Wolves attack cattle, elk near Yellowstone
April 11, 2016
On a cool spring night near Absarokee, Montana, last week, 28 replacement heifers were grazing a pasture when wolves descended on them, running the young cows through three fences.
One heifer was killed and dragged against a creek and chewed on. Another stood off by herself, too badly injured to keep up with the herd, her rectum torn, her intestines and genitalia dangling.
A third was wire cut and listless.
That's what rancher Ron Ferster found the morning of March 25 when he checked on the herd pastured a mile from the house.
It's Ferster's first personal experience with a wolf kill, something he feels is on the rise in his community north of Yellowstone National Park.
"There is more destruction by the wolves now than there has ever been. It's going to get worse," says Ferster, 72, who ranches with his wife Peggy on land his family homesteaded. "Where we are, we are already in hell. We don't have to look any further."
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Ferster says the once close-knit community of ranchers has been dismantled by a changing demographic and too many regulations that threaten his livelihood. He says there aren't many traditional ranches around anymore, and many of his neighbors don't depend on the land or livestock to make a living.
"We used to have neighbors we could share things with, talk things over with, borrow equipment from. That's not true anymore. It's very isolating."
Ferster's ranch sits along Highway 78 between Columbus and Red Lodge. An excessive number of elk come up from the park, he says, bringing the wolves with them.
Elk may be the wolf's natural prey, but Ferster says that's never reassured him much, and that fellow ranchers believe the elk just lead wolves to vulnerable livestock.
"These wolves walked through a herd of 150 elk, walked down here and killed and harassed these heifers," he says. "That just doesn't seem to fit the paradigm the biologists give you."
In the same week that Ferster's heifers were attacked, a pack of wolves south of the park in Wyoming made a conspicuous kill of elk in a feed ground near Bondurant.
Nine wolves collectively known as Rim Pack slaughtered two mature elk and 17 calves, discovered during a morning feeding.
"When our staff went out to feed that morning, they found dead elk all over the place," says John Lund, regional supervisor for Wyoming Game and Fish.
The state agency manages 22 elk feed grounds.
Lund describes a growing problem with wolves that he characterizes as "chronic."
"We are seeing more wolves on the landscape," Lund says. "We are seeing more conflicts."
An annual report totaling the wolf population is due to be released shortly, says Ken Mills, large carnivore biologist with Game and Fish.
According to last year's figures, Mills says, there are 333 verified wolves in Wyoming, over 100 of which inhabit the park.
The state does not have the authority to control the wolf population. That's the purview of the federal government.
"The wolf is under federal protection because of the Endangered Species Act right now," Lund says. "At this point, there is really nothing we can do."
Mills, who has studied the wolf for 15 years, says the recent kill was an aberration that occurs when wolves encounter optimal conditions for killing.
"Usually killing is much more difficult," Mills says. "When it isn't, wolves have the tendency to kill more than what they need."
One scenario is a herd of elk in deep snow with a thin crust. "Ungulates break through the snow, wolves run on top of it," he says, making it easier to take down many elk.
"They don't have a mechanism to say, 'I think I've killed enough.'"
The March melee was such a big kill, it equals half the number of elk wolves take from all the feed grounds put together in a typical winter. They take an average of 38 on an annual basis, Mills says.
In the wild, a wolf will return to its kill many times until the slain animal is consumed, scattering bones, leaving little more than a skull behind, Mills says. Starvation is still a common cause of death in the wolf.
A partially eaten cow or sheep may give people the impression that wolves kill for sport, and that's incorrect, Mills says. The average wolf can survive off two elk a month and can consume a maximum of 20 pounds of meat at a feeding, Mills says.
Ferster contacted a government trapper when he found his heifers, only to discover the trapper was already in the area on another complaint.
The trapper, Ferster says, took stock of the scene, and determined Ferster should be compensated for the dead heifer in the creek and that the second heifer would not survive her injuries. "He came out and verified it was a wolf kill. He told me, 'Go ahead and shoot her, get her out of her pain.'"
Ferster said he "played heck" rounding up the remaining 26 animals. "They were all bunched up like a bunch of sheep. They wouldn't separate from one another. They were just so terrified."
In the aftermath, he has been battling a loss of condition in the animals.
He moved the heifers to a hay meadow and supplemented them, but still spent the coming days trying to pick them back up.
"They all have lost 50 or 100 pounds. Every damn one of them."
A check for depredation won't cover his losses, Ferster says.
"Yeah you're compensated. But they don't compensate you for the quality animals. What do you do when you can't manage your land, when you can't manage your grass, when you don't dare turn them out into the hills because they'll be killed?"
Agricultural research studies document something even more pernicious: Cattle don't have to be physically attacked to decline. Cattle pastured in proximity to wolves experience weight loss, lower pregnancy rates, and reduced gain for calves. Management costs go up.
Research suggests Ferster's heifers will likely be more nervous around wolves than cattle that have not experienced an attack, and may not settle down to graze as well.
Ferster says the value of the heifers he lost isn't something that's easy to quantify. "We are trying to make a nice little bunch of cows here after a number of years of breeding. That has a value, but it doesn't have a value at the stock yards."
He says he has met larger producers who seem to be stoic about their losses, almost shrugging them off as part of doing business in wolf country.
Ferster is taking the loss to heart, and remembers better times for ranchers, even with beef prices being good in recent years.
"You don't work seven days a week for fifty some years to make less than minimum wage for money. There's another factor. How do you define? It's a lifestyle. There are a lot of threats out there nowadays."