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Wolf livestock depredations at record levels

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – The number of livestock in Idaho killed by wolves has reached record levels.

Idaho Wildlife Services confirmed a record 113 wolf kills of livestock in Idaho during fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30.

Wildlife Services, a federal agency that helps solve conflicts between humans and animals, also responded to 217 sheep and cattle ranches during fiscal 2018 to perform necropsies on suspected wolf livestock kills. That was also a record.

So far during the 2018 calendar year, there have been 163 livestock depredations by wolves in Idaho, said Todd Grimm, the Idaho state director of Wildlife Services.

“This has been a tough year,” he said.

At the current pace, fiscal year 2019 is likely to be another record year for wolf depredations of livestock in Idaho, said Steve Stuebner, a spokesman for the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.

The depredation activity “seems to show that wolf populations are way too high,” he said. “The impact that wolves are having in Idaho is far greater than anyone ever anticipated. We have too many wolves out there and the existing methods of management aren’t cutting it.”

After 35 wolves were reintroduced in Idaho in 1995-96, their numbers increased rapidly. The state’s wolf population grew at an average rate of 28 percent a year and the official count peaked at 856 in 2009. That growth trend halted after 2009 once the state began allowing wolf hunting and trapping.

The state’s official wolf population varied between 681 and 786 from 2010 to 2015, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The state stopped estimating wolf numbers in 2015 but based on the trend between 2010 and 2015, it’s likely the current total is within that same range, said IDFG wildlife biologist Jim Hayden, who coordinates the department’s wolf program.

“The truth is, the wolf population is not moving very much right now,” he said. “They’re not exploding and they are not going down dramatically either.”

Some ranchers and hunters believe the number of wolves in Idaho is much greater than the 700 range estimate, said Idaho Cattle Association Executive Vice President Cameron Mulrony.

“The range could be all the way up to 1,500,” he said.

He also said the official wolf kill numbers don’t tell the whole story of how wolves are impacting ranchers because a large number of cattle don’t return and many of those are predator kills that don’t show up as kills or probable kills.

Besides actual kills, wolves are impacting livestock in other ways, Stuebner said, including by lowering pregnancy rates, causing cattle to gain less weight and causing cows to become hostile toward working ranch dogs.  

“As you peel the onion, the impact just goes deeper and deeper,” he said.

Those ancillary impacts “are harder to quantify but just as real as a dead animal,” said Phil Davis, a Cascade cattle rancher, who has suffered 70 wolf depredations on his property, 11 this year alone, since the animals were reintroduced in Idaho.

“Cattle are extremely stressed by having an encounter with wolves,” he said. “You can’t have working dogs around them anymore because they just go crazy.”

Wolf depredations of livestock are at record levels despite the fact that more than 300 of the predators are being killed each year by hunters, trappers and Wildlife Services responding to problem wolves.

Many ranchers believe lethal control of wolves, by hunters, trappers and WS, is the main way to keep the predators’ numbers and impacts under control.

But some groups, such as Defenders of Wildlife, believe cleaning up attractants like carcasses, applying non-lethal deterrents, and adding proactive livestock husbandry methods are more effective than lethal control in reducing livestock losses to wolves.

Removing attractants like carcass pits is the first step to reducing conflicts with wolves, said DOW Regional Representative Suzanne Stone.

She said other non-lethal methods can include hazing and scaring devices such as systems that emit flashing lights and sounds when wolves approach, or other things such as using livestock guarding dogs, human presence near livestock and avoidance of wolf dens in April and May.

Stone said there are far fewer wolf losses on livestock operations that are using these types of methods.

“Ranchers who are using these proactive non-lethal management methods are more successful at protecting their livestock than those relying on reactive lethal methods,” she said.

“If the goal is to reduce livestock losses, instead of killing wolves, livestock owners should demand that these methods be taught and funded,” Stone said.  “And the best place they can turn is to other ranchers who are demonstrating how successful these measures are.”

Many ranchers disagree that non-lethal methods are more successful than lethal control of wolves in reducing livestock losses.

Mulrony said that non-lethal methods only work for a short time.

“Wolves are smart animals. They will learn that these deterrents are not anything to be afraid of,” he said. “These deterrents will only keep wolves away for a short period of time and then they will continue to kill livestock.”

Wolf packs have been established pretty much throughout Idaho north of Interstate 84 and it’s likely a matter of time before they take up a presence south of I-84, Hayden said.

“I would expect wolves to become established south of 84 but not at as high a density as they are north of 84,” he said.

There is a lot of wolf activity occurring throughout the state and it’s only going to increase, said IRRC Executive Director Gretchen Hyde.

The IRRC is producing a video series on wolves in Idaho and some of the numbers and impacts the commission has seen are startling, she said.

“The impacts are all over the state,” Hyde said. “If an area doesn’t have wolves right now, they are going to have wolves.”

Though wolves are active throughout the state north of I-84, there are some hot spots for wolf livestock depredations, Grimm said.

The worst is in the Cascade and McCall area, he said. There have been more than 50 confirmed depredations in that area this year alone. By comparison, the entire state has had fewer than 50 confirmed depredations some years.

That area is a corridor for wolves coming and going and there is a lot of livestock in that area as well, Grimm said.

“There are always a lot of wolves in that area and any wolves that are removed in that area are quickly replaced and they quickly get in trouble because livestock are on the menu,” he said.

Other wolf depredation hot spots include the Idaho City area (15 confirmed livestock depredations this year), Council area (11), Mackay area (10), Salmon area (9) and Fairfield area (8). 

Since wolves were reintroduced in Idaho in 1995, Wildlife Services has confirmed more than 1,550 attacks on domestic animals by the predators. There have been at least another 274 probable attacks, according to a WS fact sheet.

According to WS, 415 Idaho livestock producers and other land owners have had some type of verified wolf damage on their property since 1995.

Since 1995, wolves have killed 3,114 sheep, 757 calves, 184 cows, 86 dogs, 9 horses, and injured hundreds more.

Custer County has suffered the most wolf depredations of domestic animals with 290, followed by Valley (272), Lemhi (188), Elmore (140), Idaho (121), Adams (95), Boise (82), Blaine (73) and Camas (54) counties.

Twenty-two other counties have had verified wolf depredations.