July 1, 2006 — -- Wyoming lost nine of its 1.3 million cattle to wolves last year. The year before the state lost 23 to the canine predators. Both figures are small compared to the number of cows lost to disease and accidents in the state, yet that point is hard to make to cattle ranchers like Alan Ferguson.
"These wolves, they don't kill first," said Ferguson, who lost four calves to wolves this spring. "They take the animal down and then they go to feeding."
Ferguson was reimbursed for the wolf kills by the Defenders of Wildlife, and suffered no financial loss. In fact, the environmental group has paid for more than 2,000 cattle and sheep in the last decade. Yet ranchers like Ferguson say that money from an environmental group isn't the same as beef by the pound.
"To cash in like that is not why I'm in it," he said.
The great outdoor debate in one of this country's most scenic spots stems from the success of the Rocky Mountain Wolf. The wolf was brought back in controlled releases by the federal government in 1995. It has made a tremendous comeback from zero in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to more than 1,000 today.
Even environmentalists say that it is time to take them off the endangered species list. There is only one thing stopping that.
"It's only Wyoming, which is the last holdout on having a reasonable wolf management plan," said Kirk Koepsal of The Sierra Club.
Montana and Idaho have reached an agreement with the federal government to control the wolf population with licensed, state-controlled, limited hunting.
Wyoming's plan is to label wolves "predators," which by law allows ranchers and hunters to kill them without a license. Wyoming wants to keep the wolves in and around Yellowstone Park, but the animals are doing so well they've spread throughout the entire state, and Wyoming insists it needs the right to kill those wolves on sight.
Wyoming Gov. David Freudenthal, a Democrat, insists that his state's ranchers and hunters can be trusted not to wipe out the wolf like they did 100 years ago. He says the federal government's demand for hunting licenses is too much expensive paperwork and he sees no purpose to the license.
The governor says it is unfair for Wyoming to be forced to treat wolves in ranching areas and populated regions the same as wolves in and around Yellowstone.
Last year, 41 wolves were legally killed by federal agents because they roamed too close to livestock or people. And even some ranchers believe the killing will get out of hand if Wyoming classifies wolves as predators and gets its shoot on sight policy.
Ferguson believes there is a middle ground, like the one taken in Montana and Idaho where wolves would be hunted in a controlled fashion.
"With predator status you're running the risk of seeing a lot of wolf derbies and, who knows, extinction again," he said. "The good lord meant them to be here."