While the debate about how many wolves are enough to ensure a healthy population will again come to a head in a federal courtroom Monday, a Dillon-area ranch is picking up the pieces from the largest known wolf depredation in recent history. In a highly unusual move for wolves, they killed about 120 adult male sheep in one incident on the Rebish/Konen Livestock Ranch south of Dillon last week.
That compares with a total of 111 sheep killed by wolves in Montana in 2008, according to Carolyn Sime, the statewide wolf coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP).
"This is one of the most significant losses that I've seen," Sime said. "That situation is really unfortunate."
Suzanne Stone with Defenders of Wildlife added that in the 20 years she's been working toward ensuring healthy wolf populations, this is the first time she's heard of such a mass killing.
"I've heard of bears or mountain lions doing that," Stone said. "I've never heard of any situation where wolves killed so much livestock in such a short period of time. This is the most extreme case I've ever heard about."
The ranch has suffered confirmed wolf depredations twice in three weeks. In late July, three wolves - two blacks and a gray - killed at least 26 rams. The gray wolf was lethally shot by a federal wildlife manager, and one of the blacks was injured. They thought that would scare off the rest of the pack. Last week, wolves struck again. This time, they took out 120 purebred Rambouillet bucks that ranged in size from about 150 to 200 pounds, and were the result of more than 80 years of breeding.
"We went up to the pasture on Thursday (Aug. 20) and everything was fine," rancher Jon Konen said. "The bucks were in the pasture; I had about 100 heifers with them on 600 acres."
He had some business to attend to in Billings, so Konen told his son to be sure to check on the livestock while he was gone.
"He called me, and said it was a mess up there. He said there were dead bucks all up and down the creek. We went up there the next day and tried to count them, but there were too many to count," Konen recalled. "I had tears in my eyes, not only for myself but for what my stock had to go through. They were running, getting chewed on, bit and piled into a corner. They were bit on the neck, on the back, on the back of the hind leg. They'd cripple them, then rip their sides open."
After the dead sheep were found, Graeme McDougal with Wildlife Services flew over the sheep pasture, looking for the one or two remaining black wolves to complete the control work requested by MFWP. Within a half-mile of the sheep pasture, he spotted the Centennial pack of three adult gray wolves and five pups.
McDougal shot and killed the one uncollared adult wolf, but was not authorized to remove any more wolves. This was the first known depredation incident for the Centennial pack in 2009.
Konen doesn't want to wade into the debate over the reintroduction of wolves in the Rockies, but said that in his opinion, it's time to stop managing wolves and start controlling them.
"My bucks were on private ground, in a pasture where we've been pasturing them for 50 years. The wolves were intruders that were in the wrong place," he said.
The Rebish/Konen Ranch will probably receive $350 per dead sheep.
Reprinted in part from The Missoulian, Montana