August 16, 2019
Craig Miller

Mexican gray wolves were completely eradicated from the wild by the late 1970’s, primarily because of conflicts with livestock. In 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, led by Jamie Rappaport Clark (now president of Defenders of Wildlife), released 11 Mexican gray wolves back into the wilds of Arizona. Although their numbers have grown slowly, their future remains uncertain because of compromised genetics and human intolerance. Since the initial reintroduction, Defenders has worked side-by-side with wolf country ranchers and wildlife managers to help reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock, and to develop more effective ways to address losses when they do occur. By working together to solve these problems, we have found promising tools, management strategies and compensation mechanisms that can significantly help. The partnerships that have emerged around this collaborative work have resulted in improved trust and communication...and unexpected friendships. While we don’t agree on everything, one thing we do agree on is that collaborative problem-solving is helpful and that more must be done to support long-term solutions that allow people and wildlife to coexist. 

Jamie Rappaport Clark and Sec Babbit release mexican gray wolf
Hans Stuart/FWS

For the first 12 years of reintroduction, Defenders managed a livestock compensation program which sought to achieve tolerance for wolves by paying fair market value for confirmed wolf-caused livestock losses. This put us in direct contact with ranchers affected by wolves and we soon came to understand that it would be more effective to work with ranchers to prevent depredations from occurring in the first place. Our first “coexistence” project in the Southwest began 18 years ago with a quiet agreement between Defenders and a wolf-country rancher to share the responsibility of a range-rider to more closely monitor livestock and wolves and gather better information about why calves were missing in a newly wolf-occupied area, and to intervene non-injuriously if wolves were pursuing cattle. As a result, the rancher experienced fewer losses and the overall tension and anger around wolf-presence at his ranch diminished.

Today, coexistence partnerships like that very first project are helping ranchers share the landscape with wolves and other wildlife by supporting range-riders to improve monitoring of livestock and wolves, and to experiment with the use of innovative tools and management strategies to reduce the conflicts that can occur between wildlife in their natural habitats and agricultural activities. Our projects involve range-riders and their rancher hosts communicating and coordinating directly with federal, state and tribal agency managers and field technicians, integrating conflict avoidance measures into grazing management, encouraging ranchers to share their experiences with each other about what works, what doesn’t and why; and supporting other entities like the diverse stakeholder Mexican Wolf-Livestock Council, with the development, implementation, fundraising, and outreach for a coexistence program that supports presence-based incentives, compensation and conflict-avoidance.

Mexican_gray_wolf
Jim Clark/FWS

While there is no tool or management strategy that will be effective in every situation, we work in partnership with ranchers and agency managers to evaluate conflict situations and to identify what is most likely to work best in each situation and to share costs to implement potential solutions. We also sponsor ranchers and range-riders to visit ranches in other areas to learn new ways to successfully reduce conflicts. There are many potential solutions. Some ranchers are finding it helpful to reduce calving season to a few months, and to plan for it to occur after elk calving season so that an abundant natural food source is available to the wolves and their new-born pups, prior to domestic calves being on the summer range. Others have experienced benefits of winter calving, which allows for calves to be large and healthy when brought onto the forest for summer grazing. Reducing attractants, such as carcasses of livestock that die from other causes, can minimize the presence of predators around calving pasture and reduce losses. Also, training livestock to retain their instinctual defense behavior (e.g. herding together, “mothering-up” with their calves, and confidently standing their ground in the presence of predators) can be an effective tool. Livestock guardian dogs have long been used by ranchers and herders to protect livestock from predators across the globe and could also be helpful in Mexican wolf country. Erecting barriers, such as fencing, fladry and penning to create secure permanent and temporary pastures can also help minimize or prevent depredations. Using scare devices and tactics, such as radio-activated alarms, automated strobe lighting, air-dancers, cracker shells and rubber bullets, diversionary feeding, and alternate pastures have each been effective in various situations. 

There are numerous other tools and techniques that could be helpful, but the most valuable tool is the human brain and a willingness to apply it toward problem-solving. To this end we support range-riders – the increased human presence around livestock serves as a deterrent to wolves, but by observing wolf-livestock interactions with a problem-solving mindset, range-riders help to troubleshoot conflicts and implement solutions most appropriate to their circumstances.     

Range rider Montana
Russ Talmo/Defenders of Wildlife

Because this approach of sharing the responsibility for a wolf-livestock problem has resulted in improved communication, trust and tolerance for occasional depredations, today we are supporting multiple partnerships with ranchers, tribes and state and federal resource managers that provide the tools, training and field support to implement tools and management strategies to reduce conflicts. Our experience has us convinced that helping people in rural communities find ways to live with wolves is a prerequisite for successful recovery and we stand ready to work with current and new partners to scale-up coexistence projects to achieve that success.

Current cooperating parties include: the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Wildlife Services, White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Game and Fish and Range Departments and tribal livestock associations, Mexican Wolf-Livestock Council, California Wolf Center, Arizona Livestock Loss Board, New Mexico Department of Agriculture, Arizona Department of Agriculture, Farm Services Agency, in addition to the dozens of range-riders and host ranchers involved in these projects. 

Mexican gray wolf
Wolf Conservation Center

To assist tribal partners with managing for a Mexican gray wolf population, we recently co-sponsored a Tribal Youth Wolf Conservation Program with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, which hired six young tribal members to work with the tribe’s wolf project field team to gain hands-on experience in wolf monitoring and management, including measures to reduce conflicts with livestock. We are helping to expand the internship to a year-round program. We also assisted the tribe’s Range Department with its new Wolf-Livestock Conflict Specialist to work with tribal livestock associations to improve monitoring of wolves and livestock and to take steps to reduce conflicts. 

We are also supporting similar initiatives with Mexican partners, including hosting ranchers to attend workshops focused on livestock management strategies to reduce predator conflicts and sponsoring young Mexican biologists for field internships in the U.S. to gain hands-on experience with wolf management and conflict-avoidance measures, to help as they work to re-establish a population of Mexican gray wolves in the mountains of Chihuahua, MX.

As the wild wolf population grows and wolves establish territories in new areas, the demand for these types of partnership projects will only increase. Successful wolf recovery will require significant expansion of conflict avoidance planning, project coordination and implementation of tools and strategies. Defenders is excited to be a part of it all, from the very first moment as our future CEO released Mexican gray wolves back into the wild, to today’s diverse on-the-ground projects that are helping to find the long-lasting solutions necessary for the survival and recovery of Mexican gray wolves.

Author(s)

Craig Miller

Craig Miller

Senior Representative Arizona
Craig Miller is Defenders’ Senior Southwest Representative and has led Defenders’ regional wolf and jaguar conservation programs since 1993.

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