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Yellowstone’s Prowling Predators Temper Their Foes’ Fears

MISSOULIAN / ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Steve Thompson skates west from his house on Whitefish Lake, stars flashing cold and hard in the winter sky, he keeps one ear tuned to the ice, the other waiting for a wolf howl to break the evening silence.

“The return of wolves to the West is the greatest environmental success story of my lifetime,” says Thompson, who has worked for 11 years with wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Michigan.

Thompson spends his evenings on the road rather than in the woods, taking his traveling slide show about wolves to communities throughout Wyoming and Montana. His show, sponsored by the Sierra Club, offers a big-picture glimpse of wolves and men, tracing 20 years of wolf recovery in the northern Rockies.

“The heat of the reintroduction issue is over,” he says. “Now we can revisit the wolf debate and discuss it more dispassionately. We can see if it’s worked.

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“Did the fears come true? Did the promises come true? What was an emotional circus is now a blip on the map, and it’s useful to step back from the controversy and take a look at what’s happened.”

What’s happened, Thompson says, is that wolf-recovery projects have outstripped expectations, allaying fears that the return of the pack predators would wreak havoc on livestock and wild prey populations.

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In Yellowstone National Park, home to the state’s only active reintroduction program, the recovery effort is years ahead of schedule and well under budget, he says. Visitation to the park is booming as wolf watchers come from around the globe for a glimpse of the elusive animals. More than 20,000 people have reported spotting wolves there since the reintroduction.

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Eagles and bears are thriving on the leftovers from wolf kills. The region’s elk population is benefiting, he says, as the wolves thin out oversize herds, primarily by culling the old and sick.

“It’s definitely been a success, and the slide show is a chance to celebrate that success,” he said. “But it’s not all pretty. There’s blood in this show: bloody cows, bloody elk. But you can’t do a slide show about a predator without including the blood.”

According to Thompson, the average prey animals in Yellowstone are 14-year-old cow elk, proving that the wolves “really are playing their evolutionary role.”

His slide show includes several frames taken of a pack working an elk herd, cutting an old cow from the group and taking her down. Biologists later performed an autopsy on the carcass, verifying that the animal had severe arthritis.

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“They truly are going for the weak and the aged,” Thompson said.

Although he admits that the return of wolves to natural systems is no panacea for overpopulated elk herds, he insists the predators will help in bringing balance back to the area’s wildlife populations.

On state land surrounding the park, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department estimates that the elk herd is too big by 10,000 animals. There is food enough for about 27,000 elk, but the herd numbers roughly 37,000.

Wyoming currently pays about $1 million a year to feed excess elk, not to mention reimbursements to landowners whose hay is eaten by hungry wapiti (a type of deer). That money, Thompson said, could be better spent elsewhere, and the wolves now ranging the area will help free up some of that money.

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Wolves also are cutting costs for ranchers, he says, as the coyote population has been lopped in half since the return of wolves. That means fewer livestock depredations, he said. He pointed out that coyotes killed 7,500 cows and sheep in Montana in 1996 compared with an average of eight wolf-related livestock kills per year since 1985, when wolves again became permanently established in the state.

Overall in 1995, 172,000 Montana livestock were lost, primarily to weather, disease and birthing problems.

“Put the wolf kills in perspective to 7,500 coyote depredations and 172,000 losses to the elements, and you can see the pattern,” Thompson said. “Most livestock losses leave the rancher out on his own, but wolf kills are different. The government responds almost immediately, and Defenders of Wildlife cuts them a check for the loss. No one does that if you lose a sheep to rough weather.”

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This year, however, was a tough year for wolves and livestock. In the Murphy Lake area west of Whitefish, 25 sheep were killed in one night by a wolfpack. Many carcasses were left uneaten, heightening ranchers’ fears of malicious wolves that kill for fun.

Thompson, however, points out that those same wolves have lived peacefully among the ranchers’ herds for most of a decade, and blames the slaughter on harsh conditions last winter. The wild prey base was hammered by a long and snowy winter, creating a boon for wolves, which fed on winter-killed animals. As a result, wolf numbers climbed as prey numbers declined. After the winterkill food base disappeared, there were lots of hungry predators.

“It was a collision course,” Thompson said. “Some of these packs had two and three litters, and then the food source dried up. We would like it if wolves would conform to our notion of wolves, and fortunately most of the time they do.

“But they are wild predators and they are individuals, and on occasion they will do things we would rather they didn’t,” he said. “In the big picture, the vast majority of wolves are out there doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing--being wild animals and interacting with other wild animals.”

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Thompson’s slide shows have been well attended, drawing people from all sides of the wolf debate in crowds upward of 100. He enjoys the dialogue with wolf-recovery foes, saying the presentation gives all a chance to hash out their emotions and opinions.

During a Wyoming show, Thompson spent 10 minutes fielding questions from a rancher whose father had killed the last wolf in the northwestern part of that state. By the end of the evening, the rancher said he understood Thompson’s view, saying he could see the fault in eliminating predators by using an example of rattlesnakes. After the snakes were killed on the ranch, he said, the property became plagued by gophers.

“He and I came to understand one another a bit more,” Thompson said. “We clicked on that level, and that’s where it has to happen.”

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