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Battle line drawn over wolves
Wyoming sues the federal government as protected wolves flourish at livestock's expense
For anyone who sees in a wolf something stirring and primordial, a powerful symbol of the call of the wild, look again for a moment through Allene Dana's eyes.
A third-generation rancher with a face creased by a life on Wyoming's unforgiving range, Dana has watched wolves canter through her front yard and has doctored cattle with their hindquarters chewed into hamburger by a hungry pack.
She's not shy about what she would like to do with the protected wolf given the chance.
"They need to let us alone, so that if we do see one, we can shoot 'em," said Dana, who, along with her husband, Merrill, ranches 150 miles south of Yellowstone National Park.
Wolves "are here, and we have to live with them. But we can't live with them with our hands tied behind our backs," she said.
Reintroduction of the gray wolf to the northern Rockies has been among the most successful recoveries of an endangered species ever in the United States.
Well over 1,000 wolves now roam throughout Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, far more than biologists predicted when 14 wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
Federal wildlife authorities are ready to take wolves off the endangered list, but first they want a plan from each of the three states for how they'll manage their wolf populations.
Idaho's and Montana's plans have been OK'd. But a looming court battle with Wyoming could hold up wolf delisting.
The state wants to designate any wolf that wanders outside a 4.6 million-acre protected zone in Wyoming's northwest corner as a predator that could be trapped, poisoned or shot.
And there are plenty of people here waiting for that chance.
"I can't tell you how many guys have come up to me after meetings and said, 'My dad, my grandfather, my uncle killed the last wolf in this valley. ... Are you telling me that he was wrong?"' said Ed Bangs, coordinator of the wolf-recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Helena, Mont.
"The only reason wolves came back is the federal (Endangered Species Act) kept people from killing them. The only reason they'd disappear again is if once again there were unregulated killing of wolves," Bangs said.
Time to fight back
Many who live off the land here cast the debate in the starkest terms. In the first 10 years after their reintroduction in the Rockies, gray wolves killed 505 head of cattle and 1,306 sheep, and the numbers are rising.
It's us or them, ranchers say.
(The environmental group Defenders of Wildlife reimburses ranchers for the value of
Cat Urbikit, who ranches south of Pinedale, Wyo., with her husband, carries a pistol to help protect her sheep from wolves. Also a writer and photographer, she saw a wolf closely eyeing her 12-year-old son one day when he was herding sheep. Wolves absolutely change your lifestyle, she says. (Post / Hyoung Chang)
And for many of the state's politicians, the revived wolf has become a powerful symbol - of unwanted change, of the perceived misguided power of the environmental movement, of bullying by the federal government.
So, braving criticism from conservatives in neighboring states who say Wyoming is only extending the wolf's protected status, state officials filed suit Tuesday. Wyoming asked a federal judge to force the Bush administration to accept the state's wolf- management plan.
"We'd been kicked around the barroom enough, and now it's time to fight back," said Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, a Democrat.
Wyoming's approach to managing the wolf is opposed by environmental groups, who point out that the federal government has spent millions of dollars restoring the wolf population. Various polls, they note, show most Americans support the wolves' return.
Federal managers say Wyoming's stance all but eliminates the possibility of removing the wolf from the endangered-species list any time soon.
"It's the only thing keeping us from delisting right now," Bangs said.
What Bangs and other federal managers can't abide, they say, is a return to the past.
From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, wolves were one of the most aggressively hunted animals on the continent. With government support, wolves were poisoned and trapped, their dens dynamited. Authorities contaminated coyotes with mange, hoping the disease would spread to wolf packs.
The effort by ranchers and government trappers wiped out more than 80,000 wolves in Montana alone by 1930, when the animal nearly disappeared from the Lower 48 states.
The federal government designated gray wolves as endangered in 1974, but a recovery plan wasn't completed until 20 years later, with some in the West fighting every step.
A key compromise that allowed reintroduction to go forward was a promise that wolves wouldn't be allowed to prey on livestock, and federal trappers kill dozens of animals that stalk herds every year.
"It maintains public tolerance in an area that doesn't like wolves," said Mike Jimenez, wolf-project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming.
Even so, biologists underestimated the potential for the wolf's success.
Incredibly adaptable, the animals hunt together, with older wolves teaching younger ones. Packs have spread quickly into Idaho's central valleys and north into the panhandle, and along the fingerlike mountain ranges that stretch from Yellowstone south and east deep into Wyoming.
For many in the northern Rockies, the wolves' reputation hasn't recovered along with their numbers.
In 2001, the Idaho Legislature overwhelmingly adopted a nonbinding resolution demanding the removal of all wolves in the state "by whatever means necessary." And two years ago, poison-laced meat apparently left for wolves near Jackson Hole, Wyo., killed at least six dogs.
A popular bumper sticker here reads: "Wyoming wolves, smoke a pack a day."
On most ranches, the wolf is seen as not a noble beast but a brutal killer, one of the few things on the range that can compete with man for dominance.
The Danas have seen cattle so frightened by wolves, they've ripped through three fence lines before they could be brought under control. A sheep rancher in the area says she has seen a pack kill 42 sheep in 12 hours.
"If you don't like wolves, watching them kill something will fit right in with your worldview," Jimenez said. "They have powerful jaws that bite into (the) throat and hindquarters of their prey, often sending them into shock.
"They basically rip their prey apart. There's a lot of blood on the snow after a wolf kill."
As she loads sheep onto the trucks that will carry them to winter pasture, the autumn colors of the Wind River mountains glittering in the morning sun, Mary Tho man burns with anger as she remembers the months before the wolves were returned. In testimony, her father and other ranchers told authorities the wolf would spread more quickly and do more damage than they estimated.
If anything, she said, he sold the animal short.
"They lied all the way through," Thoman, 57, said of the federal authorities. "It's like bringing back dinosaurs. If they ever figured out the DNA, I suppose we'd have to get out of the way for dinosaurs as well."
Thoman and others say government numbers underestimate the real toll on livestock. The problem is that many deaths can't be confirmed because carcasses aren't found until long after the kill, if they're found at all.
A statistical study using data from Wyoming's Upper Green River Cattleman's Association found wolves killed 177 calves from 2000 to 2004 on one grazing allotment in the Wind River Mountains, a 60 percent increase from previous loss rates.
But ranchers here say the impact is more than economic.
"They absolutely change your lifestyle," said Cat Urbikit, who ranches sheep with her husband on a stretch of brush-covered range south of Pinedale.
Urbikit, also a photographer and author, describes one afternoon watching from the ranch house as her 12-year-old son herded sheep away from a road. An animal was intently watching, but she couldn't tell what it was. After the sheep passed, she discovered it was one of a pack of three wolves.
"To realize that (my son) had been in jeopardy and I didn't even know it - as a mother, that drove me crazy," Urbikit said.
She shot at the animals despite their protected status but missed. "It certainly wasn't for lack of trying," she said.
For many in Wyoming, the only way to live with wolves is to confine them to the state's two national parks with perhaps a buffer zone around the parks, and kill the ones that leave.
"If the nation wants to see a wolf, they can go to Yellowstone Park, and when the animals cross that line, then we can defend ourselves," said Pete Arambel, who runs 8,000 head of sheep on a sprawling Wyoming ranch.
But achieving that goal is likely to mean years in federal court - and a stalemate that will keep the wolf a federally protected species for the foreseeable future, meaning continued restrictions on killing the animals in all states where they're found.
That's the option, some observers note wryly, that is also preferred by the region's major environmental groups.
"People's reactions to wolves still fascinate me," said Bangs, the federal government's top wolf official.
"Many times, the strong symbolism associated with the animal makes people take positions that are against their best interests," he said.
Staff writer Michael Riley can be reached at 303-954-1614 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM Pacific
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