Todd Graham – Ranch Manager – Sun Ranch
Dave Sollitt – Director of Communications, Sun Ranch/Papoose Creek Lodge
4 P.M. MST, July 30, 2006
Sun Ranch officials confirmed today that ranch staff shot and killed two wolves on the ranch after two confirmed wolf attacks on cattle and a third probable wolf attack on the ranch in the past week. The shootings were conducted on the ranch under permits issued by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and under the supervision of FWP and federal wildlife officials. The wolves were members of the Wedge pack that has been living in and around the ranch for most of the past two years.
One heifer was attacked and injured and a lone wolf was chased away from the herd last week by ranch personnel, Roger Lang, Sun Ranch owner said. The attack was confirmed as a wolf attack by Federal agencies. A heifer carcass, confirmed as a wolf kill, was found July 27th and multiple pack members were seen moving in and around the carcass by ranch staff, along with other signs of wolf activity in the area. A third probable wolf kill was found Saturday morning and ranch staff, under the supervision of FWP officials, shot two wolves that were seen moving in close proximity to the cattle. All of the incidents occurred on ranch property.
“We hated to do this. We’re disappointed, but we must keep the cattle alive” said Lang. “We have lived with the pack for nearly two years. The recent change in behavior has been dramatic, and we’re anxious to see what we can learn about its causes. But clearly, something had to be done to disrupt an increasingly disturbing pattern of behavior.”
Mr. Lang pointed out that ranch staff, FWP and USDA Wildlife Services had been working together closely since the first attack last week, and said he was gratified that a measured, controlled response was used. “In the past, it’s likely that the entire pack would have been destroyed,” Lang said. “Our familiarity with this pack was a critical factor in determining the appropriate, minimal response needed.”
Sun Ranch has utilized a predator management program for several years, emphasizing coexistence between wolves and cattle. The program is directed by Vickie Backus, a wildlife researcher who holds a PhD from the University of Utah. The program’s focus is coexistence between wolves and cattle, but coexistence doesn’t mean that cattle will never be lost, or that problem wolves will never have to be removed.
“Wolves are part of the landscape in the Madison Valley,” said Backus, noting the valley’s proximity to Yellowstone National Park and wintering elk populations. “If we can get along with one pack over the long term, we have a better chance of creating a scenario where the pack and cattle coexist without problems.” Backus pointed out that coexisting with a stable, long-term pack allows ranch management to recognize and understand patterns of wolf behavior. “As the pack grows and matures, you may get aberrant behavior like we have experienced here, but the pack you know is usually better than one you don’t.”
A stable wolf pack also prevents other wolves who may already prey on livestock from moving in, Backus said “Wolves are territorial and will aggressively defend their areas,” Backus noted. “When a pack whose patterns of behavior we can predict defends its territory, they may keep problem wolves away.”
The Sun Ranch program works to deter wolf interaction with cattle. Cattle graze in carefully managed, grouped herds, which are moved regularly. Predators are thought to be less likely to attack tightly grouped cattle, Sun Ranch Manager Todd Graham noted, citing experience both in the US and among Maasai tribesmen in Africa.
In addition to deterring predators, this practice provides better range management. “After cattle graze plants in one pasture they are moved on, allowing grazed plants an opportunity to re-grow. We are restoring rangeland health all over the ranch with this method,” Graham said, adding, “Bunching also helps us watch over the herd.”
“We spend a lot of time with the cattle,” Backus said, outlining a program in which ranch staff, a growing group of volunteers and even occasional guests at the nearby Papoose Creek Lodge camp with the herd overnight, every night, to provide a constant human presence, which is believed to help deter wolf interaction with the cattle. That human presence is reinforced with active ‘hazing’ behavior to keep wolves wary and afraid of humans and their livestock, Backus said. That hazing will be intensified, as needed, in the coming days to encourage the pack to turn to natural game.
Ranch staff have been trained in hazing techniques by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and FWP, which include special shells shot in the air from a shotgun that make loud noise and a bright flash and special rubber bullets to deal with wolves that are reluctant to flee.
In addition to protecting wolves, Graham cited the success of the Sun Ranch program in minimizing cattle loss even with an active wolf pack living in close proximity. “Over the past few years, we have had less than one percent death loss to cattle from any cause,” Graham noted, “even with this incident, we’re below one percent.” He said that some ranchers experience a death loss of two to three percent. “We’re proud of this record,” he said.
Roger Lang said this incident highlights the need to continue to learn about wolf-cattle interaction. “The American people have spoken and they have said that they want wolves as part of the total ecosystem of the West. Ranching will continue to play a critical role in sustaining open spaces. We simply have to find ways for wolves and ranching to coexist.”
Mr. Lang recently announced the creation of the Sun Ranch Institute in Cameron, which is being formed to provide research and education to advance sustainable wildlife, rangeland and ranch management techniques throughout the West.