BILLINGS – Record numbers of endangered gray wolves were shot this year by government wildlife agents and ranchers in the Northern Rockies, as the predator’s attacks on livestock met with an increasingly aggressive response.
In a case that underscores the brutal efficiency of those government wolf control efforts, wildlife agents recently killed all 27 members of a wolf pack near Kalispell, Mont. Their removal followed repeated attacks on livestock within the pack’s territory.
The Bush administration is set to remove the region’s estimated 1,500 wolves from the endangered species list as soon as this week.
Environmentalists – who successfully fought to reverse a prior removal of endangered protections – are gearing up to again challenge the government in federal court.
But as jockeying over the animal’s legal status continues, an Associated Press review shows more wolves killed in 2008 than at any time since they were reintroduced to the region more than a decade ago.
“In the course of conserving wolves, some will die,” said Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Sime said removing problem wolves is necessary for the animals to coexist with the region’s rural residents. “It’s not a national park. We live here,” she said.
Through early December, 245 wolves were legally killed by wildlife agents and ranchers – a 31 percent spike over last year’s figure, according to state and federal records.
That included 102 wolves in Montana, 101 in Idaho and 42 in Wyoming. Another nine wolves were shot in a specially designated “predator zone” in Wyoming that has since been struck down by a federal judge.
Environmentalists contend that’s too much pressure for a species that’s been on the endangered list since 1974.
“I realize there are times on private land where wolves have to be taken out, but I think this goes way beyond that now,” said Jerry Black, a wildlife activist from Missoula. “They’re not being managed. They’re being killed.”
The 27 wolves from Montana’s “Hog Heaven” pack had killed at least five cows, five llamas and a bull over the course of several months. Wildlife agents initially killed eight of the wolves in hopes of curbing the pack’s behavior but decided to take out the remaining 19 wolves in early December after the attacks continued.
The pack is one of seven eliminated in Montana this year. Wildlife managers in Idaho and Wyoming have taken similar steps with packs that demonstrated a taste for livestock. Trapping and relocating problem-causing wolves has not been done for several years because the best habitat is already occupied by wolves, game managers said.
Removing wolves from the endangered list would open the door to public hunting. Supporters, including some sporting and conservation groups, say that would allow hunters to help keep the population of the predators in check.
Through early December, at least 204 cows, 307 sheep, and 21 llamas, dogs and horses were killed by wolves in the region, for a total of 532 animals. That’s up from 420 killed in 2007.
Federal officials and ranchers say those figures represent only a fraction of the number actually killed, since many livestock kills occur in the backcountry where they cannot be confirmed as being killed by wolves.