Posted: 20 Oct 2011
The Wood River Wolf Project, operating wholly within Blaine County, Idaho, has just finished its fourth season. It began as a demonstration project concerned with reducing or eliminating wolf predation on numerous sheep bands grazing in US Forest Service allotments north of Ketchum and Sun Valley. The three-year ‘demonstration’ phase was a success. Sheep losses were just minimal and, where they occurred, the reasons were easily identified and addressed.
As a County Commissioner, I became involved because of my interest in the nature of relationships between humans and wildlife, particularly game animals and predators. At the time, my Board had also authorized $1,800 to be paid to Wildlife Services exclusively for use in assisting the project. Each year this federal agency requests money of counties to help them carry on their normal duties of nuisance animal removal or elimination. Some Blaine County residents may have called upon Wildlife Services for help, but others vehemently opposed such practices as aerial control and poisoning. Blaine County government thus refused to contribute to it for many years as a matter of policy, even with minimal funding. The Wolf Project represented a new approach, and the Wildlife Services officer at the time, Rick Williamson, was interested in supporting it actively.
The Wood River Wolf Project is no longer a demonstration project, but a growing presence throughout Blaine County. Why? Because the participants, most importantly the livestock producers and Defenders volunteers, proved that it is possible to deter wolf depredation effectively. The net effect of these actions continues to be to reduce livestock losses, thus optimizing ranchers’ financial returns, and to keep wolves alive and hunting wild prey as they are meant to do. The practices and tools employed continue to evolve and to be improved and adapted to various landscapes.
One of the more interesting and important steps taken during 2011 was an August workshop at the Blaine County Fairgrounds. Deterrence tools were on display, implementation methods were discussed, and plenty of ‘room for debate’ was provided among interested parties. Some folks showed up who were unfamiliar with this concept and highly skeptical, including two ranchers who had lost three calves to wolves earlier in the season. They wanted to express their feelings and concerns, but they also asked questions to learn more about possible deterrents and how to prevent future losses. To my mind, this willingness to visit and engage represents enormous and meaningful progress.
Two big questions, among others, are prompted directly by the work of this project that I wish to address here:
- Does co-existence with wolves and other predators matter?
- Will ranchers ever be able to afford non-lethal deterrence and management practices on their own, without some kind of assistance?
What I have observed, though, is that the peoples’ relationships to these wild animals—especially the dangerous ones–is a great part of their culture and what defines them, their communities, their heritage. The presence of these animals is keenly felt, tremendously exciting, ennobling and humbling. Experiences with them are often the subject of everyday dialogue and stories.
What I would pose to my neighbors and other Idahoans is that this richness, the sheer excitement and keen awareness that comes with living with predators like wolves in our midst may be worth an acceptable and manageable level of risk. We, as a people, must decide the intrinsic value of wildlife, what is acceptable to us and whether we are willing to adapt to it; but, the ‘reward’ is worth considering. This reward for us, and species survival for its own sake, are two reasons why co-existence does matter.
To the second question, “Will ranchers ever be able to afford non-lethal deterrence and management practices on their own without some kind of assistance?” I say in some respects clearly yes and in others, it may take time. It is yes, in the sense that some common sense practices can greatly reduce conflicts. For example, removing or burying livestock carcasses immediately from the range or from enclosures means these attractants do not draw predators in among standing livestock. From our experience, this greatly reduces the probability of predation.
Experience also suggests that deterrence can work with both sheep and cows, in different circumstances. During calving or lambing, for example, specific measures can be taken more easily when livestock are in enclosures, especially nearer to human habitation. Many of these, in the form of dogs or equipment or both, cost money. Radio collars assist in tracking wolves and alerting ranchers to their presence so they can be prepared if they show up. Radio collars and tracking antennae are expensive. On the range, more range riders make more effective deterrents. This should mean more job opportunities for cowboys and sheepherders. That is something to celebrate, but they cost money too.
Where is the money for all these things to come from? The answer is that it must come from multiple sources and from cooperative effort. The removal of wolves from the lower 48 was a matter of public policy and so was their re-introduction. In either case, when public policy is made and carried out by our government, which represents us, certain expectations and obligations are created. People settled the land when predators were cleared from it. At least in the near term, it is entirely appropriate that compensation be offered to those bearing the brunt of a policy change like reintroduction. In Idaho, that is now happening through a federally-funded, state-administered compensation program, kick-started by Defenders.
Today and for the foreseeable future, Defenders offers livestock producers in Blaine County direct assistance in non-lethal deterrence training and implementation. This can only be possible through financial donations and volunteer support.
Of course, everyone would prefer markets to bear all of these costs through higher prices for beef and lamb spread to all consumers. It may take some time until markets and pricing catch up to these policy changes. On the other hand, let’s examine whether non-lethal deterrence management practices are more cost-effective, practical and economical for at-risk ranchers than the alternative. On the surface, a government plane and a bullet may seem cheaper and easier to the rancher than taking all of the above measures. By the time lethal control occurs, however, the rancher has lost his livestock. In higher-risk situations, is it not better to employ deterrence and avoid the losses in the first place? In that sense, won’t non-lethal deterrence and the avoidance of predation save at least a significant portion of what it costs? And in today’s world, might ranchers be forced to re-evaluate their reliance on taxpayer-funded predator control, or compensation?
Issues of co-existence, non-lethal versus lethal deterrence, ranch economics or acceptable risk will not be resolved soon or simply or by anyone alone. The only road to solutions will be built with dialogue, the sharing of ideas and information garnered by experience and the slow building of trust. Changes to the practices of generations do not come easily, nor should they, but they are inevitable and can benefit the generations to come.