Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Predation Crisis

It was still dark, but I heard the ruckus of the dogs outside and flipped on the outside light to see eight livestock guardian dogs and three guardian burros headed for the house. All were agitated and upset as they escorted guardian dog Old Mama straight for the front door. Even in the dim light, I could see her hind end was soaked with blood.

The wolf pack had hit the flock on its bedground to the west of the house. The sheep had fled around the corner of the fence to the spot where I would find them shortly before dawn. We would spend all the rest of that day finding dead sheep, gathering the walking wounded, and moving the flock to the holding pens at the house. Our death toll that day included one ewe and nine lambs that had been slated to go to market at 80 pounds a few weeks later. In addition, there were nearly a dozen walking wounded sheep (both ewes and lambs), and three injured guardian dogs (one severely wounded).

We live in Wyoming’s predator zone­, the area where wolves can be legally killed at any time without a tag. It appeared that the attack on our place involved a pack with pups that were learning how to kill.

USDA Wildlife Services arrived the next morning to try to locate the pack. They eventually found tracks here and there (including the tracks of two wolves just a quarter-mile from our house) but the wolves were covering a large range and managed to stay both out of sight and out of the traps that were set for them. The federal agency has now spent two weeks trying to trap and radio-collar one wolf from the pack so we can find out how many wolves we’re dealing with. But the wolves have remained elusive, leaving just their most recent cattle kills behind.

Yesterday was the last day that federal funding was used for wolf control. If wolf control is to proceed, it will be through funding from our local predator board.

Meanwhile, our walking wounded sheep are dying one by one, but we’re hopeful Old Mama may recover. The sheep flock has remained penned and has been fed $150-per-ton hay we’ve trucked in since the attack. We can’t turn the flock out to graze without guardian dogs, and the dogs can’t go out while the wolf traps are set on their range.

A portion of the Farm Bill provides for partial compensation for livestock death loss above normal mortality “due to attacks by animals reintroduced into the wild by the Federal Government or protected by federal law, including wolves and avian predators.” It’s our understanding that our claim will be the first such claim under the program for attacks by reintroduced animals.

There is no compensation program to pay for our walking wounded sheep, our vet bills, or the cost of bringing in hay during this time that our flock should be grazing. And now there is no federal funding for control of problem wolves. We know the wolves will be back.

This is the privilege of living in Wyoming’s predator zone. Neighbors located 20 miles north of us are in the trophy game zone so they are eligible for both state-funded damage compensation and control of wolves, but those of us in the predator zone are presumed to be able to “take” wolves at any time, so we’re supposed to be satisfied with this compromise. Unfortunately when it comes to wolves, it’s never a simple matter of just shooting problem animals because they arrive, do their damage, and leave under the cover of darkness.

What more can we do? What more can we be expected to do? I think we’ve done our share to minimize conflicts with large carnivores. Dependent on the season and location, we utilize a total of 14 nonlethal techniques to deter predators from our flock (fencing, pasture rotation, carrion removal, guardian dogs, guardian burros, taking weak animals out of the herd/culling, frequent human presence/herding, employing noise-makers, employing cameras/flash devices, shooting at/harassing predators that approach, removing attractants from pastures, using multi-species grazing, changing bedding sites, and night penning). But nothing is perfect, and all nonlethal control techniques will fail at some point.

Our use of these varied nonlethal control techniques delays the inevitable: the need for lethal control of problem predators. Now is the time for lethal control of our problem wolves, if only we can find them before they return to strike our flock and its guardians again.

Despite all our efforts, we still rely on the professionals at USDA Wildlife Services. We have found that skilled animal damage specialists are able to identify and track individual problem predators and eliminate those animals that are causing our problems. This targeted removal is an important part of keeping our losses to a minimum.

But the predator load in Wyoming continues to increase, while funding and support for management and damage control decreases. Our story is just that: our story. Talk to our neighbors in the Upper Green River region, who have lost at least 60 head of cattle this summer to grizzly bears. Or our friends in the Black Hills who have lost a major portion of their goat crop to mountain lions this year, despite the presence of herders and guardian animals.

We have no interest in the eradication of predator populations, but the public needs to begin to understand the reality of what it’s like to live alongside large predators, and the hardship and heartaches these animals cause to the people who share the same range, despite our best efforts.

Wildlife advocates oppose the killing of every bear, wolf, or mountain lion, even though the removal of these animals has no negative impact on their overall populations. It’s easy to oppose the killing of a beautiful, iconic animal when you are removed from the reality of the animal’s basic nature – a mode of life that involves killing to make a living. Yet state wildlife management agencies manage these species with conservative harvests because of an underlying fear of litigation by wildlife advocates.

Something’s got to give, because the current system is not sustainable. I think we’ve given enough.

7 comments:

bestfriendmafia said...

Wildlife advocates and environmental advocates are successful. Let's all be successful. File a lawsuit.

Dana McDonald said...

Well, I'd stop voting Republican, for starters. Us liberal types would be DELIGHTED to compensate producers for losses from large predators, and fund wildlife programs with our tax dollars. How are those Republican tax cuts working for you?

PeterW. said...

Dana...... Nothing is stopping you from paying Stephen's bills now. Yourself. Personally.
No tax-cut is stopping you. Only your conviction that "somebody else" should pay for that which delights you.

As a farmer in another country, facing a different set of wildlife conflicts, I see it again and again....... those people who are most vocal about "wildlife" tend to be most remote from the problems it causes, and least inclined to take personal responsibility for the damage it causes. Likewise, we almost never see them feeding starving wildlife during droughts, or volunteering to fight wildfires.

Emotional posting on blogs and social media is cheap.

Anonymous said...

The alarming and disconcerting disconnect most ranchers have in America from nature, predators, their own livestock - and themselves - is always apparent in Urbigkits' alarmist anti-predator posts.

Steve Bodio said...


This shall not stand. It isn't even a caricature of the Urbigkits. For one thing, they are not "Republicans". Cat is; Jim is the former Democratic party chair of Sublette County, and once nominated Obama. Their comedy act proves that their trailer house has more political diversity than Jackson Hole does.

As to hating predators: they could have gone the easy way of many ranchers in the West: "shoot, shovel, and shut up". Instead, they took up the study of livestock protection dogs, got grants, traveled the world to see their customs, and came home to spread their lore. As Cat says "They don't have to kill the predators, they just have to make them move on." I have been there when this happened, and seen the bloody damage on the dogs. It worked then, and it works now. The Urbigkits are engaged in a difficult game -- trying to raise livestock in a heavy predator environment. But it has worked before. It seems to be the best of all alternatives and I applaud them. It may contradict even the great Valerius Geist, but wolves in such places as Europe seem to have learned to coexist.

Let us try.

PeterW said...

"Shoot, shovel and shut up".

I was looking, just now, at a report by an English Police unit, on the conviction of a man for hare coursing. My instinct is to obey the law, but I am also well aware that when the law ceases to be about what SHOULD be its primary concern - people - and becomes a tool for moral bullying, it legitimises law-breaking. It creates a climate in which reasonable people lose respect for the law, but where, then, does the line get drawn?

What may be even worse, is that when we have limited resources to devote to policing, either resources are diverted from more serious crime, or we have a situation in which those who engage in minor crime do not expect to be caught.

There is little good about this scenario.

Anonymous said...

Very sorry, Cat, to hear of your losses--not to mention the stress caused by such an attack on your animals and livelihood. I'm always torn when hearing of such incidents involving large predators, which have so few places left for them on the planet, but also understand the frustration, anger, and fear experienced by the people that must live alongside them, and sympathize with them as well. Just read a splendid book by the reknownded behaviorist Hans Kruuk, which, despite being written by an admitted "predator lover" is well balanced and sympathetic to those who must live alongside them--highly recommended--entitled "Hunters and Hunted". Also recommended is the bestselling book from China, and the excellent film(both with the same title) "Wolf Totem", about the Inner Mongolian pastoralists, who have been dealing with wolves preying on their stock for centuries, and how they have incorporated them into their cultural worldview. The movie really tries to give a balanced view of ALL parties--the Chinese students, the Mongol pastoralists, the wolves themselves, and even the government administrator character. And I don't think the "Hollywood" portrayal of wolf "revenge" is too far-fetched, myself. And ironic--tragically so--that both the wolves' AND the pastoralist cultures' greatest enemy is not each other, but the "modernization" of the world........The comment above disturbs me somewhat(though I believe in everyone having their say--knee-jerk a reaction though it may be), because I KNOW if ANYONE is in touch with the land and Nature and their own animals, especially, it is YOU, Cat Urbigkit! And thanks for sharing so much of your life and experiences with us all--in your books AND on this blog!....L.B.