To Kill and Be Killed

Jim Robbins is a Montana-based freelance writer. His last story for the magazine was about coal-bed methane drilling in Wyoming.

One night last January, wolves stole into a pasture at a ranch near Helena, Mont., and dropped a rust-and-white-colored bull. It’s no small task to kill a 1,500-pound steer with teeth alone, and for that reason wolves usually take much smaller prey--calves or sheep. It was the only bull killed since the wolves began returning to Montana in 1979.

No one knows exactly how the drama played out, but biologists say two or three hunters from a wolf pack usually kill large prey while the rest look on. The wolves patiently parry with big animals until the animal tires. When they spot an opening, one or two will seize the hind legs with their massive jaws and a third will clamp on the throat. As the animal staggers, snorts and shakes its head, the wolves simply hang on with their crushing bite until the animal bleeds to death or goes into shock.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 31, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Wolf recovery -- An article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine about the growing number of wild wolves in the West incorrectly referred to a bull killed by wild wolves as a steer. A steer is a castrated bull.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 17, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 9 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
The article “To Kill and Be Killed” (July 27) incorrectly referred to a bull killed by wild wolves as a “steer.” A steer is a castrated bull.

Payback was no less brutal. The next night the rancher, using a night-vision scope, shot a wolf feeding on his $1,500 bull, mistaking it for a coyote. When he realized he had killed what at the time was an endangered species, he notified Ed Bangs, who is in charge of the federal government’s wolf recovery program in the Northern Rockies. The following night, just after dark, Bangs and an agent from the Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services--which, among other things, maintains a SWAT team for predators--drove to the ranch. They climbed a ridge, a vantage from where they could look down through their own night-vision scope and see the bull carcass, to which they correctly assumed the wolves would return. Kraig Glazier, the Wildlife Services agent, trained the crosshairs on an animal and squeezed the trigger. The sharp crack of a rifle shot reverberated through the valley. One wolf fell; the rest scattered.


Within a week, all seven wolves in the Castle Rock pack were destroyed, their whereabouts betrayed by a radio collar that had been affixed to one of their own. About the same time, federal agents wiped out four more wolves, part of the Halfway Pack just a few miles to the north, for the same sin. “Once they start actively hunting livestock, there is no choice--we need to use lethal control,” Bangs says. But he adds that shooting wolves is important for other reasons as well.

“A little blood satisfies a lot of anger.”

The West is getting wild again, and the speedy recovery of wolves, a once-endangered species, has become one of the most controversial wildlife issues in the country. A half century after the gray wolf was dynamited in its den, hunted, trapped and poisoned out of the West with vengeance, it has reclaimed the northern Rockies in spades. Experts say it could, within the next decade, re-colonize parts of Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and perhaps even California. It’s one of the fastest comebacks of an endangered species on record, a testimony to wolf reproduction. Bangs’ and Glazier’s “wolf removal” at the ranch was only temporary--just one day after the last of the offending predators were finally hunted out, four new wolves showed up to start the game all over again.

Canis lupus arguably is the most charismatic of what biologists refer to as “charismatic megafauna”--wildlife with sex appeal and the fierce public support that seldom materializes when the endangered animal is the Wyoming toad or the short-nosed sucker fish. Wolves touch something unfathomably deep in the reservoir of human emotion. That’s partly because the wolf is a social animal that many people feel has human-like qualities, such as the way it mates and rears its young. The wolf’s homecoming offers tourists and naturalists the breath-stealing sight of a pack of the long-legged hunters loping across a grassy meadow, or sunning themselves, drunk on meat, on a Yellowstone Park hillside.

“When people start talking about wolves, within seconds they are talking about something else--their children’s heritage, the balance of nature, someone else telling you what to do,” says Bangs, who has spent the past 15 years traveling around the West, meeting with people passionate about wolves. “A lot of people on both sides get tears in their eyes and start sobbing. Managing the wolf is managing a symbol.”

But while a wolf’s ululating delights some, it chills others to the bone. The brutality of a wolf kill can test the mettle of even some of the most ardent wolf supporters. For example, a saddle horse in the Ninemile, a valley near Missoula, Mont., was apparently set upon by wolves. It galloped away, so frantic and blinded by fear that it impaled itself on the end of a 4-inch-diameter irrigation pipe. It managed to get loose and run a short way before it collapsed and was eaten. Such killings have meant the return of a raw frontier-style brutality to the Rocky Mountain West--not just on the part of the wolves, but also by the people charged with managing them.

The killing by and of wolves has ratcheted up in recent years as the number of wild wolves has grown from several dozen in the 1990s to nearly 700 today, increasing about 30% each year. The wolf recovery program is at a turning point: Federal biologists now consider the wolf a viable species. After 29 years on the endangered species list, it was down-listed in April to “threatened,” a final level of protection that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has taken steps to remove in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming by 2004. Management would be turned over to the states and wolves could be hunted as trophy animals or shot by ranchers and homeowners if they attack.


The wolf’s aggression is not its fault--the animal does what it’s hard-wired to do. But the species has returned to a Western landscape far different than the one from which it was nearly exterminated. While the northern Rocky Mountain region has millions of acres of federally protected wilderness and parks, much of it is snow and ice for many months. Wolves, like people, want to live in more hospitable valley bottoms. The unchecked spread of rural subdivisions, where people raise everything from llamas to horses to potbellied pigs, and where ranchers graze cattle and sheep, are too tempting a target for some wild wolves.

So the species has been allowed to come back on conditional terms. Wolves can run, for example, but they can’t hide. There are 43 packs in the three states, with an average of 10 wolves in each pack, as well as numerous loners and pairs. Lone wolves who take livestock are hunted down and killed almost immediately, and trespassing packs are trapped, drugged and harassed. If they continue to range too close to people and their livestock, the wolves are dispatched with extreme prejudice. More than 150 wolves have been killed by federal agents since 1987, something known as “lethal control.”

The government’s goal is to have at least one member of every pack wearing a radio collar so that the pack’s whereabouts can be monitored and recorded. Federal agents can then, if necessary, track and shoot packs, wolf by wolf. The one wearing the collar becomes known, in the words of its hunters, as the “Judas wolf,” even if, in this case, the creature isn’t aware of its betrayal. “We’re not proud of it,” Bangs says. “It’s a necessary evil.”

With such intensive management, some say the Wild West is less than truly wild. But that may be what it takes to maintain the precarious balance between man and nature, for there are many who did not miss the wolf one bit and consider the renewed possibility of the species’ extinction a reasonable idea.

In a cold, cavernous metal barn at the Park County fairgrounds in Livingston, Mont., under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, a panel of ranchers and wildlife experts sits before an audience that consists of mostly men wearing cowboy hats. These two dozen or so ranchers are from the nearby Shields River Valley. Wolves have not yet colonized their neighborhood so these cattlemen have come to the Paradise Valley, north of Yellowstone National Park--a hotbed of wolf activity with four packs--to drink bad coffee and hear what ranching is like with a new predator roaming the hills.

Bangs is first to speak. A smart, affable guy, he managed wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska and learned long ago that his biggest challenge isn’t the wolves. It’s the people. He offers reason and fact to those on all sides of the issue who are irrational or fearful or deeply concerned, or sometimes hysterical, or accuse him of being a butcher, even the few who have wandered out of the backwoods wearing guns, stinking of bourbon and screaming about black helicopters and government conspiracies. Bangs’ rational demeanor calms most of them down, but there still are hotheads. Threats have come his way--including death threats, especially in some isolated places. “We had a saying in Alaska,” he says. “People live at the end of the road for a reason.”

Tonight’s meeting is tense but relatively tranquil. After Bangs speaks, the meeting becomes the equivalent of “Tales From the Crypt” for the agricultural set. Three ranchers whose livestock have suffered wolf attacks quietly relate stories about howling at night, or coming home to find frightened, bawling, huddled cows at the center of a circle of wolf tracks in the snow, of a desperate feeling when they see buzzards circling over their pasture, and of cows who have trampled calves as they fled approaching wolves. Randy Petrich, a lean, young rancher, has shot four wolves under several shoot-on-sight permits issued because of numerous depredations on his ranch.

It’s a return to times past. In the late 1800s, ranchers--some of them the ancestors of those on the land now--hired professional exterminators to kill wolves for a bounty of $2.50 apiece. In a good season those “wolfers” earned $3,000. Between 1883 and 1918, 80,000 wolves were dispatched in Montana alone. By the 1930s all but the occasional lone wolf was gone.

But the species found its way back to the West in two ways. In 1979 the first female wandered from Canada down the untamed northern Rockies into Montana near Glacier National Park. Then, in 1995, the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service reintroduced gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone and Idaho. When the process began, biologists predicted 450 wolves would be in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming by the end of 2002. Right now there are 660, not counting this year’s pups.

That may not sound like many wolves spread over that large a region, but they kill often, because each one needs an average of nine pounds of meat a day. They also travel far; each pack has a home range of 250 to 500 square miles. Wolves that kill livestock, however, are a minority. Most stay with a wild diet. But from 1987, when the first attacks occurred, until the end of 2002, wolves have dropped at least 200 head of cattle, 600 sheep, nine llamas, 50 pet dogs and the one terrified horse.

The challenge for biologists now is not to make the wolf population more robust, but to make the species palatable to those who suddenly find themselves in competition with the deadly efficient predator.

A wall of mountains called the Absarokas shoots heavenward and shadows Jim Melin’s cattle and sheep ranch in the heart of south-central Montana’s Paradise Valley. These mountains are the source of three problems for the Melins: grizzly bears, mountain lions and now wolves. When Melin comes out to conduct a tour of his ranch, his wife and several of their 11 beautiful, smiling, towheaded children swarm out of the trailer as well. The 53-year-old Melin introduces them warmly. “The last three or four I ain’t even had a midwife,” he says with pride. “Jus’ done it myself.”

His eldest daughter, 15-year-old Laura Dale, and a sister, 13-year-old Sarah, come roaring up on a four-wheel ATV with a .22 rifle and announce that they’ve been out “plinking” ground squirrels. “I shot 20,” says a beaming Laura, her long blond hair spilling out from beneath a baseball cap.

Melin and his clan have grown up working hard on this beautiful but hardscrabble place. He drives a snowplow and does custom haying to supplement the income from the ranch. He is far more troubled by wolves than he ever was by the grizzly bears and cougars that made their way out of the mountains and occasionally carved up a cow. One night last year, a pack came down and made a mess. When predators start killing, they sometimes lose themselves in the frenzied bloodlust and keep attacking far beyond what they can eat--something biologists call “surplus killing.” On the way to move cattle in the morning, the Melin family saw a flock of magpies feeding on 15 dead or dying sheep, their white wool stained with blood.

“A lot of them, the wolves just grabbed and took a chunk out of, and [those] had to be killed,” says Melin’s wife, Betsy. One of the dead was Percy, a bum, or motherless lamb, raised by the girls’ grandmother. “It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck to hear 75 or 80 cows screaming at the top of their lungs,” Melin says. “I never heard a cow scream until the wolves came back.”

After the kids leave, Melin says he is worried that they will be attacked by wolves on their way to the bus stop or while sleeping outside at night. “It’s like the Wild West around here,” he says. “When the girls go to baby-sit, they are handed a rifle and told, ‘The wolves were up on the porch last night. Be careful.’ ” He says he can’t send his dogs out with the kids--as he does to protect against bears and mountain lions--because dogs attract wolves. Unlike bears and mountain lions, however, wolves are not known for attacking humans. There is no conclusive evidence of a wolf ever killing a person in North America, but there have been attacks.

Melin is heartsick over the return of the wolf and can’t understand why anyone with the sense God gave gophers would bring back so vicious a predator. Yet he seems calm as he complains. Faith in God has gotten Melin through some tough times, and it will, he is fairly certain, get him through the test of the wolves. “I got the Lord,” he says, pushing the front brim of his cowboy hat up to reveal narrowed blue eyes. “Otherwise I’d like to kill someone.”

Ranchers aren’t the only ones hopping mad over wolves in the Paradise Valley. Some hunters and hunting guides are furious. Elk, massive and elegant, are a prized big game species outside the northern border of Yellowstone, home to the world’s largest elk herd, and hunters from all over the world come to drop one. In recent years the size of the elk herd has fallen by more than half. In 1991 park officials estimated the herd at more than 20,000, perhaps as much as 24,000. This year the count was between 9,000 and 10,000. How much of that decline can be blamed on wolves?

Robert T. Fanning Jr., Bill Hoppe and Don Laubach, all hunters from the Paradise Valley and founders of Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, gather for coffee one afternoon to explain that they think this resource is being wiped out as a result of the reintroduction of wolves. “If this isn’t eco-terrorism, I don’t know what is,” Fanning says. While elk numbers are affected by a variety of factors, from drought to grizzly bears, he believes it is the voracious and growing wolf population, with its surplus killing, that is the primary cause.

Theirs may be an extreme view, but Fanning and the others want the federal government to reduce the number of wolves. “No one foresaw that wolves would reproduce like gerbils,” says Fanning, spitting the words out like coffee grounds. If officials don’t remove wolves, he warns, “people will only take so much” before they rise up. “They will take strychnine and cyanide to the mountains. Ten men can put 1,000 getters [a deadly device that shoots poison into the mouth of a wolf when it eats bait on top of it] in one day and take care of our problem. But we would rather the government take care of it.”

The relationship between elk and wolves in the Yellowstone region is complex and, to date, not fully understood, says Doug Smith, the park’s wolf biologist, who bristles at unsubstantiated claims about the reason for the decline of elk. First, he says, the count in the early 1990s was probably a record high. Those numbers were thinned by a severe drought, normal population swings and five other predators that prey on elk calves and/or adults. “Disentangling those things is not straightforward,” says Smith. “Wolves are not guiltless. But they are not the sole factor.”

The unfolding wolf story isn’t just playing out on isolated ranches and in rustic Yellowstone. Residents of rural homes, which have blossomed throughout Montana in the past several decades, have discovered, literally, the wolf at their door, with wildlife savagery sometimes playing out in the front yard. The Ninemile Valley, located 300 miles from Yellowstone, is a small slice of heaven and home to another wolf hot zone. A helicopter pilot flying over it once watched as two wolves chased three deer in circles around a house.

Actress Andie MacDowell lived there for several years in the 1990s when the wolves were first colonizing the valley. She spoke out in support, Bangs says, but her enthusiasm waned after wolves slaughtered the two Great Pyrenees guard dogs she had gotten to protect her children. One was found half eaten under the swing set. “She wasn’t against wolves after that,” says Joe Fontaine, a wildlife biologist who works for Bangs. “She just didn’t speak out in favor of them.”

Fontaine tools his white government-issue pickup truck down the Ninemile one day and stops at a tiny maroon house. A license plate on one vehicle reads “lma mgc,” and Jeri Ball believes the unusual and imperial-looking llamas in her front yard are, indeed, magical. She dresses them in costumes and takes them into schools and nursing homes for educational and therapeutic purposes.

One night earlier this year, some visitors showed up. “Wolves whacked three llamas there,” says Fontaine, pointing through the truck’s windshield to a pasture in front of the house. “So we got ‘em an electric fence.”

He gets out of the truck and begins joshing with Gene, Jeri’s husband, who works at the local sawmill. When Gene walked out of his house one night, he came face to face with a wolf feeding on his llama. It stared at him. And then continued eating. And there was nothing Gene could do. An element of trying to ease the effects of the wolf’s return has been to make the rancher or homeowner feel as if they are not powerless.

Except in extraordinary cases, when someone is issued a shoot-on-sight permit, citizens until recently could not shoot or otherwise harass a wolf--only federal agents could. But since wolves were down-listed from endangered to threatened, civilians have been allowed to shoot them if they are attacking, and can harass them if they come around. Gene has the full complement of equipment, including a radio transmitter in his living room that picks up wolf radio collars, so he knows when the animals are nearby. The electric fence is hot. And now Fontaine is here to show him and a neighbor how to use rubber bullets, which can go through half-inch plywood at 40 yards, to harass wolves.

The government is trying to make sure wolf management doesn’t become a free-for-all. If the number of wolf packs in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming drops below 30, wildlife officials intend to reassert authority. They will not allow the wolf to be driven to the brink of extinction again. But removing the animal from the threatened-species list will not be easy. The Republican-dominated legislature in Wyoming wants to classify the wolf as a predator outside of Yellowstone, not a trophy animal, meaning it can be shot by anyone at any time rather than carefully managed. That outrages the large number of Americans who consider killing wolves a sacrilege.

Bangs steers a middle course. As human development sprawls into every desirable ecological niche in America, he says, wolves need to be carefully managed, but not treated as vermin again. If Westerners are ever to accept wolves as their neighbors, he says, those wolves that offend need to be controlled, with lethal means, by hunters and ranchers--by far the cheapest method. Such aggressive control measures may seem harsh, but they may help dampen the growing outcry against the wolves.

Bangs says it’s wrongheaded to focus on the fate of individual animals when whole populations are in trouble. Many wildlife biologists constantly fight the sentimental--but biologically unworkable--portrayals in such Hollywood films as “Free Willy” and “Bambi.” Killing individual wolves that attack livestock means the population as a whole will be allowed to stay. Nonetheless, Bangs knows the bloodshed has only just begun.

“If you think shooting wolves is bad, wait until we start shooting pups,” he says with a grimace.

Environmentalists do not accept the need to kill wolves as a given. Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, has lobbied for years to return the wolf to the Western wilds. To try to make the wolf politically acceptable, the organization has raised more than $250,000 to reimburse ranchers for dead livestock. But that hasn’t satisfied ranchers, who aren’t fully reimbursed unless they can prove the calf or sheep was killed by wolves. If the carcass gets gobbled up, so does the evidence about the perpetrator. It can be difficult to tell a wolf kill from a mountain lion kill, and a necropsy, a physical examination of the carcass, is critical.

Wolf protection advocates have found some ranchers willing to test their belief that you don’t have to kill wolves to keep them away from cattle and sheep. The lower sheep pasture at the Melin ranch recently looked like the opening of a used-car lot, with hundreds of red flags fluttering in the breeze. This is a European innovation called “fladry” that usually scares wolves away for a month or two, until the wolves realize they have nothing to fear. But it’s better than nothing and can be used at critical times, such as lambing season.

The Defenders’ Wolf Guardian Program in Boise, Idaho, also takes advantage of wolves’ reluctance to approach humans. Volunteers, including students and housewives, pay their own way to camp out in remote mountain pastures when flocks and herds are most vulnerable. They track signals from wolf radio collars and when the animals approach, the volunteers whoop it up--yelling, banging pots and pans, firing off cracker shells, says Laura Jones, coordinator of the program.

There are, however, only so many guardians to go around, so the wolf killing continues. It’s usually done by Wildlife Services under the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The activity creates such a public-relations problem that the media, which rode with troops in the Iraq war, aren’t allowed to see what Wildlife Services is doing to wolves. Teresa Howes, a public affairs officer with the Department of Agriculture in Fort Collins, Colo., refused a request to accompany an agent on a lethal control action. “It’s just too emotional,” she says.

Bangs says that after 15 years of helping wolves reclaim a place in the West, he has no doubt it was a good idea, despite the number of angry people and the losses of livestock and wolves. For one thing, the wolf has helped restore a natural balance.

“We make decisions and trade-offs all the time,” he says. “With any program there are winners and losers. It’s important to have some areas as wild as they can be. This is just a tiny slice of the country, but it will always remind us of what we’ve lost elsewhere.”