Monday, March 31, 2008

What's next for Wolves? State pins hopes on public acceptance, program to compensate ranchers

Tribune Staff Writer

George Edwards doesn't work for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the agency now in charge of managing wolves in the state.

But his work will play a large role in maintaining a viable wolf population in Montana by building public acceptance of the wolf, particularly in the ranching community, state officials said.

Edwards, who works for the Department of Livestock, is the state's first livestock loss mitigation coordinator. Beginning next month, livestock producers will submit their financial claims to Edwards for animals hunted and killed by the state's now thriving wolf population.

Wolves, which number more than 400 in Montana and 1,500 in the Northern Rockies, came off the federal endangered species list Friday, turning management over to the states.

The price tag for reimbursing ranchers, as well as funding guard dogs and other conflict prevention efforts, is expected to cost more than $200,000 annually. The money won't just come from the state, as federal funding also will be sought. One of Edwards' main jobs will be fundraising. Edwards noted that some of the state's most prominent residents, such as cable TV mogul Ted Turner, will be asked to contribute.

Both those who argue that federal protections should have been removed from the wolf long ago, and those who say lifting them was premature, agree on one thing: For the wolf to survive under state management, it's critical for the state to pay the bills of ranchers who pay the price for its return.

"This piece, needs to work for the overall wolf management plan to work," Edwards said of the state's new compensation program.

Throughout history, people have had a love-hate attitude toward wolves, said Carolyn Sime, the state's wolf program coordinator.

It's the goal of the state, she said, to prevent a pendulum swing in the other direction by keeping the wolf population from getting too large and compensating landowners who are making sacrifices to have wolves back.

"If people are not willing to live with wolves, they kill them," she said.

Wolves sometimes are mistaken for coyotes or domestic dogs. But their striking physical characteristics — long legs, large feet, blocky heads and weight (males can weigh up to 130 pounds) — set them apart.

There's no mistaking the historic attitudes toward them, either. As Europeans began settling the U.S., they poisoned, trapped and shot wolves, causing a once widespread species to be eradicated from most of its range in the Lower 48. They were gone from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, as well as adjacent southwestern Canada, by the 1930s.

"People hated them," said Helena-based Ed Bangs, the wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when the government announced in February that wolves were being delisted. "We came from areas from Europe that hated wolves."

Values changed, and the wolf was given federal protection in 1974. At that time, only a few hundred wolves remained in Minnesota. Those animals were delisted as "threatened" last year.

Bangs came to Montana from Alaska in 1988, to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's effort to restore the "endangered" gray wolves in the West.

Recovery efforts first began in Canada in the 1960s. Wolves there began dispersing into Montana, with the first two packs denning in Glacier National Park and on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in the late 1980s.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995.

With federal protection limiting human-caused mortalities, wolves flourished. Nobody was surprised. If mortality is kept in check, the number of wolves can more than double in just two years, officials said.

"Wolves are just pretty incredible animals," Bangs said.

The cost of the wolf recovery effort in the Northern Rockies was $27 million. Bangs said he believes too much was spent, but says the public demanded it.

With the gray wolf delisted, five state field biologists in Helena, Bozeman, Kalispell and Missoula, including Sime, are now in charge of wolf management. A hunting season is planned for the fall, and ranchers can now kill wolves that are caught killing livestock.

Managing wolves will cost the state about $1 million a year, said Sime, who added that the state is hoping the federal government will help fund management efforts. Montana, she notes, is one of the few places in the country where Americans who called for restoring the wolf can see the animals.

"We'd like the American public to help," she said.

Montana has been managing wolves, using federal guidelines, since 2004, so the transition between state and federal rules that began Friday will be "seamless," Sime said.

What is new in the state's wolf management effort are a seven-member Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board, and the role of Edwards, who will work closely with that board.

The price the state will pay for livestock animals killed by wolves kill be determined by how much they would have likely sold for at the Billings auction.

Under state management, USDA Wildlife Services will continue to verify whether wolves were responsible for losses. The size of the prey, tracks, and canine teeth marks are part of the forensic science conducted at a depredation scene.

Ranchers will get 100 percent compensation for both confirmed and probable losses. Under the old compensation program, which was privately run by the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, ranchers received 100 percent for confirmed kills and 50 percent for "probable" losses to wolves.

"There's always losses that can't be verified, and this program is supposed to help with that also," said Elaine Allestad, chairwoman of the Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board.

Allestad, a Big Timber stock grower who has lost sheep and cattle to wolves and grizzlies, said the federal government should pay for the livestock losses.

"If they want (wolves) here, they should pay for the losses," she said.

The state Legislature allocated $30,000 to fund reimbursements and created a $5 million trust fund.

But to date, that trust account is empty. The eventual goal is to build it up through private donations and use the interest to fund operations.

The basis behind the state's program is the same idea Defenders of Wildlife had when it launched its compensation campaign in 1987: Sharing the responsibility for restoring wolves to the landscape while fostering greater tolerance for wolves in the ranching community.

"Compensation was a critical component of the program of wolf restoration," said Suzanne Asha Stone, a Boise, Idaho-based wolf conservation specialist for Defenders of Wildlife. "It helped people overcome their fears and certainly overcome the financial risk of having wolves back."

Over the last 21 years, Defenders of Wildlife doles out approximately $1 million to ranchers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Defenders, which is discontinuing its compensation program in Montana but continuing it in other states, has pledged to contribute $100,000 to help Montana begin its program.

As the Montana program evolves, property damage losses as a result of wolves, such as broken fences and veterinarian bills for injured livestock, will be funded.

Money also will be made available for livestock producers to purchase guard dogs, hire range riders and install electric flags called fladry, which have shown promise in keeping wolves away from vulnerable livestock in pastures.

"If you just rely on lethal control, more wolves die, more livestock die," said Stone, noting that Defenders of Wildlife spent $81,000 on conflict prevention efforts last year in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

Lane Adamson, the director of the Madison Valley Ranchlands Group, said range riders have been effective in monitoring summer grazing operations threatened by wolves. The riders spend four to five months in the area. Last year, the riders discovered a wolf den in the middle of a grazing allotment, but because of the riders' presence, there were no depredations or wolves killed, Adamson said.

He said prevention efforts such as range riders are critical if wolves and ranchers are to share the same landscape.

"As wolf numbers increase, conflict will increase," he said. "That's a reality. Wolves kill livestock."

Statewide, wolves killed 75 cattle in 2007, up from 32 in 2006, while confirmed sheep losses rose from four to 27, according to FWP.

Wolves account for a fraction of total livestock deaths, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Montana cattle producers reported losing 66,000 cattle and calves to all causes in a 2005 survey, with 3,000, or 4.5 percent, lost to predators. Coyotes were responsible for 54 percent of the 1,300 calves lost to predation, while all predators, including an unknown number of wolves, were responsible for the rest.

The state's 2007 wolf-activity report points out that the restored wolf population represents a new source of livestock mortality, and the state's wolf population increased 34 percent in 2007.

Wolves also can lead to indirect losses through missing livestock or poor livestock performance because of the stress of having wolves in the area, the report states.

"What we're always hoping to do is decrease the risk that livestock producers have now that wolves are back on the landscape," Sime said.

Of the 102 known wolf mortalities in Montana in 2007, 73 were killed for killing or chasing livestock. Seven of the wolves were illegally killed, according to FWP.

For now, Edwards is working in obscurity from an office in a tiny pink and white house at 1225 8th Ave. in Helena, which he shares with the Milk Control Board.

His profile will rise April 15, when the state officially begins accepting loss claims from Montana producers. The Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board, which has met one time so far, will meet a couple of times each year.

"If the livestock owner does not like my decision, at that point we would put it on the (board's) agenda for appeal," Edwards said.

The state Legislature initially estimated the program would cost $200,000 annually, but Edwards believes the price tag will be higher because the number of wolves and depredations are increasing.

To help fund the program, Edwards and the state will seek grants and private donations from the likes of Turner, who owns the Flying D ranch in southwestern Montana, and entrepreneur Roger Lang, the owner of the Sun Ranch on the Madison Range.

"We have some very high profile people who are residents of our state who may look at this as a viable cause," Edwards said.

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