Roughly 30 local ranchers gathered at the fairgrounds in Carey, Idaho, last week to talk wolves. But this was far from the typical wolf discussion. The workshop, possibly the first of many hosted by Defenders of Wildlife, took an unusual and widely unacknowledged tack: Don't shoot the predator, protect the prey.
The morning served as a crash course in a host of non-lethal deterrents to wolf predation, from guard dogs to grazing rotations. It also marked the first attempt by Defenders to share with the public lessons learned over the past three years by the Wood River Wolf Project. Defenders of Wildlife spokeswoman Suzanne Stone says the project has field-tested numerous tools for decreasing livestock losses to predators, an approach that replaces the habit of killing problem animals with the concept of coexistence.
"If you do nothing and kind of rely on the traditional lethal control methods routinely used by [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Wildlife Services for the states, then you're not really addressing the problem," Stone says. "You're just perpetuating it...Dead wolves don't learn lessons."
If the Wood River Wolf Project doesn't ring any bells, it's no surprise to Stone. The project, now in its fourth year, has intentionally sought little press coverage, she says. Meanwhile, participants have used guard dogs, noisemakers and lights to haze wolves away from the project's 10,000 sheep. They've even tested an Eastern European wolf deterrent called fladry, a type of fencing that uses long vertical strips of red fabric to frighten wolves and coyotes.
Stone says Defenders was "nervous" about hosting last week's coexistence demonstration. "We've been trying to fly under the radar on this project for quite some time," she says. "We just don't try to make any kind of public news about [these projects] because the wolf debate is so controversial that it puts a lot of pressure on the ranchers who are partnering with us."
The demonstration came fast on the heels of news that Idaho's 2011-2012 wolf hunt will be governed by some of the most lax regulations to date. Quotas are virtually nonexistent across most of the state. Nonresident licenses were knocked down to $31.75 earlier this month. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission increased the bag limit from one wolf to two wolves per hunter. And they've added a trapping-season component to the hunt, further increasing the potential wolf harvest over the next seven months.
Anti-wolf rhetoric has been particularly thick in Idaho in recent years, as it has been in neighboring Montana. But the voices baying loudest for wolf blood in Idaho largely don't belong to the livestock industry, whose concern over predation is considered even by conservationists to be the most rational justification for a hunt. Rather the anger is fueled by a minority of sportsmen fearful of the impacts of a large wolf population on deer and elk.
Retired USDA wolf management specialist Carter Niemeyer—a 30-year veteran of wolf recovery and control in the region—believes those anti-wolf voices are "holding hostage" state politicians and wildlife agencies alike. "There's a lot of people who support wolf recovery and wolves in Idaho, but I really believe that the pro-wolf part of Idaho has kind of shut up," Niemeyer says. "They're tired of the bullying, intimidating messages that keep coming out from a handful of anti-wolf people."
Niemeyer notes reluctance among livestock owners to shift to non-lethal control methods. He attributes that to the ingrained culture of lethal predator control in the West. "Killing predators is a short-term treatment to a long-term problem," he says.
But the unexplored nature of non-lethal methods makes it a risky and costly investment.
"There was a poor turnout, because—and this is my interpretation—there's tremendous peer pressure right now for ranchers to maintain a solidarity," Niemeyer says of the Wood River Wolf Project workshop, which featured him as a guest speaker. "What it's going to take are some courageous, bold ranchers. We should be talking about keeping livestock alive."
Stone hopes that the Wood River Wolf Project—and, by extension, Blaine County, Idaho—will be the nexus for that conversation. The project has proven such a success, with losses of a dozen or fewer sheep a year, that the Blaine County Commissioners this year asked Defenders to expand its non-lethal methods to the entire county.
"We're in that transition phase...going from covering a portion of the county to now covering the county, and we wanted the ranchers to be aware that the resources are available to them," Stone says.
With such a substantial hunt approaching at the end of August, Stone remains concerned. Defenders isn't arguing that state officials "get rid of lethal control," she says. "What we are saying is only use it as a last-case scenario rather than looking to it as a first response." She adds that she believes the majority of Idahoans, like her, don't want to see wolves persecuted.
Niemeyer tempers Stone's reservations, saying the new hunting regulations will hardly be enough to put a dent in the wolf population. As a 40-year taxidermist, he knows pelt quality will be poor until November. Having spent 30 years darting and trapping wolves as a federal management specialist, he believes most of the hunting harvest will likely be pups and yearlings, which are less canny.
"I've spent decades tracking wolves around with radio receivers," Niemeyer says. "I just came in from taking a group out this weekend, and I was able to howl up wolves every night for them. We had wolves within 100 yards of us—but we never laid eyes on one."
He can't see most hunters having any better luck.