Predation trends remain unchanged
By REAGAN COLYER
MADISON COUNTY — With grizzly bears asleep for the winter, one predator is still out and about in the cold temperatures and has perpetrated livestock kills in the Ruby Valley in recent months.
Madison County nearly always sees elevated numbers of livestock predations due to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, says Wildlife Services evaluator Chad Hoover. Wildlife Services is the first entity a rancher or property owner calls when they find that an animal has been killed by wildlife. It’s Hoover’s job to check on kill sites in Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson counties and determine what animal killed the livestock in question.
“You’re going to look at quite a few different things,” says Hoover regarding how to determine what species was responsible for a kill. “Tracks, sightings in the area and the kill pattern for sure. Wolves tend to attack from the rear.”
Hoover says he’s only seen one wolf kill since the new year in his tri-county area, but that that’s typical for the wintertime, when he usually sees fewer predations. He notes that wolf kills have drastically decreased since the institution of a legal and limited hunt on wolves in Montana. A regulated annual harvest was approved in 2004, included in the state Wolf Conservation and Management Plan.
Wildlife Services received a peak number of calls in 2009, when 233 calls were made to report wolf activity. Since 2014, Wildlife Services has received 100 or fewer calls per year. Usually between one third and half of those calls are verified as wolf activity.
Montana’s wolf population, which was largely decimated before the species’ reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park in the 1980s, reached around 1,000 individuals in 2011 due to that reintroduction and natural emigration from Canada. Wolves were also reintroduced into some of Idaho’s wilderness areas in an attempt to repopulate some of the canine’s historic habitat area.
After being delisted from the Endangered Species List in 2011 the wolf population declined slightly but stabilized at between 650 and 850, where it has remained for the last several years.
In the scheme of predators, Hoover says, wolves are not the largest threat to livestock.
“There’s definitely more grizzly bear depredations than historically, but wolves are down,” he says. “They aren’t in as large of packs as they once were, but they seem to be spread out in more places.”
That means that while the number of wolf depredations is largely staying steady, they are spread out over a wider geographic area.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) offers a series of recommendations for reducing depredations and encounters between wolves and livestock that help protect both wild and non-wild animals.
One option is management intensive grazing, or mob grazing, which allows for increased human presence among livestock, prompt doctoring of ill or injured animals and less predictability, all of which discourage predators from targeting a herd.
Guard dogs and even guard donkeys are also becoming more prevalent options for livestock protection. Some experience shows that donkeys work even better than the more common livestock dogs, since they can travel with livestock, don’t require any extra feeding and are less prone to wander from the herd. Donkeys are also less likely to be targeted as competition by wolves, whereas dogs can be susceptible to attack.
Range rider programs are also gaining traction, especially with new sources of funding from organizations such as the Livestock Loss Board (LLB), which reimburses ranchers the market value of livestock that is confirmed killed by grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions or even coyotes. The LLB paid out over $64,000 to producers in 2017 and continues to explore preventative options in addition to their producer compensation efforts.
One such endeavor, the Tom Miner Basin Association, has used range rider programs, carcass management, wildlife tracking and fencing projects to protect both livestock and wildlife, with great success. None of the herds actively managed in the associated ranches has experienced depredations since those efforts have been implemented.
Hoover agrees that there are many options for protecting livestock, but that the most important is to pay attention and remain watchful.
“Being out there and being vigilant is important,” he says. “Sometimes getting rid of any dead livestock, things like that. Avoiding something that’s going to draw in predators helps for sure.”
As Montana’s wolf population expands into its historic territory and adapts to the new landscape it is returning to, there are ways to prevent further predator-livestock interactions. And as more exploration goes into finding new ways to protect livestock, livelihood and wildlife, the hope is that the number of those interactions will continue to fall toward zero.