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What Washington can learn about wolves

I was sitting there in Colville, Washington, listening to two speakers who have over 30 years experience between them with programs to help ranchers avoid wolf conflicts in Alberta and Missoula, when it hit me -- This is good stuff! What I was learning, based on all of their experiences, successes and failures, is a model to succeed that is proven, simple, and backed by large groups of ranchers and communities in diverse locations.

What Washington can learn about wolves

Two successful ranch cooperatives in Alberta and Montana taught Jay something about how Washington might learn to live with wolves.

I was sitting there in Colville, Washington, listening to two speakers who have over 30 years experience between them with programs to help ranchers avoid wolf conflicts in Alberta and Missoula, when it hit me -- This is good stuff!  What I was learning, based on all of their experiences, successes and failures, is a model to succeed that is proven, simple, and backed by large groups of ranchers and communities in diverse locations.

It's good stuff, but also new stuff to many in Washington. No matter how long you have ranched or how much time you’ve spent in the woods, or what you think you know about wolves,  most Washingtonians really have very little experience understanding  how wolves and livestock interact in any of our lifetimes.  The wolves just haven’t been here to help us learn how to coexist.

Knowing we have so much to learn, I paid close attention to what the speakers had to offer.  And what they were saying is if you get nothing else from the next four hours of presentations--facts, figures, statistics, and rancher testimonies--remember this: Wolves learn very fast and teach each other.  When a wolf learns something about a good hunt,  they pass it on to their pack. And if their pack is hunted or otherwise dispersed, they also pass it on to new packs.

Both speakers then gave us two steps that must happen if ranchers want to reduce livestock losses and weight loss in cattle caused by wolves in the same territory.   They have accomplished this in their communities through cooperatives and by people  working together. 

1. Set up a region-wide carcass removal program immediately 

Ranchers, dairy operators, whole communities can benefit from this process with immediate results, lowering livestock deaths from wolves by 50%.  If the animals are composted, it can even create an income stream.  It takes work, but when a rancher has an anonymous way to make a phone call and someone comes out and removes a dead animal, and or cleans up typical bone yards that occur, it puts a halt to wolves learning to visit livestock areas for food.
Where bone yards and carcasses are left out in the open, radio collared wolves have shown that they visit bone yards every one to two weeks as they make their typical territorial wanderings. This brings wolves into livestock country, resulting in more interactions between wolves and cattle and sheep. Wolves don't look for prey randomly; they repeat their successful journeys, returning to elk or deer feeding grounds, bone yards or where they might have learned they can kill livestock. 

2. Get range riders out on the ground

The second step involves including range riders, who increase human presence and vigilance out with the grazing herds on a regular basis, every 1-3 days.  

The range rider's job is two-fold.  The main purpose is to decrease the vulnerability of cattle to wolf attack by keeping the calves and yearlings gathered in small herds, as opposed to widely dispersed across the range. Small herds stand better up to a wolf "test."  Wolves test cattle to see if they will run, and simply put, if a calf or yearling runs after a wolf pack tests them, they die. Nearly 95% of all cattle killed by wolves are calves or yearlings.

And when their hunt is successful, the pack and every individual wolf in that pack just learned how to kill cattle. When calves or yearlings don’t run, they live, and are "retrained" to accept the protection of the herd and not bolt.  Simply put, livestock that learn to stand their ground don't die.

When a wolf does kill a calf, if we react and feel it is necessary to kill a wolf from the pack, often what happens is the pack then disperses and the remaining wolves take their "knowledge of livestock" with them to other territories and other wolf packs.  If managers then try to kill the whole pack, invariably some escape, again taking their  knowledge with them.  Instead of the problem shrinking, it spreads. 

Yes, there are times when chronic livestock killers or packs need to be controlled, but it needs to be done very thoughtfully.  Wolves avoid people and their scent, so a range rider’s presence disrupts predation behavior on livestock by keeping wolves moving through a livestock area quickly.  Range riders also can be on the lookout for sick or ailing livestock that may need to be removed from the area and not become a natural target for a wolf pack. 

The second purpose of a range rider is to monitor the wolves in the area. This takes coordination among the ranchers, the managing wildlife agencies, and the range riders.
In Alberta, up to 40 ranchers belong to a cooperative that covers 4,000 square miles that hires several range riders and has developed a carcass pick-up and composting program. Using both of these techniques, on an average year, ranchers in Alberta have reduced their livestock mortality by 90%.  And cattle weight losses over the grazing season from wolf harassment were largely nonexistent.

Last year these 40 ranchers lost zero cattle, even with many wolf packs living in the region.  In the Montana cooperative similar results are being reported. They also do a community winter wolf tracking effort that accurately determines the number of packs and wolves they need to plan for the next grazing season.

One of the speakers summed it up for me when he said,

"There is no living with wolves in livestock country until you truly understand wolf behavior, are working  to modify livestock behavior to reduce vulnerability, and actually create  a change in human behavior."   

Behavior either drives us towards conflicts with wolves or gives us ways to avoid conflicts: wolf behavior, cattle behavior, and human behavior. 

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Wolf and Rancher Conflicts

Posted by Beth Wright at May 07, 2012 05:07 PM
Thank-you for this excellent article which included new information to me about wolf and rancher conflicts. I have taken notes and will use this information to inform wolf advocates and the broader public.

What Washington can learn about wolves

Posted by Steve Clevidence at May 08, 2012 08:58 AM
The Alberta ranchers also have use of tracking collars. Not to hunt the wolf, but to monitor its travels, thereby enabling one rancher to call another rancher when the animal is on the move and alert that rancher that the wolf or wolves are moving into that ranchers area. This allows the rancher to increase human activity around his livestock, range riders, or just being more noticeable which is also a deterient. Adjusting cattle feeding times, instead of feeding in the mornings, feed in late afternoons. Cattle are more prone to stay put and bunched up while feeding and stay there until later into the night, which is prime hunting times for wolves. Rotating pastures where cattle feed. Most cattle take by wolves are young stock. Upwards to 21/2 years of age. Why? because these young cattle tend to run when a predator enters the area, triggering the prey instinct in the wolf. By keeping this age group with cow/calf pairs who are more prone to stand their ground, the predation drops dramatically. Its proven in Yellowstone national park, that if a Bison stands its ground and refuses to run, the wolf loses interest and moves on, it works the same way with cattle. Wolves and rancher can co -exist, but for it to be so, the livestock producer needs to modify his way of doing daily business. Being more vigilent and realizing how a wolf lives and learns is an advantage. Wolves will watch and learn the routine on a ranch, therefore its necessary to change that routine regularly. It works in Alberta, it works on several ranches who use these methods in Montana and it can work in other areas. Its up to the rancher.

livestock & wolves

Posted by Jay Kehne at May 08, 2012 10:45 AM
Thanks Steve for your additions and comments, you make some great points. Hopefully some of these techniques will make sense and be applied in the various communities in Washington where wolves and livestock will interact as wolves repopulate.

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