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Wolves Reintroduced to Yellowstone Prosper--for Good or Bad

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long after the fanfare that surrounded the return of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park, the most telling chapter may have been written this year by an unruly pack of wolves known as the Sheep Mountain pack--a story of what happens when a predator is bigger and wilder than the biggest wilderness you can find.

Only last year, there were 13 Sheep Mountain wolves roaming the grassy plateaus of this ranching valley north of Yellowstone. Today, there is one--or the ghost of one, a lone black hulk some have seen, or thought they have seen, slipping along the edge of the forest.

Six were killed by sharpshooters responding to attacks on livestock. Two were found mysteriously shot to death in the hills. The alpha female, a tough wolf that hunted food for a litter of pups while limping after being hit by a car, was captured and died after being chased into exhaustion and injected with a tranquilizer. Three others are being held on media magnate Ted Turner’s ranch, undergoing training with electric shock collars in an attempt to teach them not to attack cattle--to train them, in the minds of some wildlife advocates, to be a little more like good neighbors and a little less like wolves.

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The Sheep Mountain pack, one of a growing number that have moved to colonize outside Yellowstone, ironically is one of the wolf reintroduction program’s success stories--proof, whatever their setbacks so far, that wolves can gain a foothold even outside the protected reaches of the park. Yet the pack’s fate also is a warning of what lies ahead, as wolves fill up the wilderness and move into an uneasy coexistence with the inhabited West.

When the first 14 Canadian wolves were transported into the park in 1995, scientists predicted that the park eventually would host 78 to 100 wolves. Today, there are as many as 185, nearly half venturing into the world outside the park where sheep, cattle, hunter-prized elk and an increasing number of ranch houses and trophy homes share the landscape.

Nowhere has the collision been more marked than in Paradise Valley, where inhabitants like to say there are two species on the brink of extinction: the wolf, officially listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the family ranch, which, if it isn’t decimated by wolf and grizzly predations or fluctuating cattle prices, will almost certainly fall victim to skyrocketing land prices and the march of new subdivisions up the valley.

While recovery has been so successful that federal authorities are planning to downgrade the wolf’s status in the next few months from endangered to threatened, the hardest part may still lie ahead.

Yellowstone is at full capacity for wolves, and wolves will inevitably wander into the inhabited lowlands outside the park in search of prey. Similar scenarios are playing out in central Idaho, where wolves have come into repeated conflict with ranchers, and in northwestern Montana. Livestock kills there have been so numerous that federal authorities have had to relocate 32 wolves and kill 41.

“The question is, how are we going to deal with wolves in places that are not pristine wilderness?” asked Tim Preso of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. “Right now, if there’s conflicts with livestock, we shoot ‘em. There’s simply been too much wolf killing.”

That wolves that repeatedly kill livestock will be shot is not open to question, said Ed Bangs, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf project in Montana. That they are going to be shot at an even greater rate than they are now, perhaps at rates approaching 10% of the population each year, also is likely, he said.

But Bangs believes lethal removal may be the only way to ultimately save wolves, and some of the biggest environmental groups involved in wolf recovery agree. Shooting wolves that have learned to prey on livestock reduces the caloric needs of the pack and prevents other wolves from learning to do the same thing.

Leave offending wolves in place, Bangs says, and ranchers will take matters into their own hands. “But even when we remove the wolves, you’ve still got dead cattle, dead wolves and [angry] people"--in other words, Paradise Valley.

More Trouble From No. 16

There’s a reason Sam Anderson left his insurance industry job in Los Angeles and moved back to his family’s ranch in the Tom Miner Basin, and all you need is to look out his back window.

It is the Yellowstone River that carved Paradise Valley, the river used for films, including “A River Runs Through It” and “The Horse Whisperer,” because it was one of the best rivers left in Montana. The stunning peaks of the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges rise on either side of the valley, quilted with cattle pastures. Major populations of deer and elk wind their way up and down through herds of cattle.

So it was that members of the Chief Joseph pack, which splits Paradise Valley with the Sheep Mountain pack, got into Anderson’s brother’s sheep last year, killing six sheep and four guard dogs.

Wildlife officials were loath to shoot the alpha male, a wolf that, when the Sheep Mountain female (known as No. 16) got hit by the car, stepped in and helped raise a few of her pups. Instead, they trapped him and a young female and hauled them 60 miles to the south side of Lake Yellowstone. Problem solved--for one day. The alpha male was back. The young female followed three days later.

The next time there was trouble from the Chief Joseph pack--and there was--Bangs ordered two younger males shot.

Meanwhile, the Sheep Mountain pack headed by No. 16 and her new alpha mate was causing trouble on the other side of the river.

Early in June 1999, Martin Davis went up to his pasture at Stand’s Basin and found himself surrounded by 13 wolves, most of them howling. Davis called Bangs, and asked him where the Sheep Mountain pack was these days. “As far as I know, they’re over on Cedar Creek,” Bangs told him.

“Well, then, I guess I should’ve shot those 13 dogs I just saw up there,” Davis said.

The problem, in Davis’ view, is that wildlife agents didn’t know where the wolves were at any given time, certainly not in time to keep them away from their cattle. Bangs’ team spent days trying to scare the wolves into relocating, and they did--about half a mile away.

Davis slept at his pasture for much of the summer. One day, he found six of his cows surrounded by seven wolves. The large black male that appeared to be their leader would bite at them, and, while most of the cows huddled in terror, the boldest cow repeatedly butted the wolf. Davis fired his handgun into the air.

Over on Bruce Malcolm’s place, the pack got into the mature bull pasture and ran the huge animals three miles before giving up. “One of those bulls was 2,000 pounds. He was an old bull, and you shouldn’t have been able to run him anyplace,” Malcolm said. “But . . . they were frothing at the mouth and bleeding through the nose.”

The turning point probably came in September, when Sheep Mountain wolves found a dead cow in Malcolm’s neighbor’s field and ate it--acquiring a taste for beef. A month later, a rancher reported finding a calf killed by wolves.

Bangs ordered three adult males of the pack to be killed. Picking out three adult males from a helicopter swooping low over the hillsides proved difficult, and a federal sharpshooter wound up shooting three pups--young wolves most likely not guilty of anything.

That night, a rancher reported that a large black wolf had backed a group of his horses against a cliff. Bangs ordered the removal of the Sheep Mountain alpha male, leaving No. 16 without a mate and the pack without a male leader.

Two weeks later, Malcolm saw one of his 600-pound calves standing in the pasture. The next morning, he found only a skull and an ear. Federal officials responded by shooting two young females.

Bangs had hoped the pack would recover, that No. 16 would find a new mate and bear a new litter in the spring. She didn’t, and two more wolves were found shot to death in the hills above the valley in January and April.

Bangs elected to round up the seven remaining Sheep Mountain wolves and see whether shock-collar therapy would work.

One wolf died after being hit improperly with a tranquilizer dart during the roundup. Four others, including No. 16, were captured and taken to Turner’s Flying D Ranch outside Bozeman. When agents went back for the two remaining wolves, one of them couldn’t be caught and had to be shot. The other one got away.

Aversion Therapy Tried at Ranch

Three wolves relentlessly circle the chain-link boundaries of the pen on the Turner ranch, occasionally settling down before the slightest noise sets them pacing again.

They no longer include No. 16. While the three younger wolves cooperatively entered a small enclosure where they could be fitted with the shock collars, No. 16 refused, forcing researchers to chase her. She became so exhausted that she had a reaction to the tranquilizer drug and died.

The result of the testing so far has been mixed. The boldest of the young males approached a cowhide when it was placed in the pen and, when he was shocked, retreated and never approached it again, nor did any of the other wolves, which apparently learned by watching.

But when researchers introduced Josie, a heifer calf raised by children on the ranch, the same wolf latched onto her leg, his shock collar apparently not working. It took biologist Val Asher running screaming toward the pen to prevent a bawling Josie’s demise.

The experiment has drawn mixed reviews from wolf advocates. Most are happy to see the government trying something besides a shotgun. Some have protested that the trials are cruel for wolves and calves alike.

David Gaillard of the Predator Conservation Alliance asks a question some ranchers also pose: What is the point of having wolves if you don’t let them be wild? “If we have to control wolves so much that we have to train them like domestic dogs,” he said, “we’re gripping something so tightly we lose what we were after to begin with.”

Bangs is planning to release the three captured wolves back in Sheep Mountain territory once they’re trained, and he is wary of their prospects.

“You could just get in a situation where it’s just a black hole for wolves,” he said. “They keep showing up and hunting cattle, we keep killing them. . . . It’s everybody’s worst nightmare.”

On the other hand, Paradise Valley, with its elk herd and abundant deer, is a heaven for wolves. Don’t think that new wolves won’t take whatever ground the Sheep Mountain pack gives up, says Bill Campbell, who has spent much of the last year filming a documentary.

“It’s a changing West, and these predators are just part of the change,” he said. “It’s a valley where the wills of both humans and wolves will be tested for years to come.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wolf Populations

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to change the status of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act.

States with the most wolves:

Alaska**: 6,000

Minnesota: 2,445

Wisconsin: 250

Michigan: 214

Yellowstone area*: 185

Central Idaho: 141

Northwest Montana: 63

* Idaho, Wyoming, Montana

** wolves not on endangered species list

Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Researched by: JULIE SHEER/Los Angeles Times


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