Spring Gulch calf killed

Longtime Spring Gulch cattle rancher Russ Lucas said his family has lost two calves and a grown cow to wolves this year, including the calf pictured, which he had to kill due to its injuries on April 17. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department confirmed and reimbursed the ranch for only two of the three head Lucas believes wolves killed because one of the calves was “eaten up too much.”

Russ Lucas first noticed in mid-April that an unwelcome neighbor — wolves — were back on his family’s Spring Gulch cattle ranch.

The hindquarter of a calf, he recalled, had been bit into, and its hide peeled back. Seeing the severity of the wounds, the third-generation rancher knew exactly what had happened and what he needed to do.

“They tore him up bad enough, I had to kill him,”” Lucas told the News&Guide on Tuesday.

The conflict, which unfolded just 4 miles north of Jackson, traces to the abundant elk population just across Highway 89, where a vast ungulate winter range sprawls across the National Elk Refuge. Wolves, in turn, thrive on the same landscape, and almost invariably the large carnivores start wandering and looking for an easy meal when the elk start their migrations. They find it on private land just over East Gros Ventre Butte, where the Lucases, the Meads and owners of the Walton Ranch run cattle on some of the valley’s last remaining working cattle ranches.

The canine-bovine clash has reached a fevered pitch at times. In 2016 the refuge’s then-resident Pinnacle Peak Pack were being targeted by federal trappers employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services.

But the wolves were never entirely eliminated. And in the four years that have since lapsed the conflict continued, albeit with less fanfare.

Lucas knows firsthand. There’s been a single year in recent memory — 2018, he thinks — when the wolves failed to pay a visit. Their presence is more than a passing frustration for a family that has most of its land locked up in conservation easements and depends on its cattle income. Reimbursement payments, he said, aren’t guaranteed, such as when a calf or cow is too eaten up to confirm a cause of death or when an animal is injured while being chased or protecting its offspring.

Wolves have been a state-managed species since 2017, when a federal appeals court overturned an earlier ruling that had kept the species under the protective cloak of the Endangered Species Act.

Now it’s the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that manages the conflict in this portion of the Equality State.

Dan Thompson, who leads the agency’s large carnivore program, said solving the chronic Spring Gulch cattle conflict is not straightforward and that there’s an ever-changing ecological system at play.

Last winter, for example, the Huckleberry Pack displaced the Pinnacle Peak Pack from their longtime home range on the refuge. The newcomers could have been naive to the new prey source across the highway, leading to a lull in conflict.

That was not the case.

“Huckleberry and Pinnacle were both involved frequenting ranches and in depredations,” Thompson said.

Confirmed losses to date in 2020, Thompson said, are three calves and a grown cow, incurred on two ranches. Most of that has occurred over the last several weeks, though at this point the agency has no plans to lethally target the culprits.

“The agency control,” Thompson said, “we don’t usually go straight into that.”

Some Spring Gulch neighbors who value wolves in their backyards appreciate the restraint this spring. West Gros Ventre Butte resident Lisa Robertson said she wants to see the state strive for coexistence.

“They need a range rider out there, someone on guard,” Robertson said. “Game and Fish, as I understand it, has a mile of fladry.”

Fladry is a line with strips of fabric that flap in a breeze, and they’ve been a tactic for dissuading Spring Gulch wolves in the past. The Natural Resources Defense Council debuted the technique on the Walton Ranch in 2016, and though it worked for a time the organization left the valley and the wolves eventually returned.

Robertson said the Jackson Hole community ought to fill in the gaps — and she believes the appetite is there to do it.

“I think the public is very interested in helping anyway we can,” Robertson said. “As neighbors, we would love to help every way we can for alternative control measures.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(5) comments

Lisa Wan

I think before the wolves are targeted to be killed, ALL efforts on the part of the ranchers should be made to avoid these killings. When the ranchers DO NOT make the efforts (using range riders, fladry and guard dogs) it seems as if they are willing to "give up a few heads of cattle" in order to get permission to kill the wolves. We all live here together and it is unfair NOT to try to dissuade the wolves. They have plenty of elk and deer to eat-the cattle are an easy target when the ranchers do nothing to protect them. I would be happy to volunteer my time to make & install fladry as a community member.

TERRENCE MILAN

I have a better idea. Why don't you buy a ranch and feed all your cattle to the wolves. That way they will hang out at your place and leave all the other ranchers alone.

Konrad Lau

Perhaps she could pay for armed guards (with flash bangs) to protect the cattle. They could be on duty 24/7 with overtime past 40 and double time for weekends and triple time for Sundays and holidays???

If she had to write the checks, that would not last long.

Konrad Lau

It surprises me that you don't understand how impractical your suggestions are!

Wolves are smart. They did not get to be the apex predator in North America (aside from the bears) by being afraid of flags. In fact, they quickly overcome fear of any manmade artifice except the rifle and steel trap. Never mind your contention that they "have plenty of deer and elk to eat", where is the State conservation commission going to get replacement funds for habitat rescue and rehabilitation when hunting license fees disappear? I'm sure you won't mind paying more in taxes, now will you?

Konrad Lau

Nope, no way, I don't believe it.

This has to be the work of aliens or perhaps a Chupacabra.

Wolves are cute and Oh, so cuddly.

I just won't hear of it!

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