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Predator becomes prey in Wyoming

Times Staff Writer

It’s hard for ranchers here to figure how it came to this -- again.

After railing for more than a decade against the federal government for reintroducing gray wolves to the region, after finally winning the battle to get the animals taken off the endangered species list, what went so wrong that Washington stepped in last week to protect the wolves all over again?

It began near here in this high-altitude chaparral. No sooner were gray wolves delisted in March than sportsmen in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming began locking and loading. Wyoming officials declared 90% of the state a “free-fire zone.” Hunters from around the state flocked to rural Sublette County to bag a wolf.

Rancher Merrill Dana, 57, saw the results right away. Hunters aboard snowmobiles chased wolves across the early spring snow on his sprawling ranch. “The first morning it was opened up, they killed three up here,” he said. “Trespassers. We didn’t even know they were up here until we heard the snow machines.”

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Dana said he has been offered as much as $2,500 for permission to hunt wolves on his land. He refused.

As with many ranchers here, there is no love lost between Dana and wolves. He was mad the interlopers hadn’t asked permission to hunt. “I wanted people I know to get them,” said Dana, who was among a hunting party that eventually killed a 110-pound male.

Through the early summer, an average of a wolf a day was being killed across the region. In all, at least 130 animals died since the delisting, or nearly 10% of the wolf population in the northern Rockies. Then, on July 21, a federal judge stopped the hunt. Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service capitulated and began the process to relist wolves.

“People overreacted,” said cattle rancher John Robinette of Dubois, Wyo. “I don’t think the policy was intended as: ‘Go out and see how many wolves you can kill.’ ”

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Robinette has lost cattle, horses and dogs to wolves. Even when the wolf was listed, he had a rare federal permit to shoot any wolf he saw on his 25,000 acres. But he said he was convinced that giving everyone that right would lead to needless and reckless slaughter.

“People went out all over the state shooting and bragging about it and putting pictures in the paper,” Robinette said. “This is what I dreaded this spring: that someone would go out and get a bunch of pups out of a den and get their picture in the paper. It was going to draw unwanted attention.”

Among cattlemen, distaste for wolves is as broad and wide as the sagebrush plain that stretches in all directions from Dana’s ranch. Once hunted nearly to extinction, the West’s most-reviled predator roams freely here, coming down to these khaki-colored valleys from nearby national forests in search of elk and the occasional cow or calf.

Dana’s thoughts about wolves are complicated. He enjoys wildlife and readily acknowledges that the clever and strong wolf is especially fascinating. But after the controversial program to reintroduce the wolf in the 1990s, the animal has come to symbolize unwelcome federal meddling in rural Western lives and land.

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For the time being, at least, wolves in the northern Rockies are back on the endangered species list while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reconsiders the issue. Federal officials are monitoring the wolf management programs in Montana and Idaho, which canceled its wolf hunt planned for this month. In Wyoming, federal wildlife officials took over wolf management while a committee of the Wyoming Legislature crafts a new policy.

It was a stunning reversal in what wildlife biologists had hailed as a success story. The species had flourished, its population growing by about 20% a year since wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. This was proof the Endangered Species Act worked, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said when it delisted the wolf in March.

In July, federal District Judge Donald Molloy issued an injunction against the state wolf plans, after a challenge by environmental groups. He questioned whether indiscriminate killing would reduce wolf numbers back to crisis levels. He also said the hunt could isolate packs of wolves, reducing the species’ gene pool.

Some wildlife biologists say the damage is already done. Nearly all of the known wolves in Wyoming’s free-fire area were killed in little more than a month. Recent estimates show that the wolf population in the three states began to decline for the first time in more than a decade even before the hunt.

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“The decision [to relist them] has brought the wolves a massive reprieve, a lifeline,” said Louisa Wilcox, who tracks the issue for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Livingston, Mont.

Some of the wolves shot since March were known to have killed livestock and were taken by authorized hunters. But half of the wolves killed without permits were shot in Sublette County.

“The wolves in the predator area were taken out; those wolves are gone,” said Mike Jimenez, who leads the Wyoming wolf recovery project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “That’s no surprise. They are vulnerable to hunting.”

Suzanne Stone, who manages a wolf program in Idaho for Defenders of Wildlife, said that Wyoming’s hunt couldn’t have come at a worse time for wolves. “Late spring, they can’t travel that well,” she said. “They stay close to their den sites, and they are not going to leave the pups or the alpha female. It’s an easy time of year to kill wolves.”

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Dana thinks he knows the details of the last wolf kill, on May 2. He believes the hunter was a young man who tracked a female for 70 miles on a snowmobile in and out of dense stands of trees.

“She was a loner who was plumb lost,” Dana said of the wolf. “All her mates were gone [killed]. The kid was going through sagebrush and fences and trees. He tore up an $8,000 snow machine.”

In the last seven years, Dana has lost 11 calves and cows and two dogs to wolf predation. His neighbor, Kevin Campbell, 54, says he has never lost livestock to wolves. Their experiences reflect regional and national statistics.

Across the county in 2006, coyotes, dogs, mountain lions and even vultures killed more cattle than did wolves.

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Last year in Montana, coyotes were blamed for 51% of cattle losses due to predators, while dogs were accountable for 11%, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, part of the federal Department of Agriculture.

Yet the perception persists that wolves are dramatically reducing livestock inventories and big game. Elk and deer populations are stable in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, state wildlife officials say.

“When you say ‘wolf,’ it drives a lot of hard feelings,” said Robinette.

To Campbell, a rancher in Bondurant, Wyo., who was helping Dana sort and load cattle for sale last week, wolves and livestock are not compatible. “I try to have an open mind,” he said, shifting in his saddle. “But I think they should go back to the policy we just had, to be able to shoot them.”

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In rural areas of the upper Rockies, it’s not uncommon to come across bumper stickers proclaiming “The Only Good Wolf Is a Dead Wolf.”

Although sentiments are somewhat less volatile in the cities, a store in upscale Jackson this week had two stuffed wolves for sale for about $4,500 each. One tag read “recent taxidermy.”

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julie.cart@latimes.com

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