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Wolves Reintroduced to Yellowstone Prosper--for Good or Bad

Wildlife: Sheep Mountain pack is a success story--proof the animals can gain a foothold outside park's safe reaches. But it also warns of what's ahead for the inhabited West.

November 12, 2000|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARADISE VALLEY, Mont. — Long after the fanfare that surrounded the return of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park, the most telling chapter may have been written this year by an unruly pack of wolves known as the Sheep Mountain pack--a story of what happens when a predator is bigger and wilder than the biggest wilderness you can find.

Only last year, there were 13 Sheep Mountain wolves roaming the grassy plateaus of this ranching valley north of Yellowstone. Today, there is one--or the ghost of one, a lone black hulk some have seen, or thought they have seen, slipping along the edge of the forest.

Six were killed by sharpshooters responding to attacks on livestock. Two were found mysteriously shot to death in the hills. The alpha female, a tough wolf that hunted food for a litter of pups while limping after being hit by a car, was captured and died after being chased into exhaustion and injected with a tranquilizer. Three others are being held on media magnate Ted Turner's ranch, undergoing training with electric shock collars in an attempt to teach them not to attack cattle--to train them, in the minds of some wildlife advocates, to be a little more like good neighbors and a little less like wolves.

The Sheep Mountain pack, one of a growing number that have moved to colonize outside Yellowstone, ironically is one of the wolf reintroduction program's success stories--proof, whatever their setbacks so far, that wolves can gain a foothold even outside the protected reaches of the park. Yet the pack's fate also is a warning of what lies ahead, as wolves fill up the wilderness and move into an uneasy coexistence with the inhabited West.

When the first 14 Canadian wolves were transported into the park in 1995, scientists predicted that the park eventually would host 78 to 100 wolves. Today, there are as many as 185, nearly half venturing into the world outside the park where sheep, cattle, hunter-prized elk and an increasing number of ranch houses and trophy homes share the landscape.

Nowhere has the collision been more marked than in Paradise Valley, where inhabitants like to say there are two species on the brink of extinction: the wolf, officially listed under the Endangered Species Act, and the family ranch, which, if it isn't decimated by wolf and grizzly predations or fluctuating cattle prices, will almost certainly fall victim to skyrocketing land prices and the march of new subdivisions up the valley.

While recovery has been so successful that federal authorities are planning to downgrade the wolf's status in the next few months from endangered to threatened, the hardest part may still lie ahead.

Yellowstone is at full capacity for wolves, and wolves will inevitably wander into the inhabited lowlands outside the park in search of prey. Similar scenarios are playing out in central Idaho, where wolves have come into repeated conflict with ranchers, and in northwestern Montana. Livestock kills there have been so numerous that federal authorities have had to relocate 32 wolves and kill 41.

"The question is, how are we going to deal with wolves in places that are not pristine wilderness?" asked Tim Preso of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. "Right now, if there's conflicts with livestock, we shoot 'em. There's simply been too much wolf killing."

That wolves that repeatedly kill livestock will be shot is not open to question, said Ed Bangs, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf project in Montana. That they are going to be shot at an even greater rate than they are now, perhaps at rates approaching 10% of the population each year, also is likely, he said.

But Bangs believes lethal removal may be the only way to ultimately save wolves, and some of the biggest environmental groups involved in wolf recovery agree. Shooting wolves that have learned to prey on livestock reduces the caloric needs of the pack and prevents other wolves from learning to do the same thing.

Leave offending wolves in place, Bangs says, and ranchers will take matters into their own hands. "But even when we remove the wolves, you've still got dead cattle, dead wolves and [angry] people"--in other words, Paradise Valley.

More Trouble From No. 16

There's a reason Sam Anderson left his insurance industry job in Los Angeles and moved back to his family's ranch in the Tom Miner Basin, and all you need is to look out his back window.

It is the Yellowstone River that carved Paradise Valley, the river used for films, including "A River Runs Through It" and "The Horse Whisperer," because it was one of the best rivers left in Montana. The stunning peaks of the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges rise on either side of the valley, quilted with cattle pastures. Major populations of deer and elk wind their way up and down through herds of cattle.

So it was that members of the Chief Joseph pack, which splits Paradise Valley with the Sheep Mountain pack, got into Anderson's brother's sheep last year, killing six sheep and four guard dogs.

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