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Clash of wolves, cattle continues in Spring Gulch

Longtime Spring Gulch cattle rancher Russ Lucas said his family has lost two calves and a grown cow to wolves this year, including the calf pictured, which he had to kill due to its injuries on April 17. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department confirmed and reimbursed the ranch for only two of the three head Lucas believes wolves killed because one of the calves was “eaten up too much.”

Russ Lucas first noticed in mid-April that an unwelcome neighbor — wolves — were back on his family’s Spring Gulch cattle ranch.

The hindquarter of a calf, he recalled, had been bit into, and its hide peeled back. Seeing the severity of the wounds, the third-generation rancher knew exactly what had happened and what he needed to do.

“They tore him up bad enough, I had to kill him,”” Lucas told the News&Guide on Tuesday.

The conflict, which unfolded just 4 miles north of Jackson, traces to the abundant elk population just across Highway 89, where a vast ungulate winter range sprawls across the National Elk Refuge. Wolves, in turn, thrive on the same landscape, and almost invariably the large carnivores start wandering and looking for an easy meal when the elk start their migrations. They find it on private land just over East Gros Ventre Butte, where the Lucases, the Meads and owners of the Walton Ranch run cattle on some of the valley’s last remaining working cattle ranches.

The canine-bovine clash has reached a fevered pitch at times. In 2016 the refuge’s then-resident Pinnacle Peak Pack were being targeted by federal trappers employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services.

But the wolves were never entirely eliminated. And in the four years that have since lapsed the conflict continued, albeit with less fanfare.

Lucas knows firsthand. There’s been a single year in recent memory — 2018, he thinks — when the wolves failed to pay a visit. Their presence is more than a passing frustration for a family that has most of its land locked up in conservation easements and depends on its cattle income. Reimbursement payments, he said, aren’t guaranteed, such as when a calf or cow is too eaten up to confirm a cause of death or when an animal is injured while being chased or protecting its offspring.

Wolves have been a state-managed species since 2017, when a federal appeals court overturned an earlier ruling that had kept the species under the protective cloak of the Endangered Species Act.

Now it’s the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that manages the conflict in this portion of the Equality State.

Dan Thompson, who leads the agency’s large carnivore program, said solving the chronic Spring Gulch cattle conflict is not straightforward and that there’s an ever-changing ecological system at play.

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