Monday, February 25, 2008

'A real efficient killer'

Star-Tribune environment reporter

One morning Joe Thomas sat atop a hill with binoculars, scanning his pasture land, when he spotted two wolves coming down from the timberline.

They approached his 1,000 head of cows from two different directions, picked out a small group and started herding them around.

"The older ones were teaching the younger ones how to hunt," Thomas said. "They were working in a half circle, like a good set of stock dogs would. I got to witness the whole thing."

Over the years, wolves have killed about 20 calves on Thomas's ranch near the Greybull River, 20 miles west of Meeteetse. Last year the canines killed six.

"They are a really efficient killer," he said.

It was a dumb thing to reintroduce wolves into the Northern Rockies, Thomas said, but now that they're here, he's learned to adapt, and he said he's accepted that Wyoming will need to manage them for the long run.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that it will remove wolves from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act at the end of this month. And barring a court injunction, Wyoming will assume management of its 359 wolves at the end of March.

Thomas's ranch lies within Wyoming's trophy game management zone, as defined by the state's management plan, which means it will be illegal, in most cases, to kill a wolf there without a permit.

But after delisting, a provision in the plan allows stockgrowers to shoot wolves if they are attacking or "harassing" livestock.

Thomas, however, isn't overly excited about the prospect of the new provision.

"It's not as easy as they make it sound, because it's your word against somebody else's," Thomas said. "Instead, I think it will be better to just take pictures, cover the evidence with a tarp and work with the game warden."

And if he does witness wolves harassing his livestock, and he decides that it's necessary to shoot at them, he's not going to take any chances, he said.

"I'm going to photograph it before it happens, when it happens and after it happens," Thomas said.

Since wolves have moved into Thomas's region, both the cattle and the wolves have adapted to each other, Thomas said.

The wolves have the cows trained now, and they are able to herd them at will. And when the cattle see a wolf, they group together, with the younger ones in the interior.

It is the wolves' intelligence and their ability to adapt that has Thomas skeptical about the potential success of wolf hunting seasons in Wyoming.

"What you're going to force them to do is go nocturnal," he said. "Right now they're not scared of anyone or anything. They have no fear at the moment, but once we start hunting them they'll have fear, and they'll go nocturnal, making them even harder to manage."

In terms of business, the benefit of being inside the trophy game area is that ranchers there will still be able to get compensation for their losses to wolves.

"Still, it hurts you," Thomas said. "If you lose a female calf and you only get paid for her that fall, and she might have been a replacement, you may have lost a productive female. It's hard to calculate."

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