The Leading Edge: Wolf Conservation In The Idaho Backcountry

For Wolf Awareness Week this year, Defenders has invited guest bloggers to offer their perspectives on the importance of wolf conservation. Peter Haswell, a graduate student in wildlife conservation biology from England, spent the summer volunteering on the Wood River Wolf Project in central Idaho. Below are excerpts from an interview with Peter about his experience–don’t mind the British spelling.

(Photos courtesy of Peter Haswell and Patrick Graham)

What work were you doing prior to joining Defenders?

Peter in the mountains

Peter spent his summer volunteering for Defenders on the Wood River Wolf Project.

Before joining Defenders I had spent the past couple of years working on large carnivore projects.  I had been involved with educational activities at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust (UKWCT) and conducted my undergraduate dissertation research with captive wolves at the trust. After graduation I spent 3 months living in Bulgaria working on a wolf conservation project and rare livestock breeds farm they support. I spent a brief time at the Polish mammal institute brushing up on my field techniques before I went on to begin a research project looking at wolf activity in Croatia with Zagreb university.  I gained a lot of experience with radio telemetry, tracking wolves and generally learning how to run a conservation project and study large carnivores. I also learnt a great deal about livestock husbandry and how to operate in wolf territory whilst minimising livestock losses.

How did you hear about Defenders and what made you want to volunteer?

Home away from home

Peter and the other field technicians sleep in small tents right near the flocks of sheep to deter wolves from preying on them during the night.

In the UK Defenders have a great reputation as a big conservation group that do a lot of good work. I had been in contact with Suzanne previously through the UKWCT, and when she mentioned the summer opportunity to me I jumped at the chance. The project offered me the prospect to get more involved with the human side of wolf conservation and combine scientific skills with social issues that tend to be the biggest deciding factors in the success and survival of conflict species such as the wolf. Idaho also sounded amazing and I was not disappointed. It’s some of the most beautiful wilderness I have ever worked in and the wildlife is outstanding.

What were your responsibilities for the Wood River project?

The work came under two main categories: monitoring the wolf populations and working with the ranchers to raise awareness of nonlethal livestock protection. We looked at previous predation events and tracked wolves to figure out numbers, locations and activity so that we could pre-empt any possible conflicts, keep the sheep away from the wolves and know when to apply protection devices. I created an interactive map containing all of the livestock grazing routes on public lands and information we had on local wolf populations, which we used to keep track of unfolding events.

Keeping watch

A herder on horseback keeps an eye on his flock. He carries a rifle--though rarely used--to scare away predators that make a move on the sheep.

We spent some time out in the field protecting the livestock with overnight guard at high risk times, but we were trying to transition the project so that livestock producers could apply techniques themselves as we can’t possibly cover everywhere at once. We developed a lending system for equipment to livestock producers to enable the project to cover a larger number of producers.

A lot of time was spent demonstrating and promoting nonlethal tools and livestock husbandry techniques that can help prevent losses to wolves. The main aims of this are to make the livestock an unattractive prey source. It’s all about energy economics with predators; they don’t waste time and energy on prey that doesn’t give them any gain.  So we try to make the livestock hard to predate with fladry fencing, guard dogs, overnight guards and scare devices. And if they are predated, we try to make it so that no gain comes from it by removing carcasses or making them inaccessible with fladry.  The wolves in Blaine County were mainly subsisting off of wild prey sources and took livestock when an easy opportunity presented itself. By focusing on making livestock an unprofitable prey source, wolves become conditioned to this fact and stick to wild prey.

What was the highlight of the summer?

Deterrents and gear

A spotlight, airhorn, flare gun, and radio tracking device are all essential tools for preventing conflict between wolves and livestock.

I saw some great wildlife this summer, but the discovery of the South Valley pack at the start of the summer and howling conversations with the collared mother throughout the summer were highlights. Hearing those pups howl back with us instantly after getting down near the resting site was something special.

Another highlight for me was the reaction of one of the livestock producers Mike Stevens with Lava Lake Lamb and Livestock. He lost some sheep to a wolf predation in an area with pretty severe terrain and no radio collared wolves, so it was tough to know what was going on there. The attack came completely out of the blue as wolf activity had not been noted in the area beforehand. The reaction of the producer was exactly the kind we are aiming for. He didn’t call for lethal control and proceeded instead to call us in for advice and to assess what nonlethal tools could be applied. He brought in an extra overnight guard and added extra guard dogs, and we developed a plan for him to incorporate electro-fladry when his lambs had shipped.

A week spent protecting a flock of rancher John Faulkner’s sheep was also a highlight. We had reports of wolves across the valley and thus worked with him in advance to protect his vulnerable livestock. The wolves were near the band most of the week and we heard them howling many nights and even saw a few wolves. I really felt we did our job here as no wolves predated any sheep and they eventually moved on. It was really satisfying to know we prevented conflicts and stress to the producer here.

What lessons did you learn from working on the project?

Sheep in fladry night coral

Sheep are penned in at night using electro-fladry.

I learnt a great deal about how large a role people play on the conservation of large mammals. The habitat and the wild prey stocks are there but it is pretty much up to the local people if they want to have them in the landscape. I learnt a lot about outreach and how much can be achieved by working with those people who are against keeping predators on the landscape. There are always going to be those who are extreme in their views but most people who are anti-predators have good reason, and if you can remove that reason through helping alleviate the pressures and conflicts, then most people are reasonable and will compromise. You get nowhere working against people and only move forward to an amicable compromise by working with these people. It’s tough sometimes but eventually you get there.

Is coexistence possible?

Mountain wildflowers

The Sawtooth wilderness of central Idaho in full bloom. Not a bad office for the summer.

Co-existence is definitely possible. It will be tough and will need some really big leaps from those who experience problems from the return of wolves. A great deal of the livestock producers we have worked with have amazed me in how willing they are to get on board with nonlethal control. It adds to their work load and costs so it isn’t fair that they have to take the burden of this. That’s why the Defenders project is so great because we offer the help they need. I think programmes such as this one, compensation schemes and educational programmes can greatly help reduce the conflicts and reduce animosity towards wolves. People need time to adjust to the presence of wolves on the landscape again but I am confident it will happen. The wolves have settled nicely into the Northern Rockies and have regained their appropriate place in the ecosystem. The habitat and prey are clearly available for them as they are spreading further westwards and regaining a lot of their former territory. If people keep the right attitude and are willing to adjust their activities and use of the landscape slightly then we will see the survival of wolves and be able to enjoy the ecological, cultural and economic benefits that come from their presence.

Where are you off to next?

Next up I have a research paper to finish publishing and a seminar to give, after that I have a few meetings about fundraising to attempt to turn my research in Croatia into a PhD and obtain my doctorate. I really fell in love with the project this summer and became so passionate about the great work we were achieving. I found Idaho brilliant. There is nothing like having the wilderness on your doorstep and knowing you have large predators roaming around. I felt like I had a real impact this summer and I am very tempted to come back. So depending on how fundraising goes for my PhD you may find me back in the US next summer.

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