By BRIAN SMITH
HAILEY • Idaho Department of Fish and Game managers and Blaine County officials are mulling over how to deal with conflicts between wolves and livestock on a 16-square-mile property set aside for conservation.
Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore said the county’s request to make non-lethal predator control measures a last resort on the 10,394-acre Rock Creek Ranch was a “deal-breaker.”
Blaine County Commission Chairman Larry Schoen said the county wants lethal control measures — often used when wolves kill grazing sheep or livestock — only to be used when required non-lethal deterrents fail. Schoen said the county is trumpeting the idea — which would be a first on similar Fish and Game-managed properties — to set a statewide example for best grazing management practices.
The two agencies are in negotiations to split the cost of buying the ranch — once appraised at more than $13.4 million — from the Wood River Land Trust for $2.2 million to turn it into a Fish and Game-managed Wildlife Management Area. The ranch stretches along a dirt road that begins at Croy Canyon Road, west of Hailey, and ends at U.S. 20.
The Rinker family recently donated more than $7.4 million in land value by selling the ranch to the Land Trust in a deal aided by The Nature Conservancy. After negotiations with Blaine County finish, Fish and Game would hold the title to the land and bear the costs of managing it.
The land has 10,000 acres of grazing allotments, 31 cubic-feet-per-second of water rights, 24 miles of fishable streams and 89 miles of riparian habitat. It is home to sage grouse, pygmy rabbits and serves as wintering and transition range for deer, elk and antelope.
Before selling the property, the Rinker family created a $3.8 million Natural Resources Conservation Service Grassland Reserve Program easement over the land.
“That has these specific requirements, such as no developments, requirement of grazing, wildlife habitat is predominant in terms of management and other such conditions related to motorized access,” said Gregg Servheen, Fish and Game wildlife program coordinator.
The ranch has more than 10,000 acres of forage, Servheen said, and cattle are grazing there. Schoen said the county wants to see grazing continue there.
At a mid-July meeting, where the Fish and Game Commission approved releasing its $1.1 million obligation, Moore stressed that the commission isn’t tied to financing the property with Blaine County.
Should the county not budge on its requests, Moore said Fish and Game could call off the deal or find a new purchase partner. The department would “in no way ever require the permitted lessee for grazing to be mandated on any form of protecting their property relative to predation,” he said.
“We know those are unacceptable conditions and there is no reason for you (the commission) to ever consider them and wait on them (Blaine County officials),” Moore said.
Since then, Servheen said the two sides have been successfully negotiating to find a middle ground. Schoen agreed, saying he was sure the two would come to an agreement soon.
Fish and Game is more agreeable, Servheen said, to encouraging non-lethal deterrents as part of the purchase and requiring those methods under the grazing permitting process it would gain control of after the sale. Fish and Game managers want flexibility, and writing non-lethal measures into a purchase agreement, as requested, would be too restrictive, he said.
Magic Valley Commissioner Mark Doerr said at the mid-July meeting in Salmon, “As a commission, we don’t want to tie our hands on the management of a piece of property to language that we don’t use anywhere else in Idaho and — only because it is in Blaine County — make it exclusive.”
When asked why the county should be treated differently, Schoen said, “The answer is really simple — Blaine County citizens are chipping in $1.1 million for the creation of this wildlife management area.”
That money would come from a 2008 Blaine County voter-approved $3.2 million land, water and wildlife conservation levy, Schoen said. Those funds are overseen by a levy board, which forwarded its requests to Fish and Game.
“The levy board wants to see all wildlife valued and wants to see deterrents as best practice on the property with that kind of investment,” Schoen said. “It is not policy in Idaho today, and I have been very involved at the state level trying to see deterrents incorporated into state policy.”
Across the state last year, wolves killed a record number of livestock — 39 cattle and 404 sheep. In Fish and Game’s Southern Mountain area, which includes the Wood River Valley and parts of Blaine County, wolves killed 23 cattle and 146 sheep.
Schoen used Defenders of Wildlife’s Wood River Wolf project as an example that wolf deterrents work in the wolf-heavy area. The project helps fund deterrents if requested by ranchers and is currently focused on sheep grazing allotments north of Ketchum.
From 2010 through mid-2014, Defenders spent $230,000 on the project, which protected between 10,000 and 27,000 sheep annually grazing in the Sawtooth National Forest while losing only 25 sheep in the past six years, said Defenders’ Suzanne Stone.
“Just like with other agricultural practices, they start with a new idea and people learn how to use them effectively and they eventually become adopted as a best management practice,” Schoen said.