Monday, January 29, 2018

Keeping Wolves Alive in Montana (Part 2): The Blackfoot Challenge

Wolves started reclaiming Montana’s Blackfoot Valley in 2007. And with those wolves came concerns of local ranchers who weren't strangers to living with predators. Ten years before they had worked together to reduce conflicts between livestock and grizzlies then recolonizing the valley

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The ranchers assessed problems living with wolves might create. They sought solutions consistent with the mission of their landowner-based organization, the Blackfoot Challenge. That group had formed in 1993 to help ranchers, loggers, and outfitters work this 1.5 million-acre mix of diverse habitats while providing a refuge for wildlife, including grizzlies, Canada lynx, fishers, bull trout, migratory birds, and now wolves. 

An October 2017 report from the Blackfoot Challenge catalogs at least sixty wolves and thirteen packs in the valley. Little is known about three of the packs, but some of the remaining ones have collared wolves and can be tracked and studied. With wolves and livestock sharing the valley, conflict was possible, especially during calving season. The Blackfoot Challenge wisely realized they needed help.

How to Minimize Livestock-Wolf Conflict 

Enter Seth Wilson (College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana), Elizabeth Bradley (Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife), and Gregory Neudecker (US Fish and Wildlife Service). The trio helped minimize conflict and wrote a 2017 case study about the process. Published in the journal Human-Wildlife Interactions, their paper describes how their team worked with the community in meetings, workshops, and field tours, and how they gave locals opportunities to participate in data collection and projects.

Projects included installing electric fencing around calving areas, removing livestock carcasses, and adding range riders to monitor livestock and wolves. A state agency, the Montana Livestock Loss Board, helped offset the costs of these nonlethal deterrents. In 2016, for example, the board granted $22,000 which the Blackfoot Challenge matched.

What did this investment of minds, muscle, and money return? The case study reports that livestock losses to wolves during a recent decade averaged only 2.2 depredations each year. That’s among 16,000 to 18,000 head of livestock grazing on nearly fifty ranches. 

And how did the wolves fare? Each year, fewer than three wolves (2.4 to be exact) were removed due to these depredations. Meanwhile the valley’s wolf population swelled from one pack to about twelve packs.

But that average number of wolves “removed” doesn’t tell the whole story. For the rest, you must dig into the Blackfoot Watershed Wolf and Bear Activity Reports. In 2016, for example, three of those reports cover April through September. During those six months, wolves killed five calves. 

Wildlife Services Steps In

After each confirmed depredation, Wildlife Services stepped in and had forty-five days to remove wolves.

On May 24, 2016, Wildlife Services confirmed wolves had killed a calf. They tried but failed to capture the wolves.

On June 28, Wildlife Services confirmed wolves had killed two calves. They set traps, captured one wolf, and euthanized it.

Finally, on August 2, Wildlife Services confirmed a calf depredation by wolves and removed eight wolves from the pack.

The ranchers who lost those five calves could be reimbursed by the Montana Livestock Loss Board. The Board reimburses at 100% fair market value for confirmed and probable wolf-caused losses to livestock and guard animals.

So the ranchers survived, but nine wolves did not. What scientific rationale justifies killing so many wolves?

In December 2014, National Geographic reported there have never been any large-scale studies of whether killing wolves really helps protect livestock. They also reported on a new study funded by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

Rob Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University, headed that study. His team analyzed twenty-five years of data on the killing of wolves. They studied incidents where wolves attacked livestock in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. They found that when a wolf was killed, the chances of livestock getting killed actually increased the following year by five to six percent for cattle and four percent for sheep. What’s more, with each additional wolf killed, the chance of livestock attacks rose.

Wolves Don't Have to Die 

Wolves need not die to protect livestock. The Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho proves this. In 2014 a representative of that project, Suzanne Stone from Defenders of Wildlife, told National Geographic that fewer than thirty sheep have been lost to wolves, and no wolves have been killed. The project protects up to 30,000 sheep by increasing human presence near herds, by using guard dogs, noisemakers, flashing lights and fladry to frighten wolves, and by not grazing near dens. 

The Wood River Wolf Project’s record of no wolves killed while protecting livestock continues, according to a peer-reviewed, seven-year study published in 2017. Stone, the lead author, told a reporter that the study shows “…traditional government lethal predator-control programs are less effective than nonlethal strategies in protecting livestock, even in large mountainous areas."

The area protected by the Blackfoot Challenge is large and mountainous. I applaud the Blackfoot Challenge for using nonlethal deterrents to keep livestock and wolves separate. Their forethought and work surely helped reduce the number of conflicts. 

But wolves still died. I think that’s because once a depredation occurred, the Blackfoot Challenge brought in Wildlife Services. Wildlife Services is a tax-payer funded federal killing machine. When this agency shows up, wolves—and lots of other animals—die. That’s the “service” Wildlife Services provides. 

The Blackfoot Challenge could be even better by eliminating the use of Wildlife Services and seeking a way to be more like the Wood River Wolf Project. Then they wouldn’t just keep more wolves away; they would keep more wolves alive.

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. His new book, Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed from Rick, or unsigned on Amazon.

His best seller, In the Temple of Wolves, is available signed, or unsigned.

A signed set of both books is available with free shipping.

Many thanks to Greg Gates for the illustrations for this post.

To read Part 1 of this series. 

To read the PLOS ONE journal article.

1 comment:

  1. Rick, do you happen to know where one can find the article posted by Peer in PLOS one? That would be a good addition to add a link to the resources available and cited in this story. Maybe even identify for those not familiar with the Blackfoot territory you speak about. I agree that wildlife services is an agency we can do without! Thanks for sharing