TWIN FALLS, Idaho • As the federal government seeks to pull the gray wolf off the endangered species list, conflicts between ranchers and gray wolves in south-central Idaho are on the rise, with record livestock losses last year.
Gray wolves killed 34 cattle and 79 sheep last year in the Southern Mountain region of the Sawtooth Range, which includes Camas and Blaine counties.
Statewide, they destroyed 90 cattle and 251 sheep, said Todd Grimm, state wildlife services director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In turn, hunters killed 330 wolves in Idaho in 2012, up from 200 the year before.
While other states could be affected if the wolf loses its endangered species status, Idaho has been managing its own wolf population since 2009, said Craig White, staff biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game.
Idaho had 683 wolves and at least 117 packs last year, far more than the 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs required to avoid a federal relisting of the species in the state.
Still, the wolf population was down from its 2009 peak of 856.
“Our goal, as mandated, is to keep wolves on the landscape,” White said. “We’ve just got to balance it with other interests. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to be happy with that balance.”
The record number of livestock losses, with the highest death toll in south-central Idaho, “may just be an anomaly,” Grimm said. “Sometimes things happen. We just don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see what this year’s numbers point out.”
Packs that attack livestock are removed on a case-by-case basis, he said. Last year, 73 wolves were killed as a state control measure, up from 63 in 2011. Nine of those 73 wolves were in the Southern Mountain region.
The ranchers who sustained livestock losses last year have yet to be compensated, however.
It’s been a rough two years, said Carey-area sheep rancher John Peavey.
Wolves come at least every other night during lambing season, kill six or eight lambs but “don’t eat a thing,” destroying 50 lambs so far this year, he said.
It’s a tragic situation for ranchers, said Peavey, who owns Flat Top Sheep Co.
“We’re going to get by,” said fellow sheep rancher John Faulkner, “but we are going to kill some of them. That’s all there is to it.”
He said wolves have preyed on his sheep every year since they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s.
Grimm said officials are working to reduce wolf-livestock encounters by promoting non-lethal options, but some of those can cost more than the loss of sheep.
Peavey said he and others patrol the flock nightly using flashing lights. They do their best, but it often is not enough, he said.
Preventive measures are effective, though, said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for the Defenders of Wildlife. In western Blaine County, in a preventive project area with 27,000 sheep, only four were lost to wolves in 2012.
Ranchers can use several methods, she said, including guard dogs, human herders, lighting, electric fencing and corrals bedecked with flags that flap in the wind.
Ranchers also can keep their livestock away from areas where wolves have established dens. They also can remove attractants such as carcass pits or use higher-tech devices such as “rag boxes” that make loud noises when wolves with a tracking collar come near.
Adjusting ranching methods also would help, Stone said. Shed lambing offers more protection than range lambing, where pregnant ewes are allowed to roam and raise their lambs in clusters vulnerable to prey.
Peavey said shed lambing is too expensive and range lambing is a “beautiful process” that lets sheep “do what they’re supposed to.”
Easing the Pain
Although he’s lost many sheep to wolves, Peavey hasn’t been paid through the state’s compensation program for two years, he said.
A lamb is worth $150 to $200, but he said death costs go beyond what he can count. Any reimbursement is a “small part of easing the pain.”
“The carcasses are just part of the problem,” he said. “You’ve got moms killed, and their babies are out there waiting to be fed and they’re going to die. But that’s not part of the depredation (reimbursement).“
The Defenders of Wildlife had compensated ranchers for wolf attacks on livestock, but that program ended in the fall of 2010, said Dustin Miller, administrator of the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation.
A five-year federal program was developed to pay compensation nationwide, but that funding recently fizzled because of federal sequestration efforts, Miller said. In 2011, the program paid Idaho ranchers about $100,000 for livestock losses.
Miller said his office is applying for federal funds to cover livestock losses in 2012. But money will be tight, with $850,000 up for grabs between several states and Indian tribes. The money must be split between compensation and proactive deterrent efforts, he said.
“Unfortunately, we usually have the highest level of depredations in the country, and if it’s competitive, we may receive more funding than other states. But we can’t be sure,” Miller said. “We have no idea what we are going to receive, and I can’t guarantee producers who lost livestock … will be compensated at market rates.”
Helping or Hurting?
Stone is concerned by the declining Idaho wolf population since the state started managing the predator. She said the state’s treatment of wolves is more severe and aggressive than that used for other predators.
The wolf population will continue to decline as other states look to Idaho for examples of prudent management, Stone said.
Early this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the gray wolf from the threatened and endangered species list, citing a successful recovery. Some environmental groups have claimed the proposal is premature, as the species hasn’t been returned to its historic range. A 90-day comment period on the proposal is open through Sept. 11.
At least 6,100 gray wolves are in the U.S., with about 625 in Montana, 277 in Wyoming, and 4,432 in the Western Great Lakes region, including Minnesota and Wisconsin, U.S. Fish and Wildlife says.
“This traditional way of managing wildlife, where you just kill animals that (pose) a threat to livestock, it just doesn’t work,” she said. “It’s expensive, it requires a lot of helicopter time, airplane time, trapping, you lose livestock to begin with … and then you end up losing the wildlife and predators as well.”
State officials said wolf hunting would take pressure off livestock, but the opposite is true, Stone said. Hunting disrupts wolf packs, and juvenile wolves without a family are more likely to get into livestock as the pack can’t teach them how to hunt other prey, such as elk or deer.
“You’ve then got basically a bunch of teenagers running around, and they are the ones who tend to get in trouble more with people because they are not very savvy at hunting,” she said.
White disputed that claim. Wolves always will look for the “biggest bang for their buck” with the least risk, he said.
“I think that’s a little simplistic to say that a sub-adult wolf who didn’t have an adult model mentor became a thug … because there was no mentor to teach them the right way to hunt naturally,” he said.
Evidence indicates 80 to 90 percent of packs stay intact if one member is killed, White said. Moreover, where wolves have been removed after livestock depredation, new packs move in and cause the same problems, he said.
Without hunting, wolf populations would grow, and so would livestock depredation, Peavey said. When it’s a rancher’s livelihood being eaten, “you worry about today’s wolves, not next year’s wolves.”
Faulkner agreed, saying he has had less trouble as a result of hunting and packs being fractured.
“You’re only dealing with three or four wolves, whereas before you were dealing with up to 22,” he said. “Those big packs are way more vicious than the small ones.”
Hunting and trapping efforts influence wolf pack movement, said Regan Berkley, a Jerome-based wildlife biologist for Fish and Game. But predators migrate largely to follow prey and to claim territory in open space.
On a state map of wolf pack locations, southern Idaho is noticeably void of the predator. While sightings occur, a resident wolf pack south of the Snake River has never been documented, Berkley said.
Opinions vary on whether wolves could establish a presence there.
Berkley said it’s a slim chance. The area has space, elk and deer, but wolf encounters likely would be met with swift control.
Also, she said, the environment isn’t quite suitable. Wolves can live in a variety of habitats, but southern Idaho and the Magic Valley don’t provide areas where they can hide or establish dens.
“It’s not a place that has some of the classic habitat characteristics that are typically associated with wolves,” she said.
White wasn’t as quick to dismiss the notion. Wolves have been known to travel long distances across state lines to establish packs, the biologist said.
“Certainly a wolf could take a little walkabout and end up in the mountains on the Idaho -Nevada border south of you,” he said. “… Anything’s possible, but there’s not a lot down there to hold ’em and a lot of potential for conflicts that would get them in trouble.”
Peavey said the foothills south of the Twin Falls area look like wolf habitat to him.
“I suspect when we have a large winter with lots of cold and snow, the elk will migrate into the desert area south of Carey and the Snake River plain,” he said. “They’ll be down there killing elk and livestock.”
Faulkner agreed, saying he once saw four wolves south of Glenns Ferry.
“Don’t worry — they’ll be down into Utah,” the rancher said. “You don’t need to worry about those wolves surviving.”