• Range Writing

Uneasy Co-existence

Those of you who have followed my social media posts for a while will know that this western Wyoming ranch has long been home to both domestic livestock and wolves, and that we keep a running list of non-lethal techniques we use to try to prevent depredation (we’re up to 19 now, with deployment of a primitive scarecrow one night a few weeks ago).

In the spring of 2020, a pack of wolves using the ranch started to escalate their activities, starting in mid-May when we started lambing, which is also when wolves have pups at den and rendezvous sites. We have really great livestock guardian dogs that were keeping the sheep from being hit, but the dogs were getting beat up in the process. We had 4 dogs injured in 5 nights, and the wolves started coming in almost every night. USDA Wildlife Services tried to find the wolves with a helicopter, but couldn’t since most were uncollared. This is also the time of year that is the peak time for wolves killing other wolves, so it made sense that the conflicts with our dogs escalated at that time too.

In July 2020, we had 5 guardian dogs injured or re-injured in these conflicts. By late July, the dogs were exhausted, we were exhausted, and the wolves kept blowing the cattle and elk back down to the low country, so the cattle and sheep got mixed and we had to resort and move the herds, again.

Finally in mid-August, Wildlife Services was able to kill one radio-collared wolf. But apparently the helicopter work and other pressure helped to push the wolves into the nearby wilderness area, and they left us alone for about a month. We had a few sheep and cattle killed, but not many, and that is primarily because the dogs worked so hard at keeping the wolves at bay.

By September, our cameras showed that 3 wolves had started coming back onto the ranch about once a week, and succeeded in killing another half-dozen sheep in the next month or so. Then in early December, the wolves moved elsewhere, giving us several months of peace.

The 3 wolves (a prime-age adult male, an adult female, and a coming-yearling female) returned to the ranch in March this year. They stayed out of trouble for a few months, but in early May, they killed one of our yearling ewes and a heifer within about 10 days, and neighbors reported other losses. We had trailed the sheep downriver and away from home for lambing, trying to put some distance between the sheep and the wolves. But to stop what was already a quickly escalating conflict, two of the three wolves were killed after traps were set for damage control. We decided to leave the 3rd wolf alone, suspecting that it was a female and not wanting to leave pups to starve in a den. She came back looking for her pack mates five days later.

Blissful at lambing on the desert without wolves constantly present, I managed to blow it by twisting my knee while chasing a lamb on Memorial Day weekend (yes, I caught the lamb). Jim, Cass and Maggie took turns in sheep camp so I could see an orthopedic specialist, but I balked at surgery and went back to camp for a while. Miles of hiking every day apparently made my knee worse, so I finally had to agree to the surgery. This made me an extremely grumpy human, primarily because that meant the sheep had to be trucked back to the home place last week so we could get them home for docking, and then back out on range closer to home while I recover. I had surgery last week, and the sheep are now back on the range, but much closer to home.

Our cameras capture the female wolf about once a week now, when she comes in to check on an old bobcat carcass. It doesn’t appear that she has pups, and I am not finding evidence that she has other pack mates. She was within about a half-mile of the dogs the other night, but I’m not aware of any conflicts. She’s been doing some rather dramatic scent marking of her presence, but she’s vastly outnumbered by the guardian dogs.

I take Moose the herding dog with me to check the game cameras, and he leaves his scent mark wherever she marks, so that has been entertaining – the smallest dog on the place leaving scent-marks associated with dominate canids.

Although you may disagree about lethal take of problem wolves, you should know it’s something that we don’t take lightly. We are not compensated for our dead livestock – although the ranch may seek compensation for the heifer this year under a new state program that was allocated a small amount of funding from the Wyoming Legislature. We live just outside Wyoming’s wolf trophy zone, where ranchers are compensated for their confirmed and probable losses, which in some cases includes a compensation formula to account for missing livestock as well. That’s a great program (probably the best in the nation), but it doesn’t apply to our area.

Instead, we live in the predator zone of Wyoming, where wolves can legally be killed at any time, for any reason. But these wolves that are subject to hunting pressure year-round are primarily nocturnal and are difficult to control when problems arise. That’s why we need the skilled animal damage control specialists of USDA Wildlife Services. They helped us establish our ranch monitoring program, which provides key information about what animals are on the ranch at any given time, so when troubles arise, we can identify the individual culprits involved.

For now, the female wolf is in no jeopardy from us, so long as she doesn't cause any problems. I expect she'll find a new mate later this year, and have pups in the neighborhood next spring, continuing the cycle on the range we share. Although never perfect, this is co-existence.

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