Range riders hard at work for coexistence with wolves

Range riders hard at work for coexistence with wolves

ConservationNWAdmin / Aug 15, 2019 / Range Riding, Restoring Wildlife, Wolves

These on-the-ground efforts provide the pathway to coexistence, and a future with healthy wolf populations and thriving local communities.

BY JAY SHEPHERD, WOLF PROGRAM LEAD

Range riders working with Conservation Northwest’s Range Rider Pilot Project, the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative (NEWWCC) and local ranches have been hard at work this summer striving to keep losses of both wolves and livestock to a minimum.

While much of the news coverage has focused on the OPT Pack and recurrent wolf-livestock conflicts in the northern Kettle River Mountain Range, we’ve also been working in the territories of the Leadpoint, Smackout, Nc’icn and Sherman packs in northeast Washington, and the Teanaway pack in the Central Cascades. Ranching families are working day and night to prevent further depredations.

Through our Range Rider Pilot Project and other efforts, we’ve spent significant money and effort working with local ranchers to reduce conflicts and promote coexistence between people and wolves.

Range riding for coexistence

The Range Rider Pilot Project, a collaborative effort between Conservation Northwest and local ranches, works to increase the effectiveness of non-lethal measures in deterring or reducing conflicts where wolves and livestock overlap in Washington state. Founded in 2011, the project is now in its ninth year.

Conservation Northwest has provided more than $50,000 in direct funding for range riders, training, equipment and other logistical costs this year, including three full-time range rider positions working on more than 85,652 acres of state, federal and private lands in northeast Washington, and on roughly 50,000 acres of state and federal land in the Central Cascades. Together these riders cover more than 945 cow-calf pairs, or just under 2,000 animals.

The Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative is in its second season and has gained momentum, and local ranchers are also using state-contracted range riders or state cost-share contracts. This is due to the success of these measures and the requirements of the state’s Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol, but largely due to relationships built over the years.

We are slowly scaling back our funding for the Range Rider Pilot Project. This program was initiated as a pilot, and range riders and conflict-deterrence funding are also available from the state (funding we’ve repeatedly gone to bat for during budget negotiations in Olympia). But this doesn’t mean we’re done supporting our local partners and rural communities to help keep wolf-livestock conflict at a minimum.

Starting in 2018 and again this year, we’ve increasingly been investing in “rapid response” range riders—well-trained folks who can be deployed with flexibility to areas where wolf-livestock conflict is brewing. These riders, two to four of them at any given time depending on capacity and need, have been providing herd supervision in northeast Washington from the early spring calving season to where depredations are occurring during the summer grazing season.

It’s important to keep in mind that as wolf recovery has progressed in our state, more than 16 wolf packs now reside in northeast Washington, and active wolf territories cover public and private lands from rural backyards to backcountry roadless areas. It’s vital that we have capable people with knowledge of these animals and local landscapes ready to respond to help keep conflicts as infrequent and painless as possible. That’s exactly what our rapid response range riders aim to do.

NEWWCC also deploys range riders. This local outfit’s long-term goals include sharing husbandry and mitigation techniques from ranchers in areas that have had wolves for decades, such as Montana, and helping to bridge the cultural divides that exist within our state. For example, Low-Stress Livestock Handling methods that can help make herd monitoring easier where livestock and predators overlap are being implemented.

Importantly, NEWWCC has flexibility, local connections and the long-term approach that allows collaboration to be a part of the community in wolf country. There has been an average of eight range rider positions provided over the last two summers that help watch cows overnight on summer range and during calving in the winter. Equipment such as fox lights (randomly-timed strobe lights), fencing and other supplies has been lent out to private individuals and the state. As many folks ask for support and advice, we realize our work is vital for the long-term recovery of wolves and other large wildlife.

A wolf from north-central Washington’s Lookout Pack, photographed by David Moskowitz Wildlife Tracking and Photography. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

On-the-ground and at-the-table

Our staff presence in local communities in Washington’s wolf country, from Twisp and Omak to Deer Park and Chewelah, where I live, and our network of contract range riders and partners makes Conservation Northwest unique in the Northwest wolf conservation arena.

Jay Shepherd, our Wolf Program Lead, at work in northeast Washington.

Last week, I checked in with ranchers on the Smackout grazing allotment near the town of Ione. One of the families that operates there are long-time partners in our Range Rider Pilot Project. Our staff and the family’s cost-share range rider have worked closely for nearly a decade, supporting coexistence and together doing our best to prevent conflicts. Things haven’t always been perfect, with some losses of wolves and livestock. But this area is a prime example of the challenging reality of making things work in wolf country today, and the often under-appreciated hard work of local ranchers who sincerely accept healthy wolf populations, yet want their communities and livelihoods to be successful.

After talking with the ranchers about the wolves that have been active near the meadows they use during the early part of the grazing season, an employee of NEWWCC and I watched the Smackout allotment until dawn, providing constant human presence and checking for any separated cows and calves, or stragglers, that might be a tempting target.

It was a long and exhausting night, and one of more than a few in the past several summers, but it’s exactly what ranchers and range riders across northeast Washington have been doing nearly every day and night to keep some relative peace. I was glad to be able to give our partners in coexistence at least one night off, and they were grateful for our support. They recently called again, a couple of weeks later, to express gratitude to Conservation Northwest and NEWWCC.

It’s this type of hard work, so often beyond the headlines and overlooked by outside groups, that provides a future with healthy wolf populations and thriving local communities. This is the pathway to rural coexistence with wolves.

Washington’s Wolf Advisory Group meets in Ellensburg in March. Photo: Chase Gunnell

In pursuit of that goal, our key objective is securing maximum effort aimed at proactively deterring conflict between wolves and livestock. We also pursue this by working in the policy arena in Olympia, through collaboration with other stakeholders on the state’s Wolf Advisory Group, and working in the legislature to secure funding so the state can continue helping ranchers with the cost of proactive deterrence, as well as by working directly with ranchers through the field programs described above.

The desired result of increasing conflict deterrence efforts is minimizing conflict, not creating the complete absence of conflict. We know we’re not able to prevent wolf-livestock conflict entirely, but we can make it less common, and therefore keep Washington the state with the lowest rate of wolf mortality by human cause. With lower conflict, we intend to maximize the number of packs able to live wild as nature intended.

Editor’s Note: Based in northeast Washington, Jay Shepherd, Ph.D. is Conservation Northwest’s Wolf Program Lead, managing our wolf field operations and the Range Rider Pilot Project. Working with local partners and a Board of Directors, Jay also administers the Northeast Washington Wolf Cattle Collaborative, a grassroots, community-based program that is designed to promote a sustainable, long-term effort to reduce wolf-livestock conflict.

READ MORE FROM JAY SHEPHERD ON UNDERSTANDING WOLF-LIVESTOCK SCIENCE AND UNDERSTANDING WOLF BEHAVIOR.

A range rider at work in northeast Washington. Photo: Chase Gunnell, Conservation Northwest