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By the end of this year, the federal government plans to removed gray wolves from the endangered species list in the northern Rocky Mountains. That pleases many ranchers in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, who say the protected wolf population threatens their livelihood. But as Shannon Mullen reports, the wolf comeback may be the least of ranchers' worries.
SHANNON MULLEN: As the sun dips behind the Wind River Mountain Range in western Wyoming, long shadows fall across Stan Huvendick's(ph) 800-acre cattle ranch.
Mr. STAN HUVENDICK (Cattle Ranch Owner): You see right out there, that of herd mulies there? Last winter, there was 53 head of mules that wintered right there. That's one of the reasons we ranch.
MULLEN: Looking our over his open range, Huvendick says the land hasn't changed much since pioneers followed the Oregon Trail through this area a century and a half ago. But all around him in this valley, new houses are rising where cattle used to roam as more of his neighbors sell out of ranching.
Mr. HUVENDICK: And we've been offered real big money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MULLEN: Like what?
Mr. HUVENDICK: Well, I mean, millions of millions of dollars. But I don't want to sell. What would I do?
MULLEN: Huvendick has been running cattle since 1965 and says it's never been profitable. Now, he's one of a growing number of small-scale ranchers in the northern Rockies who claim they're barely staying in business. Ask them why, the first thing they'll tell you is wolves. With herds of fewer than 1,000 head, a loss of even one or two cattle can be financially crippling. Grizzly bears and coyotes kill the most cattle, but more often, the wolf takes the blame.
Mr. HUVENDICK: He's a magnificent animal, and that's the way the good Lord made him. If the wolf don't bother me, I don't bother him. But if he's killing my cattle, I've got to do something. We can't take the death loss that we've had, especially this year.
MULLEN: Since last winter, Huvendick says he's lost 16 cattle worth some $14,000. But he admits he can't prove wolves kill them, and the number of confirmed livestock losses to wolves is small, 169 total this year out of more than six million cattle in the region.
Mr. ED BANKS (Manager of Regional Wolf Population, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): To the individual rancher, it could be a big deal. To a livestock industry, it's absolutely insignificant.
MULLER: That's Ed Banks. He's the regional wolf population manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the agency has used its authority to destroy 172 wolves this year in an aggressive response to livestock kills. But he says that policy is not enough for ranchers.
Mr. BANKS: The West is changing, and so the wolf becomes a symbol of the billionaires moving in to Jackson Hole and buying some big fancy ranch, so they can walk around and be a cowboy, and it has nothing to do with wolves.
MULLEN: Instead, it's about what kind of West this will become, whether tourist dollars and oil derricks would drive the economy instead of tractors, and working ranches will be endangered instead of wolves.
Dr. FRANZ CAMENZIND (Executive Director, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance): You know, their back is up against the barbed wire fence. There's no question that ranching in the West is a very threatened way of life.
MULLEN: Franz Camenzind heads the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. The Wyoming advocacy group wants wolves kept on the endangered species list to protect them from hunting. But Camenzind believes ranchers can co-exist with a carefully managed wolf population. He's heard stories from angry and proud ranchers whose great grandfathers killed the last wolf in their valley. He understands it's personal. But, he says, it's the past.
Dr. CAMENZIND: In the future ranching, the wolf is not their biggest problem. You know, the ramifications with ranching and their ability to keep their property and keep it from being developed, I think, is real, but the wolf is not going to be the difference because all over the West, they're facing this, and there's only a few places that have wolves.
MULLEN: In Wyoming, the wolf population is now at its highest in decades. At the same time, ranches across the region are shutting down. The Cattlemen's Association here says its membership ranks are thinning, down five percent in just five years. Stan Huvendick says he'll keep trying to put off selling his land.
Mr. HUVENDICK: We survive it somehow. We go to the bank and hope you'll see us through another year. But we can't take this for long, I can tell you that.
MULLEN: Saving Huvendick's livelihood is not going to be as simple as delisting the wolf. But ranchers say, of all the challenges they're facing, this is the only one they can put in their crosshairs and shoot. For NPR News, I'm Shannon Mullen.
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