It wasn’t unusual for one or two lambs to go missing every other year on Eric Wallis’ 600-acre sheep farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But six years ago, 46 lambs disappeared. The next year, 51 went missing. Wallis searched in vain for their carcasses, until he found one, torn up and barely alive. That was all Wallis needed to identify the culprits: wolves.
In search of a way to keep the wolves at bay, Wallis turned to Central Michigan University wolf biologist Thomas Gehring—an expert when it comes to non-lethal methods of preventing livestock predation. Gehring suggested that Wallis invest in four Great Pyrenees guard dogs. Since the dogs have been protecting the herd, Wallis hasn’t lost any lambs. “They’re naturals at protecting our sheep. We still find wolf tracks outside my fences, but the presence of my dogs and their marking of the territory is enough to keep the wolves out,” Wallis says.
Guard dogs are just one way to keep wolves from preying on livestock. In areas where wolves aren’t federally protected—including the Great Lakes region and, more recently, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho—officials are considering hunting as one way to control the packs. In February, the federal government deemed the Northern Rockies wolf population, which rebounded from 66 wolves in 1990 to 1,500 today, healthy enough to be removed from the Endangered Species List. If that decision is upheld in court, in addition to approving hunting seasons, the management plans of the three states would allow livestock owners to trap and shoot wolves, and compensate them for damage caused by wolves. But some state wildlife managers, ranchers, and environmental nonprofits in the region are also employing non-lethal approaches that are effective at deterring wolves from attacking cattle and sheep.
“There will be hunting, but we are approaching it cautiously,” says Carolyn Sime, statewide wolf coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. “We engage in non-lethal management daily, we work with [conservation] groups, and we educate people about wolves through public outreach.”
Non-lethal management includes using guard dogs, putting shock collars on wolves so they won’t enter livestock owners’ property, and setting off loud noises to frighten the animals. Fladry is another approach: flags, each 18-inches long, hang off a rope encircling a pasture. “With just a little bit of wind, it turns into this big moving thing,” says Gehring. “A wolf is probably a little freaked out by it.”
All of these techniques have been shown to keep wolves away from livestock—at least for a while. Gehring has found shock collars work for about 40 days, and fladry is effective for up to three months.
“You always have to be introducing new scary things to wolves, because they do eventually become habituated,” says John Shivik, a federal research biologist with the Natural Wildlife Research Center (NWRC), the research arm of the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife Service. Shivik and other researchers developed Radio Activated Guard Boxes in 2001. When a radio-collared wolf steps onto a rancher’s land, they turn on a strobe light and a tape of 30 different sounds, including people yelling, helicopters flying, glass breaking, and gunshots to scare the animal away.
Under Montana law, one wolf out of every pack living near livestock must be tracked by radio collar; RAG boxes can be used in conjunction. Wildlife managers there are also testing a souped-up type of fladry. Working with the NWRC, the two-year project is investigating a hybrid of shock collars and fladry called turbo fladry: The rope is electrified to reap the shock collar’s benefits without the cost of capturing and collaring wolves. “We’ve had more success with fladry than with anything else, combined with noise boxes, it is a great deterrent,” says Val Asher, wolf specialist at Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Montana also relies on Range Riders, a program developed by nonprofit Keystone Conservation. Range riders are paid, trained professionals that go out on horseback and patrol ranches to find dead animals, monitor cattle, track radio-collared wolves, and find wolf dens. When they see wolves, they shoot rubber bullets and cracker shells (M80’s) to scare off the creatures.
Idaho also makes use of Range Riders, RAG Boxes, fladry, and solar-powered turbo fladry.
Both Montana and Idaho also encourage the use of guard dogs, which Gehring says are a rancher’s best option. In four years of testing Great Pyrenees guard dogs on farms in wolf country, Gehring’s team hasn’t encountered any fights between the dogs and wolves or livestock depredations.
But despite Montana’s and Idaho’s use of non-lethal methods of managing wolves, Wyoming’s gray wolf management plan relies solely on lethal measures. Luckily (for the wolves, that is), that doesn’t mean everyone is looking to prevent livestock predation through hunting: at least one Wyoming rancher has asked for the help of the Range Riders, according to Suzanne Asaha Stone, a wolf conservation specialist with Defenders of Wildlife.
Even if wolf populations do suffer from the lethal control methods, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service will step back in if the animals dip below 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves per state, says Ed Bangs, the agency’s gray wolf recovery coordinator. But he’s optimistic that it won’t come to that. “Wolves and people have the greatest natural distribution in the world,” says Bangs. “We’re both resilient."
Story by Nicole Scarmeas. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in March 2008.