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Study Offers New Explanation of the Risk of Wolf Attacks - 2002-04-03

Andreas Chavez is a graduate student from Utah State University. He's completed a two-year study of the two wolf packs roaming the Agassiz Wildlife Refuge. "One reason it was important was it was one of the first studies that was able to document what was going on between wolves and livestock," Mr. Chavez said.

Mr. Chavez looked at the potential threat of the wolves to livestock in the area, and the pack's perceived threat to farmers and ranchers. "The actual threat seemed really low given that there were only an average of two depredation incidents a year. The risk is determined by other factors, such as the availability of wild prey for the wolves," he said.

Wolves are reputed to kill for no reason, but according to Mr. Chavez this view is based on myth and legend, instead of research and facts. He said if other food is available, the chances of wolf attacks on livestock diminish. And he points out the Aggassiz Refuge has a plentiful supply of deer. But, those findings bring little comfort to some local farmers.

Roger Kilen loads hay on a trailer for his cattle and sheep near the north gate of the Agassiz Wildlife Refuge. It's been a tough night for the rancher. Something has been spooking his cattle. He believes it was wolves.

"I had them on the north side of those feed bunks in that loft there, and they went through the east end and then they went through the corner," he said.

Mr. Kilen said the wolf problem is frustrating. Government trappers have been some help, but still he has lost animals. "And we got ten of their timber wolves we caught a mile south here. They came right up behind my house and they took 25 sheep and took them a mile and a half south and they killed six of them that night," he said. Mr. Kilen said, all they found were a few patches of wool. His neighbor, Ronnie Peterson, said this has been a good winter for him: he hasn't lost any cattle to the wolves.

"The other years before that, I've lost four, and in one year, three, and two, in fact I lost a cow that was giving birth. The calf was halfway out and they killed her and they ate the calf right up to the cow's body and then left," Mr. Kilen said.

Mr. Peterson considers the refuge a good neighbor. Refuge staff are willing to help him when he has problems with the wolf pack. But he's skeptical of the study. It only covers two years. And given how many animals he's lost in the past, he said it's hard to accept the idea that wolves pose little threat to livestock. "I don't have no use for them, and you know they are at the top of the food chain out there. They [the government] want to sell licenses for deer [hunting] but if they keep up too much, they'll be too many wolves here and it'll be just them left and they're no good to eat," he said.

Still, Mr. Peterson said he can coexist with the wolves if farmers are allowed to kill problem animals. Gary Huschle is a biologist at the Agassiz Wildlife Refuge. He's a tall, thin man with a dark beard. Standing before an aerial map of the refuge, he said the study shows that future local deer management plans must make maintaining the wolf's food supply a top priority.

He said the study also shows the Agassiz wolves are resilient in the face of human attempts at control.

"In the future when we do start managing wolves, they will be able to replace the pack members that are lost through legal harvest and survive and do quite well," Mr. Huschle said.

The biologist said Andreas Chavez's study is a valuable tool for the refuge staff as they are prepare for the eventual lifting of federal protection for the wolf.