When wolves go bad - according to us
By Wendy Beye - Writers on the Range/High Country News

The wolves of the Ninemile Valley pack in Montana have made an error in judgment: They've discovered that llamas make tasty and easy-to-kill meals.

When the big predators stuck to a diet of deer, elk, mice, squirrels, grasshoppers and the occasional cow or sheep, residents of this western Montana valley were pleased to be living cheek-by-jowl with their very own genuine pack of wolves. This year, the local populace is succumbing to fear that has its roots in medieval horror stories of savage beasts with glowing red eyes.

The change in prey has turned public opinion from positive to negative in the time it took the wolves to lick their chops. At the same moment wolves are being considered for removal from their federal listing as an endangered species, some Montanans are calling for once again wiping them out.

The wolves in this small valley 15 miles west of Missoula have never had an easy time. Their hardships began in 1990, when a lone pregnant wolf found her way from the Canadian border to the Ninemile Valley, long before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began its wolf restoration program. A male followed the female's scent trail and moved in to help take care of her six pups. The pups were orphaned before they lost their milk teeth. Their mother was shot and their adoptive father was hit by a 16-wheeler on Interstate 90.

Local wildlife officials went out of their way to help the youngsters survive their first winter alone, carefully dragging road-killed deer into the area whenever they could. They kept a paternal eye on their condition and their whereabouts a guarded secret. The wolves became the darlings of the news media, with people from town driving up and down the Ninemile Road hoping for a glimpse of the elusive creatures. The wolves even attracted a national following, thanks to a book by Rick Bass, The Ninemile Wolves.

All the help and concern paid off. The wolves formed a pack and trained themselves in the art of hunting large prey animals. While they occasionally slipped up and attacked a cow or sheep, they seemed to prefer a diet of wild animals. A few years ago, however, one llama was attacked.

Then this spring, wolves killed or maimed five more llamas. Many residents now say they can accept that wolves eat doe-eyed does, but they're horrified that the predators also target doe-eyed backyard llamas. Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporter Sherry Devlin of the Missoulian: "All I can imagine is that llamas must be good eating. The wolves just keep coming back to them."

Geri Ball, who owned the latest llama victim, is worried about just that. Her male "guard llama" was unsuccessful in thwarting the attack, she said, but "he's still down there in the field humming. He knows something is wrong."

Breathless news anchors have stood over bloody carcasses. A video clip showing the slashed hindquarters of a panicked llama being stitched up by a veterinarian has played over and over. A mother is interviewed, her arm wrapped protectively around a small child. She refuses to allow her children to walk to the bus stop down the driveway, afraid that a ravenous wolf might eye human prey.

Government hunters are once again hunting wolves with high-powered assault weapons wielded through a helicopter door, not knowing whether the particular wolves they destroy are the culprits with a taste for llama flesh. My fear is that all wolves in the region will be painted with the same brush.

Today I flew a small airplane over a wilderness area, listening by means of a direction-finder to the "chirp" of a radio collar attached to a wolf. The wolf I tracked for the Nez Perce Tribe was minding his own business, doing what wolves do, hunting for prey to keep his belly full. In the wilderness, domestic prey animals are not an issue. It is at the edge of wilderness - where people have built houses - that pets become prey.

Wolf supporters sometimes see wolves as "totem creatures," to whom we should gladly sacrifice a llama or two. Some wolf opponents see wolves as ravenous carnivores ultimately intent on human prey. The wolves are neither. They are magnificent wild animals, but in their quest for survival, they sometimes interfere with human husbandry, sticking wildlife managers with difficult choices. I'm hoping that wolves, though occasionally mistaken in their choice of diet, will still be allowed to fill their niche in the Rocky Mountains.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies
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