MINNEAPOLIS - Ranchers in Western states said they're hopeful the removal of gray wolves from the federal endangered species list will make it easier to hunt the predators and stem losses of cattle and sheep.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month formally lifted federal protections for more than 1,300 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah. That will allow hunting of the carnivores that ranchers say have taken a steady toll on their livestock over the past two decades.
Tex Marchessault, a cattle rancher near Dillon, Mont., said he's lost several young cattle over the years, and other livestock have been injured in attacks. Government trappers killed a six-wolf pack on his land a few years ago, but another pack soon took its place, he said.
"Let the public know what kind of killers we're faced with," Marchessault said. "They're killers and that's the way it is."
Many ranchers distrust a government they say created the problem by reintroducing wolves to the region decades after they were wiped out.
"We were just running along fine for the last 25 to 30 years of my life, and now you put a huge predator into the mix. It certainly makes it a challenge," said John Helle, part of a four-family sheep and cattle operation near Dillon.
While Minnesota has close to 3,000 wolves, the most in the lower 48 states, most of the losses blamed on them have been in the West, especially Montana and Idaho.
Marchessault's neighbor, Tom Tash, said wolves killed two calves and probably killed another in late March and early April. "And another cow split her pelvis fighting them off and had to be destroyed," he added.
Ron Aasheim, spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said his state's wolf population has grown to the point where it can sustain hunting.
But Collette Adkins Giese, a Minnesota-based staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said delisting wolves is premature without a nationwide recovery plan. Wolves in the western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies should remain protected so they can help repopulate portions of the Northeast and Northwest that could support packs again, she said.
Adkins Giese said wolves kill a relatively small number of livestock, and she argued those losses can be handled through compensation or nonlethal options. Federal statistics show guard animals, fencing and frequent checking are the most common nonlethal measures.
When the federal government issues final rules for Great Lakes wolves, the group will decide whether to sue, she said.
"We think there's still too much up in the air with the science," she said.
Jay Bodner, director of natural resources at the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said ranchers know they won't be able to get rid of all wolves but are relieved they can take quicker action when problems arise.
The push to remove wolves from the endangered list came to a head last month when Montana's senators succeeded in doing an end-run around the Endangered Species Act and the courts, which had blocked previous attempts. They attached language to a federal budget bill to force the "delisting" of wolves in the five western states. That move cleared the way for the Fish and Wildlife Service to transfer responsibility for managing wolves to those states.
Montana and Idaho are preparing to hold public wolf hunts this fall.
The Fish and Wildlife Service also plans to take gray wolves off the endangered list in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. A 60-day public comment on that proposal runs through July 5. Some 4,200 wolves now roam the three states.
Protections remain in place for Wyoming's wolves because the federal agency hasn't accepted that state's management plan. The Interior Department is still negotiating with Wyoming officials.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates wolves killed 8,100 adult cattle and calves across the country last year. That loss was valued at $3.6 million, making up less than 4 percent of all losses. Most cattle were lost to illness or weather.
Kim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen's Association, said her family lost six head in 2008 and 2009, for which they were reimbursed $2,100, although the cattle's value was closer to $42,250. She said authorities have killed seven wolves on their property.
Besides the dead livestock, the mere proximity of wolves puts cattle under so much stress they don't breed or put on weight properly, said Baker, who ranches near Hot Springs, Mont.
Wolf numbers are higher but livestock losses are lower in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Gary Nohrenberg, state director for the USDA's Wildlife Services division in Minnesota, said the situations in the Upper Midwest and the West aren't comparable because livestock range free over large territories in the West, while they're largely kept penned on smaller farms in his region.
USDA Wildlife Services verified 130 complaints about wolf depredation in Minnesota last year, and 192 wolves were killed in response. Most of the complaints involved attacks on cattle, domestic dogs, sheep and turkeys. The state paid about $88,400 in wolf claims in fiscal 2009 and $96,500 through the first seven months of the current fiscal year.
"This is time to get them off the list," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "That's how the Endangered Species Act was set up."