Some ranchers have been dealing with wolves ever since the government released the first ones in 1995. Now that the wolves have been delisted in several states, ranchers have more latitude in how they protect their livestock, but they still feel handicapped.
Phil Davis, near Cascade, Idaho, has been losing cattle to wolves for two decades. Even though it is now legal for him to shoot a wolf that is harassing/killing livestock (and there is a hunting season on wolves in Idaho, if a person buys a license and a tag), Davis continues to work with wildlife services to help him try to control the wolves that kill his cattle.
“You can’t deal with the wolves yourself because it’s difficult; they are smart and often nocturnal,” he says.
“We can’t protect our cattle because we don’t have the tools nor the time. We can’t shoot them from an airplane, and we don’t have a helicopter. Most ranchers are not experienced at trapping, and in our area it’s not legal to do sport trapping."
"I don’t know how Fish and Game would view ranchers trying to trap wolves. The rules are not established yet for something like this,” Davis explains.
Grazing and game
Most ranchers are still cautious in trying to deal with wolves to make sure they are not doing anything illegal. “I’ve always dealt with wildlife services for two reasons,” Davis says. “First, they have the expertise; this is how they make their living. Second, it keeps us legal. Wolves are here because of federal action, and therefore the federal agency should help us deal with the problem wolves.”
Ranchers are sometimes lucky enough to shoot a wolf that’s killing livestock, but all too often it happens at night, or the rancher isn’t in the right place at the right time to see the wolf or doesn’t have a gun. “We’ve managed to kill two wolves that we’ve seen in 20 years – yet the wolves have been killing our cattle every year,” Davis says.
Another difficult situation for ranchers is that wolves have been driving elk down out of the mountains and into farmland, where the elk feel safer. “In Weiser (Idaho) last year, Fish and Game had to have a special hunt on elk because they were eating a rancher’s corn silage,” he says.
Most people don’t realize the extent of wolf depredation on game and livestock. “Some ranchers don’t even know how many animals they’ve lost to wolves. Some kills can’t be confirmed because the animal is entirely eaten, with no trace left, while others are harassed to death when wolves are sport killing or teaching their pups to kill; the dead livestock are found intact,” explains Davis.
The rancher assumes the animal died of disease, bloat, poison plants or something else – unless he skins the carcass and discovers the hemorrhaging and mangled tissue under the hide, a classic sign of wolf bites.
Len McIrvin and his son Bill run Hereford cattle on their Diamond M Ranch in northeastern Washington, and suffer tremendous losses. “We had wolf damage starting about 10 years ago but not as severe as recent years,” says Len. “In 2011, we had 16 head killed; in 2012, it was 40 head. More recently, we lost 28,” says Len.
There is no effective way to protect livestock, especially when cattle run in big pastures. “The idea of ‘protecting’ our cattle is ridiculous, especially in the mountains, often in heavy timber and rough country.
There are many cows we won’t see all summer long,” he says. Some of them disappear, eaten by wolves, before anyone knows what happened to them.
“The people who talk about what ranchers can do to protect livestock from wolves using non-lethal methods don’t know what they are talking about. If you have cattle in a 10-acre backyard pasture next to your house, you might have a better chance to protect them, but no guarantee,” he says.
McIrvin has a neighbor who put up electric fence around his winter calving area with ribbons tied to it to try to deter wolves. “He had to bring his cows into a small area (about an acre) to try to protect them; the wolves were hitting him hard,” Len says.
There was fresh snow every night for a few nights, so he was able to see what happened. The first night after he put up electric fence and flagging, wolf tracks went around and around the enclosure and didn’t enter it. The next night the wolves came in under the hot wire, and the third night there were dead calves.
“The wolves didn’t actually kill any; the cows were so upset that they trampled several newborn calves as they stampeded around trying to protect their calves. This was right outside his back door, less than 100 yards from his house,” says McIrvin.
The neighbor told him, “I can’t be out there 24 hours a day; I have to sleep once in a while.” There’s no way to protect cattle all the time, even in a small area, and it’s even more difficult on rangeland.
“A professor at Washington State University led a study on wolves and said lethal control by eliminating some of the wolves is counterproductive because it divides the pack and they become more aggressive. That’s totally wrong,” McIrvin says.
“A few years ago, the Wedge pack in Stevens County killed 40 of our calves. Wildlife Services came in and took out six wolves – all but two of the wolves in that pack. On that range, between the Columbia River and the Kettle River along the Canadian border, we run 400 cows,” says McIrvin.
“We still see wolf tracks up there occasionally, but we don’t have a big pack. When you have a pack of wolves killing cattle, if you kill most of them, it seems to stop a lot of the livestock depredation.”
Someone came up with the magic number of six regarding when a pack becomes a serious problem. Two or three wolves generally aren’t much of a problem, but when pack numbers get to six or more, they become a major problem.
“For now, at least temporarily, the problem we had four years ago with the Wedge pack was solved by lethally removing six of eight wolves,” says McIrvin. “But now the Profanity Peak pack is expanding. When they have pups next spring, we will have bigger problems."
"In August-September, they will be hitting us harder.” But the government agency has to make the decision regarding if and when to remove a pack.
“If they immediately come in and eliminate or drastically reduce the numbers, in our experience this temporarily solves the problem – until the pack increases again,” McIrvin says.
Wolves often eat every bit of the carcass, and ranchers may not find any trace of cattle that are killed. “This is another problem because wolf lovers say they need evidence that it was a wolf kill."
Wyoming came up with a formula stating that you’ll only find one out of six. Most of the wolf kills are never found,” McIrvin explains.
On the flip side, wolves also kill for sport and may not eat any of the carcass. The animal is run to exhaustion and dies from the stress and trauma of multiple bites, but there is no outward sign of damage.
“A few years ago, when we had our biggest losses, we found one calf dead without a mark on it. Bill and I couldn’t figure out what killed it. We debated whether to call someone, but finally called our county sheriff."
"We always call the sheriff and let him call the game department. That way, we get a more honest diagnosis from the game department – if the sheriff is involved,” McIrvin says.
“It was a 500-pound calf with no external signs of trauma, but the game officer decided to go ahead and skin it. As soon as he started skinning that calf, you could see the bloody, pulverized tissue underneath. These are Hereford cattle, thick-hided, with a lot of hair, and we could not see a mark on it until we peeled the hide back,” he says.
McIrvin feels strongly that there’s no way to protect livestock from wolves except to eliminate the wolves that prey on livestock.
“People talk enthusiastically about their Range Rider program, but those riders are only out there during daylight. Even if that program is effective, all it does is send those wolves onto the next allotment,” McIrvin says.
He has a neighboring cattleman whose daughter is a Range Rider, with a tracer to keep track of the collared wolves. “She makes $60,000 a year riding out there every day. Her neighbors had severe losses last year. Maybe she was running the wolves from her range to the neighbors’."
"Maybe the wolves would have gone to the neighbors without this program, but all those Range Riders are doing when they discourage wolf activity in a certain area is relocating the wolves to the neighbors’ cattle.” If they get scared out of one area, they just go somewhere else to kill.
“The wolves where that Range Rider is out there every day are becoming tame because they are used to seeing people. Somebody threw one of them a peanut butter sandwich just to watch them eat it. Those wolves are habituating to humans."
"This Range Rider has a radio, and wherever there’s a collared wolf, she goes to it. She doesn’t shoot them, so the wolves don’t feel threatened and get used to her,” says McIrvin.
“When our ancestors shot every wolf they could, the females taught their pups to fear humans. Now female wolves are not training their pups to stay away from people because they haven’t been shot at. They are training their pups that livestock are a free meal.”
Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.
PHOTO 1: Some ranchers have tried flagging, called fladry, around their property, in an attempt to deter wolves, but it only works for a short time and then the wolves come through it. Photo provided by Faye Coiner.
PHOTO 2: Idaho rancher Phil Davis has lost many cattle to wolves in the past two decades. Photo provided by Phil Davis.
PHOTO 3: This collared wolf was shot while in the process of chasing/killing cattle. Photo provided by Faye Coiner.
PHOTO 4: This calf had no external marks on it, but skinning it revealed the multiple bites and mangled tissue under the hide. Photo provided by Casey Anderson.
PHOTO 5: This wolf was harvested during the first wolf hunt in Idaho, after the Fish and Game initiated a hunting season. Photo provided by Heidi Leavitt.