HELENA — Montana wildlife officials on Tuesday rejected allegations that a Montana rancher and hunting guide illegally baited wolves by leaving sheep carcasses piled up on his property near Yellowstone National Park.
Wildlife advocates had accused William Hoppe, who lives near Gardiner, of intentionally luring the predators to his land and shooting one after wolves killed at least 13 of his sheep. Hoppe is a long-time critic of the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone area two decades ago.
But Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks officials said an investigation determined Hoppe buried all but one of the sheep that were killed by wolves on April 24. The remaining animal was dragged away by a grizzly bear.
"We certainly understand there has been a lot of talk about this story, but we have to go with the facts on the ground," FWP spokeswoman Andrea Jones said, adding that there was no evidence of baiting.
Hoppe obtained two shoot-on-site kill permits from the state following the sheep attack. He used one to kill a wolf from Yellowstone National Park last week and has offered to forfeit the second.
He said he's received two death threats and harassing phone calls and emails after the baiting accusation was leveled by representatives of Wolves of the Rockies and the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.
He defended his actions as "100 percent legal."
"Somebody made up the story that I was baiting them," he said. "I don't need a permit and I don't need $3,000 worth of sheep to kill a wolf. I think I'm experienced enough that if I want to go kill a wolf, I can go kill a wolf whenever I want."
State wildlife officials said Hoppe will move his remaining livestock Saturday to a summer pasture out of the area. Hoppe said he'll replace the killed sheep, which he said he got for his grandchildren to teach them how to take care of animals.
Activists such as Wolves of the Rockies president Marc Cooke say they still question his motives.
"We support Mr. Hoppe's decision. But only time will tell the true intent ... if he is willing to live with wolves and other predators," Cooke said.
Park biologists and state wildlife officials disagree on whether the female wolf Hoppe killed was the same one that claimed his sheep. It was identified as a member of the park's Canyon Pack known as 831F for the number on the research collar it wore.
Yellowstone wolf researcher Dan Stahler said park staff spotted 831F in the Mammoth Hot Springs area — about 10 miles from Hoppe's ranch — on both the day before and the day after sheep were killed. Stahler said the animal could have travelled the 20 mile roundtrip, but said that was "highly unlikely" given her locations.
Montana wildlife officials dispute that claim. They say the animal was spotted less than seven miles from Hoppe's ranch on the day before the sheep kill, and that a wolf could quickly cover such a short distance.
In a Monday letter to wildlife advocates who pressed for an investigation and wanted Hoppe's second kill permit revoked, a state official said there was "no convincing evidence" to suggest the wrong wolf was shot.
Meanwhile, Hoppe said he would shoot another wolf if necessary to protect his property. And the backlash he's faced has left him even more embittered toward an animal he did not want to deal with in the first place.
"You got the people that send all the nasty emails and phone calls, it makes me want to shoot every wolf I can to get even," he said. "That's how it makes a guy feel, (but) I don't want to go to jail over some mangy old wolf."