John and Rae Herman run 800 head of Angus cattle in western Montana's Hot Springs area. They grew up in America's golden age for pastoralists, in rolling valleys of bunchgrass and sage with forested mountainsides—with virtually all large native predators wiped off the landscape.
"We'd usually be missing three to five calves at roundup," John says. "Now it's closer to 25. This spring our calving grounds down near the house got hit. Seven calves were confirmed wolf kills, so we were reimbursed for them."
The trouble is if ranchers don't come across a carcass right away, scavengers may drag off or shred all the evidence. Many say in some areas the actual kills by wolves may average as high as seven for every one that can be proved, but no confirmation, no compensation. And dead and missing animals are only part of the toll. Cattle harassed by wolves over one season can lose 30 to 50 pounds each. On top of that, hormonal effects from stress kick in. "We had 85 pregnant heifers this spring, and 60 aborted," John says.
"The worst part," Rae says, "is that 23 of the cows that aborted were in our son's starter herd of 25. He's stuck with a $7,500 bank note and two calves to pay it off with. We'll end up selling some mother cows to offset our losses, so we'll be going backwards."
Stock with leg injuries from chases or infections from wounds become unmarketable. And after brushes with wolves, mother cows stay ornery and extra protective of calves. The Hermans aren't the only ranchers to say it is harder to wrangle such cattle in pens; who don't even think about using their dogs; who consider the fact that if you drive those cows onto prime range the next summer, they may not stay because the upland forests are where the wolves hang around.
The Blackfoot Challenge ranchers—a cooperative established in 1993 to conserve the rural setting in west-central Montana's Blackfoot River watershed—are trying a range rider program. I'm patrolling with the lone rider himself, Peter Brown, who travels by pickup truck, motorcycle, or foot. He monitors the whereabouts of wolf packs in relation to cattle and reports daily to ranchers so they can move herds to safer grazing spots or keep a closer eye on them. Electric fencing now surrounds calving lots in many risky areas. To visually warn wolves away from other pastures, Brown sometimes turns to the old European technique called fladry, stringing wire with bright flags along its length.