DILLON, Mont. -- Earlier this month, a black wolf attacked and killed one of Rick Sandru's calves as it grazed on a forest allotment in the upper Ruby Valley above his southwest Montana ranch.
As the wolf feasted on the 400-pound carcass, a range rider fired a shot, maiming the wolf and sending it scurrying into the woods, leaving behind a trail of blood.
The calf was one of countless livestock Sandru and other Montana ranchers lose each year to wolves, coyotes, grizzlies, black bear and mountain lions that prowl these mountain ranges.
What was different about this month's kill is that Sandru for the first time was able to prove it to federal agents.
A worker hung the cow carcass up in a tree and returned the next day with a U.S. Department of Agriculture official to verify the cause of death. Sandru was compensated for the calf, and a scavenger, likely a bear, tore the carcass from the tree a day later, an easy morsel.
"That's one wolf that we don't have to worry about," said Sandru, a third-generation rancher who wears a cowboy hat and a mustache and whose cattle graze sun-swept pastures among pronghorn, elk and sage grouse. "But I'm sure it has a lot of friends."
Indeed, wolf depredations are a fact of life for Sandru and other ranchers in the Ruby Valley. Many, if not most, wolf kills can never be proven because the wounded animals just disappear into the woods and don't return. Some cattle are found dead, but cannot be proven as wolf-killed.
Sandru said a calf was killed a couple of years ago by a wolf that grabbed it by its face, crushed its skull, gave it a shake and broke its neck.
"They're killing machines," said Sandru of the wolves. "I don't have anything against any animal, but I have a lot against the Endangered Species Act when it doesn't consider its impacts on the people."
Many southwest Montana ranchers also complain that wolves have driven wild elk herds down from the mountains onto ranches, where they forage on native grasses and increase the cost of feeding livestock. Some say livestock are coming home from the forests skinny due to harassment from wolves or other predators.
Sandru's experience is not uncommon in rural Montana, which faces a growing population of wolves that have moved south from Canada or were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and have disbursed north and west. Still more wolves have disbursed into the state from their reintroduction in central Idaho.
The gray wolf has been protected by the Endangered Species Act since shortly after the law was passed in 1973. But the wolf population has since grown to nearly 1,700 in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, wildly exceeding original recovery goals.
So in an unprecedented move, Congress in April delisted the predator in Idaho and Montana and parts of three other states, a move that drew protests from environmental groups who warned it undermined the word and spirit of ESA.
'We didn't want the wolves'
But proponents say the delisting was a necessary response to growing pressure from ranchers and hunters and widespread frustration in the West after three earlier delisting attempts were thwarted by environmental lawsuits.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) also inserted language in Congress' bipartisan continuing budget resolution to prevent groups from challenging the delisting in court, though the rider itself is being challenged on constitutional grounds in a Missoula federal district court.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy yesterday heard arguments in the case and told court observers he expects to quickly issue a ruling, according to the Associated Press.
For now, licensed hunters beginning in September will be able to bag up to one wolf each in Montana -- and up to 220 statewide -- in a season officials hope will reduce the animal's population by about 25 percent.
For sheep rancher John Helle, the hunt is a good start but is far too conservative to have a meaningful impact on wolf depredations.
"It's all going to help," he said from the dining room of his ranch house outside of Dillon, about 25 miles up the Beaverhead River from Sandru. "The quotas they've got -- from a biological perspective -- aren't going to change the numbers in the state. It's just going to take the recruitment out, so they're not being aggressive enough."
Helle raises Rambouillet sheep, a French variety whose wool is spun into products including omni-wool socks, T-shirts and fine slacks and suits.
He said he annually sends about 5,000 to 6,000 thousand sheep out to pasture, but loses an average of about 10 percent of them to predators, the elements and other causes.
He had met with his banker earlier in the morning to discuss rising costs to vaccinate his sheep against worms, which spread more rapidly when the animals are kept in close proximity in irrigated fields. Keeping the animals close at hand lowers the risk of wolf predation, he said.
"I've got all this rangeland out here that I can't use," he said. Wolves and coyotes prowl the mountains, and Helle said he is afraid of accidentally trapping a wolf, which is against the law, he said.
"We didn't want the wolves," Helle said of the Clinton administration's decision to reintroduce an experimental population of 66 wolves into Yellowstone more than a decade and a half ago. "Nobody in this ranching community wanted the wolf brought back in."
He went to his office and returned with a 5-and-a-half-foot-long wolf pelt, its fur streaked a silver-gray. A government trapper shot the animal in 2000 after it and others had killed at least 200 of his sheep.
"This one and its family killed a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of sheep," he said. "This one was donated to Montana Woolgrowers Association."
Culling an icon
After decades of population increase in Montana, state biologists have crafted a plan that, for the first time, aims to reduce wolf stocks by 25 percent by year's end.
Officials earlier this month approved a hunt that will allow hunters to bag 220 wolves, reducing the predator's year-end population from a minimum of 566 in 2010 to 425 in 2011.
While the numbers have alarmed some environmentalists, officials are promising a "surgical" hunt that includes 14 management units designed to target wolves that kill livestock and that are blamed from sharp reductions in big-game herds such as elk.
The harvest will follow Montana's inaugural hunt in fall 2009, in which 72 wolves were bagged but the population still grew by 4 percent.
A proposal last year to allow the killing of 186 wolves was derailed when a federal judge in Missoula ruled that wolves could not be taken off the Endangered Species List in Montana and Idaho if they were not also removed from neighboring Wyoming.
State biologists this year have again added three areas north of Yellowstone that will limit harvest during early-season backcountry hunts after hunters in 2009 took out roughly half of the wolves in a prized research pack that had roamed north of the park's boundaries.
"There is a desire to reduce the population," said Bob Ream, a wildlife biologist who has studied wolves since the 1970s and is now chairman of the state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.
For one, wolves in the three-state northern Rocky Mountain region have exceeded original recovery goals of 300 animals and 30 breeding pairs since 2000 and now nearly exceed them by a factor of six, he said.
He pointed to a chart plotting the animal's climb in the region from less than 200 in 1995 to nearly 1,700 individuals and 111 breeding pairs at last count.
"I think the meaning of this figure is that a lot of Montanans feel betrayed," he said over breakfast earlier this month at a cafe in downtown Helena.
"People are just frustrated by the continuing injunctions against our hunting season, and that just fuels the fire," Ream said. "It threatens the Endangered Species Act itself, and certainly diminishes support for the act when you have a species that's fully recovered."
But while the environmental community remains split over whether wolves are ready to be hunted, most have condemned the congressional delisting, warning that such decisions should be left to government scientists, not lawmakers who may be currying votes.
They point to more recent proposals by Republican lawmakers to prevent the Fish and Wildlife Service from listing the lesser prairie chicken and the dunes sagebrush lizard, which the agency warns faces grave threats from oil and gas development in New Mexico and Texas.
Ream said wolves in the northern Rockies are an exceptional case that warranted congressional action. Three government delisting attempts were stymied in court, not on scientific or biological grounds, but on such technicalities as whether delisting by state boundaries was legal, he said.
A state hunt is also necessary to help stem a drastic decline in elk in the West Fork of the Bitterroot near the Montana-Idaho border, Ream said.
The declines have stressed rural economies that rely heavily on the influx of hunters from around the world. Some residents rely on elk to feed their families through the winter.
But while wolves are widely blamed for the decline, Ream cautioned that black bears, mountain lions and habitat factors could also play a significant role.
A study by the University of Montana, FWP and the Forest Service to collar elk mothers and their calves seeks to determine the source of elk mortality. While the study was in its early stages, the first handful of calf deaths have been tied to mountain lions, Ream said.
Some environmental groups warn that wolves are not ready to be hunted at the numbers proposed, especially since Wyoming is yet to implement an approved management plan.
Unlike Montana, Idaho is proposing allowing hunters take an unlimited number of wolves in most of the state during its hunting season.
Montana's plan, while more palatable to environmental groups, would remove too many wolves to maintain a viable population, said Suzanne Asha Stone, northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife who is based in Boise.
In addition, wolves play a crucial ecological role in Western landscapes by culling deer and elk that have flourished in recent decades, devouring native forage including aspen, willow and cottonwoods that are important to birds and riparian health.
"It can be really destructive if the [elk and deer] herds grow to too large in numbers," Stone said. "You start seeing a decline of all kinds of wildlife and biodiversity."
Wolves improve native vegetation by culling elk numbers and keeping herds on the move, she said.
"Keeping wolf numbers down below 500 seems to undermine the ecological benefits of wolves and their true recovery as a species," she said. "The wolf population itself should be managed so they are healthy, sustainable and interconnected."
Doug Honnold, an attorney for Earthjustice who has represented several environmental groups in defense of wolves, has argued in the past that the northern Rockies population should be between 2,000 and 5,000 in order to remain healthy.
In addition to the 220 wolves that will be killed this fall in Montana, federal officials will likely also shoot hundreds more due to livestock depredations and other disturbances, Stone said. Other wolves will likely be killed illegally and by vehicle collisions.
But Ream downplayed such concerns, noting that the planned reduction is only prescribed for 2011. Studies in Alaska and elsewhere have shown wolves can rebound from population declines of up to 50 percent, he said.
Wolves also have high reproduction rates and have been documented to move up to 120 miles, which enhances genetic diversity, Ream said.
Some have even argued that Montana's hunt will split packs up socially, allowing two females to breed instead of one, he said. "Their reproductive rate may go up," he said.
Moreover, northern Rockies wolves are biologically connected to a population of some 5,000 wolves north of the Canadian border, Ream said.
"People forget that the international boundary is not a wolf boundary," he said.
Living with predators
Montana officials are hopeful that state-managed hunts will encourage hunters and ranchers to accept wolves as part of the landscape, just as some have accepted other predators like grizzlies and mountain lions.
"I think the hullabaloo is going to die down over time," Ream said, citing the changing attitudes among some hunters and ranchers in the North Fork of the Flathead River, near Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. Wolves disbursed naturally to that region long before they were reintroduced to Yellowstone, and local residents began to view them much like they view other predators, he said.
"They aren't going to be universally accepted by everybody, but I think the level of rhetoric is going to drop considerably," he said.
Ranchers in the Blackfoot Valley in north-central Montana have also taken steps to deter wolf attacks by coordinating with FWP on pack locations, removing livestock carcasses and fencing in calving areas and beehives, both of which attract predators, said Gary Burnett, a rancher from Potomac, Mont., who leads the landowner group Blackfoot Challenge.
Not all ranchers are calling for the extermination of wolves, he said.
"If you follow that logic to the extreme and say you should get rid of all the wolves, well, the next thing you'd say is get rid of all the elk," Burnett said. "From a rancher's perspective, elk are a lot more economically damaging than wolves."
Stone, at Defenders, is working with ranchers in Montana and Idaho to encourage a variety of nonlethal methods of deterring wolves, including range runners, livestock guard-dogs, alarm systems and different types of fencing.
Wolf attacks tend to increase when ranchers leave livestock carcasses behind or graze near national parks, she said. And while wolves in Montana and Idaho routinely encounter livestock, preying on them appears to be a learned behavior, according to Montana FWP.
"If you kill wolves, you don't resolve the conflict, you just perpetuate it," she said.
Stone leads the Wood River Wolf Project in the Sawtooth wilderness of central Idaho. In its fourth year last year, the program lost one sheep out of more than 10,000 that moved through the area, she said.
Stone said attitudes have changed markedly since she helped reintroduce wolves into central Idaho in the mid 1990s. Her reintroduction team had federal marshals on hand to protect them from an expected ambush from residents in nearby Salmon, Idaho, she said.
FWP this year reported that the number of confirmed cattle deaths in Montana decreased to 87 in 2010, and sheep deaths fell to 64. Other confirmed livestock losses: 3 llamas, 2 dogs, 3 goats, 1 horse and 4 miniature horses, with other "probable" wolf kills.
About 140 wolves were killed, most of them by federal officials to prevent further depredations.
Hunting groups, while virtually unanimous in their support of a delisting, exhibit a variety of opinions on how to manage them.
Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association have filed a joint defense of the delisting in a federal district court in Missoula in a lawsuit by environmental groups claiming the congressional delisting violates the U.S. Constitution.
"There are some sportsmen who feel like the only thing to do right now is get rid of all wolves, and all management problems are solved," said Bill Geer, climate change initiative manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and an avid hunter. "Well, that's not the case."
Geer said he is disappointed with the decline in elk numbers in the West Fork of the Bitterroot, but, like Ream, cautioned against blaming wolves until more studies are carried out on the calf deaths.
"Wolves are one, but they're not the only one," he said. "Black bears love to eat elk calves, and so do grizzly. They're quite the morsel."