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Can Idaho wolves shed their 'big bad' reputation?

Why We Wrote This

As humans expand into wild areas and endangered species gain new ground, people are increasingly clashing with predators. In Idaho, one group of ranchers is trying to instill a culture of coexistence.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor
A dog guards sheep belonging to Lava Lake Lamb as they graze on a hill above Hailey, Idaho. The state’s gray wolf populations have rebounded to numbers not seen in decades, and some ranchers are coming to terms with the need to share the landscape with them.

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The image of wolves as “big” and “bad” has been seared into our collective consciousness, forever branded by nursery rhymes and cartoon tales. For livestock ranchers in the American West, that threat is very real. At one time, they would’ve just killed the beasts – and people did, practically wiping them out. But since being reintroduced, wolves have rebounded, and ranchers have had to share the landscape with them. So what does coexistence with predators look like? This question was top of mind last month when a federal judge restored protections for grizzly bears in and around Yellowstone National Park. Bears also terrorize livestock. In Idaho, where federal protection for gray wolves was removed because of a recovery in 2011, sheep ranchers have been looking for an answer. For some, killing – of either sheep or wolves – is unacceptable. That means using noisemakers and blinking lights, and increasing herder and guard dog presence to deter wolves from attacking their sheep. But others say a balance of both nonlethal and lethal approaches may be necessary.

Today, all is calm in Víctor Alberto Rupay Dorregaray’s flock. From his camp, the sheep are barely discernible dots among the sage grass as they munch their way across a nearby hillside. A large guard dog meanders through the band of sheep, with his white, fluffy coat making him blend in among his charges. But just a week earlier, things weren’t so quiet.

The first sign of trouble came as a yelp from one of the band’s three guard dogs. It sounded like a wolf’s jaws were wrapped around the dog’s throat as it struggled to sound the alarm, Mr. Dorregaray says. The herder leaped into action, grabbing a noisemaker and running toward the sound. The blare of an air horn filled the air, and the startled wolf took off. The dog was fatally injured, but the sheep survived to see another day. And so did the wolf.

The image of wolves as “big bad” has been seared into our collective consciousness, forever branded by nursery rhymes and cartoon tales. And for ranchers in the American West, the predators are a very real threat looming over their livelihoods – one that they’d rather not face. But their relationship with wolves has had to change in recent years, as ranchers’ focus shifts from eradication to coexistence.

Conflicts between wildlife and their human neighbors have taken center stage in national debates in recent months. Citing concerns that humans are disproportionately hindered by regulations under the Endangered Species Act, several bills have been introduced in Congress to ease those tensions. After being removed from the list of federally protected species in 2017, a federal judge reinstated protections for Yellowstone-area grizzly bears in September.

But in Idaho, where gray wolf populations have rebounded to numbers not seen in decades, perhaps even a century, ranchers are settling into their new normal, accepting that they must now find a way to share the landscape with wolves. And for some, that means exploring ways to protect both livestock and wolves from a premature death.

“It’s good to keep livestock alive and it’s good, or at least okay, to keep wolves alive,” says Brian Bean, who owns and operates Lava Lake Lamb in Hailey, Idaho, with his wife Kathleen. The Beans, who employ Dorregaray, are strong advocates of a non-lethal approach to ranching with wolves around.

A war on wolves once raged across the United States. For centuries, ranchers, hunters, and government campaigns exterminated the animals, to the point of near extinction by the early 20th century. But after gaining federal protections under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and being reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the gray wolf is back. And it’s here to stay.

Courtesy of Jacob W. Frank/NPS
A wolf pauses near the entrance to Artist Paint Pots in Yellowstone National Park. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996.

But as the species rebounded, ranchers’ concerns about the impact of the “big bad” on their livestock returned, too. And these worries were not unfounded. Over 550 sheep have been reported killed by wolves since 2009.

“[Ranchers] just want to be able to protect their sheep,” says Brandy Kay, executive director for the Idaho Wool Growers Association. The way ranchers speak about their sheep, she says, you’d think they were speaking about family members. And when a wolf kills one, she says, they want to do whatever it takes to protect the others.

“It’s really changed ranching,” says John Peavey, co-owner of Flat Top Ranch in Carey, Idaho, and a former Democratic state senator, “They’re here, and they’re going to stay. It’s whether ranching can survive or not.”

A global challenge on a local stage

And that’s not a concern unique to Idaho ranchers. In France, for example, a revived wolf population is raising similar questions for farmers. Globally, interactions with wildlife are only increasing, as humans expand into wild areas and species recovery programs from half a century ago are demonstrating success. How will humans and wildlife do as neighbors? What role does lethal control and population management of predators play? Can human endeavors, like ranching, survive the revival of wildlife? The wolves and sheep in Idaho are a microcosm of that global dialogue.

The gray wolf was removed from the list of federally protected species in Idaho and neighboring states in 2011. But even before that, federal regulators permitted lethal action in retaliation for some livestock kills. At the time, in an effort to mitigate tensions around the ESA protections, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife established a compensation program to reimburse ranchers who lost livestock to wolves.

The use of lethal controls became more widespread following delisting in 2011. Now, if a sheep is killed, for example, a livestock operator can report it to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. USDA APHIS Wildlife Services conducts a necropsy to determine if the sheep was indeed killed by a wolf and examines the conditions which led to depredation. Then, Wildlife Services recommend a suite of options to Idaho Fish and Game. That recommendation can include the option for Wildlife Services to kill the offending wolf or pack. Last year, Wildlife Services used lethal control 53 times in Idaho.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean the war on wolves is back on. Now, the question is more about managing the dynamics with wolves, and what role lethal and non-lethal ways to prevent depredation play.

That’s where the Beans of Lava Lake Lamb come in. As livestock operators, they don’t want to see their sheep attacked by wolves. But as conservationists with a connection to the Nature Conservancy, they also don’t want to see wolves killed, either.

In the 2000s, a pack of wolves, dubbed the Phantom Hill Wolf Pack, terrorized the many sheep that graze in central Idaho’s Blaine County. Lava Lake’s sheep were among them. One night, in just a few hours, they lost 36 sheep to wolves. Gray wolves were still federally protected at the time, but the depredation was extreme and lethal control was on the table.

“This was a big deal for us,” Mr. Bean says. But his philosophy meant that retaliation was not an option. Instead, Bean began learning about and deploying non-lethal deterrence methods to prevent wolf attacks.

At the same time, the Defenders of Wildlife was shifting its efforts around livestock and wolves toward a similar preventative approach. So in 2008, the group came together with the Beans and like-minded officials in Blaine County to launch a collaborative project called the Wood River Wolf Project (WRWP), designed to test the effectiveness of using only non-lethal deterrents to prevent both sheep and wolves from being killed.

In the first seven years of the project, just 30 of the approximately 22,000 sheep grazing in the nearly 1,000-square-mile project area were killed by wolves. In the surrounding grazing areas, depredation losses were 3.5 times higher. The collaborators published their findings in the Journal of Mammalogy in 2017.

The project employs a variety of simple techniques, from an increased human and large guard dog presence to noisemakers and visual tools that startle wolves and make human presence known. The idea is that the wolves want an easy meal, so anything that makes it seem like a challenge to attack a flock will help.

Establishing a culture of coexistence

When the project began, the Defenders of Wildlife took charge and sent many people out into the field to try these techniques. But since the organization stepped away in 2015, the project has focused more on training ranchers and herders, and distributing duffel bags full of various tools to participating herders.

Some of these methods “require a significant amount of extra effort and time to implement effectively,” says Greg Hill, who has worked on two projects with the Beans, including WRWP. And when the onus is on ranchers to make so much effort, it’s a challenge to get them on board.

“Our guys,” Ms. Kay says of the ranchers she works with through the Idaho Wool Growers Association, “they try to do a lot of things non-lethal if they can,” But, she adds, “it has taken a toll on them.” Since reintroduction, she says, some ranchers have doubled or tripled guard dogs and herder presence with each band, but that can get expensive.

Eva Botkin-Kowacki/The Christian Science Monitor
Victor Alberto Rupay Dorregaray, a herder for Lava Lake Lamb, stands in front of a camping trailer outside Hailey, Idaho on October 4, 2018. The duffel bag at his feet contains noisemakers, lights, and other tools to deter wolves from attacking his band of sheep.

There’s also a cultural element at play, says Frank Van Nuys, a professor at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and author of the book “Varmints and Victims: Predator Control in the American West.”

“We have a pioneer culture or homesteader culture or settler culture whose memories and ties to a land and livelihoods were constructed on the back of ridding their lives of those threats,” he says. “You’re trying to redirect a pretty well-entrenched cultural response when you advocate for non-lethal techniques.”

But that’s also why it’s important to change society’s relationship to wolves, argues Lawrence Schoen, a Blaine County commissioners and a member of the WRWP steering committee. “It's not just the responsibility of the livestock producers. It's a social responsibility,” he says. “We settled this land, we displaced these native predators. Now, in the 21st century, we’re saying we want to find ways to coexist.”

The WRWP focuses on non-lethal deterrence entirely, without lethal control of the wolf population. But the solution may lie somewhere in the middle.

“I support all these non-lethal control efforts until they don’t work. When we start losing 10 lambs in one night, a guard dog, another dog injured,” Mr. Peavey says, describing a depredation event Flat Top Ranch experienced this summer, “I think it’s time to take one or two wolves out.”

“There is no real simple answer here,” says Mr. Hill. “But I do believe that there’s a happy medium. Being proactive in preventing a problem before it starts is the best practice if possible. But problems are going to happen.”

Most ranchers aren’t advocating for a new war on wolves, or to shoot them all on sight, both Peavey and Kay say. Instead, they appreciate state management of the wolf population, either in response to depredation or through hunting permits.

Most ranchers are not anti-wolf, Kay says. “They’re used to wildlife being around. That doesn’t really faze them. It’s really just when it becomes a problem.”

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