Wolf Project shows promise for sheep herds, wolf packs
November 18, 2012 - Updated: 4:27 p.m.
NEAR SUN VALLEY, Idaho – Patrick Graham cupped his hands around his mouth and howled into a moonless night. A wolf answered from a distant ridge. Soon, the Pioneer Pack was howling in chorus.
Three miles away, Adrian Alvarado Baldeon, a Peruvian herder, unrolled his sleeping bag on a sagebrush-covered hillside in the Sawtooth National Forest. Fifteen hundred sheep clustered below him, bells tinkling in the darkness.
Graham, who’d tracked the wolves for six weeks for the Defenders of Wildlife, saw potential disaster ahead. The sheep would soon be moved to a watering hole near the Pioneer Pack’s nightly rendezvous spot. His challenge: Keep the sheep safe from the wolves, and in doing so, protect the wolves from the fate of Northeast Washington’s Wedge Pack. Government officials killed all seven members of the pack in September for repeatedly attacking a Stevens County rancher’s cattle.
The task would mean sleepless nights for both him and Baldeon, with tense standoffs between the Great Pyrenees guard dogs that formed a perimeter around the sheep and the wolves howling from the surrounding forest.
Baldeon would fire his rifle to scare the wolves. Graham would set off air horns and call in additional night watchmen. The three-week vigil would last until the sheep left public grazing land, where they’d spent the summer fattening up on native bunchgrass. The band would parade through the streets of Hailey for the annual Trailing of the Sheep festival. And the seven members of the Pioneer Pack would still roam free.
Noisemakers, night watches reduce sheep deaths
Sheepherders and wolves are ancient adversaries. But in the Sawtooth National Forest – where about 10,000 sheep and four wolf packs occupy overlapping territory – ranchers and pro-wolf groups are working to find common ground.
The Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho’s Blaine County advocates nonlethal deterrents to reduce the number of sheep killed by wolves. Among the longest-running projects of its kind in the Northern Rockies, the six-year-old collaboration illustrates both the promise and the challenges of coexistence on the range.
About 100 sheep deaths have been attributed to wolves in the Sun Valley area since 2007. Nine wolves have been killed, according to state statistics. But where individual ranchers have worked with Defenders of Wildlife on nonlethal deterrents, documented sheep losses are about 90 percent lower than statewide averages. And no wolves have been killed for preying on livestock.
Using noisemakers, spotlights and night watchmen to keep wolves away from sheep are new practices for many Sun Valley ranchers, whose ancestors helped rid the range of predators. But at Lava Lake Land & Livestock in Hailey, officials view coexistence as a necessity.
About 2,500 sheep from the ranch share Idaho’s public lands with people who want wolves on the landscape, said Mike Stevens, Lava Lake’s former president.
“We knew the issue that we would be judged on was our approach to wolves and predators,” Stevens said.
The project demonstrates that nonlethal methods do work, said Suzanne Stone, Defenders of Wildlife’s Northern Rockies representative.
“You’re still going to lose some sheep and some wolves,” she said. But if ranchers don’t address what’s making their livestock vulnerable to predators in the first place, killing wolves is only a temporary fix, Stone said. New wolves eventually move into the territory and kill more livestock.
“You end up with a cycle of death,” Stone said. “It’s a very Old West mentality: If something’s bothering you, just kill it.”
Gray wolves reintroduced in 1990s
Long before the nation’s first destination ski resort opened in Sun Valley in 1936, sheepherders followed miners and the railroad to south-central Idaho, occupying range considered too dry for cattle. To provide enough forage from the arid landscape, the sheep graze across vast swaths of private and public land, including Forest Service allotments.
The sheep bands migrate more than 100 miles each year. Starting on the desert plains along the Snake River, they follow the greening grass through the foothills and into the high-elevation forest, where the sheep spend the summer and early fall.
The pace is slow to accommodate new lambs, which can gain up to a pound per day.
“We’re trying to make a fat lamb out of nothing but mother’s milk and grass,” said John Faulkner, a rancher from Gooding, Idaho, who participates in the Wood River Wolf Project.
After being killed off from most of the Northern Rockies by the 1930s, gray wolves were reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone by the federal government in the mid-1990s amid recognition of the role they play in healthy ecosystems. In 2002, Lava Lake’s Stevens got his first wolf call from the Forest Service: “Did you know that wolves are eating your sheep?”
“All of us, including the Forest Service, were quite surprised that we had wolves this far south,” said Stevens, now a private management consultant.
Within a few years, a wolf pack was established on a 34,000-acre Forest Service grazing allotment used by Lava Lake Ranch. The Phantom Hill Pack was frequently visible from neighborhoods in Ketchum, where adults and pups had become minor celebrities. Wolf lovers had given individual pack members names.
To avoid wolf-sheep encounters, Lava Lake stayed off the allotment for two years. But to avoid overgrazing other holdings, the ranch needed to put the land back into use.
“The goal was not just to keep the sheep safe, but to keep the wolves safe, too,” Stevens said. “If those wolves were dead, it would reflect poorly on all the sheep operators in this area.”
Maintaining a wildlife-friendly reputation was vital for Lava Lake. The company was founded in 1999 by Brian and Kathleen Bean, San Francisco residents with ties to the Nature Conservancy. The ranch markets itself as an environmentally responsible supplier of free-range, grass-fed mutton.
Company officials asked Defenders of Wildlife for help finding nonlethal tools to keep the sheep safe from wolf attacks. A collaborative formed that included the Forest Service, county officials, wildlife agencies and other ranching operations that had nearby grazing allotments.
Defenders of Wildlife, a national environmental organization that supported wolf reintroduction, provided the bulk of the funding for the program, which costs between $50,000 and $60,000 annually. Deterrents included additional guard dogs, electrified fencing and extra people keeping watch at night.
So far, nonlethal strategies used in the Wood River appear to work better with sheep than cattle, which don’t band together in tight groups. The goal is to make livestock more risky for wolves to pursue than deer or elk, said Stone, of Defenders of Wildlife.
But even as sheep ranchers agreed to try new methods, project participants agreed there would be instances where the wolves would have to be killed.
For two summers, the deterrents kept the sheep safe. But the fragile truce shattered one night in August 2009, when the Phantom Hill Pack killed a dozen sheep belonging to rancher John Faulkner.
In Idaho, there’s little tolerance for wolves that attack livestock. The state Department of Fish and Game, which has managed Idaho’s wolves since they were removed from the endangered species list, issued a kill order for two of the pack’s wolves. Faulkner later asked for it to be rescinded.
Miscommunication had left a band of sheep unprotected, Stone said. Because of the communication lapse, Faulkner “gave the wolves a second chance,” Stone said.
Faulkner, who gives a slightly different account of the incident, said public outcry influenced his decision to ask government officials to cancel the kill order.
Larry Schoen, a Blaine County commissioner, said the program works because residents of the Sun Valley area put a high premium on wildlife and outdoor recreation, and local ranchers care about public opinion.
“People are becoming habituated to the idea that coexistence is possible,” he said.
But the search for common ground doesn’t rule out conflicts. Last spring, wolves killed 37 of rancher John Peavey’s sheep, many of them pregnant ewes valued at $500 each. As a result, federal agents killed two wolves from the guilty pack.
Peavey wasn’t a participant in the Wood River project at the time the sheep were killed, and Stone was a vocal critic of his lambing methods. She said the ranch had pregnant ewes spread out over a large area without human oversight to deter wolves from easy prey.
“It’s like ringing the dinner bell, setting the table and then shooting the guests when they show up,” she said.
Peavey said he’s looking at developing a new lambing area – one with fencing and a natural rock wall for protection. But the rancher, whose family has been in the sheep business since the 1920s, also said pro-predator groups don’t always understand the complexities of animal husbandry.
Pregnant and newly delivered ewes get stressed when they’re bunched together in the tight groups that Defenders of Wildlife advocates for deterring predators, Peavey said. Rates of stillborn animals increase, and so does the risk of nursing lambs getting separated from their mothers.
Ranchers work under thin financial margins in territory already occupied by other predators, Peavey said. Last year, coyotes killed 4,400 of Idaho’s estimated 240,000 sheep and lambs, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. In comparison, wolves took 1,300 sheep and lambs.
But wolves can kill 20 to 30 sheep in a single night, which means a single incident can have a significant financial impact for a rancher, said Stewart Breck, a Wildlife Services research biologist. Wolves are larger than coyotes and hunt in more effective packs, he said.
Peavey said he supports nonlethal control “as long as it works.” When it quits working, he said, “we need other options.”
After Peavey’s sheep were killed, Defenders of Wildlife employees asked him for permission to spend nights with his sheepherders. He agreed to the extra night watch.
For decades, Basque herders occupied the tiny sheep wagons seen near the flocks. Now, most herders are from Peru, here on three-year work visas.
Sheepherder Baldeon, 31, spent two years working in Peru before joining Peavey’s Flat Top Ranch last year. It’s a simple, solitary life. His wagon, or “campo,” contains basics: wood stove for heat, a propane stove for cooking, a bedroll spread over a wooden bench and a fly strip.
As dusk fell on a September evening, the sheep started to stir – obeying age-old instincts to head to high ground for the night. While the sheep dogs worked the herd, Baldeon followed on his horse with his bedroll, camping by the sheep.
After a largely peaceful summer – “tranquilo,” Baldeon said – the band moved closer to the Pioneer Pack’s nightly rendezvous site in mid-September. Wolves killed two sheep in Baldeon’s flock, plus about seven sheep from another Flat Top Ranch band. Idaho Fish and Game issued a kill order for two of the pack’s wolves. Traps were set.
The first night after the kill order was issued, Graham – Defenders of Wildlife’s field manager – was climbing a ridge near Baldeon’s sheep band.
“I was trying to think like a wolf,” Graham said. Suddenly, a wolf was howling from the forest in front of him. The guard dogs barked a challenge. The night set the tone for the three weeks that followed. About every two hours, the verbal standoff started up again.
“The wolves just sounded intimidating, like they were right on top of the sheep,” Graham said.
Defenders of Wildlife brought in reinforcements, so five people were staying overnight with sheep in different shifts. One night, wolf scat was found among the sheep, though no animals were taken. Graham became resigned that some wolves might be killed before the sheep bands left the federal grazing land.
“The goal isn’t necessarily to keep every wolf alive, but to reduce lethal control orders,” he noted.
But the sleepless nights paid off. No more sheep were killed before the bands moved off the federal allotments in early October.
Baldeon’s band of 1,500 sheep paraded down Hailey’s Main Street a week later, the star attraction at the Trailing of the Sheep festival, an event founded by Peavey that celebrates Sun Valley’s heritage of sheep ranching. Graham marched proudly with them. The sheep were fat and healthy, wearing a season’s worth of wool.
“We kept the sheep safe,” he said.
The Pioneer Pack managed to elude the government’s traps, though it’s possible that some pack members may be killed during Idaho’s public wolf hunt, which continues through the end of March, or the winter trapping season.
Federal agency killed 365 gray wolves
Stone often gives talks in other communities experiencing wolf-livestock conflicts. She’d like to see more ranchers adopt nonlethal methods to keep wolves away from their animals, but she said Defenders of Wildlife can’t afford to expand the project into other areas.
Being killed for attacking sheep and cattle remains a significant cause of death for wolves. Last year, 365 gray wolves in six states were killed by Wildlife Services, the branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture often called in by state officials to dispatch problem predators and nuisance wildlife.
Stone thinks Wildlife Services should be putting more emphasis on nonlethal deterrents.
“Helicopters and aerial shooting are high-ticket items,” Stone said. “That comes from public dollars. It’s a highly subsidized part of the (livestock) industry.”
Wildlife Services spokeswoman Carol Bannerman said the agency can’t calculate how much it spent killing wolves, because it doesn’t track spending by predator or separate the costs of lethal from nonlethal actions, which are often employed together.
As valuable as it’s been in promoting local cooperation among ranchers, environmentalists and government officials, the Wood River Wolf Project is a reactive program, said Schoen, the Blaine County commissioner. He faults the federal government for not working with ranchers on ways to reduce livestock predation before wolves were introduced in the Northern Rockies.
“We can do a better job as a society in coexisting with wildlife,” Schoen said.
“It was federal policy to reintroduce wolves. I wonder at what point it will be federal policy to promote effective deterrents.”