(CNSNews.com) - A Montana rancher killed a wolf to protect his cattle herd, and now federal officials say he violated the Endangered Species Act. This apparently extreme instance led one conservative analyst to claim that the act is doing more harm than good, because it forces landowners to "shoot, shovel and shut up."
Roger Lang is a California entrepreneur who owns the 18,000-acre Sun Ranch, south of Ennis, Mont. Over the last 10 years he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help ensure that his ranch is set up and operates legally, especially in conformity with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Lang has experimented with fences, herders, and other nonfatal means to prevent his livestock from being killed by wolves, which had virtually been wiped out in the area during the 1970s but were reintroduced by federal officials in 1994.
After five yearling heifers were killed this summer, Lang decided to become more aggressive in dealing with the pack, which numbered 13 wolves, including seven pups.
"That's a lot of mouths to feed," the ranch owner, who obtained a permit to kill two adult wolves on his property, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Instead, Lang's employees, shooting from a distance, killed a pup in July and wounded the pack's alpha female. As a result of those injuries, the female was unable to run with the pack and spent the next two weeks hovering near the rancher's cattle, seeking easy prey.
But an employee on an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) saw the wounded animal and began chasing it. After hitting the wolf several times, the employee pinned it under the vehicle, Lang said.
"Once it was pinned down, it was trying to take (the employee's) leg off," Lang said. "He couldn't jump off the ATV. What would happen if the wolf escaped? He did the best he could with an awkward situation."
A colleague eventually arrived and shot the animal, said Lang.
In a written statement, Lang called the pup's death "an honest mistake" and said: "I accept ultimate responsibility for this event because I set a tone that proved to be too aggressive. I also accept responsibility for any lapses in the training of my ranch team."
While Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator of the Northern Rocky Mountains for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Cybercast News Service on Friday that he couldn't comment on the specifics of the case, he did provide information regarding Section 10J of the Endangered Species Act, which Lang has been charged with violating.
"When we reintroduced wolves in 1994, we passed special regulations that allowed landowners to shoot a wolf that was actually biting or grasping their livestock on their private land," Bangs said. "The idea was to provide flexibility that's not normally in the Act."
Eleven years later, he said, "we liberalized those rules" to allow a farmer or a rancher and their employees or family members on their private land or their grazing allotments "to shoot any wolf they thought was in the act of attacking their livestock."
Bangs emphasized that the phrase "in the act" is defined as "chasing, molesting and harassing so that an attack is imminent. You're allowed to do that without a permit" even though "you can't trap them, you can't poison them, and you can't hunt them on your place."
"We also issue shoot-on-sight permits in places that have had chronic problems" with wolves, he stated, but they aren't "freebies to hunt down wolves anywhere. The federal regulations are still in place."
"In some situations, guys go beyond the spirit of the law and the rules, and they end up doing stuff they shouldn't do," Bangs added. "In those situations, they can be prosecuted."
'Bad for species, bad for people'
However, Brian Seasholes, an adjunct scholar with the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), told Cybercast News Service that "if someone like Roger Lang can't get along with the ESA, then maybe nobody can."
The main threat to wildlife in the United States and worldwide is loss of habitat due to human activity, he said, and "the feds clamping down on Lang will have a chilling effect on the conservation of the wolf and other endangered species in Montana and other western U.S. states."
"Wildlife authorities can't be everywhere, and more often than not, they aren't," added Seasholes, the author of an NCPA report entitled "Bad for Species, Bad for People: What's Wrong With the Endangered Species Act and How to Fix It." As a result, "landowners are the ones who bear the true cost of living with wildlife."
Because farmers and ranchers tend to be "land rich and cash poor," they may decide to quietly "shoot, shovel and shut up" or, more detrimentally, "make their land inhospitable to wildlife by erecting high fences or eliminating sources of water, he stated.
"That's the great tragedy of the Endangered Species Act," Seasholes added. "If one had deliberately tried to write a law that would do enormous harm to wildlife, it would be hard to top the ESA."
Back in Montana, Lang told Cybercast News Service that he regrets what happened and "totally supports" the ESA, even though he said the law is "vaguely worded," which leads to "misunderstandings" over its provisions.
"The 24 wolves that were reintroduced in 1994 are now 1,200 in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana," Lang said. "If we don't manage them, there's going to be more and more conflict in which cattle will die, wolves will die, and people are going to make mistakes."
"If we can play a small part in bringing the dialogue to a national, rational level, then we're delighted, even if we got our wrists slapped along the way," he added.
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