Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Could wolf management plan become a model?

Sheep ranchers back non-lethal predator management, federal official says

Express Staff Writer

With sheep grazing nearby, Wood River Valley resident Cindi Hillemeyer scans the surrounding Smoky Mountains last summer with a handheld radio telemetry receiver in an attempt to locate two radio-collared members of the Phantom Hill wolf pack. Federal and state wildlife managers are considering implementing a larger program of similar measures in the upper Wood River Valley later this summer. Photo by Jason Kauffman

Local predator experts claim a federally driven program that aims to separate wolves and sheep on portions of the Sawtooth National Forest northwest of Ketchum could become a model for other wolf-occupied ranching areas throughout the West.

The program, proposed by the Idaho branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, anticipates working with three local sheep ranchers who graze bands of sheep on federal grazing allotments in the Smoky and Boulder mountains. The program could begin as early as this summer. Rick Williamson, wolf management specialist for Wildlife Services in Idaho, said details still need to be ironed out with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Measures that would be implemented include herding sheep into electrified night pens at dusk, hazing wolves that venture too close to sheep bands and using radio-activated guard boxes, which blare loud sounds to deter wolves from preying on livestock.

The program would involve ranchers John Faulkner of Gooding, Carey-based Lava Lake Land & Livestock and John Peavey of Carey, each of whom hold extensive grazing rights on the forest's Ketchum Ranger District. Williamson said the three ranching outfits have each thrown their support behind the innovative, non-lethal program.

"They're wanting to see it happen," he said.

And in a move that could boost the fledgling program, the Blaine County Commission voted Tuesday to authorize $1,500 in county funds for the potentially groundbreaking project. The commissioners based their vote on the guarantee that the funds won't be used for one of Wildlife Services' primary activities—providing lethal control of predators that prey on sheep, cattle and other livestock.

Voting yes were County Commissioners Sarah Michael and Larry Schoen. Commissioner Tom Bowman, who abstained from the vote, said he would prefer to gauge local opinion on the matter before dedicating county funds to the program.

Simply killing wolves that prey on livestock won't solve the problem, Schoen said.

"The answer to the wolf management issue must come from the community itself," he said.

For more than a decade, Blaine County commissioners have voted against funding Wildlife Services activities in the county. Unlike many Idaho counties, local commissioners have done so because they disagreed with the agency's policy of killing predators. They decided to break with the precedent of recent years after being told they could have the county funds dedicated solely for non-lethal measures taken to keep livestock and predators separate.

Wildlife Services is the primary agency responsible for managing wildlife and agricultural conflicts throughout the United States. Its agents are sometimes called in to kill wolves, as well as coyotes, bobcats, black bears and other predators in Western states like Idaho.

Last summer, the newly discovered Phantom Hill wolf pack was implicated in the deaths of as many as 12 sheep in the Oregon Gulch and Baker Creek area in the eastern Smoky Mountains. Rather than rely on lethal control to remove the offending wolves, federal and state wildlife officials chose to pursue non-lethal measures to keep the pack and sheep separate. When the sheep left their summer ranges as autumn turned to winter, the Phantom Hill wolves were still alive and well.

Whether the pack is allowed to survive this summer will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is the success of the new non-lethal measures implemented as part of the Wildlife Services program. Most sheep grazed on federal lands in the upper Wood River Valley are let out onto the range in early June.

Though it's believed by many that other wolves do live in the valley, Williamson said the primary emphasis of the program will be on the Phantom Hill wolves.

As part of the proposed local program, Wildlife Services has invited researchers from the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., to come to the Wood River Valley this summer to study the success of the proactive techniques. He said the program will use three paid staffers as well as volunteers and will track the success of each proactive measure implemented.

"We want data," he said. "We want to be able to document all our work."

In comments similar to those expressed by Schoen, Williamson said Wildlife Services must not rely just on killing wolves to solve the problem.

"If we haven't tried everything, then we haven't done what we need to do," he said.

Williamson said Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation organization that works with ranchers dealing with predator issues, has also agreed to help fund the local proactive measures.

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