Mystery beast ravages flocks of Mont. sheep

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http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2006-05-21-rogue-wolf_x.htm?POE=TECISVA

By Gwen Florio, USA TODAY
HELENA, Mont. - Ranchers in eastern Montana have a wildlife whodunit on their hands.

Livestock growers in Garfield, McCone and Dawson counties have lost about 100 sheep this year to a ravenous creature that dispatches their 170-pound animals with ease and ferocity.

And that creature is?

"A wolf," says rancher Mike McKeever, who found one of his pregnant ewes disemboweled last month.

"A wolf or wolf hybrid," says Carolyn Sime, statewide wolf coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"A dog or a hybrid," says Suzanne Asha Stone, the Boise-based Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife. A hybrid is a mixture of wolf and dog.

The disagreement encompasses a century of passionate feelings about wolves in the West.

Reviled by ranchers as a profit-devouring predator, wolves were hunted nearly to extinction and were designated an endangered species in 1973. In the mid-1990s, despite vocal opposition from ranchers, 31 wolves from Canada were re-settled in central Idaho and in Yellowstone National Park. More than 800 wolves now roam the Northern Rockies.

However, the forests of Yellowstone, thick with elk and deer, are more than 300 miles from the barren, windswept plains of eastern Montana. Stone says that's what makes it so unlikely that the sheep predator is a wolf.

The distinction is important: Defenders of Wildlife reimburses ranchers for proven kills of livestock by wolves.

"Wolves are fabulous travelers," Sime says. In 2004, a radio-collared wolf from Yellowstone was struck and killed about 420 miles away, on Interstate 70 west of Denver.

McKeever says he believes the Montana marauder is a wolf because it preys on adult sheep. Coyotes usually kill lambs, and only one or two at a time, he says.

Sime says she's certain the culprit is one animal - two at most - because there are so few tracks.

McKeever estimates his loss at about $20,000. He doesn't qualify for the reimbursement because no one knows what the killer is yet. The state has issued 45-day shoot-to-kill permits to affected ranchers. Such permits are needed because of wolves' designation as endangered.

If it turns out to be a wolf, the money will be cold comfort, McKeever says.

That's because where one wolf turns up, others are likely to follow.

"We've never had to worry about wolves before," he says. "We do now."
 
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