For at least the third time this year, members of the Pinnacle Peak Pack have wandered west of the highway dividing the National Elk Refuge and Grand Teton National Park and found their way to Spring Gulch pastureland.
“Unfortunately, last week we had at least three more wolves right there in the same area,” said Tyler Abbott, the agency’s field supervisor for Wyoming. “They took one calf and ran livestock through the fence one night, and another night they took a calf and bit up another one.
“We had to send somebody back up there,” Abbott said.
Somebody, in this instance, is an agent from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program — the branch of the federal government that specializes in lethal control of wildlife.
Wildlife Services has already been to Spring Gulch twice this year, and through Wednesday had killed 11 of the estimated 19 wolves in the Pinnacle Peak Pack in an attempt to stop the conflict. The pack has denned on the refuge for the past seven years, and had managed to stay away from domestic animals as a food source until this spring.
“We were pretty confident that we removed the ones that we were causing all the depredations and chasing all the livestock around,” Abbott said.
Three wolves returned, however, Abbott said, that are believed to be young of the year. Through Wednesday Wildlife Services had been unsuccessful in attempts to kill the animals, he said.
Abbott has not yet authorized the removal of the entire Pinnacle Peak Pack and was hopeful the “step wise” approach of killing several wolves at a time so the remaining animals learn to associate livestock with danger could still work. The three wolves implicated in the last attack are the only animals being targeted at this stage, he said.
“They do seem to learn that it’s not a safe situation. They’re smart and they leave the area,” Abbott said. “These came back, but we may get lucky and they may just go back and remain there until you guys get heavy snow and the elk come back. It’s very hard to say if that’ll be the case.”
In addition to the lethal dissuasion, Wildlife Services also teamed up the Natural Resources Defense Council to attempt non-lethal deterrents on the Walton Ranch. For two weeks, until it was taken down this week, electric fence lined with red “fladry” — flags that blow in the wind — surrounded hundreds of cattle on the ranch property at the base of West Gros Ventre Butte.
The technique seemed to work, as no Walton Ranch cows were lost after the electrified fladry went up. After weeks of steady conflict, Walton Ranch cowboy Terry Schramm welcomed the lull in activity.
“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what the spring brings,” Schramm said. “If there’s no wolves here then we don’t have to worry about it, but if they show up then we’ll have to do something.”
But the most recent conflict occurred on a nearby ranch, Abbott said.
Longtime Spring Gulch rancher Russ Lucas coped with wolf conflict earlier this year and still has livestock grazing in the area, but he wasn’t able to be reached for an interview.
Wolves have killed cattle in recent weeks in lower portions of the Gros Ventre drainage as well, Abbott said. The Slate Creek or Lower Gros Ventre Pack were the suspects, though Wildlife Services was not dispatched because it appeared to be an isolated attack.
2016 isn’t yet over, and it’s already proven to be the busiest to date for wolf-livestock conflict in Wyoming since the large carnivore was reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park 21 years ago.