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Anatomy of a Wolf Attack

To retaliate or not to retaliate? The question makes bedfellows of traditional foes.


Blas Lord follows her mother and father into a cow pen corralling about a dozen adolescent cattle. One calf gives the 14-year-old a familiar nod. Most of the females sport similar toffee brown and cream-colored coats frosted by mud, and if it weren't for the various injuries that crippled some of their gaits, the livestock could easily blend into a herd. But misfortune make some of these cows stand out.

Blas' dad, Elmore county rancher Jeff Lord, says he's blown into the nostrils of many of his cows in their first minutes of life to get breath circulating through their bodies. But the cows in the pen are special, even if most are slated for the slaughterhouse in a few months. Some of the cows were hand-raised and welcome the approach of the Lord family into the corral. They don't even flinch when Blas pets them. One is hard to miss as she trots by, her front right leg extended stiff as it walks, as though it were frozen in a brace. That one likely got her leg caught in the jaws of a snake.

Then there's a large black calf, "Wolfy." She gives Blas a look of recognition as she enters the corral. The two know each other well. Jeff Lord says Blas saved Wolfy's life.

It was only by chance that Blas and her mother found the calf in a stand of sage and grass last summer. The Lords graze about 400 head of cattle across nearly 50,000 acres northeast of Boise during the year. During the drive to the Lord's ranch 30 miles east of Boise, it's clear how isolated the Lords and their cows are. A couple of rest stops, a small handful of well-dispersed neighbors dispersed by miles and the Boise Stage Stop truck stop is about all you'll find between Boise and the nearly five-mile-long dirt driveway leading to the Lord ranch. People sightings in the foothills surrounding the ranch are rare, and an injured cow grazing in the hills isn't easy to spot. Disease, predators or injury can take a cow quickly and if one doesn't survive, weeks sometimes pass before a rancher can get a decent view of their herd. And when a cow dies, scavengers, bugs, the sun and earth quickly consume what remains.

"After several days, the body will either melt away or be consumed," says Steve Nadeau, large carnivore biologist with Idaho Fish and Game. Some scavengers don't even care if a wounded animal is dead before they dive in for dinner. That's why the Lords use the words "luck" and "chance" when describing Wolfy's survival. Deb almost stepped on the calf camouflaged by overgrown desert foliage during an early summer walk. The scene told Deb a wolf or wolves had visited the herd.

CSI: Elmore County

"Wolves are not the most efficient killers," says Nadeau.

What he means is that wolves are not the cleanest killers. Mountain lions or cougars have the reputation of killing with efficiency and, if there are such things in the high desert food chain, some mercy and grace. The big cats keep bloodshed to a minimum and they kill quickly.

Wolves employ far sloppier methods in their hunts. A cow might take her last breath of air amid a scene of flattened brush, trampled ground, drag marks and smears of blood--lots of blood. Nadeau calls such scenes "struggle sites." These sites can stretch hundreds of yards--a seasoned crime scene investigator might call the scene "gruesome" and the cause of death "brutal."

Deb Lord found Wolfy amid such a scene. But one thing about the site was very atypical: The calf was still alive. The Lords brought who would later be called Wolfy to a vet. That's when their 14 year-old daughter, Blas, insisted that she become the wounded calf's caregiver.

Blas, an all-around athlete at Mountain Home High School who had to give up showing and raising her own farm animals because of the time-consuming responsibilities that come with prep sports, describes her nursing in very G-rated terms. She cleaned Wolfy's wounds and removed the dead flesh that had accumulated around bite until the injury healed. Wolfy accepted the treatment without agitation, because, as Blas recalls, the wound was surrounded by so much dead muscle that the calf couldn't feel the pain that would normally accompany scrubbing wounded flesh.

"She was actually being very modest," Deb says of Blas' nursing. The wound was more than just a bite mark on the rear of the calf. The calf was missing a sizeable roast and much of what remained becamea meal before its time. Jeff Lord describes the wound by motioning as though he were inserting his hand into a cavernous orifice.

"The wound was this deep," he says, pointing to his wrist. And cleaning the wound wasn't as simple as removing infected surface tissue. Blas had to move the calf's hamstring muscle to the side to reach deep layers of increasingly rotten flesh. Even after the injury healed, the Lords can easily identify Wolfy as the calf that almost died by looking at her deformed, flattened rear end and mangled utter.

"They're not trying to kill it, they're trying to eat it," Deb Lord says of the wolves' attack methods, which often leave their victims partially consumed before they finally die of blood loss or violent injuries. These tactics left Wolfy with hemorrhaging and crushing wounds--just the forensic evidence biologists look for when performing an autopsy or necropsy on carcasses that ranchers suspect a wolf consumed.

Had Wolfy succumbed to the attack, the Lords would have been out $800 to $1,200 dollars, not including the vet bills and all the time Blas spent nursing the wound. The federally funded Idaho Wolf Depredation Compensation Fund and Defenders of Wildlife both compensate ranchers for such losses, but the Lords and other ranchers figure that for every confirmed wolf kill, five to eight others go undetected. If that's the case, the one confirmed wolf kill and one confirmed wolf attack on the Lord's livestock this year could mean $5,000 to $19,200 in losses. That's a lot of money for a small family operation. Lord says compensation funds cover some of a rancher's losses but, "there's nobody getting free lunches on confirmed wolf kills."

Take care, Big Bad Wolf. The turbo-fladry line around Mike Stevens' Lava Livestock her is Electrified. - COURTESY DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE
You'd think the Lords would view the canine predator as the big bad wolf of fairy tales. But instead, the Lords, the third generation to live in their Elmore county ranch house and graze the surrounding high desert country, have adopted an attitude of pragmatic acceptance: The wolves are here, and now it's time to learn how to live with them. As Jeff Lord sees it, the debate between whether wolves should or should not occupy Idaho's public lands is over. Instead it's time to engage in a new dialogue that focuses on how to manage the wolves so that they can co-exist with livestock.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," Jeff Lord says of the recent attacks that marked the first wolf predations on his livestock. "How are we going to manage them in a way that doesn't drain the public's resources but protects property?" That's a far different question than the kinds of questions ranchers asked when facing livestock losses to hungry wolves. Their answer to the kind of attacks the Lords faced this summer involved mass hunts and poisonings that led to the eventual decline of the gray wolf in the United States.

"I grew up without having to pack a gun. I guess we've just been living in the shadow of when they got rid of predators. We just never had to worry about predators," Jeff Lord says. "But I guess those days are over."

A New Kind of Pack

Fall is roundup time on Idaho ranches, and cowboys are pushing the livestock that feed on the state's high, mountainous public lands back to the low-lying acres they grazed as calves and young mothers last spring. This season marks the first round-up after the State of Idaho assumed management of the wolf population that was reintroduced in 1995 back from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Often, roundup time is the first chance ranchers get to perform a head count of their herds since pushing them up into the cooler mountain pastures in the spring. This head count tells ranchers just how hungry wolves were during the summer, or more specifically, how much closer wolf packs moved toward grazing livestock.

The attack on Wolfy tells the Lords that at least one wolf pack roams just 30 miles east of Boise city limits. Lord says he expects to find evidence of more wolf kills in the future. But the real news to conservationists and some ranchers post-state-control of wolf management isn't the number of livestock taken by wolf predation, or how well Idaho is managing the population since the federal government turned control over. The big story is about how far some will go to ensure that the state doesn't have to approve the lethal removal of a wolf and how closely traditional foes are working together to save the lives of livestock and wolves.

In many cases, wolf conservationists and ranchers are actually getting along quite nicely and working together to find innovations that would allow the wolf and cattle to live in harmony. The fact that two groups who are often framed as arch nemeses in polar opposition have formed productive working relationships doesn't make for the same dramatic headlines that follow bloody wolf attacks or the lethal removal of a pack. But an increasingly cordial relationship between conservationists and ranchers is perhaps the most unexpected story to come out of the saga of wolf reintroduction.

"Most people in resource management and our delegation accept that the wolves are going to be here for the long term," says Blaine County sheep producer Mike Stevens. "It's in our own interest to co-exist."

Stevens' first run-in with wolves began in the summer of 2002, when wolves killed 13 animals over several nights. Stevens could have asked the federal government, which managed the wolves at the time, to remove pack members with a lethal shot. But Stevens chose not to kill. Instead, he doubled the numbers of Great Pyrenees guard dogs, which alert herders to the presence of wolves, and equipped his herders with shotguns, cracker shells and rubber bullets, hoping the loud greeting would be enough to steer wolves away from his livestock.

Apparently the scare tactics worked. The wolves stayed away--for a while. Then, in 2005, the wolves returned, killing 25 sheep and a guard dog in a single night.

"The guard dog was really devastating to us. We feel a lot of loyalty to the guard dogs. They work really hard for us," Stevens says.

After the second attack, Stevens still chose not to seek the removal of the surrounding wolves. Instead, he decided to stop grazing his sheep in meadows surrounded by tightly packed forest--prime habitat for wolves. The next time the sound of howling wolves surrounded his herd of sheep, a shot gun flared. The blast reduced the howls to silence.

During the fall roundup, these great pyrenees come home as slightly thinner guards of a herd that has also been thinned by occasional wolf attacks. - COURTESY DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE
  • Courtesy Defenders of Wildlife
  • During the fall roundup, these great pyrenees come home as slightly thinner guards of a herd that has also been thinned by occasional wolf attacks.
Stevens, president of Lava Lake Land and Livestock, sells lamb directly to restaurants and buyers through the Internet, and he sees financial gain where some ranchers might see financial burden. Ranchers who don't use lethal predator control methods or who raise livestock in a predator-friendly environment are increasingly able to sell their meat for a prime price. The market has already proven a demand for organic feed and free-range meat and Stevens says an enlightened public could create a similar demand for beef and lamb raised without killing predators.

The Predator Conservation Alliance certifies meat as predator-friendly, but Stevens can't get their seal of approval because his sheep graze on nearly 800,000 acres of public land allotments shared by other ranchers. That means Stevens doesn't have the only say in how predators are managed on the land. If another rancher has a problem with a wolf or wolf pack, they can seek state intervention, and Fish and Game officials can give the OK to shoot the wolves. Stevens's hasn't reaped the financial rewards of keeping a herder close to livestock and beefing up on rubber bullets. Still, he sees public demand for his management practices, even if the public doesn't buy his meat for that reason.

"Our choices so far have been for very pragmatic reasons," he says. "(The public) definitely understands if a wolf is being shot and it shapes their attitudes."

But some ranchers are not so eager to embrace non-lethal wolf control methods. Sometimes, the non-lethal methods they tried only worked in the short term. This long-established community has struggled to keep up with the explosion in the wolf population over the last decade. Even Stevens admits that most non-lethal wolf control methods only work for so long, maybe a couple of weeks or so.

"It takes a combination of different methods to be effective," says Teresa Howes, a U.S. Wildlife Service and Department of Agriculture spokesperson. She says most ranchers bend over backwards to use non-lethal wolf control methods--from noise boxes to tracking wolves with radio collars to guard dogs.

"There are a lot of successes but the successes come with a lot of difficult decisions. No one wants to see a wolf removed," she says.

And ranchers say it's not easy to get state approval to remove a wolf. They have to wait for state officials to perform a necropsy on livestock remains in a sort of CSI investigation of "whodunnit?" Lord watched a biologist peel back layers of skin to examine puncture wounds, bleed patterns and crush wounds to rule out the possibility that another animal killed their calf. Then non-lethal scare tactics or pack tracking is encouraged to avoid predator-livestock conflicts.

"No one's going to go out and get a tag and say, 'Today I'm going to go to hunt a wolf,'" says Deb Lord. Plus, as difficult as it is to find wolf kill before the remains are consumed by nature, it's even more difficult to corner a wolf.

"Some think the state has been reluctant to take a wolf," says Karen Williams, Calf/Cow Council Coordinator with the Idaho Cattle Association. The stats don't necessarily back that up, as 26 wolves have been lethally removed in Idaho since the state took control--as opposed to 88 between 1987 and 2005. But what has changed is that now, when the killing of a wolf is seen as the only resort, people take notice.

Suzanne Stone has spent recent months making the media interview rounds. The Defenders of Wildlife Northern Rockies representative recently appeared on National Public Radio talking about what she calls her "babies." Specifically, she was talking about one family that encompassed the roughly 650 wolves estimated to roam Idaho. Those wolves are the offspring of a handful of wolves she helped transplant from Canada to a Central Idaho forest in 1995.

"I helped open the gates. I'm such a proud mom," Stone says. "Their great-great grandchildren are my babies."

One of the reintroduced wolves, named "Chat Chaaht" by a group of Nez Perce school children, lived up to his name--which means means "older brother" in Nez Perce--and became the oldest known wolf to live in the North American wild. Chat Chaat went blind at 10 years old and amazingly, survived another three years thanks to the care of his pack, Stone says. He died at the age of 13 in the spring of 2005. His body was found curled up beneath pine tree just feet away from a consumed big game carcass. He appeared in relatively good health and didn't die by gun, starvation or by any obvious disease, Stone says. Nature had just taken its course.

"What a success: To have a wolf die of old age," Stone says.

But Stone's recent media interviews were not about wolves living to a ripe old age in the wild. The news was about pups who were likely starved and a wolf family that Stone says died before its time.

Wolves have never had an easy time since European transplants settled the West, Stone says. The wolves of fairy tales are lone predators that blow houses down, eat little old grandmothers and deceive little girls.

"No one really knew the wolf because it was surrounded by all this imagining from humans about what they should be," Stone says. "But people turned around and became enchanted by the wolf."

That enchantment partially speaks to the media interest in the latest lethal wolf removal. In July, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game approved the killing of an alpha male and alpha female. The wolves were shot and their 8- to 10-week-old pups were left to fend for themselves.

"By killing the alpha male and alpha female, they were putting a death sentence on the pups," Stone says.

Howes says aerial shotgun methods of killing wolves is often the best and sometimes only way of removing problem wolves, even if it means not every member of a wolf pack is killed. The remoteness of some wolf activity and undeveloped landscapes make it difficult to reach the wolves any other way.

Stone doesn't expect sympathy for these wolves from many Idahoans. She is used to working in hostile conditions: She's attended public meetings with armed anti-wolf fractions; one Idaho rancher put up a reward of $5,000 for a pair of wolf ears, and Stone spied a sign in Clayton calling for the slaughter of wolves and those like Stone who try to protect them.

But the tables have turned over the post-reintroduction years, Stone says. She knows plenty of ranchers who don't want orphaned pups to starve in the wild, and they're working with wolf advocates to make sure a wolf doesn't die in the name of productive and profitable ranching. And Stone says that's the news you don't always hear in the story of the wolf.

"I respect and admire so many of the ranchers we work with," Stone says.

The newly found alliance between conservationists and ranchers has groups like the Defenders for Wildlife assisting with the cost of no-kill wolf management methods, conservationists and ranchers working side by side to develop new technologies to keep wolf packs away from herds, and has Stone's group honoring livestock producers as heroes of wildlife.

The latest of what Stone considers coopperative successes puts range riders, or people on horseback, out with herds to monitor and fend off would-be problem wolves. On the more high-tech end is "turbo-fladry," a system that helps corral livestock and repel predators. Turbo-fladry is basically a cross between an electric fence and the invisible fences used in combination with a shock collar to keep dogs from leaving their yard--and like those systems, its mild electric shocks can work quite effectively, at least in the short term.

Defenders of Wildlife worked with ranchers to test the turbo-fladry system around a Clayton area pond that attracted wolves with its abundant fish stock.

"An open sushi bar," Stone calls it.

Without fail, wolves migrated to the pond for a feeding frenzy. They left evidence of their all-you-can-eat evening of dining in the form of perfect paw prints pressed into the damp soil surrounding the pond.

This remote pond offered an ideal test location for the turbo-fladry that, when put up around the pond, corralled the riparian area and its fish contents much like it could corral a herd of sheep. After the first night, the turbo-fladry was put in use, not a single paw print appeared. The second night: No paw prints. The third night: No paw prints. The turbo-fladry might not eliminate all predator-livestock conflicts but the system isn't a shotgun.

"I think we're onto something," Stone says.

On Wednesday, October 25, Suzanne Stone wrote a letter to the editor about this article saying, "Last week, Boise Weekly ran an article titled “Anatomy of a Wolf Attack,” which unfortunately contained some misquotes and misinformation. Primarily, the statements attributed to me referring to wolves my “babies” and saying that I’m “such a proud mom” are not accurate quotes. While I deeply respect the animals that we work to protect, I do not consider them my “babies” or “great, great grandchildren.” The latter reference was only in regard to the offspring of those wolves that were originally reintroduced to Idaho in the mid-1990s.  I appreciate the personal apology from the writer and hope that the readers, particularly those involved in wolf conservation, also see this clarification. There were other mistakes in the article including a statement that a rancher had offered a $5000 reward for a pair of wolf ears. Contrary to that statement, a St. Maries paper recently ran a letter from a local resident offering a $5000 reward for a pair of Defenders of Wildlife’s staff members’ ears.  It had nothing to do with ranchers.  I also did not state that the Big Water pack “died before its time.”  The concern I shared was in regard to their pups being left to starve to death and that this was a serious departure from professional wildlife management practices upheld in the past. For added accuracy, the parents of those pups were trapped and shot, after killing sheep, not killed during helicopter aerial gunning actions.  In addition, there were several agencies involved in testing wolf-proof barriers in Clayton, Idaho including USDA Wildlife Service and their National Research Center, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service. It’s important that we share the credit with all those who partnered on the project. The wolf issue in Idaho is controversial and often very complicated.  I appreciate BW for tackling the issue and hope these clarifications help reduce any misunderstandings regarding the article.  UPDATE, March 20, 2014: BW stands by the work its reporter and the content of her story.