Achilles tendons cut, and dogs turned loose on them. Sometimes wolves were set on fire.

As the wolves died, another predator, the coyote, took its place, its range growing from a north-south strip in the central plains to include the entire lower 48 states. Now war is being waged against the coyote as well, to the tune of some 300,000 coyotes slaughtered every year, much the way the wolf was hunted. But without wolves to fill that predator niche, coyote numbers remain on the rise.

By 1973, when the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed, wolves had already been eliminated from the lower 48, except for an isolated few in the northern Midwest. But wolves remained in Canada. From time to time, these Canuk wolves would roam below the 49th parallel, tempted by growing prey populations. In the early 1980s wolves were being spotted in Glacier National Park and by the early 1990s, they had reached as far south as the Ninemile Valley.

The Ninemile wolves were so wolf-like in their re-colonization that nobody knows for sure just how or when they got there. According to Rick Bass’s book, The Ninemile Wolves, we know that the pack matriarch was captured and collared near the town of Marion in 1989, after some sick calves were attacked—most likely by coyotes. She was relocated to Nyack Creek, south of Glacier National Park. From there she roamed all over the Flathead: Hungry Horse to Bigfork, across the Swan, Mission, and Rattlesnake mountains and down the Rattlesnake Valley, before finding her way to Ninemile, where she met a matted gray male of unknown origins.

That winter the pair was spotted near Lolo Pass before returning to Ninemile in the spring to den on private property. A litter of six pups were born: three black and three gray. The pack of eight had a peaceful spring in the meadow where their mother had renovated an old coyote den. She stayed home with the pups, teaching them to hunt mice and grasshoppers, and the father would bring home deer, elk, and moose. No livestock were harmed, which means that the pups were not taught bad habits, or given a taste for domesticated meat. They were not “problem” wolves.

The mother’s collar was discovered floating in Ninemile Creek on July 4, 1990, cut from her neck by a knife. Her killer was never found (despite a reward of up to $50,000, which is half the fine for killing a wolf under the ESA, a penalty that also includes a year in prison). After the mother died, the father had to raise the pups. On Labor Day, he was hit by a truck while crossing Interstate 90.

This time the orphaned pups were cared for by humans, but with an important twist: The pups were not taken into a human pack. The surrogate parents hid themselves behind a self-imposed veil, while gloved hands supplied the pups with roadkill, free of human scent. Mike Jimenez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) did this on private property with the consent of the property owners.

In 1995, FWS embarked on the biggest wolf-related science project ever, capturing wolves in Canada and releasing them into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Because they were reintroduced, these wolves were given the legal designation, “experimental non-essential,” while the wolves in the northwest Montana recovery area, who colonized on their own, receive full endangered species protection.

The differences between how these two populations have been managed are hazy at best. And while wolf populations in Idaho and Yellowstone have grown exponentially since 1995—the number of wolves in Idaho has increased from 35 to 260—wolf populations in northwest Montana have held steady since 1993, trending slightly upwards since 1998.

“The northwestern Montana wolves are supposed to receive the strongest ESA protection of the lot, but more of these wolves have been killed by federal agents than either of the other recovery areas,” says Joe Marvel of the Western Watersheds Project (WWP) in Hailey, Idaho. The group is considering a lawsuit against FWS over their handling of the Ninemile wolves in what they say is a violation of the ESA.

As of January, there were 170 wolves in northwest Montana, if you believe FWS numbers. In Ninemile, nobody agrees on how many wolves there are. Some residents would bet the ranch that there are at least 20, though FWS says there are no more than 13. In addition to the Ninemile wolves, there is a new pack in Fish Creek near Alberton, and speculation of new breeding pairs in Petty Creek and Six Mile as well.

In the last decade, the human population in Ninemile has nearly doubled, from 396 to about 650. Meanwhile, the Ninemile wolves have made themselves a part of the landscape. Some old timers don’t know who they hate more, the wolves or the new residents from out of state who love them. But one thing unites all Ninemile dwellers: the sound of howls through the valley at night. Some have seen wolves scurrying across the edge of a field. Others have seen wolves closer to home, sometimes attacking livestock or dogs. When wolves encounter dogs, swift death for the dog is the rule, and hybrid pups are a rare exception. Wolves hunt dogs for the same reason they hunt coyotes: competition within the canine niche.

Ninemile resident John Schram had a dog named Athea, a 10-month-old black lab. On a March afternoon, Athea caught the scent of a female wolf. Barking, she chased the female wolf who slowly retreated across the field towards the edge of the woods. When she entered the woods, Athea found herself surrounded by the wolf pack, where she was torn to death.

Until recently, llamas were considered effective guardians against wolves. When llamas were attacked last year, there had never been a llama killed by a wolf in western Montana. For many ranchers, this new behavior is unsettling.

But others are angered that wolves are being slain for the sake of “hobby livestock,” such as llamas. “Llamas are from friggin’ South America,” says Paul Donaldson of Missoula. “They are exotic. It’s like bringing a monkey up here as a pet and then complaining when it freezes.”

The wolf tax

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, depredation in wolf country accounts for 34 percent of sheep losses. Out of the total sheep depredation, 69 percent were killed by coyotes, 9 percent by dogs, 6 percent by bears, 4 percent by mountain lions, 2 percent by foxes, 3 percent by unknown animals, and only 0.4 percent by wolves. The remaining 66 percent of sheep losses were due to disease, accidents, injuries, and weather.

“Wolves won’t sink the livestock industry” says Suzanne Laverty of Defenders of Wildlife in Boise. “Depredations are relatively rare, and our concern is that individuals don’t bear the burden.” To this end, Defenders of Wildlife has established a compensation program that reimburses livestock owners at full market value for confirmed wolf kills. “It’s hard to figure out why there is so much animosity towards wolves, when economically it doesn’t add up,” she says. “Personal and community problems get wrapped into the debate, and the wolf becomes the scapegoat.”

Laverty helped organize the North America Inter-Agency Wolf Conference last week in Boise. This was an opportunity for scientists, livestock owners, law enforcement, out-of-state wolf lovers, and other parties interested in wolf management and recovery to get together and discuss the issues. The conference could not have been more timely, from the recent rash of lethal control and the worldwide outcry it provoked, to the specter of de-listing Canis lupus from the endangered species list and the host of lawsuits expected to follow.

Following the first llama attacks this spring, Ninemile residents reported that the offending wolves were gray, black, and big. (Virtually all wolves are gray or black, and all wolves look big.) Based on this vague description, Wildlife Services—the federal agency that handles all lethal wolf control—took to the air. While one team used the wolves’ own radio tracking collars to locate the pack from a plane, a marksman took a helicopter and shot two wolves, a black and a gray. “A lot of times we don’t know which wolves did it, so we try to match descriptions,” says FWS wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs. “It’s an educated guess.”

Still, the llama attacks continued, and then several sheep were attacked. “We have had to kill whole packs before,” Bangs says. “I hate to see that happen, but part of the deal was we wouldn’t let wolves prey on livestock.” Wildlife Services staked out a llama carcass and shot at a wolf returning to feed. The bullet missed, and the marksman got into a helicopter and shot a wolf feeding on an elk carcass.

“This was the wrong thing to have happen. That wolf was doing precisely what it should have been doing, feeding on the wild elk,” says Minette Johnson of Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula. “And by killing the biggest wolves, they are removing the wolves most able to get wild prey for the pups, while leaving a female with pups and only a few adults to provide for her. This makes it more likely that the remaining wolves are going to prey on livestock.”

Some frustrated locals whose animals have been attacked contend that—in keeping with basic canine psychology—the best time for punishing the wolves is during the crime. Currently, it is a federal crime for landowners to harass or chase wolves, even if the wolf is attacking their livestock. To those residents, both the regulations and the process are absurd. Instead of being allowed to defend their own herds, they have to call Helena, cover the carcass, and wait for a Wildlife Services agent to come out and determine the cause of death. They say they’re sick of dealing with a distant bureaucracy with their hands tied, and they are pissed off. Meanwhile, residents say the wolves of Ninemile are acting less afraid of humans than ever.

Strategic alternatives
If wolves and humans are to co-exist, then humans living in wolf country need more options for protecting their lives against wolves. Some environmentalists say that in places where just a few people are raising large herds of livestock in prime wolf habitat, and affecting vast areas of public land, it’s the people, not the wolves, who are the problem. But in areas like Ninemile, so close to an urban center, the answers are not so simple.

A wolf becomes a problem when it loses its fear of humans and develops a taste for the pleasures of the human world—like cattle. In dealing with problem wolves, the FWS Interim Wolf Control Plan for northwest Montana states: “The Service usually uses the management technique that causes the least impact to the wolf pack. Most often, control of problem wolves begins with some type of non-lethal technique.”

But many observers of the Ninemile wolves complain that even though llamas were killed last year, wildlife agents waited until this year’s killings before addressing the problem at all. Others complain that when managers finally did act, they skipped the non-lethal tactics and went straight for the lethal control. Says Jon Marvel of WWP, “The wolf recovery program has turned into a wolf-killing program.”

One program, called the Proactive Carnivore Conservation Fund, aims to reduce human/wolf conflicts before they become a problem. The Fund pays for non-lethal ways to reduce interactions between wolves and livestock. They also educate people who live in wolf country about ways to protect their livestock and avoid attracting wolves. Since 1999, annual spending has averaged more than $40,000, paying for fencing, hay (to keep livestock from grazing in wolf corridors), livestock-guarding dogs, land and grazing allotment buyouts, audio and visual scare devices, and wages for hired herdsman. Other techniques are being explored as well, including some that have been used successfully in Europe for centuries. Defenders of Wildlife strongly encourages residents of wolf country to call them for assistance.

Then again, many people in the Ninemile are content to live surrounded by wolves. Thrilled, even. Deborah Slicer, a philosophy professor at the University of Montana, spent seven years in Ninemile country and says, “I did what was necessary to neighbor peacefully with the wolves while I was up there.” Ninemile resident Dawn Snyder put it more bluntly: “Put your animals away at night. Let’s have some tolerance and patience, and why can’t we all just live here?”

Showdown at Ninemile

Joe Fontaine, wolf recovery project leader for FWS, drove from Helena to the Ninemile Community Center last Friday evening to give residents there an update on the state of wolf affairs in their valley. In a room packed with more than 100 local residents, Fontaine seems to know everyone by name.

More often than not these days, federal wolf recovery agents are feeling successful. With the northern Rockies wolf population now topping 550 wolves, many agents are saying that their job is almost complete. They believe that the wolves have recovered, and are ready to be taken off the endangered species list.

But plenty of people in the room detest the very word “recovery.” For them, the only good wolf is a dead wolf. Consequently, Fontaine faces a room of loaded, double-barreled stares. Someone suggests, “Maybe we just need to get rid of the people who brought ’em here.”

This taunt brings resounding applause, echoing not only anger, but a sentiment held by many in the room who don’t believe that the wolves naturally re-colonized the Ninemile Valley, but were smuggled in by federal wildlife agents. When Fontaine reports that “Even if we shot the whole pack, another pack would re-colonize here in three to five years,” someone retorts, “Yeah, sure, in the back of a truck.” One local landowner claims that federal agents released a breeding pair on his land back in 1994.

Montana and Idaho both have draft management plans for how wolves will be managed if and when they are delisted, a process that would take at least three years. Fontaine emphasizes to the group that now is the time to comment on the Montana Draft Management Plan. “It’s like that old expression” he says. “If you don’t vote, don’t complain.” Although April 30 was the comment deadline for the current Draft Management Plan, the next draft will be available for comment in July. (Call Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for more information.)

Fontaine also reminds the audience of the current proposal to change the wolf’s status from “endangered” to “threatened” in Montana. Under this new status, it would be legal for a landowner to scare wolves off their property and shoot a wolf in the act of taking livestock. Fontaine also speculates on possible state programs, long after he is factored out of the Ninemile wolf equation. At the mere mention of the possibility of a limited wolf hunt, the audience is temporarily spellbound.

A man in his 30s stands at the back of the room and says, “If you look at the Montana Department of Livestock Web page it says that last year, wolves were responsible for killing around 100 animals, while dogs took around 2,000. So a dog is 20 more times likely to kill livestock than a wolf, but I don’t see any people here tonight because dogs are killing livestock.”

For a moment the room falls silent. Then the silence crumbles into a chaos of voices, and Fontaine addresses the man in the back of the room: “Sir, you got to understand that these folks are feeling frustrated because of the lack of control on their own part, and not being able to take their own direction on their own activities. Am I correct?”

“Correct!” answers the chorus. Clearly, Fontaine has touched a nerve.

“I don’t care if the wolves stay or go. I just want to be able to defend my animals,” says Ninemile resident Geri Ball, whose llamas were attacked. “Right now, if a wolf’s out there eating on my llama, I can’t even chase it off!”

Indeed, it seems that if wolves are to remain skittish of humans, local humans need to be empowered in their interactions with them—or sooner or later they might empower themselves.

Some folks in the Ninemile are downright scared. They don’t feel like they know what’s going on, and they feel trapped. Fear boils into anger, so evident in the room that night, that one Ninemile resident declares, “Wolves clear out everything in their path. Everyone knows that.”

Sleeping with wolves
Wanting my own glimpse of what it’s like to be surrounded by wolves, to better understand the fear in the Ninemile, I went to the spot where Schram’s dog, Athea, was found, which is close to this year’s wolf den.

What I found was ample evidence of wolf kills: scattered fur, splintered bones, and wolf scat, which contains more of the same. Under the light of the full moon, I unrolled my sleeping bag where the wolves run and kill. As the moon came and went behind the low, wet clouds, I reminded myself: There has never been a confirmed case of a wolf attacking a human.

But I know better. That statement needs at least three asterisks. It should read: There has never been a case documented by white people of a healthy wolf attacking a human in North America. Rabid wolves have infected Montanans. Likewise, Indians, Inuit and Europeans have reported wolf attacks.

Still, far more people have died from choking on peanut butter sandwiches, drowning in bathtubs, in hunting accidents and driving deer-infested roads. Should we ban hunting, deer, bathtubs, and peanut butter sandwiches?

Of course not. Nonetheless, I wanted to build a fire—to feel safe and keep the dark unknown at bay. Perhaps fire is how the tables were turned in the human struggle against nature. Wolves opted against fireside submission, for complete freedom beyond the circle of light. You have to respect the wolf for not surrendering its freedom, for not rolling over like a dog. And as for the belief that wolves “clear everything in their path,” it’s worth asking: How many species have gone extinct because of the wolf?

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