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.


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.

Anonymous said...

Good comment, Lane – entirely agree.

I don't agree with the idea that the primary concern of the law should be human things. I don't think that produces good results for the world as a system or human beings.

As a corollary, I don't believe human beings should think they should be able to do whatever they want wherever they want to do it. If you choose to raise prey in a predator-heavy zone, then you must accept losses. If the cost financially and psychologically is too much to bear, as it would likely be for me, then perhaps you should move your business or change it. What if you raised bison instead of sheep?


PeterW said...

Two responses to the claim that pastoralists moving into a "predator-heavy zone" should be prepared to pay the price.

The first is that none of us would have the cheap, reliable food that we take for granted, if humans had not heavily modified their environment. That includes removing vegetarian species and vegetative ecosystems, as well as predators. So if you enjoy your food, plentiful and whenever you want it, YOU are not "paying the price" and it is hypocrital in the extreme to demand that others do so.

The second, and more specific the New Mexico and Arizona, is that wolves only appear to have been reintroduced and heavily protected in the last 20 years. No matter what you think ofthe predator-control strategies of previous generations of pastoralists, the current generation did NOT choose to live in a predator-heavy zone. Rather, they are being required to pay the price of a decision made by government authorities at the behest of (mostly) urban-based environmentalists.

Regardless of what you think of history, if the reintroduction and protection of predators is something that YOU support, then demanding that others pay the price for your choice and benefit is disgusting. Do not argue that man cannot do "anything he wants" while endorsing your own "wants", being done to other people.

It's not even in the best interest of wildlife.
When the law is seen to be (a) unreasonable and (b) unenforceable due to sparse resources and lack of priority, the locals will deal with the problem, themselves. This phenomenon exists around the world, in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia as well as America. You only have to look at places like Kenya, which banned the recreational hunting of all wildlife. Wildlife numbers have dropped by between 70-90% since the ban was imposed. There are no more predators.

PeterW said...


Law is made BY people, FOR people.
Whenever the law protects wildlife and the environment, it is becasuse PEOPLE held those protections to be a priority. So let us not pretend that the law is not about people first.

What it often does, is impose what a majority of people want, on a minority who are forced to pay the price. That we live in democracies, does not make this morally right.

A very basic reading of criminology, would inform you that it is not even practical. When the law is seen to be selective, unjust and favouring certain groups' interests above others, it loses respect. When the law is not respected, it is not obeyed....... the only law being "thou shalt not get caught".

That is not good.

Steve Bodio said...

D- they already lived there, jim's family for generations. Not ignoble for pastoral indigenes to want to stay put, including Navajos who long since reduced their land to bare dirt and sheep shit, so why not semi-ndigenous pstoralits whose culture has existed as long-? (Whoops, LONGER, becuause tbe Dineh learned their livestock culture from the Spanish, who only got to the Southwest a few years before the droughts and other alarums that rocked N America before the last glacial

Or are we in merely a long dull interglacial now? What WAS their southern limit? (KC and Delaware...)

So another relevant question: "When Adam dug and Eve span", where the hell was the PASSENGER PIGEON? Was it perhaps a little Florida endemic, still without such inadaptive- looking adaptations as one young a year that it abandoned sitting, granted fat as butter, in he nest?

Watch this space for breaking late Pleistocene news...

Steve Bodio said...

I should have added: Bison are a very limited appeal market best ranched by the rich (Ted Turner, Dany O'Brian), for the rich (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's), as they are-- infrastucture, like bison- proof fencing, is FAR too expensive for newcomers without a proven market.

Steve Bodio said...

A iarge piece was omitted from my long comment about Spanish and Navajo pastoralists- will restore tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

MY dilemma is that I can sympathize with BOTH--the animal predators AND the humans and their livestock that have to deal with attacks from such predators. And the attacks from even more vicious Vegetarians! And ironic, certainly, that "modernization"(which involves mostly human overpopulation) supported by intensive AGRICULTURE(read yer "Ishmael" books if you don't get this yet, and let a dumb gorilla spell it out for you in repetitive, elementary terms!) is far worse an enemy to both the wolves(and other predators) AND the pastoralists than they are to each other! As far as it being "wrong" for a majority to decide for a minority--I'm old enough to HAVE BEEN in the minority in championing and desiring protection for predators not so long ago, when almost every hand in the good old U.S.A. was turned against them, and most large predators' extinction was considered a necessary inevitability. So I'm kinda reveling in the return and preservation ethics that have arisen in past decades to finally be the NEW majority! But, wolf-hugger that I am(and have literally been), I have enough common sense to realize that in some places, many places in fact, predators WILL HAVE TO BE "controlled"--that is just as inevitable. My belief is that there should be some places that predators are completely protected and left the hell alone. But I also believe there should be some places where pastoralists should be respected and allowed to protect THEIR own. They certainly have as much rights to predator control as the suburbanite who formerly championed predators from afar, until the day a coyote snatched Fluffy off the back porch!.....L.B.

PeterW. said...


You speak some sense.

As a hunter, I revel in wild places. As a grazier - indeed, as a human being - I understand the need for people to respect the rights of others, including the right to protect one's own property. By all means advocate for predators..... but be prepared to pay for the consequences of having them.

Also under the heading of accepting responsibility , is not tossing the blame for overpopulation at modern agriculture. That is to claim that letting people starve is a better option than creating a culture that is averse to excessive and irresponsible breeding. It may sound clever in theory, but it leads to some hideous results in practice....... including destruction of the natural environment. Conservation is a luxury that is afforded only by stable, affluent societies. Faced with a shortage of food, the poor will kill and eat everything within reach, and invent ways of reaching more. It is war and disease that have historically limited human population and its destructive effect, not poor agriculture.

I think it a fallacy to regard humans as being somehow "outside" nature. Like it or not, we are a part of the ecosystem, and most "wilderness" outside the higher latitudes, has been modified by humans to some degree. When we understand this, we start to understand that it is not necessarily appropriate to just release a few predators into the environment, and watch from a distance, any more. WE are a part of the equation, and it is a fair observation that the only large-scale increases in wildlife over the last century, have occurred in North America and Southern Africa, both models based on the sustainable use of wildlife.

It is the removal of the average person from direct contact with nature that has led to the odd belief that this - hunting - is somehow "wrong" . Can you appreciate how perverse it appears when so many who advocate for "predators", take umbrage when Stephen and I hunt with our wolf-analogues? I am fortunate in that I can still hunt with terriers, sighthounds and scent-hounds, but I only have to look at a place such as England, which has eradicated its top-tier (non-human) predators, yet has banned humans from carrying out the same function, with canines that fill that ecological niche.

Good hunting........ Peter.