Monday, February 25, 2008

Canines vs. cattle

Star-Tribune environment reporter

LANDER -- The Popo Agie Ranch, just four miles south of town, has a 70-acre hay meadow which rises from an aspen- and cottonwood-sheltered river basin, rolling east and empty into the foot of Table Mountain.

The meadow, and the adjacent 4,000-acre pasture, was once used for a modest but profitable cow-calf operation.

Today, if visitors roll over the wooden platform bridge across the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River, they'll notice a few corralled llamas, a handful of horses, but no cows.

When wolves moved into the area, rancher Dave Vaughan got out of the cow-calf business, he said.

In his barn last week, on a bright and windless winter morning, Vaughan used a tin can to scoop grain for the horses, as he described the events that precipitated his decision to call it quits.

"As soon as we lost those calves, I said, 'I'm not going to do this anymore,"' he said.

Vaughan, who retired from the Air Force in 1982, was lucky to have his pension from the service, and he didn't have to rely on the income from the ranch, he said.

Wolves were confirmed on Vaughan's ranch in January 2003 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but he's pretty sure they arrived in 2002.

That's when he saw his calf survival rate take a sudden dip, he said.

On average, about 96 percent of Vaughan's new calves survived every year, and in recent seasons he'd had two years with 98 percent and two with 100 percent survival.

By the start of this decade Vaughan had managed the ranch for almost 20 years, and he'd kept meticulous records and statistics.

Suddenly, in 2002, his calf survival rate dipped to 90 percent. And in 2003, after wolves were confirmed in the area, only 85 percent of his new calves lived -- an unprecedented number for his operation, he said.

In the winter before the 2003 calving season, gray wolves were running the cows, consistently moving them around and keeping them nervous, Vaughan said. The added stress took a 10 percent bite out of his profits.

"We started calving on the 17th of February, and the first calf that was born was dead. Out of my 70 mother cows, I ended up with seven dead calves," he said. "They were stillborn from the stress of the wolves being there."

All told, in 2003 Vaughan lost 13 calves, "which is totally unheard of," he said. "The only thing you can get compensated for is confirmed kills. Not stress. But the stress causes them to abort calves. And out on our pasture, which is six miles long and two mile wide, sometimes you don't find any evidence of the ones they do kill; the wolves eat everything sometimes, even the tag."

Vaughan welcomes last week's announcement that wolves will be removed from federal Endangered Species Act protection soon.

"I'm not against wolves, but I'm against too many wolves. And we've got to manage the wolf population just like we do the elk population, the deer population, the antelope population," he said. "And I think that's why the good Lord put us here on this earth, because we're smart and we need to manage what we have."

"We don't want to eliminate them, we just want to be able to shoot them if they come on and threaten our livelihood. And that's where we're at now. I think the delisting is a good thing both for the wolves and for the people."

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