BILLINGS – Gray wolves killed livestock in Montana at the rate of an animal per day in 2009, stirring a backlash against the predators in rural areas and depleting a program that compensates ranchers for their losses.
The sharp increase over 2008 livestock losses, reported Thursday by state officials, was fueled largely by a wolf pack ravaging 148 sheep in southwestern Montana near Dillon in August.
Such attacks — plus elk herd declines blamed on wolves in parts of Montana and neighboring Idaho — have renewed calls by many ranchers and hunters to reduce the predator’s population.
“They are beautiful creatures, but they’re also very deadly. They’ll go out and hamstring a bunch of animals just for fun,” said Barb Svenson of Reed Point, whose family ranch lost more than 30 sheep in attacks over the last two years.
“They’re killing our income,” she added.
Wolf attacks account for only a small fraction of sheep and cattle losses in the Northern Rockies. Disease, weather and coyotes each take more.
But wolves attract particular disdain because of their viciousness — many killed animals are left uneaten — and because of historic prohibitions against hunting the predators.
About 1,650 wolves roam the Northern Rockies, most of them descended from just 66 animals introduced to the region in the mid-1990s by the federal government.
Montana and Idaho launched inaugural wolf hunts in September, in part to put the fast-expanding population in check. The hunts came just six months after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took wolves off the federal endangered species list.
It’s uncertain if the hunts will be repeated in 2010. A pending lawsuit from environmentalists could put wolves back on the list by late spring or early summer, said attorney Bob Lane with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The suit is before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who overturned the federal government’s first attempt to strip protections for wolves in 2008. Legal arguments in the case are due by the end of the month.
If the environmentalists lose, Lane said his agency would likely increase Montana’s wolf hunting quota. It was 75 wolves in 2009, although only 72 were taken.
Hunters in Idaho, where the season continues through March, so far have taken 142 wolves out of a 220-animal quota.
About 300 more wolves were killed by ranchers and wildlife agents in the Northern Rockies in response to livestock attacks and by other causes.
Wyoming’s 300 wolves remain on the endangered list.
Meanwhile, 365 sheep, cattle, horses and dogs killed by wolves have been tallied in Montana for 2009, said George Edwards, coordinator of a Montana program to compensate ranchers who suffer losses.
That’s up more than 50 percent from 2008.
The animals’ owners have been paid $139,000 for their losses, leaving only about $25,000 remaining in the state’s compensation fund. Legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, could soon boost the fund with federal money.
State and federal officials estimate that only one in eight wolf kills are confirmed. For many of the rest, proof needed to justify compensation is never found. Many sheep and cattle grazing on public lands in wolf country simply go missing.
“We don’t assume this is going to go down or get less expensive,” said Elaine Allestad, who chairs Montana’s Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation board. “We assume we are going to have more losses.”
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