Spring Gulch rancher Terry Schramm opened up the headgates Monday enough to wet the soil in an agricultural ditch so he could see what lurked in the night to feed on his most recently depredated cow.
The tactic had the desired effect — imprinted into the mud Tuesday morning were clear-cut wolf tracks. Lots of them.
“Look at the size of that f-----g dog track,” Schramm said later that day, gazing down at the ditch.
The impressively wide pad prints of one large lobo stood out in particular amid the dozens of tracks around it.
“There were 11 wolves on this carcass on Sunday,” he said. “That’s not all of them, because they were all gray and I know there’s at least two blacks and a white one that we’ve got on trail cam and video.”
After a two-week lull in the canine-bovine clash in Spring Gulch, the wolves, likely from the Pinnacle Peak Pack, came back. The latest round of conflict between Walton Ranch cattle and the well-known wolf pack, which dens on the National Elk Refuge, started up the weekend of Sept. 10-11 when a calf was found dead, according to federal wildlife officials.
Then, late last week, Schramm was awoken to a herd that smashed through a buck-and-rail fence and a maimed cow 186. It was the full-grown animal whose rank, mostly consumed carcass he stood over Tuesday near the wolf tracks. Fumbling with his iPhone, he pulled up a video of when he found the still-live cow Thursday morning. Innards protruding from its torn-up back end, the cow was still on its feet. A bullet shortly thereafter ended its misery.
“It’s just been heartache for me,” Schramm said. “The politics of this just suck. I call up and say, ‘Give me a kill permit so I can protect my livestock.’ They say, ‘We can’t do that, you’re not allowed to shoot them.’”
At least three cows and six calves from the Walton Ranch and other nearby livestock producers have been confirmed wolf-killed since spring. Many more, Schramm claims, have been bitten and sustained some degree of injury.
The wolf conflict is a relatively new phenomenon for Spring Gulch, one of the last bastions of the valley’s ranching roots and a narrow, pastured valley that runs straight north from near west Jackson. The canine, corvid and vulture-cleaned carcass of cow 186 rots just a shade over 4 miles away from the Jackson Town Square, as the magpie flies.
A federal agent for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, which conducts lethal wolf operations on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, returned to Teton County on Monday. The carcass of cow 186 was moved to near the drainage ditch — and an adjacent brushy fence line — to give the federal agent cover in hopes of sending gunfire at wolves that returned for the last scraps of beef.
The last week of August the Wildlife Services agent trapped and killed two wolves on the property, which abuts the Gros Ventre River and the treed hillsides of West Gros Ventre Butte.
The Fish and Wildlife “control” authorization that’s in place now allows for the killing of four wolves, meaning two wolves can be or have already been killed this week. Tyler Abbott, Fish and Wildlife’s deputy field supervisor for Wyoming, on Tuesday declined to discuss the progress of the Wildlife Services agent.
“We’ll report back when we’re done in terms of controlling the depredation,” Abbott said. Disclosing the number of wolves killed now, he said, would be “distracting from the ability to do our work.”
In addition to the lethal control, Wildlife Services is also bringing in a National Resource Defense Council specialist next week who will help set up some “turbo fladry,” which is electrified line fitted with thin flags that blow in the wind. The concept is that the foreign stimulus deter wolves and other carnivores from venturing near, and if they do muster the courage the line gives them a shock.
Longtime Jackson conservation biologist Franz Camenzind was pleased to hear that the fladry will be given a go, but also said he recognizes there are no quick fixes to the Spring Gulch wolf conflict.
“This is tough territory to raise cattle in,” Camenzind said. “This isn’t going to go away, and the more we can learn from these situations the better off we’ll be, including the wolves.”
“I don’t know what the final solution is,” he said. “We know we’re not going to get rid of the wolves. We know we’re not going to get rid of the cattle.”
Schramm, for his part, was doubtful that the nonlethal techniques will work.
“Oh , f--k. The only way you can prevent this s--t is to kill these f------g wolves,” Schramm said. “Trust me, that’s the only way you can prevent it. Unless you want to donate your time and run around all night playing harmonica, ‘Home on the F-----g Range’ or something.”
The Walton’s 270 head of cattle have for now been moved to a smaller pasture on their property near Highway 22.
The cattle drive down the highway this year came earlier than normal, and with a month’s worth of grass left at the Spring Gulch pasture, Schramm said. There’s only enough grass on the already-hayed Walton property — where the cows are now — to last another couple of days. After that, he said, they’ll have to be prematurely fed with bought hay.
“This is going to end up costing the Walton Ranch about $40,000,” Schramm said. “We had to leave this pasture. The manager said, ‘I’m not going to leave them in here and just let them be slaughtered with nobody doing anything about it.’”
A 41-year tender of Walton Ranch cattle, Schramm has encountered chronic conflict between livestock and predators in the past.
But the last go-around was with grizzly bears in a now-defunct grazing allotment in the Blackrock and Spread creek areas. The 2003 buyout of that allotment to stem grizzly conflict downsized the Walton Ranch operation and pushed the remaining cattle onto the privately owned pastures south of Grand Teton National Park.
Although there was a pulse of Spring Gulch wolf conflict in 2013, it wasn’t a major problem until this year.
“I don’t know anything about wolves, but I’m getting a crash course,” Schramm said. “And I don’t like them any better.”