By Ching Lee
As more gray wolves become established in California, ranchers who operate in known wolf territory say their way of life has changed as they grapple with the presence of the predator and how to protect their livestock.
Gray wolves remain protected under the federal and state Endangered Species Acts, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed ending federal protections for the predator throughout the lower 48 states. Even if that happens, it would still be illegal to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, kill or attempt any of those actions in California.
Since 2011, when a lone wolf known as OR-7 wandered into eastern Siskiyou County—marking the first detection of a wolf in California in nearly 100 years—the state has confirmed two wolf packs: the Shasta Pack and Lassen Pack, the latter being the only currently known pack in the state.
During the past three years, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed 12 instances of cattle lost to depredation—four in Plumas County and eight in Lassen County—the majority of which occurred on private land. In total, CDFW reported 43 investigations since 2015.
Ranchers say those numbers are misleading, as they believe actual depredations far outpace those that are confirmed.
“There are circumstances where they aren’t able to rule it out, but there’s not enough evidence to make the confirmation,” said Kirk Wilbur, director of government affairs for the California Cattlemen’s Association. “Additionally, in some of that dense forested area in Lassen County, you may not ever find the animal. Your cow may go missing and you’re never able to even find it to have an investigation.”
Billie Roney, who runs cattle on Lassen County forest allotments, has lost cattle to wolves in each of the past three years. She said she and her husband, Wally, no longer use half of their normal grazing ground where wolves are known to be, and now run almost all their cattle on their private land, locating them in a meadow “every single night to keep them from being killed” and watching them constantly. Not only have they lost cattle from depredation, but wolf presence has stressed their herd, leading to lower conception rates and body weights.
“It’s just not fair to the cattle to have them put up with this kind of craziness,” she said. “We keep them alive, but their quality of life isn’t all that hot and our quality of life is shot.”
The state currently does not have a program to compensate ranchers for confirmed wolf kills, though ranchers could seek federal compensation through the Livestock Indemnity Program, which Roney said she has not done because she thinks receiving payment for a livestock kill would make it easier for wolf advocates to dismiss livestock losses and would not address the actual losses ranchers experience.
Lassen County rancher Taylor Hagata, who so far has not experienced any wolf conflicts, said not only should there be state compensation for wolf livestock kills, but the state should also pay ranchers for wolf presence, noting that ranchers are being asked to purchase and try different nonlethal wolf deterrent tools such as installing flags along fence lines, using noisemakers and employing range riders, all of which could become expensive and may not work long term as wolves become used to them.
Todd Swickard, who runs cattle in Lassen and Plumas counties and has lost cattle to wolves in the last two years, said the deterrent tools are simply not practical for those who graze animals on forest ground where cattle are often spread out over thousands of acres.
“We had one cowboy run (the wolves) off and they’d just go a couple hundred yards away, sit under a tree and watch him until he went away,” he said. “I’m certain those tools are useful, but in an open-range situation, they’re not very effective.”
What has been more helpful, Swickard said, is having open communication with CDFW and receiving notifications when wolves are detected nearby, “because then we can be more vigilant, be more effective with our labor.”
Hagata said he would like more transparency from the department, including knowing the GPS coordinates of collared wolves, though he acknowledged potential problems with making that information public.
Wilbur said communication between the department and the ranching community has improved, in large part because of Kent Laudon, the state wolf specialist, who “has done a really good job on the ground, communicating with ranchers when there are conflicts.”
Where frustration remains for ranchers, Wilbur said, is with “the higher levels” of CDFW, as ranchers try to seek clarity on wolf policy. For example, ranchers remain confused about whether they’re allowed to chase a wolf away when it is caught in the act of attempting to kill livestock, because it is unclear what constitutes illegal “pursuit” under state law or impermissible “harassment” under federal law. There’s also ambiguity in state law as to what constitutes a gray wolf versus a domestic dog or a wolf hybrid, the latter two of which are not protected.
Laudon said answers to those questions are “clearly out of my hands.” He acknowledged some deterrent tools such as fladry are not intended to work everywhere, as “they have specific applications for specific scenarios,” and that those who operate in larger allotments have it tough.
Range riders may not necessarily be a solution for everyone, he said, but they could be for some operations that manage their herds and allotments with more high-intensity, short-duration grazing, though he acknowledged that in many allotments currently, ranchers are looking to do the opposite: more-dispersed, longer-duration grazing.
Like ranchers, Laudon said he wants more communication and relationship building, so that “all of us are working together to come up with creative solutions.”
“I look at this as a community approach—less about me or CDFW dictating to people throughout rural California,” he said.
Lassen County rancher Jack Hanson said he appreciates the improved communication from CDFW and understands that Laudon and other department staff are often “hamstrung” by law and department policy in what they can do for ranchers. He said he also recognizes that until the wolf’s protected status is removed, ranchers’ hands are tied, as they have no lethal option to deal with wolves that kill livestock.
“We are the epicenter,” he said of living in wolf country. “It’s certainly changed the way we look at the future. It’s the anticipation of what may be down the road that scares all of us.”
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.