Montana cattle ranchers are pitted against environmentalists in a stalemate over the management of the state's wolf population, and frustration over that stalemate has prompted Montana's Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer to send a defiant letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
"As usual in Washington, D.C., they confuse motion for action and nearly nothing is happening. Meanwhile, we have these wolves that are denning right now, and there will be another 30-percent increase in their numbers this year,” Schweitzer told Fox News.
He has asked that the state be allowed to manage the wolf population to decrease its impact on cattle, which have been increasingly killed in wolf attacks.
"Or get off your hind end in Washington, D.C., and fix the Endangered Species Act so it works in Montana," he told Fox News.
It’s been nearly 10 years since federal officials proclaimed the endangered gray wolf in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming had biologically recovered. Sixty-six captive wolves had been reintroduced into the wild. By 2010, their numbers had increased to 1,700 in the Intermountain West. In 2008, the species was removed from the Endangered Species List in Idaho and Montana for the first time.
“And then there was a federal judge here in Montana who said unless Wyoming was part of the plan we can’t manage the wolves in just two states, there has to be a three-state plan,” explains Schweitzer. “And so they took the right of managing these wolves in Montana away from us.”
That ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of environmental groups.
The sticking point was Wyoming. The Interior Department had rejected a plan that Wyoming proposed for managing the species within its borders, meaning wolves would remain on the Endangered Species List in that state. U.S. District Judge Donald Malloy ruled essentially that the species could not be de-listed in one state and not another, so back on the endangered list it went.
In his letter to Salazar, Schweitzer wrote that in certain areas "any livestock producers who kill or harass wolves attacking their livestock will not be prosecuted. Further I am directing FWP (the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks service) to respond to any livestock depredation by removing whole packs."
Cattle ranchers, who say their herds have been devastated when some wolves figure out that cattle are far easier to hunt than wild game, cheered the letter.
Frank and Monica Prince run cattle on land that’s been in their family since 1867.
“We were able to run 600 to 650 mother cows and we had to cut back due to the depredation we had over several years," Frank Prince said. “We had figured as far as calf losses, actual depredation and as far as cows not breeding back, weight losses and a few other factors, we figured it out to be roughly about $300,000 worth. And people just can’t afford to do that, lose that much. Over time it caught up and bit us in the butt.”
Ranchers can be compensated for cattle killed by wolves if they can prove that wolves were responsible. That is not easy. First, they have to find the carcass in their mountain pastures within the few days it takes for wolves to almost completely consume it.
“You got to prove it," Prince said. “And if you have an ear tag and jaw bone it’s kind of tough to prove and if it’s two or three weeks old. And a lot of our mountain pasture we can’t get to right away and it’s pretty inaccessible. We try to get up there as much as we can but there’s also hay to be put up and fence and all kinds of other stuff.”
Prince claims he’s lost dozens of animals over the years.
“The one year we lost 24, the next year we lost 30, and then 32," he said. "Now natural death loss we’d probably only lose two to three out of 600. But we’ve only been compensated for six of them, that we actually found.”
Mike Leahy, regional director of Defenders of Wildlife, told Fox News: “I’m sure some losses get missed and there are some other costs but you know it’s not necessarily the taxpayer’s job to bear all the costs of wildlife management. There’s some burden on private landowners as well.”
Schweitzer's letter to Interior was “a little over the top," Leahy added.
"The states are supposed to embrace all wildlife and manage for healthy viable populations, and instead Idaho and Montana are really planning to kill off most of their wolves and reduce them as low as possible," he said.
In response, Salazar's office acknowledged there's an "urgent need" to find a solution.
"Wolves have reached their recovery goals and should be managed by states that have acceptable management programs," the statement from Salazar's office continued. "But [Schweitzer's] letter is not the answer."
Schweitzer says that instead of waiting for Interior and the courts to finally sort the issue out, he will try to work with the governors of Idaho and Wyoming to come up with a comprehensive gray wolf management plan of their own.
“If we can agree on a comprehensive plan that would be acceptable to the Department of Interior, then the litigants who have sued in federal court would no longer have a case," he said.