Coexistence is not a new philosophy for the folks on the ground at the Wood River Wolf Project or the Voyageurs Wolf Project. They live it during every summer grazing season.
For 14 years, the Wood River Wolf Project has been on the ground using nonlethal strategies to minimize wolf sheep conflicts in Idaho. When wolves started to appear in the region, the Blaine County community, under the leadership of IWCN director and project co-founder Suzanne Asha Stone, came out strongly in support of nonlethal coexistence efforts and they have not looked back. The project has become a model for coexistence efforts internationally.
Logan Miller, the Project Field Manager and Nate Redon, the 2021 Field Technician are on the ground with the herders during the grazing season helping to get the job done. They have a “band kit” of nonlethal tools that includes:
- Blank starter pistols: These pistols make a lot of noise and can effectively scare away wolves that are approaching sheep herds.
- Fox lights: These solar powered lights emit random pulses of multi-colored lights that simulate a person walking around at night or a campfire. They are set up around the perimeter of a sheep band and are regularly used by many projects. Wolves react by fleeing the area and do not seem to become acclimated to them.
- Spiked dog collars: Livestock guardian dogs are meant to alert sheep herders to the presence of wolves, not bite or attack wolves. These collars provide a safety barrier around their necks in the rare instance they get into an encounter with wolves.
- Phoenix lights: Strobe lights that are used to scan the area around the sheep band at night.
- Solar panel: used to charge lights up for each night.
- Air horn: Used in conjunction with the starter pistol to scare wolves that are getting too close to the sheep.
The total cost of this package is less than $1000. The whole kit is lightweight and easy to pack into the backcountry, field ready, and affordable; a sustainable solution to mitigate wolf/livestock challenges. Logan remarks that “Killing wolves can cost tens of thousands of dollars, especially when you factor in a helicopter. And there is scientific data that demonstrates that killing wolves can actually increase conflicts rather than prevent them by destabilizing packs.”
Next year, the Wood River Wolf Project team expects to get more remote cameras, protective dog collars, lights and ebikes to help them more easily access the backcountry. They also plan to conduct howling, tracking and scat surveys along sheep routes to determine where wolf packs are on the landscape. And they will use passive acoustic recorders to better identify how many wolves are in the area and locate their rendezvous sites.
Tom Gable, the project lead for the Voyageurs Wolf Project in Minnesota, is usually spending time studying wolves in the wilds of Minnesota. If you love wolves, you will love their Facebook page, full of great trail camera footage of wolves in the Voyageurs Ecosystem. This year, they are diving into coexistence, and have partnered with IWCN, Wildlife Services and a rancher who owns the Sheep Ranch, a large cattle ranch (they switched to cattle over the years) in northern Minnesota that is situated right smack in the middle of wilderness and at the nexus of four wolf packs. Due to its location in prime wolf habitat, the ranch has experienced predations for decades.
After much discussion, it was determined that the best option for the ranch was a fence. But fencing on a cattle ranch with a perimeter of 7.5 miles in the middle of wilderness is no weekend project. And it’s not cheap. But it’s better and will be cheaper than the thousands of taxpayer dollars that are being spent to trap and remove wolves annually. The ranch usually loses about seven cattle each year as a result of wolves and 80 wolves have been removed since 2005. That’s 9% of the wolves being removed annually. Tom says Wildlife Services traps until they don’t get any more wolves and, of course, they never know if they have trapped the targeted wolf.
This Spring, with support from IWCN and others, they started putting up a 49-inch-tall woven wire fence with a woven wire apron to avoid the possibility of wolves digging under the fence around the ranch. As of October, they had 5.5 miles of fencing up, but drought conditions made it impossible to complete the last two miles before the end of the year. Preliminary movements from GPS-collared wolves in and around the ranch suggest that the standing fence is already impacting wolf movements and will be an effective means of keeping wolves off the ranch.
The long-term goal is simple: provide a solution for ranchers and farms in the Great Lakes region. Fencing in some of these problem areas could put a stop to wolf livestock issues.
Fencing in a ranch is very expensive, when you factor in materials and labor. Even if it works, the challenge will be funding. But removal of wolves is more expensive and not the right answer for wildlife that are just doing what they need to do to live.
Logan, with Wood River, says “There will be situations where a few sheep and wolves are lost, but conflict mitigation is possible through the use of simple tools and practices.”
On average, only five sheep per year or 0.0025% of 20,000 sheep, on about 300,000 acres, are lost to wolves annually on the Wood River Wolf Project and only two wolves have been killed in response to predation in the project area since 2007 including one lost this year. This is the same year that only three sheep were lost in the Wood River Wolf Project area and their partner project, Lava Lake Land and Livestock had no losses. “We would love to see Wildlife Services put more resources into nonlethal deterrents. Our partners have shown that it is possible to coexist with wolves. Other ranchers can do it too with the support of Wildlife Services.”
Clearly, it’s time for Wildlife Services to put nonlethal tools ahead of lethal tools and live up to it’s vision statement: “Wildlife Service’s vision is to improve the coexistence of people and wildlife. The program recognizes that the entire field of wildlife damage management is in a period of change, and those involved with this field must consider a wide range of public interests that can conflict with one another. These interests include wildlife conservation, biological diversity, and the welfare of animals, as well as the use of wildlife for purposes of enjoyment, recreation and livelihood.”
If you would like to learn more about the Wood River Wolf Project, please check out this peer reviewed paper published in 2017 Adaptive use of nonlethal strategies for minimizing wolf–sheep conflict in Idaho.
Special thanks to the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation for its support for this forum.