BUTTE — Federal trappers killed four wolves this month from an area of the Big Hole Valley that has repeatedly seen attacks on livestock.
The four wolves come on the heels of five others that have been lethally removed over the past three months from the Miner Lakes and Bender packs, as well as any wolves remaining from the Battlefield pack that was taken out last year, said Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The decision to wipe out the three packs signals stepped up efforts to deal with persistent attacks on livestock in the valley this winter.
“That would take care of that whole west Big Hole frankly,” she said.
Sime added the control actions are ongoing, but trappers have been unable to locate and kill all the wolves.
Since the beginning of the year nine cows or calves have been killed by wolves in the Big Hole. The attacks have been especially concentrated in the west side of the valley.
State officials authorized the removal of the Miner Lakes pack, which had grown large and been estimated to contain around 15 wolves. And last year the Battlefield pack that lived west of Wisdom was authorized for elimination after repeated attacks.
Trappers killed all but one of the pack and the lone survivor was believed to have joined the Miner Lakes pack. But attacks on livestock continued west of Wisdom.
The issue boiled over last fall when rancher Fred Hirschy, who has lost cattle to wolves repeatedly, closed off part of his ranch to public hunting.
Sime said the continued attacks highlight the challenges of managing wolves in the Big Hole Valley. The Bender pack quickly moved into the area where the Battlefield pack had roamed after it was removed.
That’s not surprising, because the Big Hole is bordered to the west by Idaho and to the northwest by the upper reaches of the Bitterroot Valley. Both of those areas are wintering grounds for elk and wolves clearly key in on them.
Yet those wolves will also wander into the Big Hole, Sime said. On an outing to learn the area this February with Hirschy, she spotted tracks from two wolves that were coming from Idaho.
“We literally tracked wolves that came into Montana and back in the same day,” she said. “These wolves are spending time in Montana and killing livestock, then returning to Idaho.”
But more lethal control is only one of the measures FWP plans to implement to cut down on the attacks.
Sime said they are offering fencing for the calving areas to area ranchers. In addition, the use of range riders to help keep an eye on the cattle is being considered.
The other key tool will be the upcoming hunting season. Sime said biologists are recommending smaller districts than the three last year to better focus the kills in areas where they want to bring wolf numbers down. And the quota will likely be higher statewide this year. Biologists are hoping hunters will over time replace the management actions needed by federal trappers.
She said a higher quota is justified because even with a record number of wolves killed through control actions and an additional 72 taken by hunters, the wolf population continued to grow.
“Last year was a pretty conservative biological quota,” she said. “Clearly last year was sustainable and then some.”
Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org