Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies Representative
Spring is one of the most beautiful times of year in the Rockies. Native flowers explode across the landscape, accenting a verdant quilt of new grass. The snow recedes, leaving only white caps on mountain peaks. Storms bring sudden bursts of rain or late snow, followed by robin’s egg-blue skies and golden sunshine. A new generation of deer fawns, bear cubs, moose and elk calves, and nests of hatching chicks all emerge as the land renews itself and comes to life once again.
But spring is also lambing time in the region, and it’s the return of both wildlife and livestock that signals the beginning of our field season. My job is to find practical ways for both hungry predators and vulnerable livestock to share the landscape.
The Wood River Wolf Project was initiated in 2008 to demonstrate the use of nonlethal deterrents to prevent livestock and predator losses in our project area. Over the past five years, documented sheep losses to wolves in the project area have been far lower than wolf range in other parts of the state during the same period (see map below with last year’s estimates). Last year, we protected more than 27,000 sheep in our 1,000-square mile project area and lost only four in one accidental encounter with an undocumented wolf pack.
Ranchers are reporting fewer losses to other predators in the project area as well. Because of our success in protecting sheep from predators, no wolves within the project area have been lethally removed due to depredation conflicts. It’s a major win for both wildlife and agriculture.
County officials and our ranching partners are encouraging the project team to continue expanding our efforts and make all of Blaine County, Idaho (2,645 square miles) the first official predator-friendly county in wolf range in the western United States. We welcome the opportunity but have run into a serious obstacle: one of our key project partners has unfortunately decided to use lambing techniques that put his flocks at serious risk.
Specifically, this producer is using a technique known as “range lambing,” which means taking several thousand sheep and leaving small groups of newborn lambs and their mothers spread over miles of remote rangeland adjacent to national forests and mountainous terrain. While there are some herders in the general area to help guard the sheep, there are not enough to even begin to effectively deter predators. To make matters worse, some ewes and lambs inevitably die as a result of birthing difficulties, and their carcasses draw birds like ravens and buzzards, which in turn draw the attention of predators for miles around. It’s a train wreck for those working to resolve wolf and livestock predation conflicts using nonlethal methods — regrettably, one we predicted would happen (Read more from the Idaho Statesman).
Most sheep producers use large sheds while lambing to help protect their ewes from bad weather and predation. Properly managed “shed lambing” also allows more lambs to survive because they receive better care during the birthing process and as newborns. A few producers use pasture or range lambing techniques to help them reduce costs of feeding or labor during lambing. Though popular in places like New Zealand and England, this technique is considered the most vulnerable to predators and has largely been abandoned by commercial sheep operations in the western United States.
Unfortunately, as feed prices increase, the incentive to lamb on open range has a stronger appeal to those who don’t grow their own feed or who want to cut expenses. These producers risk losing their sheep to predators and rely on government agencies to kill native wildlife to protect them. The top agency responsible for protecting domestic animals from predation is the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. While the agency’s vision is to “improve the coexistence of people and wildlife,” it is also responsible for the killing of more wildlife than any other agency. In 2012 alone, Wildlife Services killed 1,586,932 native wildlife including 503 gray wolves, 567 black bears, 1,062 bobcats, 76,611 coyotes and 4,230 foxes, largely on behalf of ranching operations. However, recent research clearly indicates that lethal predator control doesn’t stop livestock losses over the long run. When predators like wolves are killed, the territory is only vacant for a short time before new wolves move in and begin killing livestock, usually within a year.
As our wolf project team of biologists and researchers begins the new field season, it is with great disappointment over the conflicts occurring on the east side of the county where sheep, wolves and other predators are being killed. The most tragic part is that the deaths of both wolves and livestock are largely preventable. We will continue to reach out to all our ranching partners to promote nonlethal alternatives over the traditional lethal control methods that have resulted in the unnecessary loss of these animals, both wild and domesticated. This is the whole purpose behind our efforts and after five years of success, we feel certain that we’re on the right track.
And we’re not alone. Here’s a quote from a letter we received just last week:
“ The Board of Blaine County Commissioners wishes to express to you its continued support of the non-lethal wolf management program that Defenders of Wildlife has facilitated in our County over the past five years… Deterrence of wolf predation on livestock, [in target areas] has proven effective in minimizing and nearly eliminating wolf depredation on sheep in these areas… We highly commend those who have participated directly in this project, who by their actions have chosen to demonstrate to the world means by which men and wolves might co-exist.”
Great words of encouragement as we enter the sixth year of the Wood River Wolf Project! We also owe a huge thanks to the Forest Service for all the help in supporting our field team and maintaining good communication efforts between them and the livestock managers.
Our team met last week with state wildlife managers to talk about our methods this summer. We’re adding a new tool to the box: solar-powered lights that flash at night and appear to frighten away predators. We’re excited about testing them in the field. We’re also adding a number of field cameras to document wolves and other wildlife. Our data from the first five years of the project are being collected and analyzed to prepare for eventual publication so we can share this information more broadly. And next month, the Forest Service is hosting our training workshop in Idaho for wildlife managers and ranchers interested in learning more about nonlethal wolf, bear, cougar and coyote deterrents and livestock husbandry techniques to reduce risks of predation. A part of the workshop will also be recorded for those interested in learning more about these techniques.
We’ll be busy, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. And every time we find wolf tracks, hear their howls or see their images on our field cameras, we are grateful for the opportunity to help these animals continue to thrive in one of the wildest places left in the continental United States.