Wood River Wolf Project has limited resources
Wolf depredation incidents on seven sheep in the Sawtooth Valley and the subsequent killing of three wolves by the federal Wildlife Services agency last month have prompted thinking on the part of the Wood River Wolf Project to expand its protection efforts.
The project was started in 2008 by the nonprofit conservation group Defenders of Wildlife to save the lives of both livestock and wolves by facilitating the use of nonlethal deterrents to wolf depredation. Since 2016, it has been overseen by the Lava Lake Institute for Science & Conservation, a nonprofit organization founded by Brian and Kathleen Bean, co-owners of the Hailey-based sheep-producing business Lava Lake Land & Livestock.
The project works with five regional sheep producers, and trains their herders in deterrent techniques such as fladry (strips of cloth strung along the outside of sheep bands at night), noisemakers and lights.
The ranchers, all based south of the Wood River Valley, bring their sheep up for the summer to graze on U.S. Forest Service allotments in the valley. When they make that migration, the Wolf Project loans them “band kits” that contain the deterrent devices. The herders also use guard dogs.
Since the project’s inception, no wolves have been killed in the protected area due to depredation on livestock.
However, some of the herds are trailed out to the north and west, leaving the protected area.
The incidents in mid-July in the Sawtooth Valley were outside of that area, but the sheep’s owner, Plateau Farms of Hagerman, Idaho, is one of the producers that work with the Wood River Wolf Project. Brian Bean said he’d like to help prevent such incidents in the future. He said the wolves killed may have been part of a group of five that had crossed over from the Wood River Valley.
“We’re still going through our own post-mortem on this,” Bean said. “This event has caused us to think about what we might be able to do to extend the reach and extent of deploying these nonlethal deterrents.”
Bean said Plateau Farms currently has two band kits and has been rigorous in using the deterrent equipment in the Wood River Valley. However, Plateau Farms co-owner Mike Henslee told the Idaho Mountain Express that the equipment was not in use in the Sawtooth Valley at the time of the depredations because there had been no encounters with wolves there for four years.
“[The kits] were being held in reserve for when the bands came back into the Wood River Valley,” Bean said.
Bean, who talked to Henslee following the depredation incidents, called them “a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances.”
“Mike Henslee had not expected any wolf interaction there, so they were underequipped and they had two new herders that were untrained,” he said. “It’s a lesson for all of us.”
Bean said the Wood River Wolf Project has enough band kits to outfit all the sheep bands in the Wood River Valley, but not enough once they move out of the valley.
He said a total of 27 bands of sheep, with about 1,000 ewes with their lambs in each band, graze in and around the Wood River Valley.
“It would be a glorious day if we could purchase enough band kits to cover all of them,” he said.
Bean said the Wolf Project has about eight full-size band kits, which cost $2,000 each, and two or three mini kits, which cost about $1,000.
So buying enough deterrent equipment to outfit all the bands in the area would cost $17,000-$34,000. Bean said that in addition, herders need to be trained how to use the equipment for it to be effective.
He noted that buying enough band kits to outfit all the bands in the area would probably be cheaper in the long run than paying to kill wolves. In 2017, Idaho’s Wolf Depredation Control Board told the Legislature that it cost about $8,000 to kill each wolf.
The $8,000 average cost of killing wolves means that $24,000 was spent to kill the three wolves in the Sawtooth Valley in July. That dwarfs the $1,400 value of the seven sheep killed by the wolves, but ranchers say wolves can get habituated to eating sheep.
“Once they start killing livestock, they need to be removed, because we know they’ll go out and kill livestock again,” said Carey sheep rancher John Peavey in a news release from the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.
Bean said lethal control has to be available to ranchers as a last resort for them to be willing to participate in the Wood River Wolf Project.
“They want to know that there’s a backstop,” he said.
The Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission, a state government agency whose mission is to provide education on and promote Idaho’s livestock industry, noted that 23 years after wolves were reintroduced to Idaho in 1995, wolf depredations appear to have become more widespread, with a record 217 sheep or cattle ranches requesting the help of Wildlife Services so far this fiscal year. The number of livestock killed had been dropping since 2012, but so far this year has jumped back to about the 2012 level, primarily due to a spike in incidents in Valley County. However, at 61 so far this year, the number of livestock killed by wolves remains well below record levels; in 2008, for example, wolves killed 114 head of cattle and 53 sheep statewide, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Bean said that ideally, herders for each band of sheep in the Wood River Valley would carry the band kits from the time they leave the lambing sheds south of the valley until the end of grazing season. That way, he said, they could also be used to deter coyotes, which prey on the lambs in areas south of the mountains.
“They are five to 10 times more significant in terms of sheep killed than are wolves,” he said.
He said Lava Lake has lost 30 lambs to coyotes so far this year.
“When we get up to the higher elevations, we’re actually relieved, because we know we can protect against wolves,” he said.
Bean said the deterrent devices—fladry, lights and noisemakers—have not been proven effective against coyotes, but he’d like to experiment and find out.
“Coyotes are not just smaller wolves,” he said. “They use different hunting techniques. They’re incredibly smart.”
He said that last winter, his lambing sheds were surrounded by as many as 20 coyotes at one time.
“There would be three or four coyotes that would lead the guard dogs on a wild goose chase all over the place while others came in the back and took sheep,” he said.
Despite the depredations, Bean said, he has not called in Wildlife Services to kill the coyotes. Statewide in 2017, Wildlife Services killed 3,222 coyotes.