Montana Wolves Kill 120 Sheep

In one incident, three adult wolves massacre an entire herd of purebreed sheep in Montana, raising tensions between conservationists and ranchers

Nowadays, wolves are rarely seen as vicious predators—they're more often thought of as mascots for conservation, or as a symbol of the wild. But lest we forget, they're also extremely skilled killers: Last week, three adult wolves killed 120 sheep in a single incident near Dillon, Montana. It's the largest known depredation in recent state history, and in one fell swoop, this tops the 111 livestock taken by wolves in all of 2008.

"We went up there the next day and tried to count them, but there were too many to count," (rancher Jon) Konen recalled. "I had tears in my eyes, not only for myself but for what my stock had to go through," he added. "They were running, getting chewed on, bit and piled into a corner. They were bit on the neck, on the back, on the back of the hind leg.

"They'd cripple them, then rip their sides open."

The attack raises tensions between ranchers and hunters eager to capitalize on impending wolf-hunting season (the first since the species was removed from the Endangered Species list begins Sept. 15) and conservationists who argue that wolf populations are still to fragile to withstand hunting. But even wolf defenders are at a loss to understand a livestock slaughter on this scale perpetrated by so few wolves. 

"I've heard of bears or mountain lions doing that, but what usually happens is the sheep panic and jump on top of one another or fall into a ditch and suffocate," (Suzanne) Stone (with Defenders of Wildlife) said. "I've never heard of any situation where wolves killed so much livestock in such a short period of time...this is the most extreme case I've ever heard about."

After the massacre of 120 purebred Rambouillet bucks, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks agents flew over the scene and found the 3 adults and five pups of the Centennial pack nearby. They shot one uncollared adult wolf, but were not authorized to kill more.

This year, Montana will allow hunters to take 75 wolves, while Idaho (their hunt begins today) will allow 265 wolves to be hunted. Wyoming wolves are still under Endangered Species protection. Montana has several reimbursement programs for ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, but most ranchers don't think it's enough. Meanwhile, wildlife organizations argue that shooting adult wolves will compound the problem by leading younger wolves to rely on easier-to-kill livestock.

The deeply-entrenched wolf debate continues, but these three wolves sure didn't make anything easier on their kind. It's impossible, but it's almost as if they knew they were about to be hunted, and launched a pre-emptive strike. Creepy.

—Ted Alvarez

Wolves kill 120 sheep at ranch near Dillon (Missoulian)

Image Credit: Tambako the jaguar