Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies Representative
They said it couldn’t be done. That wolves and sheep together on public lands would never work. And certainly the stories in the news bear out the direst examples to prove their predictions. Regionally, more than 1,600 wolves have been killed in attempts to address losses of approximately 3,000 sheep and 1,500 cattle over the last quarter-century. State governments are driving wolf numbers down through hunting, trapping and snaring in large part to “address conflicts” with livestock. But does it really have to be this way?
The return of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) in the 1990s is one of the most ecologically successful, politically controversial and socially polarized wildlife restoration efforts undertaken in the western United States. Despite socio-political conflicts that remain highly elevated today, a new collaborative project has taken root in central Idaho to mediate wolf and livestock conflicts.
In 2007, the Phantom Hill wolf pack began killing sheep in central Idaho’s “sheep superhighway” on the Sawtooth National Forest during the summer grazing season. The pack was targeted for lethal control — a nicer way of saying that the whole pack would be killed by government agents. But if wolves couldn’t survive in the Sawtooths, one of the most pristine and wild national forests in the country, where could they?
It started with a phone call. Mike Stevens, then president of Lava Lake Lamb, called me to discuss the situation. We had already been working together for several years to help Lava Lake successfully avoid sheep losses to wolves. However, that was one producer with about 4,000 sheep. The conflict this time involved more than 12,000 sheep moving in segmented bands across wide swathes of backcountry forests. It seemed hopeless, especially when the kill order had already been made to remove the whole pack.
I asked Mike what he thought of creating a field team to help the herders protect the sheep. We could test some of the nonlethal measures like turbofladry and alarm systems to see if we could effectively protect the sheep from more predation. The biggest hurdle would be the state and federal agencies, which had already decided to kill the wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised the state that the situation was truly hopeless, and that nothing could be done to stop the killings once wolves developed a taste for sheep.
But, to our surprise, the state said they’d be willing to try nonlethal methods if we could stop the depredations. Some expected we would fail, while others — like Rick Williamson from Wildlife Services in Idaho, Carter Niemeyer (former US Fish and Wildlife Service Idaho state wolf manager) and Kurt Nelson from the Sawtooth Forest Ranger District — provided a great deal of advice and field support. Every night our team was in the field guarding the sheep was nerve wracking. If our methods failed, the agencies would remove the pack, and critics of nonlethal methods would point to our failure to justify their reliance on traditional lethal control programs.
No one had ever tried to resolve sheep predations on such a large scale before. We started at 120 square miles the first year, and we didn’t lose another sheep to wolves during the run of our project — though just a few weeks after August, when our project had ended and the nonlethal measures were not in place, the pack killed sheep again. It was amazing how successful our work was, but our skeptics said we couldn’t do it again. They thought that our efforts were just a lucky fluke.
So we decided to create a formal project to test the methods for three more years to see if they were right. The first year of the Wood River Wolf Project, we lost one sheep out of 10,000 to wolf predation. Even our critics started paying attention. In 2009, we lost more than a dozen sheep in one night because of a failure of communication; one band of sheep was left unguarded by our team due to a misunderstanding of the number of sheep bands in the project area, which now covered nearly 700 square miles. The rancher (and former president of the Idaho Woolgrowers Association) took responsibility for the losses and asked that the wolves not be killed because of the mistake. Our losses remained low and were always a result of human error, and not the failing of the nonlethal deterrents. We were learning how to use them better every year. And we cautiously began talking more about our success publicly to reporters and even filmmakers.
From 2008 to 2010, we lost a total of 16 sheep out of more than 30,000 collectively, and no wolves had been killed as a result of livestock conflicts in the project area. We held a wrap up meeting and celebrated a victory previously unheard of before our project. By now our project partners included ranchers, state and federal wildlife agencies, county commissioners, university researchers, wolf conservation supporters, and a number of field team members from a wide range of backgrounds. The response from our partners? You can’t stop now — we’re just getting started! Let’s see if we can spread these deterrents to private lands and cattle ranches across the county! We began a new site evaluation system to help sheep and cattle producers determine how to address potential predation risks, and we began holding field training in the use of nonlethal deterrents for our team and local ranchers. We even added our first university intern, who became one of our best field technicians to date.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated our best year yet, which culminated in the Trailing of the Sheep parade. There were a total of 27,305 sheep in our project area this year, and we lost only 4 sheep, all in one night when a band bumped into a new pack of wolves that no one knew existed. We responded with the nonlethal deterrents, and didn’t lose another sheep to wolves in the project area — which now covers 1,200 square miles — for the rest of the grazing season. And our ranching partners are reporting that their losses to coyotes, bears and cougars are down as well.
Five years after we began this effort, documented sheep losses to wolves in the project area are 90% lower than Idaho loss rates reported by the USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS). Specifically, our loss rate averaged 0.014% compared to 0.54% in the NASS state-wide estimates during the same period. Best of all, no wolves within the project area have yet been lethally removed because of depredation conflicts. Benefits of the project include reduced management costs, reduced social conflict, and increased ecological functionality and pack stability of wolves. For example, we don’t need helicopters, sharpshooters, traps or even radio collars — just some elbow grease, common sense and a few tools to implement our deterrents. And our project is a model for new projects in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Mexico, Europe and even dingo conservation in Australia.
Are we done? Is the project finished? Not even close. There are other areas in the county that still need to be addressed. And on a broader scale, we believe that our model should be adapted at the national level to reform our federal wildlife agency programs to make them more cost-effective and more humane. Our federal government kills millions of animals every year to “protect” livestock. We believe our model offers a far better solution that significantly reduces both livestock and wildlife losses. As Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen says, “Because frankly, if you can prevent depredation in the first place, that’s the least costly alternative, and the safest alternative.”
I hope you’ll consider speaking to your congressional representatives and local wildlife agencies about this model, and help us create a better future for all animals who share our wonderful wildlands. It’s going to take a national effort to change how our nation manages conflicts with wildlife, but we’re making a great first step with the Wood River Wolf Project.
For more on how to use nonlethal methods to protect livestock, read our Livestock and Wolves guide [PDF].