BUTTE - Kathy Konen has lost guard dogs to wolves in the past, but nothing prepared the Dillon rancher for the killing of 120 buck sheep last week.
"They were in the sagebrush, on the creek bottom - just all over the pasture," Konen said Thursday. "It's a terrible loss to our livestock program."
Konen said they discovered the attack Aug. 16 while checking their sheep in the Rock Creek drainage of the Blacktail Mountains south of Dillon, where they pasture buck sheep in summer. She said they check their sheep every two or three days, so the attack was recent.
She and her husband, Jon, immediately called officials with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which sent out a federal trapper to investigate the scene.
The trapper found numerous carcasses of sheep that had been killed by wolves, said Carolyn Sime, FWP wolf program coordinator. The total included 82 confirmed kills and 40 carcasses that were classified as probable kills, including some that had been eaten by bears. The attack occurred on private land the Konens own.
"That's a lot all in one incident," Sime said.
The sheep were just killed and yet the carcasses were almost all intact, Konen said.
"They didn't eat what they killed, most of them were just brought down," she said. "I don't know whether they were teaching their pups or what."
It's not the first attack that the Konens have had this summer. They lost 26 sheep to wolves in the same pasture in July, she said. After that attack, FWP authorized federal trappers to remove three wolves that had been observed in the area. Trappers shot and killed a gray-coated wolf and shot another black one that got away but was believed to be mortally wounded. The third wolf, another black one, got away.
Sime said that when the latest attack occurred, they figured it involved the same wolves, which were from an unknown pack. Trappers were looking for two black wolves but instead spotted the Centennial Pack nearby.
That pack consisted of two collared adults, a third adult and five pups and had not caused problems with livestock before.
Sime said they authorized trappers to shoot the uncollared adult, which they did, while still looking for the black wolves that are authorized to be killed. They have yet to find the black wolves.
Konen said they wanted the entire pack wiped out given the severity of the attack, although their request was denied.
"They've done enough damage to say that they need to be eliminated," she said. "We have cows and sheep up there right next to where the sheep were killed."
Since then, the Konens have found a calf that was attacked nearby, which investigators are looking into. She said they fear the wolves will strike again, this time on the cattle they have pastured in the same area.
Sime said there has been wolf activity in the area in recent years. Last year, trappers eliminated the Freezeout Pack in the Gravelleys not far away and wolves are known to inhabit the Blacktails.
She said officials asked whether the Konens had taken steps to protect livestock from wolves, including electric fencing, dogs, herders or fladry lines, but they declined. Sime said wolves will inevitably return to the area.
The Konens have applied to the Montana Livestock Loss Program to get reimbursement for the sheep. The program pays up to $350 for buck sheep and can reimburse more if a rancher can show the animals were of higher value.
In the meantime, the plan is to try to replace the sheep, Konen said.
"There are a few sales in September and we'll have to go and just try to make up the loss," she said.