The art of coexisting with predators and other wildlife

By Heidi Ridgley

Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife The snarling and barking ruckus caught the sheep herder’s attention around 2 a.m. last June, with the waxing crescent moon high over Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Instead of reaching for a shotgun to kill the wolf in a standoff with a livestock guarding dog near his band of sheep, he picked up his new airhorn and high-beam flashlight and scared off the wolf.

“He’s a wildlife hero in my book,” says Suzanne Stone, Defenders’ Northwest senior representative. “He saved the wolf, the dog—which could have been injured without human backup—and the sheep. Often, all wolves need to know is that there is a human presence out there and they’ll stay away.” A week before, the herder had just completed Defenders’ bilingual training workshop, which teaches time-tested, conflict-deterrence methods to new sheep herders. 

These herders reported seeing wolf tracks and scat frequently in the following months, but never encountered another wolf at night for the rest of the grazing season. “Without the training, this incident could have led to possible lethal removal of wolves,” says Stone. “Instead, wolves learned to avoid sheep in the area, and no government agents or ranchers killed any wolves.”

Pioneered by Defenders to help win acceptance of wolves in the West, coexistence—the idea that humans, predators and other wildlife can share landscapes—is increasingly gaining acceptance particularly now that predator deterrents have proved effective in preventing sheep and cattle depredation on large-scale grazing areas. 

When gray wolves returned to the Northern Rockies, Arizona and New Mexico decades ago, Defenders was the first conservation organization to directly partner with ranchers and provide guard dogs and scare devices to prevent conflict. “Our knowledge of what works has only grown over the years,” says Stone. “Figuring out ways to deter predators is in everyone’s best interest because reactively killing wolves, grizzlies, mountain lions and coyotes won’t bring the rancher’s livestock back to life, and nonlethal methods are less expensive than sending up helicopters to chase and kill predators at taxpayers’ expense.”

Methods include range riders, livestock guard dogs, turbofladry—red flags attached to electrified night fencing—and foxlights—an LED strobe that illuminates in random patterns and looks like a person is walking in the distance. This spring, to keep wolves in northeastern Oregon out of harm’s way, Defenders tested out a new tool: 10-foot-tall inflatable air dancers, also known as tube men, that car dealerships and other businesses use to catch customers’ attention. “We got a lot of laughs about this one—admittedly it’s pretty funny—but it worked brilliantly to keep wolves from returning to kill llamas,” says Stone.  

After a three-year analysis of peer-reviewed studies on nonlethal and lethal predator-control methods in North America and Europe over the last 40 years, University of Wisconsin professor Adrien Treves found that fladry, foxlights and livestock guard dogs worked reliably, while lethal methods proved ineffective or counterproductive. “We concluded that lethal control resulted in higher livestock losses than nonlethal control,” says Treves.

A growing body of research also shows how killing wolves precipitates more problems. Killing individual wolves can disrupt packs—particularly if adult wolves are killed. This can leave only younger members that are less skilled at hunting and more desperate. It can also cause the pack to disband. When pushed to less familiar areas or forced to find food on their own, they could turn to livestock to survive. And often other wolves move into evacuated territory.

When wildlife managers removed two adult Mexican gray wolves from the Diamond pack in Arizona last year—placing one in captivity, killing the other—because of livestock predation, the remaining younger members of the pack all disbanded. 

Later, a necropsy revealed that a cow—found around the same time as other cattle killed by wolves—died from ingesting twine. “It’s likely that the Diamond pack scavenged on that cow’s carcass and then was drawn to nearby cattle,” says Craig Miller, Defenders’ Southwest senior representative. “If the rancher had disposed of the carcass properly—as called for in best practices for coexistence—the wolves might not have been drawn to the cattle in the first place. Proactive livestock management could have prevented the conflict, but instead the wolves, the livestock and, frankly, the taxpayers paid the price.”

At Idaho’s Wood River Project in Blaine County—where ranchers practice only nonlethal coexistence techniques—wolves killed 30 sheep out of more than 100,000—in a seven-year period. That’s 3.5 times fewer losses than adjacent grazing areas where wolves were lethally controlled, according to a peer-reviewed study published last year in the Journal of Mammalogy.

“The results of this study challenge historical predator management at its core, showing that government lethal predator-control programs are substantially less effective at protecting livestock and wildlife than nonlethal strategies,” says Stone, the study’s lead author. 

Increasingly, Wildlife Services is taking notice. This U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency is tasked with predator control and traditionally relies on lethal methods like aerial gunning and cyanide-baited foot traps. But last year, it hired its first-ever, federal nonlethal-control agent in Montana—funded, in part, by Defenders. 

After observing the effectiveness of turbofladry in Montana, USDA state director John Steuber became so convinced of the effectiveness of nonlethal methods, he touted them at a legislative briefing on Capitol Hill in March organized by Defenders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Steuber helped set up and monitor seven turbofladry projects in 2016 and nine in 2017 to protect calves in western Montana. The result: no predation in the pastures while the fladry was in place. He also spoke to the effectiveness of electric fences in keeping grizzlies and black bears away from backyard chickens and bee yards. “If people don’t protect them, I’ll get a call to catch and remove the bear that got them,” says Steuber. “But the simple solution is electric fencing, and Defenders has a wonderful Electric Fence Incentive Program. I always encourage people to call Defenders for technical and financial assistance with the fences.”

This program, in its eighth year, helped fence more than 300 projects that attract grizzlies in Idaho, Montana, Washington and Wyoming. “Defenders also provides funds for bear-resistant trash cans for communities and food lockers for campgrounds,” says Russ Talmo, Defenders’ Rockies and Plains associate. “Combined, these projects protect grizzlies from conflicts with humans—the single greatest cause of grizzly bear mortality—and go a long way toward grizzly bear recovery.”

Recently, Wildlife Services also placed 78 livestock guard dogs with 21 sheep producers in five western states. “I know some ranchers that are buying dog food by the ton now,” Steuber says, adding how he’d like to hire more agents committed to nonlethal methods.

A federal Wildlife Service state director dedicated to nonlethal control is something Stone never thought she’d see in her lifetime. “Defenders literally used to be the voice in the wilderness when we started advocating for nonlethal solutions,” she says. “Turns out we were paving the way for a paradigm shift in wildlife management.”

The arrival of the Phantom Hill pack in the remote and rugged Wood River Valley precipitated the shift. Nicknamed the sheep super highway of central Idaho, the valley in Sawtooth National Forest has the highest concentration of sheep in the West. In 2007, when the pack decided to den there, residents boasted that they had their own mini Yellowstone and watched through spotting scopes as the pack raised pups.

But when spring denning season turned to summer grazing season, semitrailers rolled up and unloaded a few thousand sheep in the same mountain meadow. Within 48 hours more than a dozen sheep were dead.

“Normally, the wolves would’ve been killed,” says Stone. “But the local people were fond of the pack and demanded a nonlethal alternative.” The producer agreed to try fladry and range riders, something that had never been done before over such a large area.

It worked. The wolves finished raising their pups and moved on to their winter rendezvous site without a single depredation.

“The biggest surprise was how supportive the ranchers became,” says Stone. “They wanted us to help them the next grazing season. The Wood River Wolf Project just started its 11th year with the lowest rate of sheep loss in wolf range in the West—and not a single wolf killed to protect livestock. Covering hundreds of miles with 15,000 to 22,000 sheep each season, we lost an average of three sheep a year—some years none. On adjacent land using lethal control, the ranchers lost more than 300 during the same seven-year time frame as our study, and they kill wolves—sometimes entire packs—nearly every year.” The nonlethal solutions also keep coyotes, mountain lions and bears away. 

Livestock losses to wolves in Idaho outside the project area are 90 percent higher, according to USDA statistics.

“These deterrents are effective, practical and cost-effective, and they should be supported by policy and government appropriations in the same way as other predator-management programs,” says Larry Schoen, a Blaine County, Montana, commissioner. “It comes down to deciding if we believe that predators have a place and function on our landscapes. Can culture and traditional attitudes and practices be changed to accomplish coexistence rather than exterminating one at the expense of the other?”

The coexistence philosophy is not without opponents—and not just from those livestock producers that don’t want to see a live wolf anywhere on the landscape. Some conservationists argue that nonlethal-control tactics have limited applications, that they disturb other native wildlife and that the real solution is removing livestock from public lands.

“The reality is—like it or not—a vast portion of public land in the West will continue to have livestock on it for decades,” says Miller. “Defenders is focused on the immediacy of now—to prevent predators from being needlessly killed today and to help local communities learn to live with them.” 

There is no question that grazing impacts biodiversity and reduces the overall health of ecosystems. One day, perhaps, predators will have priority on public lands as people become more ecologically aware and public grazing allotments are retired. “But that day is not today, and we will needlessly lose a lot of predators in the meantime,” he says. “Right now, we have to do all we can to put these nonlethal tools in the hands of livestock producers.”

Defenders began paying for a person to stay on the range with cattle in the Mexican gray wolf recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico in 2002, and today cosponsors 18 range riders with ranchers. “We significantly reduce depredations where we have range riders,” says Miller. “And once ranchers give it a try, they often realize how effective it is and tell others, who reach out to us for help. Success begets success and is why we’ve committed so much of our efforts to work and live within these communities.”

Over the years, Defenders’ coexistence programs expanded to grizzly bears in Washington, polar bears in Alaska, jaguars in the Southwest and Mexico, panthers in Florida and bison, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets in the Great Plains. “Almost everything Defenders focuses on fosters coexistence,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders’ president and CEO. “Our work to ensure healthy populations of sage-grouse, for example, involves promoting policies and federal land management that encourages the conservation and expansion of wildlife populations. Our ‘smart-from-the-start’ approach to renewable energy infrastructure development is to ensure wildlife habitat is minimally impacted.”

Defenders also builds tolerance for wildlife by helping landowners in Montana build wildlife-friendly fences that keep bison from damaging their property but that do not block or harm the movement of pronghorn and mule deer. This allows bison to migrate out of Yellowstone National Park in search of winter forage and helps to limit the number that might otherwise get sent to slaughter for venturing beyond park boundaries. In another cooperative effort, Defenders helped restore more than 200 Yellowstone bison to tribal lands in Montana rather than have them killed.

Across the Great Plains, Defenders works to create grass buffers to deter prairie dogs—essential for the endangered black-footed ferret—from entering areas with hostile landowners who don’t want prairie dogs competing with cattle for grasslands or digging tunnels.

In Alaska, to prevent polar bear conflicts with humans, Defenders funds bear-resistant community food storage lockers. And in Florida, Defenders provides funds and expertise on building night enclosures for small livestock so that residents feel more willing to share habitat with the endangered Florida panther.

“As more people want to live where wildlife live, it’s important to note that coexistence is more than just a set of nonlethal tools and strategies employed by ranchers and farmers,” says Clark. “It is a philosophy—Defenders’ vision for conservation—and it is changing hearts and minds so that human communities across the country are tolerant, accepting and appreciative of the wildlife that coexists around us.”

Coexistence in Action

The key to keeping nonlethal tools effective is having a learning frame of mind, says Hilary Zaranek, co-founder of the Tom Miner Basin Range Rider Project—a Defenders’ partner—and part of a family-run ranch abutting Yellowstone National Park, where cattle could scatter over thousands of acres during the grazing season.

She and other ranchers from her community decided it was in their best interest to understand what made their livestock vulnerable to wolves and grizzlies. 

Tasked first with observing, range riders found that gathered rather than scattered cattle were better able to defend calves. “Cattle are not really easy prey,” Zaranek says. “It’s the circumstances that make them more vulnerable."

When cattle are together, riders also are much more likely to spot a livestock carcass in time to find the cause of death. This allows ranchers to manage situations to prevent predation—rather than to reactively set traps and chase predators after the fact. “Cows die for all sorts of reasons on the open range and you only have a short window to find out what happened,” she says. “If you address the root cause—maybe it’s larkspur poisoning—you can potentially prevent more deaths and keep carcasses from luring in predators. But if cattle are scattered, finding a carcass is like finding a needle in a haystack.”

In the end, Zaranek says, successfully sharing habitat with predators comes down to not what you do, but how you do it. “You can’t just have a person riding around, call them a range rider and then decide that tool doesn’t work,” she says. “You have to actually invest in understanding what is worth doing and why and then direct the rider appropriately. Similarly, we cannot just tell ranchers ‘use fladry’ or ‘use guard dogs’. Action without thoughtful understanding rooted in experience is just sticking Band-Aids on the problem.”

Heidi Ridgley is editor of DEFENDERS.

For more, visit defenders.org/coexistence.

Inspired? We’d love to hear from you. Send your comments to: editor@defenders.org.

 

Photo caption: This wolf pup belongs to Oregon’s wild Wenaha pack. 

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