Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mystery animal killing sheep in McCone, Garfield counties in Montana

By The Associated Press

BOZEMAN -- Ranchers in McCone and Garfield counties, as well as federal wildlife officials, are hunting a wolf or wolf hybrid that has killed 35 sheep and wounded 70 others since late December.

The attacks started near Circle more than 250 miles from the nearest known wolf territory. Five sheep were killed and 15 wounded, some of which died later.

The next attack happened Jan. 10 and ended with 21 grown ewes dead and 40 injured.

In both cases, agents with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services looked at tracks and other evidence and determined domestic dogs were responsible.

On Jan. 12, four more sheep were killed and six injured, said Carolyn Sime, wolf program coordinator for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Word of the attacks spread, and ranchers began looking for a killer dog.

On Feb. 6, Jeff Skyberg, a private trapper in Circle, got a call from a rancher who said he'd spotted large dog tracks in some fresh snow.

Skyberg, who works for a local predator control district funded by ranchers, got in a small plane and followed the tracks. "When I got to the end of the tracks, it wasn't a dog," he said.

He described what looked like a wolf: a big gray animal with a straight tail. Dog or hybrid tails often curl.

He landed the plane and called state wildlife officials to find out if he could legally kill the animal. FWP officials informed him that only Wildlife Services could legally kill what could be a wolf.

"By the time Wildlife Services got there, we'd lost it," Skyberg said. "It walked off into a sagebrush coulee, and we never could find it. We were out of gas and out of time."

The animal has attacked two more times since then, killing two sheep and wounding 11.

Officials are now calling it a wolf or wolf hybrid, and ranchers and Wildlife Services are on the offensive.

Federal rules adopted in 2005 allow ranchers to kill wolves that are attacking or menacing livestock. When ranchers suffer losses, they can obtain kill permits that are good for 45 days after an attack and can be used only on their land. Four kill permits have been issued.

Wildlife Services agents stationed in Jordan also are hunting the animal, Sime said.

"There is some big canid out there killing sheep, and that's not OK," she said. "We've got to get to the bottom of that."

  • Billings Gazette

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