Skip to comments.Wolf recovery has farmers howling
Posted on 11/10/2002 6:27:17 AM PST by SLB
Grantsburg - It starts after sunset with howls echoing from the black woods at the edge of the pasture.
Then the cows begin to moan.
It is the return of the endangered timber wolf. And for the Fornengo family, there is nothing remotely romantic about it.
These beef cattle ranchers in northwestern Wisconsin say nighttime wolf raids cost them 92 calves last year alone, and they expect similar losses when the cattle are finally tallied for this year.
They say they are being driven out of business - and practically out of their minds - by a wildlife recovery program run amok. When they think of wolves, they see red.
They've found calves with their hindquarters shredded, still alive and trying to suckle. They have stumbled upon a pregnant cow ripped open and her fetus torn out. They have seen calves with crushed throats - dead without losing a drop of blood. Killed, they believe, simply for the thrill.
"You see pictures of (wolves) looking all pretty in the winter, but you don't see pictures of what they do," says Cortney Fornengo, 19. She says wolf numbers have increased so much in the past two years that she no longer will walk alone in the woods around their ranch. "There is a reason the farmers made (wolves) extinct before, and this is probably the reason," she says.
Reviled for their uncanny ability to make life hell for farmers, wolves were shot, trapped, poisoned and eventually eradicated in Wisconsin by the late 1950s. Now, three decades of federal and state efforts to restore the species to the state are starting to pay off - in a big way.
Just over a decade ago, the state was home to less than a few dozen of the deer-loving carnivores that had roamed over from Minnesota's northern timberlands. Today, packs are breeding here with abandon, and their numbers easily top 300.
"I don't know if we ever thought we would be at this point. We figured 100 or 150 wolves may be as many as the state could hold," says Adrian Wydeven of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
In Wisconsin's North Woods, the wolves have reclaimed their spot as the top carnivore, but the federal government has yet to formally acknowledge that success.
The wolf in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula is still listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and that means each animal, no matter how problematic for a farmer, is still protected and cared for as if it were worthy of a berth on Noah's ark.
Most wolves live off deer, though some develop a taste for livestock. So as wolf numbers climb, so do problems for some farmers. Last year alone, Wydeven says 17 hunting dogs were also killed by wolves.
Now even the staunchest wolf advocates agree it is time to reclassify the animals as "threatened," which would allow government workers to kill problem animals. Minnesota wolves have been classified as threatened since 1978.
The federal government first proposed the switch for Wisconsin and the U.P. more than two years ago, but the papers have yet to be signed - thanks, basically, to a tangle of red tape in Washington, D.C. One of the problems is that Wisconsin's reclassification is lumped in with a proposal to change protection levels for wolves in the West. That is a highly emotional and political issue, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is proceeding cautiously.
Still, the reclassification should come before year's end, and most expect the species could be listed as officially recovered within a couple of years. That could open the door to limited wolf hunts.
Meanwhile, trapping and relocating problem animals are the only options to help people such as Cortney Fornengo's father, Tony. He says the process is too slow, and there is no guarantee problem wolves won't return in a couple of days.
When it comes to wolves, Tony Fornengo can be an emotional and sometimes foul-mouthed fellow. Some wildlife workers just shake their heads when his name comes up. But people do agree he has a problem that could be fixed with the stroke of a pen.
"I'm frustrated by the slow pace of the (reclassification) process probably just as much as the folks out there with wolves in their pastures," says Ron Refsnider, regional endangered species listing coordinator for U.S. Fish & Wildlife in Minnesota.
As Fornengo pilots his big black Dodge turbo diesel pickup truck across one of the muddy pastures on the family ranch that stretches over more than 2,000 acres and straddles the Wisconsin-Minnesota border north of Grantsburg, he looks past his herd and off into the woods. He knows there are yellow eyes staring back.
He believes government wildlife officials secretly and illegally reintroduced the animals to Wisconsin, something DNR officials say is nonsense. "It's a (expletive) nightmare around here," he says. "Start shooting the bastards, or let us kill them."
He hears howls at night and gets so mad he can't fall back asleep.
He says he is about to adopt a wolf-management policy he says some others in the area already embrace. It's called shoot, shovel and shut up. "It's gotten to the point where I'll take care of it myself," he says.
Warns Refsnider: "There is a risk. A very big risk."
The maximum federal fine for killing an endangered wolf is up to $100,000 and six months in jail.
Wildlife officials acknowledge illegal killings are on the rise. In a recent 12-month period, 15 wolves were found killed in Wisconsin. This fall, four turned up shot in the U.P.
"In the past, we'd probably have one or two shot per year," Wydeven says.
Fornengo insists he is left with little choice but to take the endangered species law into his own hands.
The bleeding, he says, has spilled out of his pastures and into his ledgers, and he is not sure how long he can keep operating the ranch his father purchased in 1953. He says the wolves claimed $50,000 worth of livestock last year alone.
State policy provides for Fornengo and other farmers to be reimbursed for livestock lost to wolves, but state wildlife managers question Fornengo's numbers. Only nine of his losses last year could be confirmed. Fornengo says wolves are such voracious eaters that they often leave no trace of their kill on his expansive ranch lands, which are home to more than 1,200 head of cattle. State biologists remain dubious, but they did agree to pay for about one-third of the family's reported losses last year.
Fornengo sent back the check, hired a lawyer and has vowed to sue.
"I'm just trying to make an honest living," he says.
Back from oblivion
Before he will talk about the issue, Fornengo wants to know one thing: "Are you for the wolf, or against the wolf?"
He divides people into these two camps. His side is by far the underdog.
The wolf enjoys overwhelming support across America. Maybe it's because the creatures have been gone for so long they no longer seem so big and bad. Maybe it is because people today have a greater appreciation for all aspects of the environment, even the messy business that goes on at the top of the food chain.
Maybe it's because the closest most people ever get to one of the beasts is a glossy magazine photo.
Sitting on a bar stool in the North Woods city of Spooner, well driller Chris Lindstrom says it is simply a matter of respecting Mother Nature.
"We have coyotes. We have fox. We have fishers. We have a lot of predators in this area," he says. "It's nice to have the wolf around . . . you've got to have balance."
Not everyone is so tolerant. Gilman's Lawrence Krak has fought wolf recovery for years. He doesn't believe the species ever was endangered, given its numbers in Minnesota and Canada. He considers the recovery a make-work project for federal biologists. As for the wolves themselves, he says, "We got along just fine without them."
For others, the animals have become, quite literally and simply, a matter of fact.
Asked what she thinks about the creatures, Radisson gas station attendant Amy Rynda replies, "They're around. That's all."
It is a testament to a wolf recovery program that has been, by most accounts, a wild success.
The wolf was among the first protected following passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and not long after that, they began to roam over from northern Minnesota and slowly began to recolonize Wisconsin forests.
Today biologists count 323 animals inside state borders, and the actual figure likely is higher. The U.P. has a similar number.
The key to the recovery?
"Just quit shooting them for a while, and let them do their thing," says Martin Smith, a biologist for the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
Perhaps their natural return is the reason so many people in the northern Midwest have been so willing to make room for them.
It was a different story out West.
In 1995, the federal government embarked on a controversial program to capture Canadian wolves and drop them in the wilds of central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.
Network television news loved the story, but many Westerners saw the reintroduction more as a chance for the federal government to flex its muscles than as an attempt to save a species.
It didn't take long before some of the animals started turning up dead with bullet holes in them.
Now, almost eight years later, populations in both Yellowstone and Idaho continue to grow. While rules do allow problem wolves to be killed, hard feelings about the transplant linger.
Stanley, Idaho, hunting guide and outfitter Ron Gillett opposed the reintroduction but says he decided to give the wolves a chance when they first arrived. Their population in Idaho has since blossomed from a handful to hundreds, and he says it is ruining ranching and killing the elk hunt upon which his business depends.
He has sympathy for people such as Fornengo who are trying to cope with a creature Gillett refers to as a "land piranha."
"If I ever go to jail, it will be because of wolves."
Wildlife officials like to say that understanding the science behind an environmental problem and finding a solution to it are the simple parts. Problems occur when that science collides with human interests.
That's when the fur flies. That's where the wolves could be headed as their numbers climb.
"We've built up a store of goodwill in this state toward the wolf," says Eau Claire wolf advocate Jim Olson, a retired college professor. "That is gradually eroding as we get more and more depredation kinds of issues."
State wildlife managers are scrambling now to keep a handle on the burgeoning species. With federal rules prohibiting killing wolves in all but the most extreme cases, such as when a human life is threatened, biologists are playing an elaborate game of musical chairs. Dozens of animals this year have been trapped and transferred around the state.
Recently, an entire pack was shipped to the Menominee Indian reservation located about 40 miles northwest of Green Bay.
"We're running out of places to relocate problem wolves, and we're starting to run the risk that relocated wolves could cause new problems in other locations," says the DNR's Wydeven.
Just last week, one of the wolves that plagued the Fornengo farm was relocated to central northern Wisconsin.
The DNR planned the release for late afternoon to lessen chances that someone would stumble upon the creature while it was in a drug-induced stupor.
The biologists were worried it might get shot.
Their worries were not unfounded. Their dream of restoring the wolf to the North Woods has been realized, but the fear exists that a public relations nightmare could be in store for the animal if the government doesn't move to strip its endangered status.
Some wildlife managers may not like Fornengo's feisty attitude, but they know he has a legitimate problem.
"It's way beyond time" to begin killing problem wolves in Wisconsin, says David Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and perhaps the world's foremost authority on North America's wolves.
"I worry," says Mech, who has worked to recover the wolf for more than three decades. "If we don't handle it right, and if the government doesn't respond to people's needs by delisting the wolf and by letting appropriate management tools be used, then there will be an increasing backlash."
Thanks for the post. Have bookmarked for reference
We don't need the Red Wolf in Kentucky. They won't remain where introduced but will spread much like the Coyote has. Then we've got a serious problem essentially statewide.
What can be predicted is hikers or campers are going to be attacked. Perhaps that's what the Greenies are counting on to keep people out of large protected areas? Wouldn't surprise me.
We may find life becomes more exciting for those of us who hunt varmits. A new adversary.
The problem of having yet another tool to use for land control purposes.
Also sentimental city types who aquire their understanding of nature from the discovery channel get to feel all warm and fuzzy.
Stay well - Stay safe - Stay armed - yorktown
Allegedly do, Miss Fornengo. Nowhere in this article did it EVER say "I SAW THE BIG BAD WOLF DO THIS OR THAT"...
EVERYONE knows it's the saucer people who do the cow mutilations... 'cause I ain't buying the argument that those wiley wolves are eating the ENTIRE calf, especially to the point they are completely gone and nothing provided to the guvment for compensation. The wolves would look like gorged Puffins..
All kidding aside, National Geographic had a tape on the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone, and you can actually see the difference between a puny coyote (which was the top of the food chain) and a pack of wolves.
Yes, they do roam, without concern for "Park Boundries". And the cattlemen are just as pissed at wolves as they are with the damn bison that spread disease. BUT IN THE BIG PICTURE, only the wolves can take down an elk.
Not sure if the deer population in Minnisota or Wisconsin is spreading to the point where the wolves are needed. It's not like they can allow people with GUNS to take care of things. I believe it's more of a sickness/age thing, where the wolves take out the elderly/infirmed in the South Park Manner: You know, "Thin out their numbers"..