In the first week of December, U.S. government agencies carried out one of the largest wolf pack removals ever conducted in Northwest Montana. Over the course of three days, USDA Wildlife Services shot and removed 19 wolves from the Hog Heaven Pack in the Brown’s Meadow and Niarada areas, southwest of Kalispell. The wolves had been killing livestock for over a year, with the most recent killing involving a 2-year-old bull.
Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, along with Wildlife Services, have been carrying out “control actions” on the Hog Heaven Pack for much of the last two years, killing eight wolves in separate instances after livestock attacks in the area. By the time the last nine wolves were killed on Dec. 5, government agencies had taken out 27 wolves total from the Hog Heaven Pack, which FWP Wildlife Manager Jim Williams believes is the entire pack. While full pack removals to stop livestock depredation are not unusual in Northwest Montana or the Northern Rockies, where wolves remain an endangered species, very few packs grow as large as the Hog Heaven Pack had over the last year.
The Hog Heaven Pack removal demonstrates the incongruous position in which Montana wolf management finds itself at present, where government agencies in a single instance can kill 19 animals listed on the federal endangered species list, with full confidence that the wolf population is more than strong enough to be unaffected by such action.
“Wolves have recovered up here, right alongside removals from depredations,” Williams said, adding that pack removals are “unfortunate. It’s not pleasant, but from a population standpoint, I’m not worried at all.”
Wolf management in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming is a volatile and emotional issue, only aggravated by the legal tug-of-war that occurred over the wolves’ status in 2008. The Interior Department moved to remove the Northern Rockies gray wolf from the endangered species list earlier this year. But in July U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy issued an injunction reinstating endangered species protection while the court decided on an April lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups, which argued that the government had not yet met recovery standards for the wolf.
While the status of the Northern Rockies gray wolf may change at some point in the coming year, Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doesn’t believe government agencies will change how they manage wolf populations, whether the animals are endangered or not. There will always be conflicts between wolves and livestock, and removing wolves that prey on livestock will continue. The Hog Heaven Pack may garner attention due to its unusual size, but the removal is consistent with the management practices government agencies have taken for years.
“The success of the endangered species act has costs – one of the costs is more conflict with livestock,” Bangs said. “It seems like a lot but it’s really not that much; the price of success is more depredations and more wolf control.”
But not everyone agrees with the wolf removal southwest of Kalispell. Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife conservation group, said her Boise, Idaho, office has received “a lot” of concerned calls from around the country regarding the Hog Heaven Pack removal, which she called a “very aggressive action.”
Several aspects of the Hog Heaven removal disturb Stone, chief among them the question of whether many of the wolves killed were of hunting age. The 2007 FWP report on the Hog Heaven Pack listed its membership at six, and two litters were born within the pack this year. Stone estimates as many as 15 wolves not yet hunting on their own were killed.
“That was just such an unfortunate decision to kill wolves that were not involved in livestock depredations,” she said. “There’s been a much heavier response from the agencies in using lethal control there than the Yellowstone area or Idaho.”
Stone is also concerned that the agencies may not have sufficiently considered non-lethal means of deterring the wolves from attacking livestock, including such measures as livestock-guarding dogs, night penning and others. Simply killing the wolves in the area virtually ensures another pack will eventually move into the territory and begin attacking cattle, creating “a lose-lose cycle for livestock producers and the wolves that are there,” she added.
Williams said he and other officials considered non-lethal means of dealing with the Hog Heaven Pack, but decided they would not have worked with a pack that size that was killing livestock so frequently.
“In this case, they started eating cattle and they didn’t quit,” Williams said. “Our relationship with the livestock industry and private landowners is something we take very seriously as an agency.”
As for killing young wolves, he said wolves from this year’s litter were almost a year old, most weighed more than 80 pounds and were actively participating in livestock depredations. Relocating the wolves, wouldn’t have worked either, Williams added, noting that putting wolves in another pack’s territory creates conflicts and does not decrease a wolf’s propensity to attack livestock, once it has been conditioned to do so: “You move a problem from one area to another.”
While distasteful, the wolf population is thriving and Williams believes the removal of the Hog Heaven Pack due to livestock conflicts is an inevitable part of the larger, hugely successful recovery of wolves in Northwest Montana.
“It’s a good news story,” he said.
Northern Rockies Gray Wolf by the Numbers
Current estimated # of gray wolves in Northern Rockies (Mont., Wyo., Idaho): 1,500
Number of wolves introduced to region in 1995-1996: 66
Number of wolves killed legally in region this year as of early Dec.: 245
Percentage Increase over 2007: 31%
2008 wolf kills by state:
Number of domestic animals killed by wolves in 2008: 523
Domestic animals killed by wolves in 2007: 420
Source: Associated Press