The Wolf Trap

After a dangerous summer, the Bitterroot's wild wolves face an uncertain fate



Through an increasingly checkered landscape of rural subdivisions and ranchettes, an undivided corridor of timbered draws and rolling benches near Stevensville still connects the Bitterroot River with the steep slopes of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness.

The area is known to humans as Bass Creek, but to a wide variety of wildlife species-elk, deer, bears and cougars-it's a rare safe haven in a valley run amok with pavement, fences and people. Now, on the 4,000-acre ranch of the Ruffatto Cattle Company, you can add wolves to the mix of critters roaming the land.

"This is one of the last wildlife corridors that goes down to the Bitterroot River," explains Tom Ruffatto, a third-generation rancher who runs the family business. "We're glad to have the wildlife here." And, Ruffatto emphasizes, that includes the mountain lions, bears and coyotes that come to the area in search of elk and mule deer.

"Sometimes our calves take a hit [from predators], but that's just the cost of doing business," Ruffatto says. "We can get along with the wolves, too, as long as they don't chomp on our livelihood."

For two years straight, Ruffatto's tolerance has been put to the test by two different pairs of wolves, and the results are decidedly mixed. In early 1998, two Idaho wolves made themselves at home on Ruffatto's ranch for a spell. Although those wolves had been removed from the Big Hole Valley earlier because of livestock depredations, they left Ruffatto's cows alone to follow the migrating elk into the mountains.

This April, however, a separate pair denned on his ranch, whelping eight pups near a calving pasture, just as the elk began following the disappearing snow into the mountains. In June, the Bass Creek pack became the first reproducing wolf pack in the Bitterroot since wolves were eradicated by poison and bullets in the 1920s.

For two months, an innovative experiment in non-lethal control-a radio-activated alarm system-seems to have kept the new Bass Creek pack away from cattle. But in June, the alpha pair killed three calves at a neighboring ranch and, a few days later, at least one of Ruffatto's calves.

The Bass Creek pack was captured by the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services (formerly known as Animal Damage Control, the federal predator control agency) and flown to a remote holding pen for eventual release in central Idaho. There, things went from bad to worse. Three of the pups died of parvovirus, a highly contagious canine disease, and the alpha male died while being treated for a trap-related injury.

But still, the future may not be so bleak for wolves in the Bitterroot. Judging by 20 years experience with wolf recovery in western Montana, it's likely that wolves will return once again to the sprawling ranch in the lower reaches of Bass Creek, says Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife in Missoula.

"I expect we'll have wolves back in Bass Creek again," Fischer says. "It's pretty good habitat, and wolves tend to show up in the same places over and over again."

Ruffatto agrees, noting that an unfortunate coincidence of natural events might have conspired against the Bass Creek pack this spring. "If we wouldn't have had so much snow in the mountains, and the elk had moved up sooner, and they had a smaller litter of pups, who knows? It might've worked out. With eight pups, they had so many mouths to feed.

"That poor old male was always out there hunting, day and night," Ruffatto clucks sympathetically. "I expect wolves will be back through here again."

Goals and Targets

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the endangered Rocky Mountain gray wolf is close to recovery and may be removed from the Endangered Species List as early as 2002. But the Bass Creek situation highlights how tenuous that goal might be.

For more than a decade, the government's recovery goal has been based on having at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves, for three successive years in three recovery areas: Northwest Montana, which wolves began recolonizing from Canada in 1979; Idaho; and Yellowstone, where wolves were reintroduced four years ago. Strangely, Montana has been the weak link.

"Basically, a lot of wolves in Montana have made some really sucky choices in where they establish territories," says Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

He points to the seemingly excellent habitats where wolves have failed to establish permanent home ranges, such as the Swan Valley, South Fork of the Flathead and the Yaak. Instead, they have tried to set up shop in cow-heavy areas like the Rocky Mountain Front, the Big Hole Valley and, Bangs adds, Bass Creek. Unlike the Big Hole, he says, it's conceivable that wolves could thrive in the Bitterroot Valley.

"Bass Creek provides good habitat for big game, yes, and the ranchers that live there, like the Ruffattos, are great to work with," Bangs notes. "But for any major predator with as big a home range as wolves, it's difficult to find a place where they can stay away from livestock."

That's been the story writ large for wolves in much of western Montana. Dispersing wolves tend to travel in areas previously frequented by other wolves, probably in the hope of finding a partner. By chance or reason, western Montana wolves have located themselves in trouble-prone areas.

"There are some places where wolves will never ever live [because of livestock]," Bangs says, "but the wolves, bless their hearts, keep on trying."

Despite frequent contact with cattle, wolves have mostly preferred to eat deer and elk in ranching country like the Pleasant Valley, Trego and the Nine Mile Valley. However, even an infrequent livestock depredation means removal or death for offending wolves, which is the main reason that the western Montana population has stalled at around eight reproducing packs.

While Montana wolf numbers constantly fall short of the recovery goal, biologists estimate that at least 10 packs are raising pups this year in both the Yellowstone and central Idaho zones. As a result, the political drumbeat to delist wolves has grown to a rumble. In June, for example, Sen. Conrad Burns held his second "wolf summit," loaded with angry ranchers demanding an end to federal wolf protection throughout the northern Rockies. In an attempt to hasten recovery, meanwhile, Bangs has begun floating a couple proposals to change long-standing policy.

First, he says, he would like to begin "preemptive relocations" of wolves that establish territories in livestock-rich areas. For the Bass Creek pack this spring, that might have meant capturing wolves before the female whelped and before cows were killed, and moving them to an area abundant in deer and elk. In western Montana, sufficient habitat exists to support 20 to 30 packs, Bangs adds. "Based on our experience in Idaho and Yellowstone, we know that we are able to put wolves in good habitat where they'll stay."

While some wolf advocates, such as Hank Fischer, think that's a good way of saving wolf lives and filling good wolf habitat, Dave Gaillard of the Bozeman-based Predator Conservation Alliance says wolves should be given more benefit of the doubt, not less. Wolves might well thrive in Bass Creek the next time around, he says, and the government shouldn't automatically preclude that opportunity.

"The wolf recovery program already is lopsided toward moving wolves rather than dealing directly with livestock management," says Gaillard. Especially on public land grazing allotments, he adds, wolves should be given preference, even if livestock are killed.

But Gaillard is even more critical of Bangs' second proposal. For several years, western politicians have demanded that the recovery target be set at 30 packs for the entire northern Rockies, rather than a minimum of 10 in each of the three recovery zones. Now, Bangs is publicly endorsing that move.

"There very well may be good biological reasons to provide more flexibility in how we meet the 30-pack target," Bangs says. As wolves migrate between Idaho and western Montana and Wyoming, the lines of the old recovery zones blur. But even if the recovery targets are relaxed, he says, wolf recovery will require a broad geographic distribution.

Gaillard says Bangs' proposal, which has not yet been made formally, is a matter of political convenience that shortens the goal-line. "Just because they haven't reached their target in western Montana isn't sufficient reason to change the recovery target," he says. "There's no biological rationale to do that."

Bangs counters, however, that wolves will be placed under federal protection if the three states fail to maintain viable populations.

"It's absolutely clear that we won't delist unless we have adequate regulatory measures in place to ensure that wolves don't become threatened or endangered again." To begin with, he says, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming legislatures will have to abandon regressive laws that call for the slaughter of wolves upon delisting.

Completing the Cycle

"If people had supreme tolerance, I wouldn't be surprised to see wolves wandering in people's backyards following a deer or looking for Fluffy and Fluffy's food," says Jeff Green, associate regional director for the federal Wildlife Services in Denver. "They don't seem to mind people."

But, now, biologists again are seeing wolves as an animal of the remote wilds. Not because wolves object to the presence of people, but because people object to presence of wolves-especially when the people own livestock. With a few notable exceptions, wolf recovery has succeeded best in wilderness areas and national parks. Elsewhere, wolf recovery has been stymied by the rare livestock encounter or an anonymous gunman with rifle and scope.

Meanwhile, not far from Bass Creek, two wolf packs have established a good home deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. Near Lolo Pass, the two wolves that appeared on the Ruffatto ranch in 1998 are raising a pack of their own. And in the Great Burn proposed wilderness, the Kelly Creek pack splits its time between Idaho and Montana.

That pack was formed in 1995 when a female introduced to central Idaho from Alberta discovered a large male near the famed trout stream. It must have been a joyous day for the male, who apparently had been living the lonely bachelor life for three years since dispersing to Idaho from his former pack in Glacier National Park. The union of far-flung wolf partners also brought together the Bass Creek alpha pair. The uncollared male probably was born in central Idaho, while the female dispersed from Montana's Murphy Lake pack, near Eureka and the Canadian border.

"When wolves seek out new territories, they're generally not looking for prey. They're primarily seeking out other wolves," says Defenders of Wildlife's Hank Fischer, who helped spearhead the political movement to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone.

Although it's possible that wolves prefer the same obvious habitat for travel-ridgelines or valley foothills under cover of darkness-they most likely follow the scent markings of other wolves.

"They just follow the yellow trail down the Nine Mile Valley, across the highway and up toward Lolo Pass," says Fischer. No one knows how many wolves have successfully made the migration from Glacier Country to the Selway-Bitterroot, and vice-versa. But at least two wolves have died trying to dodge speeding traffic on I-90.

More than likely, some of those wolves ranging the Bitterroot Mountains will follow the elk eastward, back toward their winter range on the flanks of the Bitterroot Valley. That might take them back to Tom Ruffatto's ranch along Bass Creek. And if all goes well next time, just maybe, they'll live to repeat the cycle of life once again.

Leader of the Pack; Montana's chief wolf trapper finds himself in a political snare

When he's not out in the field trapping wolves or chatting up a rancher, Carter Niemeyer likes to pause from his hectic work schedule and gaze at the walnut plaque hanging on the wall of his Helena office.

It's the 1998 Alpha Award, presented to him by the Wolf Recovery Foundation during its annual spring gathering of wolf advocates, researchers and government biologists. And it's no small distinction that Niemeyer, who has probably killed more wolves than any person in the northern Rockies, received a standing ovation from a crowd of wolf-lovers.

"It's a real trophy to me," says Niemeyer, wolf management specialist for Wildlife Services, the federal agency that has gained political notoriety for annually destroying millions of predators suspected of killing livestock. "This award is a real vote of confidence from agency biologists and private wolf advocates."

A large man in both stature and reputation, Niemeyer has cast a large shadow over virtually every aspect of wolf recovery since wolves first returned to western Montana in 1979.

"I was astounded that a guy who kills wolves for a living could be such a hit with a group of wolf advocates," recalls Tom Beno, director of the Seattle-based Wolf Justice League.

Beno echoes the sentiment of many long-time observers of wolf politics: "Carter seems to have an amazing knack for working in the best interest of both the wolves and the ranchers. He understands that you have to be talking to people on both sides of the fence. You don't have to agree with them, but you have to give them the respect of listening."

Long-time ranchers agree, saying they appreciate Carter's attention to detail and straight talk, even if they sometimes disagree with his conclusion.

Says Bitterroot Valley rancher Tom Ruffatto: "Carter can smooth both sides of the issue, and he's real knowledgeable about this work. He's trapped more things than we can think of. But if he doesn't find proof [that a wolf killed livestock], he won't confirm it. Some of those other trappers come out, they have a job to do and they do it. Sometimes they might get it wrong, but they get the job done."

"I don't pull any punches," says Niemeyer, who has been Wildlife Services' lead wolf trapper since 1991. "I don't tell people things I can't do, and I try to operate with basic compassion for both the wolves and the livestock operator. If you don't accept that, you really don't have any business in this line of work."

Wolves that kill livestock typically are removed from the area after a first offense, and they're killed after a second attack on livestock. Compared to other predators, like coyotes, cougars or even domestic dogs, wolves account for a tiny share of livestock depredations in Montana. Including all causes of livestock deaths before they're sent to market, such as disease and calving problems, wolves account for one in 25,000 livestock losses in Montana. But for cultural and political reasons, wolf depredations receive far more public outcry than other, arguably more serious problems facing ranchers.

Recently, however, Niemeyer has been at the center of a different storm of controversy in Montana. Normally, he excels in the rough-and-tumble world of wolf politics, but this new dispute is deeply embedded in the federal bureaucracy, where he's much less comfortable.

Wildlife Services has yanked Carter from his main wolf-control duties in Montana, a move that Tom Beno says works to the detriment of both wolf recovery and the occasionally necessary wolf control.

Montana Wildlife Services director, Larry Handegard acknowledges that Niemeyer is seldom called anymore to handle wolf complaints by Montana ranchers. Partly, he says, that is due to a strong demand for Niemeyer's services in Idaho and Wyoming. Whereas those states are just getting started with wolf recovery, Carter already has taught most of the Montana field trappers the basic tasks of the trade: post-mortem necropsies, trapping techniques and non-lethal control strategies. Training of field trappers-rather than directly responding to rancher complaints about wolves-is Niemeyer's primary duty in Montana, Handegard says.

Handegard said that wolf-related public relations work is no longer a high priority in Montana, as past controversies have faded. "We've been doing this for so long now, our [wolf control] operations are known by pretty much everybody. It's not as big a deal anymore."

But Handegard also notes that he's received complaints from ranchers upset that Carter didn't confirm alleged wolf depredations. "Usually, if a rancher feels that wolves were the problem, then that's what we send to Defenders [of Wildlife, which compensates ranchers for wolf-caused livestock losses]. Sometimes there's no way to know for sure."

Indeed, some ranchers expect government trappers to rubber stamp a complaint about wolves, says Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife. "But most of the time, it isn't a wolf that killed their livestock. It's essential that Wildlife Services remain neutral and professional. For the most part, they've done this very well, and it's because of Carter's leadership."

Like several others contacted by the Independent, Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Coordinator Ed Bangs was reluctant to discuss the controversy, noting that Wildlife Services gives state directors wide latitude to make such decisions. "I want to stay out of that one," Bangs says with a chuckle. "I will say that I have the highest respect for Carter on a professional level. He's an exceptional individual when it comes to dealing with a wide variety of people. It's a natural gift, maybe one in a thousand."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service annually gives $100,000 of its wolf recovery budget to Wildlife Services for wolf control in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. "We kept hearing the same complaint from livestock producers: 'We're not supporting [Wildlife Services] to chase wolves around while coyotes are killing our sheep'," Bangs says.

Characteristically, Niemeyer refuses to second-guess his Montana boss. Although he's less involved in Montana wolf issues these days, he says there's still plenty of demand for his services in Idaho and Wyoming.

That's true, says Idaho Wildlife Services director Mark Collinge, who calls Niemeyer on every wolf depredation case he gets. "All of our guys had a full plate before wolves were reintroduced," Collinge says of his 20 field trappers. "Every time they're involved in a wolf call, it takes away from their other duties. And there's no one better to go to on a wolf call than Carter."


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