In June, 13 wolves from two packs roaming on ranches just north of Helena were shot and killed for ongoing livestock depredation.
The wolves in the Granite Butte and Canyon Creek packs were more than one-fourth of the 45 wolves killed so far this year by agents with Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The total removal of the seven-member Canyon Creek Pack, and the killing of six — about half — of the Granite Butte Pack, plus the collaring of one female came after the wolves killed livestock last year, then struck again in May.
“Granite Butte is still an existing pack west of Canyon Creek; they tend to go up and over the Continental Divide,” said Nathan Lance, a wolf specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “There are still some adults and pups in the pack.”
John Steuber, the Wildlife Services director in Montana, said the area north of Helena is one of about four places in Montana where wolves regularly get into trouble for harassing and/or killing livestock, mainly on private property.
“There’s places where we see chronic activity, like north of Helena and in the Big Hole, and we’re getting a little more activity in the Tom Miner Basin and Paradise Valley,” Steuber said. “One of the primary goals of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, like us, is to reduce livestock depredation where we know it’s occurring, and they follow certain protocols.”
Typically, FWP or Wildlife Services agents initially put radio collars on a pack member when depredation is suspected or confirmed to monitor the pack’s movement. If livestock depredation continues, FWP can ask Wildlife Services or the landowner to remove one or more pack members. If the livestock killing continues, entire packs can be taken out.
According to FWP reports, 771 wolves were killed between 1987 and 2011 for depredation reasons.
Despite two wolf hunting seasons, Montana’s canis lupus population has continued to climb after both natural and human reintroduction in the 1990s. In 2007, the minimum population was 422 known wolves in Montana, according to FWP. At the end of 2011, FWP said it had documented 653 wolves on the landscape.
With that increase, experts expected increased conflicts with livestock. FWP, which has responsibility for managing the formerly endangered species, authorizes Wildlife Services to lethally remove problem wolves.
“I think it’s safe to say that if we have more wolves, we’ll have more conflicts,” said FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim.
However, that wasn’t the case in 2011, when depredations dropped to 107 in 2011, down from about 140 reported incidents in 2009 and 2010. With that drop came a decrease in lethal removals, from 140 wolves in 2010 to 47 in 2011.
Steuber said he can only theorize about the reasons behind the decreases. It could have been the weather, with heavy snowfall making ungulates more susceptible and steering wolves away from livestock.
It could be that wolves are getting smarter and staying away from livestock. It could be that after two hunting seasons, wolves are shying away from humans. It could be that fewer ranchers are reporting losses or perhaps just quietly dealing with problem wolves themselves, using the informal “shoot, shovel and shut up” policy.
Yet that trend doesn’t seem as though it will continue this year. While Wildlife Services only removed 47 wolves in all of 2011, so far this year they’ve taken out 45 — putting them back on track with earlier years.
“This is the busy season,” Steuber said. “Livestock are in their summer range, farther away from ranches and homes so typically we see quite a bit more depredation. The wolves are denning with more mouths to feed.”
Both FWP and Wildlife Services say the uptick in the number of lethal removals this year from 2011 isn’t due to less tolerance for livestock depredations. Instead, they believe that 2011 was the anomaly, and 2012 is just resuming previous patterns.
“Last year, we took fewer than normal, but nobody really knows why,” Steuber said. “Wolf activity really picked up again in April this year. It’s been a busy season.”