By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A calf killed south of Chinook has the owner and the person who investigated the kill suspecting wolves.
Some government officials said it's unlikely wolves have migrated to this part of Montana.
"The chances are very slim," said Ed Bangs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Gray Wolf Recovery Program coordinator.
Any wolf found here would be a gray wolf from Canada, he said, not one of the wolves that were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Those wolves would have to cross too many geographical barriers, including reservoirs and interstates, to arrive here, he said.
Canadian wolves are not generally found this far east either, Bangs said.
Bangs' colleague at the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks had a different opinion.
Carolyn Sime, FWP's gray wolf coordinator, said the closest confirmed reports of wolves came from near Helena, but that she has received intermittent reports from all over the state. The reports closest to Blaine County come every few years from the Big Belts and Little Belts south of Great Falls.
"Because wolves are great travelers, the message from Fish, Wildlife and Parks is that wolves could be in Montana pretty much anywhere anytime," she said.
Jessica Dunbar found the carcass on her ranch 50 miles south of Chinook in late August, she said earlier this week.
"I found it shortly after it was killed. I had never seen a carcass look that way before," Dunbar said.
When she found it, the blood was dry but still red, "cherry red," she said. There was still hide on the face, but otherwise all that was left was an intact skeleton.
Dunbar immediately called Gene Bucklin, who contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate predator killing of livestock.
"He said that he was sure it was at least four wolves," she said.
Bucklin said he's not sure what killed the calf but that the condition of the carcass suggested wolves. He said he ruled out coyotes and a mountain lion.
"It looked suspicious," Bucklin said.
Bucklin's supervisor with USDA, Wildlife Services district superviser Craig Glazier, said, "It was an unknown deal."
Bucklin said he went back to the site three times and didn't find tracks, hair or scat. He said a wet area 20 feet from the carcass should have had tracks, but many cattle had moved through the area and may have covered up the tracks.
He said the carcass was found roughly two days after the animal was killed, and he said it would take a number of animals to eat the meat that quickly.
Dunbar said the calf was 550 to 600 pounds. She had been through the area two days before, and not seen any lame calves. Since it was near water, if it had become lame it would not have died so quickly, she added.
Dunbar examined the animal's face, looking for a snake bite or signs of sickness, and found none.
"It appeared to me that something had killed it. Even if it was a whole bunch of coyotes, they couldn't have killed it" because of the calf's size, she said.
Dunbar said she and her husband, Joseph, didn't tell anyone except Bucklin about it because she didn't expect anyone would believe her.
"We never believe anybody that tells us they've seen a wolf," she said. "We didn't have any doubt about that it was a wolf. It's just not something that we cared to talk about."
Wolves started to come back to northwestern Montana from Canadian populations in the 1980s when the animals traveled south along the Rocky Mountains, Bangs said. He does not know of sightings of those wolves further west than Helena, he said.
Laws govern the killing of wolves, which are protected under federal law. As of 2003, Bangs said, "A landowner on their private land can shoot a wolf that is attacking livestock, or animal-herding livestock or any domestic dog."
He added that the wolf would have to be actively attacking an animal; landowners cannot, by law, shoot wolves on sight.
He said that if an attacking wolf is killed, "Report it U.S. Fish and Wildlife within 24 hours."
Bangs said that private organizations will repay cattle owners for calves killed or probably killed by wolves.
Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said he is concerned about the possibility of more wolves in the state. He said the association has had no reports of wolves from Blaine County, though he had heard of a confirmed sighting in Stanford.
"We have from day one expressed concern on behalf of the industry over these loses," Pilcher said. "Everyone has this romance with the re-establishment of the wolf population in Montana. You have to recognize that it comes at a cost, and the cost comes from the livestock producers."
Pilcher thinks private repayment for calves killed by wolves is not yet adequate to assuage his fears.
"It is a great gesture and I applaud groups like Defenders of Wildlife for their efforts," he said. But, he added, "For every wolf kill that you can document and confirm, there will be three to seven that go undetected."
Pilcher added that sometimes fair market value does not represent what a specific cattle owner could get for a calf. Registered Angus, for example, can sometimes bring very high prices.
"We're going to work with them to improve on a compensation program that is fair and effective," Pilcher said.