Wolves kill 120 sheep in a single incident in Montana

Sep 4, 2009



Konen quickly learned that "mess" turned out to be what could be Montana’s single worst slaughter of sheep by a pack of wolves. More than 120 of his purebred Rambouillet bucks were savagely mauled by the wolves either the previous Friday night or Saturday.

By contrast, the total number of sheep killed by wolves in the entire state of Montana during all of 2008 was 111.

The carnage occurred on private land about 35 miles south of Dillon in the Rock Creek drainage of the Blacktail Mountains where Konen’s family has grazed sheep and cattle for more than 50 years with few incidents.

"We’ve never had any trouble leaving bucks in there," Konen says, noting they routinely summer there. "We check for water and salt every two or three days."

When checked on Thursday, Aug. 13, everything appeared fine. However, the scene turned indescribably ugly when Konen’s son got up bright and early the following Sunday to be sure they had plenty of water. Out of about 160 bucks pastured there, only 19 were found alive. They ranged in size from 150 to 200 pounds.

Konen, who rushed back to Dillon from eastern Montana, his wife Cathy and a brother-in-law inspected the scene the following Monday to witness firsthand the mass killing’s nightmarish aftermath. The wolves evidently ran the sheep into a fence and trapped them. Some of the bucks also were found dead in nearby sagebrush and a creek bottom.

Most had been killed for the sport, not hunger. The Konens speculate the adult wolves were training their pups how to kill prey because they brought the sheep down without eating most of them.

"Some were ripped apart. One carcass was eaten on," Konen says.

In July, the Konens lost 26 sheep to a pack of wolves in the same pasture. One wolf was killed at that time, but the rest got away, evidently to strike again with even more ferocity. Between the attacks in July and August, he pegs his financial loss at a minimum of $50,000.

Konen’s eyes well up when he remembers how his precious buck sheep were chewed, bitten, crippled and even eviscerated by the wolves. Federal trappers confirm 82 bucks were killed by wolves and 40 carcasses were classified as probable kills.

Following the attack, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) authorized the trappers to remove three wolves observed in the area. They shot two wolves and looked for a third that escaped, but opted not to kill two radio-collared adults and five pups within an eighth of a mile of the sheep kill.

The Konens wanted the entire pack wiped out because of the severity of the attack on their bucks, but their request was denied. Konen criticized Carolyn Sime, Montana’s wolf coordinator, for delaying a visit to the scene and not promptly responding when the slaughter was reported.

Sime said the Konens failed to use electric fences, guard dogs, herders or fladry lines to protect their livestock.

FWP has taken the lead in wolf management from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). It has a memorandum of understanding to provide damage management services when livestock are killed by wolves.

USFWS reintroduced wolves into Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in 1995. Montana and Idaho this month both initiated gray wolf hunts after the wolves were delisted in May as endangered species in the northern Rockies. Montana’s statewide limit is 75; Idaho’s limit is 220.

The Konens are grateful two bands of ewes were pastured elsewhere, but are concerned that wolves have been spotted near their cattle over a nearby hill from the sheep. One dead calf was found stripped to the bones. "They cleaned out the bucks, now they’re starting on the cattle," Konen says. "It’s one of those things that is just devastating."

The slaughtered bucks represent at least 50 years of lost breeding on the second-generation Rebish/Konen Livestock Ranch founded by his wife’s father and uncle.

Because breeding season looms, Konen now must scramble to attend public sheep sales as far away as Dubois, WY, and Miles City, MT. To do so, he must drop or delay other responsibilities to replace the killed bucks with sheep of different blood lines. Konen says it’s high time to reduce Montana’s wolf numbers with hunts.

"We’ve managed it and managed it and managed it for so many years. Now, we’ve got to control it. There are way too many wolves," Konen says, estimating the state’s wolf population has grown from 100 wolves and 10 breeding pair to 500 wolves and 40 breeding pair.

"If we don’t start controlling instead of trying to manage them, it’s going to get way worse than what it is right now. Ranchers are not in it to feed the predators. We’re here to feed people. People back east don’t know what we go through."

Montana’s legislators and wildlife regulators have not stepped up to confront the wolf depredation problem, Konen says. If 110,000 hunters in Montana were to buy wolf hunting tags at $19 each, that would generate more than $2 million that could be used toward livestock mitigation, he adds, noting insurance won’t cover his loss.

The Konens have applied to the Montana Livestock Loss Program to get reimbursed for the sheep. It pays up to $350 each for buck sheep and can kick in more if a rancher can show they are worth more.

"It’s tough, but we will get back into it," Konen says.

The Montana Legislature has earmarked $150,000 to compensate ranchers who lose livestock to wolves. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, has co-sponsored a bill that includes $5 million in federal funding for depredation losses over five years.

George Edwards, who coordinates the state’s livestock loss mitigation program, expects the Konens will be reimbursed $350 for each dead sheep, but he adds the loss is more than just monetary for the ranchers, who get attached to their animals. The emotional toll is indescribable, he says. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent

Jon Konen was unloading lambs for sale at Billings, MT, on Sunday, Aug. 16, when he got a frantic call on his cell phone from a son who remained behind at their ranch near Dillon, MT, to tend to their livestock there. "Dad, we’ve got a heck of a mess up here!" his son exclaimed.