Doug Robinson: Ranchers not just crying wolf

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 5 2010 1:16 a.m. MDT

Dick Thoman, a fourth-generation sheep rancher in Wyoming, woke up one morning and found 42 of his sheep bloody and dead on the open range. They had been slaughtered by wolves.

The wolves didn't kill only what they needed to survive, and they didn't kill because they were hungry, as some like to claim. They killed for sport; they killed because that's what wolves do.

Not one of the sheep had been eaten.

"Just killed 'em and left 'em," says Thoman.

If Thoman and other ranchers wrote this column, they would tell you their story, and it wouldn't be the politically correct version. They would pretty much write it this way:

The Tree-Huggers and Granolas, the politicos in their Washington offices — they don't get it. It's not as if ranchers don't have enough trouble surviving these days, what with the bad economy and government regulations and foreign tariffs and land restrictions and foreign imports. So what does the government do? Twenty years ago the feds captured wolves in Canada and turned them loose in Yellowstone National Park. And not just any wolves, but über wolves.

Memo from ranchers: Thanks a heap.

Not that the wolves cared about park boundaries. Thoman's summer range borders Yellowstone. He loses 300 to 400 sheep a year to wolves, or about 10 percent of his herd. Why would they chase wild game in the park for hours on end when they can find them all bunched up and defenseless on adjacent ranches? It's like a grocery store on hooves.

Did anybody not see that coming?

"They've slaughtered us since they brought them back," Thoman says. "It's terrible."

This doesn't even take into account Thoman's other losses. With wolves around, sheep are nervous. Imagine having a terrorist loose in the neighborhood each night, trying to get into your house to kill you. The sheep don't sleep or eat as well.

"We probably lost 15 pounds per lamb over the summer, and at a dollar a pound and over 3,000 lambs, that adds up," says Thoman.

What in tarnation were the pinheads in Washington thinking? Did they ever read "Peter and the Wolf," "Three Little Pigs," "Little Red Riding Hood," "White Fang," "Call of the Wild"? Do they know what wolves are? They're sharks, on land. And ranchers can't touch them. Wolves are on the endangered species list. A rancher risks his range permits and his livelihood and a felony if he shoots one.

Imagine if you owned a department store and a dozen convicted thieves moved in next door and you weren't allowed to lock the door.

Thoman has tried everything — flashing highway lights around his herd at night, a propane cannon, an electric fence. None of it works. The wolves get used to it and come back for more.

Now Western Republicans are trying to convince the federal government to let states determine their own rules regarding wolves. It's time to thin the pack. The wolf population has swelled.

Sheesh, isn't that just like the government? They spend years pursuing some pie-in the-sky notion and now they've created a monster that wasted everybody's money.

"It's not even a reintroduction of the wolf," says Thoman. "It's an introduction. These wolves came from Canada and Alaska. They're huge — 200 pounds, some of them. The government isn't preserving anything. There are plenty of 'em. They shoulda just let the native wolves produce naturally. They're much smaller."

Sure, reintroducing wolves in the West seems like a romantic notion, but we can't go back in time. We can't undo the change man has brought to the continent and the balance of things.

It's not wolves that should be on endangered species list; it's ranchers. They've been made to feel unwanted and unappreciated. They've been handed every challenge anybody could dream up. It's as if city folks think meat grows on trees or comes in a can. They cry for protection for wolves because they're beautiful and natural; meanwhile, they're knocking down a steak in a restaurant while wearing their good wool suit.

Farmers and ranchers are trying to feed a country and make a living. If you don't think it's your problem, think again. Have you traveled the world? American food is cheap and plentiful. It won't remain that way if farmers and ranchers keep getting pushed around.

"They're going to wind up importing food from foreign countries because we want to be a white-collar nation," says Thoman. "They're making life almost impossible for us. They're biting the hand that feeds them."

With hundreds of sheep dead on the range each summer, Thoman isn't just crying wolf. "My grandfather was among the ranchers here in late 1800s, and they killed off the last of the wolves," says Thoman. "They did it for a reason. They couldn't coexist."

Doug Robinson's column appears every Tuesday. Please send e-mail to drob@desnews.com.

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