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Ranchers debate the effectiveness of non-lethal deterrents on wolves

Some feel non-lethal deterrents are better for small operations; not effective for large ones
Published: Jul. 16, 2021 at 5:42 PM MDT
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HAILEY, Idaho (KMVT/KSVT) —The new wolf law went into effect earlier this month, and it allows increased hunting opportunities on private land year-round, which has some ranchers optimistic it will lead to a reduction in livestock depredation by wolves. However, some in the Wood River Valley feel the law is an overreach and there is a better way.

Brian Bean is the owner of Lava Lake Lamb out of Blaine County, and he said he is no stranger to livestock depredation by wolves. His operation had some tough years in 2003 and 2004.

“We had one evening where we had 36 ewe and lambs killed in about a four-hour period,” said Bean. “We had an instance where 25 ewes and lambs, two rams, and one guard dog was killed. One guard dog was wounded that I had to destroy.”

He said livestock depredation definitely catches someone’s attention, but since 2007 he has practiced non-lethal deterrents when it comes to wolves.

“We use a number. Bright lights, flashing lights, there are loud noises, human presence, and guard dogs,” Bean said.

In fact, he is one of the founding members of the Wood River Wolf Project, an organization that believes in co-existence with wolves and livestock.

“We continue to demonstrate, which we have done for over a decade and a half, that non-lethal deterrents properly applied can really reduce loss,” Bean said. “Which is not to say we haven’t had losses, but usually it is like one or two or four or five. It’s not 35 or 25, and it’s not every two weeks.”

However, Carmen rancher Jay Smith, who is also the president of the Idaho Cattle Association, said non-lethal deterrents might work for a small operation, but not for a 90,000-acre cattle operation like his.

“I would love to have it wolf proof, and not harm any wolves, and not have them harm any cattle,” said Smith. “That would be a perfect win-win, but it is just not possible with as big an area as we cover.”

He said for his operation lethal deterrents are the best option. He uses the assistance of hunters and trappers, as well as, Wildlife Services to come in and take care of problem animals. Smith said he doesn’t want to kill wolves that aren’t harming or harassing his cattle. They can co-exist with him and his livestock “forever” as long as they aren’t causing problems. But lethal predators are the ones he wants to get rid of because once they acquire a taste for “beef” there is no stopping them, non-lethally.

“So you have to identify those offenders and you have to remove all of them. You can’t just get one or two of them,” said Smith. “If it’s a pack of 6, 8, or 10 that are causing this problem you have to get 100 percent of them to be effective.”

Logan Miller of the Wood River Wolf Project said it is a reality that ranchers lose livestock to wolf depredation every year, and they can stress livestock out. However, the numbers are incredibly low.

WS-Idaho conducted 205 investigations in FY 2020. Of the cases, 102 involved confirmed depredations, 28 involved probable depredations, 53 were possible/unknown wolf depredations, and 22 of the complaints were determined to be causes other than wolves. In FY 2019 WS-Idaho conducted 264 wolf depredation investigations for Idaho livestock producers, of which 175 were determined to be confirmed wolf depredations.

However, Smith feels those numbers are way off. He believes they may be seven to eight times higher based on a study the University of Idaho did on one of his allotments. He said If someone’s livestock has been killed by wolves, and it has been lying dead anywhere from two to five days, it’s too far gone for WS-Idaho to come and investigate and confirm the cause of death.

“I lose cattle to wolves every single year, and I am going on 20 years now that I have not been able to prove one of them,” said Smith. “So the only number those people see is the confirmed kills.”

He also said the argument from conservation groups the last few months that ranchers lose more livestock to weather and disease is a bad one.

“So if I were to come and steal all the money out of your bank account and say way more is a lost in the stock market than what I just took from you how would you respond to that logic,” said Smith. “So for them to say my losses are minuscule then they should give me money.”

He also said wolves don’t have to kill livestock to impact a rancher’s finances. Wolves can affect livestock by injuring them and harassing them. Smith said there are many cases of a wolf just running a cow to death without even biting it. The harassment alone can also have an impact on cattle.

“If they come home 10 percent light, well that’s 10 percent less revenue you get paid,” said Smith. “When they come home light they come home a lower percentage of them pregnant, and then that costs you the next year.”

However, Bean thinks the law is unnecessary and nothing more than a political stunt.

“I absolutely believe that it’s a grotesque mistake to vest that authority in this state legislature. It should be the state game management agency.” said Bean.” It(law) was performed by people who are incompetent to make those decisions.”

Miller said he believes, as wolves are hunted more aggressively and packs are fractured, it will very dramatically impact their ability to coexist and to populate.

“Because unfortunately, a fractured wolf pack is not a healthy wolf pack,” Miller said.

However, Smith says the law is necessary due to the financial and emotional distress ranchers are suffering, and the wolf population is just too big and not capable of managing itself. He said in 2019 and 2020 the State of Idaho harvested over 500 wolves a year, and the population has continued to grow.

He also said he thinks it’s an overreach to say the law will lead to 90 percent of the wolf population being killed. He thinks the law does nothing more than offer ranchers a sense of security and make them feel that something is being done to minimize their losses.

“The hunter success rate in Idaho is .04 percent, so it doesn’t matter how much harder we hunt them. We can’t hunt enough of them to make that significant of a difference.”

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