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The creature, whatever it is, came out of Montana's own McCone County, wandering from the rough breaks of Timber Creek, just south of the Big Dry Arm of Fort Peck Reservoir, and the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge. Where it had wandered before that, Canada or North Dakota, nobody knows. Since December, it has struck six herds of sheep belonging to stockmen in McCone and Garfield Counties, killing 36 ewes, and injuring 71, many of which will succumb to their wounds. It leaves a track like a small wolf, or a dog, or a wolf-hybrid, but its killing habits are inefficient, nothing like the surgical lethality of a wolf taking meat from a herd of domestic sheep. Where it has stopped to kill, over an area of more than a hundred square miles, it has created a fury, one that is not entirely directed at the creature itself (the stockmen here know full well how to handle that problem) but at the federal and state governments, at complex regulations imposed to protect an animal that they despise, and at a far-away society that seems to have lost all respect for them and their constant struggle to remain self-reliant, solvent, and on the land.

A Montana Wolf Mystery & the Fury it Breeds

The creature, whatever it is, came out of Montana’s own McCone County, wandering from the rough breaks of Timber Creek, just south of the Big Dry Arm of Fort Peck Reservoir, and the CM Russell Wildlife Refuge. Where it had wandered before that, Canada or North Dakota, nobody knows.

Since December, it has struck six herds of sheep belonging to stockmen in McCone and Garfield Counties, killing 36 ewes, and injuring 71, many of which will succumb to their wounds.

It leaves a track like a small wolf, or a dog, or a wolf-hybrid, but its killing habits are inefficient, nothing like the surgical lethality of a wolf taking meat from a herd of domestic sheep.

Coyotes, those that survive here in the gauntlet of traps and aerial gunnery and cyanide “getters,” kill a lot of sheep every year, but nothing like this.

This creature is a traveler, and it is not always alone, though its companion leaves a smaller track still, adding to the mystery. Where it has stopped to kill, over an area of more than a hundred square miles, it has created a fury, one that is not entirely directed at the creature itself (the stockmen here know full well how to handle that problem) but at the federal and state governments, at complex regulations imposed to protect an animal that they despise, and at a far-away society that seems to have lost all respect for them and their constant struggle to remain self-reliant, solvent, and on the land.

“I discovered the devastation on January 12th,” said Jim Whitesides, who was keeping his flock of 720 sheep in a half-section holding pasture, right at the corner of McCone and Garfield counties, waiting for drier weather before he moved them onto a grazing allotment on BLM land. “It was terrible warm weather and mud, and when I got there, the sheep were all up milling around on a ridge. I called them all down, and as they came close it just looked like they had all been attacked, blood everywhere, their hams bitten, plugs taken out, like a lemon, and of course then there was some laying around dead.”

Whitesides would have 21 dead ewes in that bunch, and 39 injured. He has estimated that the attacks have cost him over $19,000, an almost ruinous blow. “I’ve seen some terrible coyote damage, but nothing ever like this.”

Whitesides has spent his life running cattle and sheep in the Missouri Breaks country. In his speech, there is a slight but distinct brogue, explained by the fact that his mother came to eastern Montana from Scotland in 1906. His father came to the area in 1912. His parents would have seen the last of the wolves in eastern Montana. “Everybody has relatives who claim to have been in on the last wolf killed around here,” Whitesides said, “and it must have been around 1920 when they finally got them out of here. They had to, if they were going to raise stock.” In his lifetime, he said, he has never had to think about wolf trouble, and he has paid little attention to the conflict over re-introducing wolves to Yellowstone. “That wasn’t in my realm, and I couldn’t imagine all the fuss over it. We always take a lot of losses — normally under a hundred head a year, but it’s always coyotes.” The battle against the coyotes is conducted by stockmen with the help of two full-time trappers who work Garfield County for the federal Wildlife Services Agency.

“We have a very good program here,” Whitesides said, “and we couldn’t raise livestock without it.”

The confusion over the identity of the animal that rampaged though Whitesides’ sheep started at another kill site, back in late December, deeper in McCone County. Mike McKeever took a severe hit on his sheep herd sometime on the night after Christmas.

At first, it appeared that only two ewes had been killed, but closer inspection found 15 more ewes that had been attacked but not killed. Ten of them would die of their wounds. By December 28th, the McKeevers had found five more ewes killed. Mike McKeever called their local predator control contractor, a pilot named Jeff Skyberg to see what could be done. Now the plot thickens. McCone County is one of five eastern Montana counties that, about twelve years ago, became disgusted with the federal predator control agency and decided to take over the job themselves by hiring private contractors. But that was before there were any wolves in Montana, or any regulations to protect them. Faced with the carnage at McKeever’s ranch, Skyberg called in Wildlife Services agents to help him decide what to do. The men looked at two sets of tracks, and agreed that they had been made by medium sized dogs, or even wolf-hybrids, rather than true wolves. The messiness of the attacks suggested domestic dogs, too, a whole lot of killing instinct untempered by skill.

The agents reported the attacks to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, (FWP) which has taken on the responsibility of managing wolves since an agreement was reached with the federal wildlife agency, and federal funding became available, in early 2005. Wolves are, for now, still listed as an Endangered Species, and the FWP makes its decisions “between the guardrails” of the federal policy, as Carolyn Sime, who directs the wolf program for FWP, describes it. The Wildlife Services agents called Sime, and told her that the problem in McCone County was domestic dogs on a rampage. Since dogs that kill stock are fair game for anybody with a weapon, it seemed as though the problem would soon be solved. Then on January 12th, Whitesides found his sheep attacked.

The next day, reports came in of sheep killings at the McKerlick Ranch in northeastern Garfield County. In a pasture within sight of his house, John McKerlick found, according to an account in the Jordan Tribune, “…lambs with meat, hide and wool dragging on the ground; their insides torn out and a front leg on one torn away. Ten were dead and eight still going … He found two more dead and a 100-110 pound lamb (sic: it was actually a wether) had been eaten and dragged in a 20′ diameter circle.” Whatever killed the sheep had stayed in the area for a long time, leaving a lot of tracks. “We had an overflow from a watertank that was frozen and held the snow, and he sauntered around all over on that ice,” McKerlick said. “I don’t know what he was doing all that time.”

Like Whitesides, McKerlick has no experience with predation at the level he witnessed that morning. “The tracks are bigger than anything I’ve seen before. We’ve never had anything like this. My parents lived just south of here, and in 1923, my dad had a little horse, and the wolves followed him and hamstrung him, killed him, but that was about the last wolf in this part of the country.” The Wildlife Services agents that investigated still figured that the mess at McKerlick’s was the work of domestic dogs, so nobody called Carolyn Sime at FWP to tell her about the incident.

On February 6th, Jeff Skyberg and his “gunner” Les Thomas, were flying in Skyberg’s plane, gunning coyotes as part of their contract for predator control in McCone County, and trying to find the stock killing dogs that were lost somewhere in the immense roll of prairie and the jagged coulee country below them. On a ridge below them, they saw what they were pretty sure was a wolf.

“We got a call from Wildlife Services, saying that Jeff Skyberg had a wolf in his sights in McCone County and could he go ahead and kill it,” said Carolyn Sime. “I could not just issue them a kill permit to go out and kill whatever wolves were there. It would have been illegal. We had no reports of wolf kills from there, and the attacks did not fit the pattern of wolf kills. I said no.” But Sime and others in the FWP office knew that the denial would infuriate Skyberg and the ranchers in the two county area. “The anger is easy to understand.” Sime said, “A government agent has just kept you from doing your job. Jeff exercised tremendous restraint, and I know he’s mad … but I could not legally do it. There is no such thing as a no-wolf zone in Montana, no matter what people might think.” The FWP went into “a huddle,” Sime said. First, with the possible federal delisting of the wolf from the federal Endangered Species Act looming, it was imperative that they remain within the law. So far, Montana’s painstakingly achieved wolf management plans are a kind of blueprint for what seems like a balanced management approach for wolves. The plan has been approved by the federal wildlife agency, while Wyoming’s plan, which calls for treating the wolves as vermin away from National Parks, cannot be approved, and has so far been the leading obstacle to taking the animal off of the Endangered Species list. Sime and her office were in an odd spotlight that would shine far ahead into derailing the delisting process if they just went ahead and did what the ranchers wanted them to do.

“We stuck our neck out and we authorized Wildlife Services to take the wolf, even though it was technically illegal.”

During the huddle and the subsequent back and forth, though, the creature disappeared back into the maze of coulees and the scrub pine of the breaks. Attacks that killed one sheep and injured another in Garfield County over the weekend of February 18th are believed to be the work of the animal that escaped that day. Then, the animal, or one very like it, appeared on March 11, about fifty miles away, on a ranch northwest of Jordan. According to the Jordan Tribune, rancher Clifford Highland and his grandson, Ryan Murnion, saw the animal as it was eating the carcass of a ewe. “We saw a wolf for approximately 20-30 seconds at 350 yards,” Highland said, Murnion shot at the animal, but it escaped into the breaks.

Carolyn Sime and her team authorized permits for the ranchers who had suffered losses and for Wildlife Services in Garfield County to kill the wolf, or wolf-hybrid, if it was seen again in the act of attacking livestock. But the level of frustration among the ranchers and the communities remained high. There seemed to be no legal way, for instance, for the freelance predator control contractors in McCone County to kill the wolf if they encountered it. And the animal ranged so widely, the permits issued to the ranchers who had suffered losses seemed to be of little use. Other ranches, where there were no permits, would surely be hit soon. Again, people asked, why could anybody who saw the thing not just kill it?

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the wolf of McCone County. Click here for the second installment.

Reporter’s note: Thanks to Janet Guptill, editor and publisher of the Jordan Tribune, for source material and for understanding of the larger
issues in this story.

About Hal Herring

Comments

  1. Marion says:

    One very real possiblity that has not been discussed is that the animal is the offspring of a female wolf bread by either a dog or coyote. Certainly this has happened with other introduced wolf populations, requiring authorities to capture the female and destroy the pups. As widespread as the wolves in this part of the country are and as many as there are, it is an idea that needs to be considered.

  2. Ralph says:

    It is possible it is as Marion suggests, but this is nothing new. It’s called the eastern coyotes, which is much larger than the western coyote, and probably has wolf genetics and maybe dog.

    There are maybe a million or so of these in the eastern US, but I haven’t heard of such widespread killing.

  3. Marion says:

    There is one very big difference….Protection! The eastern coyotes are able to be killed, not the western Canadian bred wolves. They are perfectly safe unless caught in the act, and then only certain designated people can be the one to kill them. That is why the trapper/gunner was unable to shoot when he saw it. If indeed it is a wolf, he is facing huge fines, jail, etc.
    I suspect ranching is a little different in the east than it is out here where there is a lot of open space between places for animals to hide.

  4. Ralph says:

    There seems to be some massive confusion in the post above. Coyotes are not protected much anywhere, but returning to the matter of mystery animal in Eastern Montana. I think it is a wolf or a wolf hybrid. More likely it is a hybrid because while it is a prolific killer, it is not an efficient killer like most true wolves.

    In any case it, or anything that looks like it, should be shot on sight. If it is a wolf hybrid, no problem. If it is a wolf, no problem either because even a wolf in this designated “endangered area” can be killed after so many depredations. What if another (wrong) wolf in the area is shot? Not likely. This is far from the established wolf populations in Montana. I’m saying I don’t think there are any other wolves running around in the area besides this wolf or hybrid.

  5. Marion says:

    Who’s confused, there is not the widespread killing by the coytoes precisely because they can and are hunted. The hunter was told explicitly that he could NOT kill the animal when he reported that it looked like a wolf. The wolves are protected across the whole state, and the law applies, period, no matter how far away anyone thinks they or others may be. I think you already know that is the law, right or wrong, and the rancher is helpless to change it.

  6. Joe The Native Texan says:

    The killings sound like the work of dogs to me. Dogs, both tame and wild, will pack together at night and go on killing sprees over great distances. Larger animals such as horses and grown cattle are about the only livestock exempt from the killing and that is because they can run away and dogs do not normally chase down prey when they pack up. Many years back everyone in our rural area lost grown hogs, goats, sheep, and half-grown cattle. The culprits turned out to be neighborhood pets.
    Virtually all the pet dogs of any size were quickly terminated by their owners. From what I have read about coyotes and wolves they tend to avoid expending energy to kill unless they intend to eat. Of course, if wolf/dog hybrids begin to appear, and the traits of both survive the corss breeding the effect on a flock of sheep might be devastating.

  7. Marion says:

    They can tell by the tracks that it is a single animal. If you truly believe that wolves or coyotes will only kill what they can eat, first check out the stories of the attacks on sheep by the woves, it is not uncommon for them to kill 20 or more in a night and maim many more.
    The coyotes who do the same are not as well documented in recent reprots so you will need to talk to those who raise sheep, but I can tell you that when I was a kid 50 years ago we would find our sheep dead and wounded until my Dad was able to catch and kill the coyote responsible that time.

  8. Connie says:

    With the animal’s identity in question, could not the pilot and gunner have darted it for capture? At least the killing would be stopped and they would not run the risk of running afoul of the law.

    A question: If a young wolf was deprived of the hunting lessons given by the pack, would it then hunt inefficiently as described?

  9. Marion says:

    I seriously doubt that the hunter would have had the sedative to use for darting. That sort of thing is usually controlled I’m sure and must be given by those trained in it’s use. If you stop and think even trained biologists have accidently killed animals with those sedatives when darting them. I don’t think you folks understand how serious the laws are regarding protections afforded wolves. Killing one, even accidently, could cost the person killing it everything they owned and had spent a life time getting, plus the potential for spending time in prison. That is why they called when it appeared to be a wolf, and that is why no one would assume the authority giving them permission to kill it.
    REgardless of the lessons it might have learned in a pack, just being alone would undoubtedly impact the way it hunted and killed. I guess I don’t understand the concern about inefficiency, it certainly killed multiple animals at a time, and injured many more, which is what canine predators do. How much more would you want it to do?

  10. Connie says:

    The comments re: inefficiency seemed to imply that it is not a wolf. I wondered if it might still be a wolf even though it did not predate like one. I agree that the killing has to be stopped.

  11. Marion says:

    I don’t understand the inefficiency part at all, how much are they hoping to see killed and maimed, I wonder?

  12. Connie says:

    Sounds to me like it has to do more with technique than quantity. I read of people attempting to make pets of wolves and hybrids, only to find that it doesn’t work. Could this be one set free by its former owner?

  13. Marion says:

    I hadn’t thought of that, that’s a pretty long migration, but possible I suppose. But those wolves are smaller in body too aren’t they? This one has been described as pretty good sized.

  14. John Bear says:

    Hello friends, My name is John Bear Johnson. I live on the Crow Agency near Billings. I had something like this happen to my brother.

    My brother lives in Sheridan county where he has a small ranch with his family. Two Thanksgivings ago we were there when the snow was very deep. Two days before Thanksgiving we were on our snow machines having some fun when we saw an animal dart into the trees. What really scared me is that it looked like a person out of the corner of my eye, I had goggles on and they were sort of foggy so I chalked it up to my eyes playing tricks on me, besides, the snow was too deep unless the man was wearing snowshoes. When Thanksgiving dinner came my uncle Pete Lowry from the Colville reservation kept on saying that I must have seen a Stick Indian (Bigfoot).

    Two days after Thanksgiving we woke up early before the sun came up to pack our truck. My sister in law was out feeding the animals when we heard her scream. We ran out to her and found a horrible sight, something had killed two of her Alpacas and disemboweled them, there was blood everywhere and the Alpacas had been torn to pieces. There were tiny dog tracks everywhere and other larger tracks with them leading into the forest. The tracks were about a size 15 shoe but much wider. They looked nothing like Sasquatch tracks since they had what looked like two large toes pointing to each side. It looked like someone on snowshoes had killed them with their dogs. We had no idea who could be capable of something like this. There were no vehicle tracks on the long way down the hill and no neighbors within a few miles and we heard nothing the night before…. it was really scary. Needless to say my brother invested in a security system that uses wireless webcams to secure his house. He also bought a few dogs to warn of any intruders. He had a hard time sleeping for the rest of the winter, they came to our house for Christmas.

    Last summer in august he called me on the phone nearly crying, it took me a few minutes to calm him down and give me his story. All he could say is that the kids and his wife were with her family in Dakota and he needed to drive down that night and see me. I could hear him shaking on the phone and have never heard him sound like that.

    When he arrived in the morning he showed me what he had. It looked like the head of a bear or a cougar but it had no hair and cloudy eyes. It was also shaped kind of wierd with a large lower lip. It really startled me. My brother told me how he got it:

    Apparently what happened is that he was helping out his neighbor on his ranch when he heard the dogs barking, the neighbor had lost quite a few sheep in the month preceeding this and my brother was positive that he had a wolf or a coyote on his hands. He rode his quad over the hill and saw the coyotes feeding on a sheep with 3 other dead ones around it. He raised his hunting rifle and shot one, to his suprise it got up on two legs and ran into the woods. He was horrified, he thought he had just killed a man who was inspecting the sheep or something. He tracked the blood trail and found the body, it was not a man. He immediately cut the head off and headed home to call me.

    I have a picture of the head if anyone wants to see it. Just email me and I will try and get back to you soon. I am on the road right now so it might take me a bit.

    Be careful out there people.

    John Bear….

  15. Vern Fogle says:

    Timber wolves (the gray wolf)are not native to the Great Plains. The prairie wolf (now extinct) was a huskier, more compact, short legged animal. Read Arthur Jordan’s Book “Jordan”. He described a compact powerful animal that could successfully take down buffalo, with jaws that could crush bones to access the marrow. However, with this build, the animal was easy for a cowboy on a horse to run down and dispatch with a rope or with a gun. Given the fact that that all modern wolves are not of this species, they should recieve no protection on the plains. Let me know if you feel differently.

  16. secondtear says:

    John Bear,

    I’d like to see the photo.

  17. TXhomesteaded says:

    This is a reply for John Bear. I have heard of similar sightings to what you describe in TX about a decade ago. They call them Chuppacabra’s here. Please can you email the photo. Thank you and best of luck to you.

  18. Jerry says:

    John Bear I was interested in seeing the photo if you could please email it too me.

    thanks

  19. Elizabeth Laden says:

    It could be the Sherwood Beast!
    Here is one article about it:

    http://www.islandparknews.net/full.php?sid=895

    And the annual tale of the beast’s haunting:
    http://www.islandparknews.net/full.php?sid=898

  20. Jason says:

    John Bear, I’ll see the photo, if it’s not too much trouble. Unlike what someone else said, I don’t think whatever your brother killed was a chupacabra..I’ve never heard of such a violent slaughter by a chupacabra.

  21. Titen-Sxull says:

    I would also like a chance to see the photo, not sure what type of creature this could be, Chupacabra usually isn’t man-sized from what I’ve heard (plus it’d have to migrating far from its normal range)…

  22. Tim says:

    John Bear, I would like to see the photo too. thanks

  23. Samantha Gregory says:

    Did you ever find out what it was. Do you have a photo of it because I would like to see one. Email me about this please.

  24. Brenda says:

    John Bear, Could you sent me a photo of this. I had a vision last year and need to know if this was what I saw. Thank you, Brenda

  25. Rebekkah says:

    Marion if you paid attention to the picture and what people describe of it you might realize that it looks kinda like a boar. Don’t hate I’m only 14 but I have a high IQ Anywhom, I spoke my opinion and no one can change

  26. Sarah says:

    John Bear, if possible could you send me the photo of the creature your brother killed. I’ve been very curious since I read this article earlier this year.

    I will greatly appreciate if you send it to me.

  27. Samantha Hillyer says:

    John Bear, I’m sure you’re tired of hearing this, but can you send me a picture.