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Wolves, Management, Cattle and Wyoming

Buffalo Bill Center of the West today’s lunchtime speaker was Mike Jimenez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Wolf Recovery program.  Mike was scheduled months ago to speak about the success of the federal wolf reintroduction.  But as timing would have it, just days ago wolves were relisted in Wyoming.

Mike has been a wolf biologist for over thirty years.  He headed up the Rocky Mountain Region (RMR) wolf recovery for USF&W and still works for them.  The re-listing put him in an awkward position, as the Feds along with Wyoming are the defendants in the lawsuit.  His talk stuck to the history of wolves in the U.S., when they were listed under the ESA and why, and how the program was conducted and how it progressed.  He’s a biologist, not a lawyer or a politician, and he tried to be non-biased and fair in his assessment of this extremely controversial issue–wolves!Lamar pack wolf

Personally, I think the Wyoming Game and Fish has struggled to maintain wolves above the minimum level and done a good job. Although I disagree with how their hunt zones have been managed [I’d like to see either a science zone label for areas around the Park with no hunting; or at a minimum have the areas around the Park have a one month season in October when wolves are not following elk as they move outside the Park].  But WG&F has their hands tied politically, just as the Feds do. And that is why things have ended up back in the courts.

Jimenez’s assessment of the ‘two’ sides of the wolf issue was, I thought, overly-simplistic–characterized as the pro- or anti-wolf—cuddly/cute, or killing machines.  People who think about wolves know it is more nuanced than that and I’m sure Jimenez knows that too.

Not today's wolf but here is an example of collaring.

Collaring a wolf by Wyoming Game and Fish

I’d like to address my feelings on some of these issues.

First why was Wyoming targeted for a relisting lawsuit?

Wyoming is the ONLY state that has a predator listing for wolves in the RMR. Although one could argue that most of the state is unsuitable habitat for wolves (true), Montana has the same issue.  Montana is a bigger area state, with its entire eastern side unsuitable habitat.  But Montana does not have a predator zone.  Predator status means that an animal can be shot, run over, trapped at any time of the year.  There are other animals, such as foxes and coyotes or badgers that receive that status in Wyoming.  In general, ‘predator’ status in most U.S. states was abandoned back in the 1920’s and replaced with hunting/trapping seasons.  Wyoming is still in the caveman era on this.

As wolves are delisted in other states, such as Washington and Oregon, a ‘predator’ zone will not fly.  Wyoming is a lone wolf here so to speak here.  The Predator Zone must go before wolves should be de-listed here.

Hard to see, but the small dot in the foreground is the wolf mousing amongst the cattle

Hard to see, but the small dot in the foreground is a wolf mousing amongst cattle

In addition, Wyoming, in a back door deal with Governor Mead and, at that time, Secretary of the Interior Salazar, came up with a ‘flex-zone’, ostensibly to insure habitat connectivity for genetic diversity.  In other words, a portion of the state near the Idaho border is a trophy zone during the hunt season, then a short few months rest, then reverts to predator status.  This too is ridiculous and no other state has this, nor will they.  This was a pure political ploy, and not based on science.

But apart from how Wyoming got itself into this relisting mess, I want to address the issue of predation and wolves.  As far as objections to wolves because they eat elk and ‘hurt’ hunters, this is not even an issue to address, but just whining on the part of hunters.  Hunter elk success in Wyoming has been at an all time high for the past two years.  And although elk numbers in some areas are down, there are many reasons, including wolves, for this.  In fact, some of the reasons, like in the Northern Range in Montana, have to do with over-hunting by humans! Wolves as competition for hunters is a non-issue.

IMG_0453

But wolves predation on livestock is an issue that needs addressing.  Jimenez rightfully pointed out that wolves will and do take down cattle and sheep, especially when their preferred prey–elk and deer–is unavailable.

When wolves were brought into the RMR under the ESA, Jimenez pointed out that the agreement with ranchers was that they wouldn’t have to change any of their practices. Under the 10J rule, the USF&W would surgically kill wolves that had predated on livestock, and Defenders of Wildlife would pay compensation.  As a general rule, that seemed to work out well.  Cattle predation since 2006 went down, wolf population in the states went up.  This kind of agreement was necessary to keep ranchers happy.  But it is not a long-term solution, and I will tell you why.

Mike pointed out the Service tried several non-lethal means like fladry and loudspeaker noise to deter wolves, but because wolves are smart, they all failed as solutions for large ranches.

In my work as a landscape designer and horticulturist, although I didn’t work with livestock, I did work with wildlife issues relative to plants.  In Marin county where there is essentially no hunting, deer are abundant and people have made their homes in deer habitat.  Deer are a big problem in terms of a nice garden.  Especially in August/September, plants that deer normally might not touch, deer will eat in order to find water.  Deer, like wolves actually, are very smart and adapt to your methods of ‘control’.  And like wolves and bears teach their young what to eat, deer will do the same.  Even in a small county like the North Bay of San Francisco, deer in different areas will eat different plant material.  And non-lethal control methods have to be constantly changed.

In addition, a much bigger issue than deer are gophers and moles.  Gophers are abundant in Marin’s Open Space.  Once you till soil, they move in even if they weren’t there before.  They can destroy even a 5 year old Redwood Tree, making it disappear into hole overnight.  Moles don’t eat plants, but dig tunnels next to roots.  The roots of the plants than dry up and the plant dies.

Skunks and Raccoons are abundant too.  They eat grubs and love to dig in gardens, especially new lawns or new plants, seeking insects.

These are all big problems for homeowners who spend big bucks on their landscape installation; or for small farmers who supply specialty crops to restaurants.  I’ve worked with all these critter problems.

Expensive landscape losses are no different for a rich homeowner than the loss of cattle for a rich cattleman

Expensive landscape losses are no different for a rich homeowner than the loss of cattle for a wealthy cattleman

These folks, and especially the farmers [which is a direct equivalent to ranchers because this is their livelihood] experience the same sorts of frustrations that ranchers do with wolves or coyotes.  I know, because I’ve been on the other end.  It becomes easy to ‘hate’ something that continues to damage your crops or your cattle.  It is then not much of a step to turn to lethal, and easy, means to deal with the problem.  Poison the rodents, kill the deer, shoot the coyote or wolf, etc.

Yet our wildlife is valuable.  They are making a living themselves; plus they have value on the landscape. Wolves control the coyote population.  Coyotes control the rodent and raccoon population. etc.

Over the course of twenty years of working with wildlife ‘problems’ in the landscape, my solutions evolved to be non-lethal yet creative.  If the wildlife are outsmarting you and your only solution is to kill them–how smart are you?  Wildlife can be outsmarted non-lethally, but it’s a matter of working with the land, with your livestock or your plants. Really, its part of your job as a grower or a rancher.Deer and fawn nursing

I’ve created entire wedding flower gardens in deer areas and the neighbors were amazed.  How did you do that?  They’d ask.  I used plants that deer like but also didn’t like, interspersing them in certain ways so as to deter, and fool, deer.  Instead of endlessly poisoning gophers, we used a bitter tablet that plant roots uptake and makes the plant taste bitter to them.  Edible gardens must be fenced and so on.

I have worked creatively with the land to minimize wildlife damage in non-lethal ways. That is the pact one takes on when working with plants and animals.  Aldo Leopold called it ‘The Land Ethic’ and it still holds today.

So although the initial ‘promise‘ to ranchers when reintroduction began was that ‘things won’t change’, now that wolves are to stay, things with the ranching industry must change.  Ranchers need help and education in how to manage creatively.  And it’s time they make that commitment.  These predators, such as wolves and grizzlies, have so few areas they can live, the RMR needs to be one of the places where wildlife comes first.  Federal lands should not have ‘kill’ orders’  Federal lands are where wolves, and bears, survive.  Ranch at your own risk on public lands would be the first important change.  If that means cowboying more frequently, or not putting calves out on the allotments, then the ranchers need to make those changes if they want less predation.

Grizzlies too are killed for cattle predation on public lands

Grizzlies too are killed for cattle predation on public lands

It also would mean that a rancher is not reimbursed on federal lands.  Every year I see cattle killed on the highway by me.  They are on the road because the rancher, whose cattle are on public land allotments, doesn’t want to bother to turn the electric fence on or cowboy them off the road.  I’ve been told ranchers just factor these losses into their bottom line.  Its easier and more economical than sending a cowboy out.  So if car losses don’t matter on public lands, why should the miniscule amount of wolf predation?

On private lands, ranchers will probably have to be issued a shoot-to-kill permit.  But this should come with help and education, implementing methods to reduce predation.  Livestock reimbursement, and Wildlife Services, should be phased out slowly.  Reimbursement should only come with evidence of livestock non-lethal predation management.  Money should be spent helping the rancher, not giving him a handout which only encourages complacency.  I’ve run many businesses, and the federal or state government never reimbursed me for business losses.

Lastly, there are now many ranches in our state that are not making a living ranching, but using the generous subsidies that come with livestock to reduce taxes for extremely wealthy one-percenters.  These billionaires are still receiving not only reimbursement for predation losses, but receive Wildlife Services assistance on our public lands to kill wolves and other predators. This is plain abuse of even our existing broken system which was implemented to assist subsistence ranchers.

Especially in our Western States, we need a new model.

 

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Hawk and Eagle day

My neighbor called the other night.  They own a horse camp for teenagers.  The kids were doing volunteer work, stacking timber in piles that the forest service had recently cut down for a fire break alongside their property when they found a young red-tailed hawk on the ground.  The hawk was large yet too young to have yet fledged and was starving.  Probably the FS had inadvertently cut down the nesting tree.

My neighbor called me because I volunteer at the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West in the Draper Lab and know the person who runs a bird rescue program called Ironside Bird Rescue.  The young red-tailed was in bad shape, holding its head under its wing.  But my neighbor was able to feed it some elk meat and brought the bird over to my house that evening in a large box.  Since I was going to work in the morning, I brought the bird to Ironside.  Susan Ahalt of Ironside took the bird inside–weighed it, handed the Red-Tailed to me so she could find some food.  The bird was so weak it didn’t even struggle.  But Susan found it three mice which she cut up and the Red-tailed gulped them down.

At the Rescue center

At the Rescue center

Susan said that if the bird survives, then she will first test whether it can feed itself on it’s own.  If it can, then she will release it back in Sunlight area where it was found.

The young Red-tailed

The young Red-tailed

Red Tail baby in its cage.

Red Tail baby in its cage.

Cutting up mice for the young Red-tailed

Cutting up mice for the young Red-tailed

I had to rush off because today was a great field trip with the Draper lab folks.  Chuck Preston, museum curator, has been conducting a five year Golden Eagle study, locating nest sites and documenting how many chicks are produced and what food they are eating.  Today we were off to band a young fledgling.

The museum purchased a drone and we were going to try it out.  The drone sounds like a hive of bees. Unlike a regular model airplane, the drone has a GPS, can hover, has a camera that sends back real-time film to a laptop, and essentially looks and acts like something from ‘Back to the Future’ movie. We were going to use the drone to try and scare the young bird off the nest and onto the ground where it could be banded.

Drone over nest with Heart Mountain in background

Drone over nest with Heart Mountain in background

The drone and the laptap where the live feed comes out.

The drone and the laptap where the live feed comes out. You can see the camera eye down below

Since there were several of us there, we all got into positions on the cliff near the nest in order to track where the bird might fly.  The young fledgling can’t fly far, and will invariably fly downward, but it could go up to a mile or two off before landing.

I hiked up to the cliff edges and could see the drone hovering above the nest.  Apparently, it didn’t bother the bird in the least.  Meanwhile, mom was flying around high overhead wondering what all these people were doing near her baby.  In good years the parents will have two young.  In lean years only one chick or they won’t nest at all.

Finally, our intern Nat hiked to the nest and the bird flew down about a quarter of a mile downwind.  This was a feisty male and certainly didn’t like being handled, a good sign he was in excellent condition.  But Chuck is an expert handler and brought the bird into the shade.  He measured and weighed the chick, then banded it’s leg.

Weighing the bird

Weighing the bird

Measuring

Measuring

Banding the bird

Banding the bird

He released it as close to the nest as he could, knowing it would climb it’s way back in, but in a few days would be off on its own.

What a great day for raptors!

Chuck Preston with chick after banding

Chuck Preston with chick after banding

How to collar a wolf

The spotter plane has been flying very occasionally because either its too windy or snowing. When the spotter flies in January, its because the Wyoming Game and Fish are looking to find wolves.  They need to complete their annual count and do collaring.

Here's how its done although this pix is of cargo.  The wolf would be wrapped in a net.

Here’s how its done although this pix is of cargo. The wolf would be wrapped in a net.

This morning was beautiful.  Four inches of new snow and no wind–perfect conditions to fly and look for wolves against the snow.  I saw the helicopter head up a neighboring drainage and knew they’d found wolves there.  It just so happened that I was on my way to meet a friend in Cody when I saw the copter returning to a trailhead pullout with a sling hanging from it.  The copter hovered while a cadre of Game and Fish employees guided the net to the ground, then carried the cargo to a lowered tailgate of a truck.  I knew what was happening so I turned my vehicle up the dirt road to get a closer look.

Lying on the tailgate was a small sedated wolf.  A female, she was this year’s pup and only about 70 pounds.  Her teeth told the tale as they were white and perfect, but her paws said she’d be growing bigger by the spring.  Usually I keep my camera in the truck, but this morning the elk were in my front yard and I was taking their pictures.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter. 

So no photos folks, you’ll just have to believe me when I say I touched her fur, and held her foot.  And the truth is I didn’t feel badly about no photos.  Photographing a sedated wolf felt like I would be violating her dignity.

I asked one of the fellows how long before she awoke. “About 1/2 hour till the drug wears off.”  He told me.  “It’s the same drug the vet uses to sedate your dog.”

One person will stay with her till she wakes, then she’ll just have to find her way back to her pack by herself from the parking area–although far in human walking terms, probably no great feat for a wolf, who can travel up to 30 miles in a night.  She can surely scent her way, or howl her way, back to her family.

Not today's wolf but here is an example of collaring.

Not today’s wolf but here is an example of collaring.

I’ve been volunteering for many years now in the Draper lab at the Buffalo Bill Museum of the West.  About six months ago the lab acquired over 100 frozen wolf heads from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  USF&W managed wolves when they were still listed. They shot wolves for livestock control.  These wolf heads, and some carcasses, were saved for DNA and other scientific purposes.  The lab also is receiving wolves from Yellowstone National Park that died from various causes, usually wolves that killed other wolves.  With this repository of skulls from all over the GYE, the museum will be in a unique position of holding essential DNA information which could help ensure the Greater Yellowstone wolf population has sufficient genetic diversity so as not to go extinct again.

Draper lab Buffalo Bill Museum of the West

Working at the lab, I’ve held and worked on many wolf skulls, but of course all dead wolves. Seeing a living wolf so close up is definitely a thrill.  But I have mixed feelings about collaring and so much interference.  Wolf collaring outside the Park is essential for only two reasons: first to count the population and track them, ensuring that the numbers of wolves do not fall below the critical 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs; and second they take blood in order to make sure enough genetic mixing is taking place, again part of the delisting mandate.  Other than that, these wolves have been studied for over 15 years and now that hunting is taking place outside the Park, the study inside the Park has, I feel, been compromised with too many unnatural variables.

So, my reservations?  The amount of disturbance that wildlife in general is subjected to is constant.  There is general hunting season on ungulates from around September through December.  Collaring of wolves.  Fly over counts of sheep and elk.  Cougar hunting is seven months from September through March. Regulated trapping seasons on fur bearers such as martens, bobcats, and beavers.  Year round trapping on wolves in part of the state, coyotes, raccoons, badgers, rabbits.  Then there’s snowmobile activity in winter and ATV activity in summer.  The human pressures on wildlife never stops, in addition to their predation pressure and food needs.  And this is just around my area.  Many states have year round hunting and trapping regs depending upon the animal.

Putting all my concerns aside, it certainly was a magnificent day–awakening to hundreds of elk in my front yard and getting a close-up look and feel of their predator, the wolf.

Four wolves far away

Four wolves far away