Friday, February 16, 2018

Keeping Wolves Alive in Montana, Part 3

Part Three of this series looks at how wolves fare in more ranching areas that use nonlethal deterrents to protect livestock. 

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Big Hole Valley

The Big Hole River flows through a two million-acre valley that is surrounded by high Rocky Mountain peaks. Only 2,000 people reside here and most live on private land in the valley bottom. The surrounding highlands are publicly owned and used for grazing cattle. This area is a stronghold of traditional cattle ranching. And it’s also home to wolves. Many come from Idaho following elk. Since elk don’t usually overwinter in the Big Hole Valley, wolves may turn to cattle.

Photo from Big Hole Watershed Committee website
When wolves attacked cattle in the past, wolves died. In 2011 the Billings Gazette reported that sixty-seven wolves were lethally removed from the Big Hole Valley in the previous two years.

The Big Hole Watershed Committee has come up with two programs aimed at keeping wolves and livestock apart. The Upper Big Hole Range Rider program went into operation in 2011. The Upper Big Hole carcass compost facility opened in 2017. 

Big Hole Range Rider Program

The Big Hole range rider monitored seven grazing allotments on public land in 2017. Ranchers turn their cattle onto these lands July through September. The range rider monitors predators with day and night patrols and trail cameras. The rider reports predator activity to ranchers who can then adjust cattle accordingly. If livestock predation occurs, the rider reports to the rancher and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wolf biologists who investigate to determine if the rancher can be reimbursed for the loss. As with other Montana range rider programs, this reimbursement is a strong incentive for using range riders.

I spoke with Jennifer Downing, executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee. She believes the real success of their programs is measured by an increase in the number of participating ranchers and a growing acceptance of living with predators. She reports that more ranchers have asked to have a range rider on their public land allotment. More ranchers are willing to use guard dogs. More ranchers have carcasses trucked to the central composting site. 

Downing said that while patrolling grazing allotments on public land from 2011 to 2017, the range rider did not kill any wolves, although the rider could do so to stop a wolf from interacting with cattle. 

She referred me to Nathan Lance, wolf management specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks for data on wolf kills by ranchers and public agencies. 

Lance told me he has been involved with the Big Hole Watershed range rider program for years. I asked how many wolves had been killed in the Big Hole area while cattle were protected. He provided data on the wolves killed by ranchers or Wildlife Services in 2011, 2012, 2016, and 2017. (The service that federally funded Wildlife Services provides is killing wildlife.) During those four years, a total of six cattle were killed or injured and eight wolves were killed in areas patrolled by range riders. Four more wolves were killed in areas not patrolled by range riders. That twelve wolves in four years is close to the same number of wolves killed in the Blackfoot Challenge, an area discussed in Part 2 of this series. 

The Carcass Compost Facility

The Upper Big Hole carcass compost facility is a cooperative effort managed by the committee. It provides an efficient means of carcass disposal for local ranchers. Livestock mortality is a normal part of ranching. The presence of carcasses on ranches attracts wolves, bears, and mountain lions, which can lead to the predators being killed. Historically ranchers have buried carcasses, thrown them in pits, hauled them to dumps, or even blown them up to be rid of them. Carcass composting provides an alternative that is acceptable to wildlife, water quality, and people. In 2017, forty-six carcasses were removed from seven ranches. 

Partners in the Big Hole Valley range rider and carcass removal program include People and Carnivores, Wildlife Conservation Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Cinnabar Foundation, and Montana’s Livestock Loss Board.

Centennial Valley

Centennial Valley, part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is a 385,000-acre widlife corridor, that links the Yellowstone and Salmon-Selway Wilderness habitats.  About three-quarters of the valley is public land. The rest is privately owned, mostly by a small number of long-time family ranches. The valley is home to wolves, grizzly bear, moose, elk, trumpeter swans, Arctic grayling, and sage grouse. And during summer about 12,000 grazing cattle. Wolves and bears attack those cattle. 

photo from Centennial Valley Association website
In 2014, the Centennial Valley Association completed the first season of their Range Rider Program. Five landowners participated and the one range rider covered 40,000 acres. A primary goal of the program is to reduce the number of unconfirmed cattle losses—so ranchers can be reimbursed for losses clearly due to predators. A range rider can also reduce predator-livestock conflicts and provide valuable information about wildlife by using tracking, field cameras, and visual observation.

In addition to range riders, the Association used fladry (colorful strips hung from fencing that deter wolves) and electric fences, hazing and lethal removal of habituated predators, and RAG boxes. A RAG box (Radio Activated Guard box) activates a strobe light and loudspeakers when it detects a signal from a wolf collar. 

The Centennial Range Rider Program

During the range rider’s first year two cows were killed by grizzly bears. Wolves also attacked livestock and Wildlife Services lethally removed all but two wolf pups in one of the area wolf packs.

The next year the program expanded to eight participants and three riders that haze wolves found near livestock, remove carcasses from areas used by livestock, gather cattle to keep calves close to their mothers and reduce vulnerability to predation, and aid in caring for sick or injured livestock to minimize conflicts with predators.

A range rider observed there could be three wolf packs in the valley, up from two the previous year. One of the valley’s ranches reported working on rekindling the herd instinct to protect cattle from wolf and grizzly attacks. Range riders encourage cattle to move as a herd, rather than run and scatter, when predators approach. Since using this technique, the ranch hasn’t lost a single animal to predation when herds stick together.

In 2017, range riders logged more than 2,400 hours, covered 75,000 acres, and monitored eight herds in twenty-seven different pastures. They located eleven cattle carcasses, only one the result of predation. The riders found eighteen sick or injured animals that were cared for by ranchers before they attracted predators. Participating ranches reported an additional twenty-six carcasses due to various causes, including depredation.

Also in 2017, nine individual wolves and a pack of unknown size were identified in Centennial Valley. During May through October, when range riders were present, wolves did not pose much of a problem. However, after the range riders departed in early to mid-November, there were several losses to wolves. Wildlife Services was called in and removed five wolves from a pack that contained six to nine.

To reduce these off-season attacks, the Association hopes to have at least one rider remain in the valley through all or part of November, weather and housing permitting. 

Partners in this range rider program include the Cross Charitable Foundation, Montana’s Livestock Loss Board, Defenders of Wildlife, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, and Western Sustainability Exchange.

Tom Miner Basin

The Tom Miner Basin sits at the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park and has a resident wolf pack of twelve and more than twenty grizzly bears. The Tom Miner Basin Association uses three nonlethal deterrents to keep predators and livestock separate and alive: range riders, temporary fencing, and carcass management.

photo from Tom Miner Association website
Range riders are at the heart of the Wildlife and Livestock Conflict Prevention Program. Riders travel through herds of cattle at first and last light. They monitor the herds for sickness and injury. They haze predators when necessary and track wildlife in and around areas used by livestock. They find carcasses quickly so cause of death can be determined—and reimbursement for predator-caused losses can be obtained. 

Riders gather cattle together when possible, keeping calves with mothers and mother cattle with other mothers. This strategy—similar to the one bison use—makes the herd less vulnerable to predation. The Association’s website reports that the basin has had no confirmed depredations by wolves when cattle were encouraged to stay together as a herd. This is similar to the success of the Centennial Valley ranches that used this technique.

In 2015 and 2016 electric fences with fladry were installed around calving grounds. There were no attacks on calves by wolves. 

Tom Miner Range Riding Reports

The Wildlife and Range Riding Reports published by the Tom Miner Basin Association paint a picture of how wildlife, livestock, and ranchers fared in 2017, their fifth year of coexisting.

The report for May shows cattle had returned and riders were patrolling on a daily basis by the last week of the month. The basin had one wolf depredation. When riders discovered the carcass during an evening ride, they removed it from the pasture. Riders met with Wildlife Services the following morning, examined the scene, and confirmed that a single wolf had killed the six-week old calf. After the investigation, the carcass was removed and placed in a cattle-free area. The wolf was not harmed.

By late May, riders used ground tracking, field cameras, and visual observation to monitor wolves, bears, elk, and moose. They confirmed that the local wolf pack had pups.

In June, riders found three elk calf kills and one adult elk kill in areas used by livestock. But no livestock died and no carcasses of domestic animals or wildlife were removed.  

Riders reported fewer wolves and wolf tracks during June than in the previous five years. But data from collared wolves and images on trail cameras showed wolves moving through pastures used by cattle. The report concludes that wolves still use the basin as they have in the past, but they are now more wary of humans and thus seen less.

During July riders reported that wolves often travel alone or in small groups instead of a pack. Even though there were many encounters with cattle, there were few attacks by wolves.

But fourteen goats were attacked, and some killed, by a single adult wolf. This occurred in late morning while the herd of about 1,000 goats grazed near thick ground cover. After the attack, riders helped set up electrified fladry and foxlights around the goat night pen. (Foxlights produce a light similar to that of a person patrolling with a flashlight.) They monitored the area through field cameras and identified the wolf responsible. The next day the goats were moved out of the basin to eliminate further conflict. The wolf was not harmed. 

Contributors to the Tom Miner program include Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Defenders of Wildlife, People and Carnivores, Natural Resources Defense Council, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, and Western Sustainability Exchange.

In Parts 2 and 3 of this series, we’ve looked at four areas in Montana that use nonlethal deterrents. The deterrents have become more accepted and reduced livestock-wolf conflict. But wolves still die—most at the hands of Wildlife Services. Is it possible to protect livestock without killing wolves? That’s the subject of Part 4.

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. 

signed set of both books is available with free shipping.

To read Part 1

To read Part 2 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Rick for keeping us informed about the efforts to help the wolves in Yellowstone and its surrounding areas. My heart aches every time a wolf gets killed. When you described in your book when 06 was killed I cried and I want to do something to help them not just to survive but thrive. Thank you for your blog. It gives some hope that ranchers and wolves can live in the same areas. As always, your blogs are informative and helpful. Thank you! Ilse