Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Project seeks peace among sheep and wolves

Diverse group says collaboration could be a model for other wolf-occupied areas

Express Staff Writer

Rick Williamson, Idaho wolf management specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, tests for a spark on an electrified sheep enclosure on the North Fork of the Big Wood River last Thursday. This summer, local sheep ranchers will be using the portable “night pens” to help keep their sheep safe from roaming wolves. Photo by Chris Pilaro

Working collaboratively in the upper Wood River Valley, a group of local residents with diverse views on the Western wolf issue are proving that people can sometimes set aside their differences for a bigger cause.

Set to begin just days from now is an innovative project that seeks to promote harmony between wild gray wolves and the domestic sheep bands that graze thousands of acres across the remote upper valley.

Out of the eyesight of most local residents, the first of many sheep bands will be let onto federal lands managed by the Sawtooth National Forest on Friday, June 20. Their release, less than 10 miles northwest of Ketchum near the mouth of Oregon Gulch, will put in motion a plan that has taken numerous private meetings and a whole lot of goodwill to develop.

The project will require herders working for three local sheep producers to work closely with a trio of field assistants hired by Defenders of Wildlife, a national, non-profit conservation group that works with ranchers operating in the West's wolf-occupied areas. The field assistants are Cindi Hillemeyer and Justin Stevenson—both locals—and retired Fish and Game officer Roger Olson, of Hailey. Through radio telemetry tracking and just plain hard work, they'll attempt to keep tabs on the location of the valley's well-known Phantom Hill wolf pack throughout the summer and into the fall.

Sometimes under the cover of darkness, they'll use a variety of innovative scare tactics, some tested and some new, to convince prowling wolves to retreat back up into the higher mountains.

The all-black Phantom Hill pack, which officials say were involved in a dozen sheep-killing incidents just months after they were discovered last summer and the primary target of this summer's non-lethal tactics, occupy the remote Boulder and Smoky mountain ranges. Out of three pups born to the pack last year, just one survives.

Biologists recently confirmed the pack's alpha female gave birth to four more pups in April, bringing the pack to eight wolves in all.

The groundbreaking project is the brainchild of a diverse group of people not normally seen collaborating so closely. It includes weathered central Idaho sheep ranchers, vocal pro-wolf conservationists and state and federal wildlife officials with decades of fieldwork with northern Rockies wolves under their belts.

But there they were last Thursday below the roadless 11,000-foot highcountry that surrounds the North Fork of the Big Wood River—more than a dozen Idahoans who have agreed to come to the table. For most of the day, the group discussed how they will detect and then repel wolves that venture too close to grazing sheep with loud air horns, 22-caliber starter pistols and radio-activated guard (RAG) boxes, devices that set off loud noises and strobe lights when triggered by radio-collared wolves.

Also helping to discourage wolves will be Great Pyrenees guard dogs that tend rancher's wandering sheep bands.

That Defenders of Wildlife is working to make the project happen is perhaps even more surprising, given that they are among 12 conservation groups that filed suit to overturn the March delisting of the northern Rockies wolf population by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Missoula-based U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is expected to make a decision on the controversial federal lawsuit sometime soon.

So, it's perhaps equally extraordinary that local ranchers and wildlife officials have put aside whatever differences they may have with the group to move forward on the project.

"The idea that we're sitting here talking is pretty groundbreaking," Sawtooth National Forest Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said while standing next to the North Fork during a training session for the field assistants last Thursday.

"A lot of it is as much the effort as the outcome."

Keeping peace in the woods

Arco resident Rick Williamson, wolf management specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in Idaho, has been central to getting the project off the ground. His mustached face shaded by the wide brim of a white, broken-in cowboy hat, Williamson discussed final preparations with the group in a lush green meadow next to the clear-flowing North Fork.

"Sheep are more vulnerable in the nighttime hours," he told the group.

Watching Williamson speak to the crowded participants it became clear that making the project work will, in part at least, come down to the day-to-day things any rancher knows.

Like how to erect temporary electric fencing. After dusk, herders will trail their sheep bands into several-acre, electrified "night pens" set up by the Defenders of Wildlife assistants wherever the constantly roving sheep bands end up at nightfall. The purpose of the single strand, electrified wire corrals is to keep wolves from coming into contact with the vulnerable sheep. Hanging off the wire in regular intervals is bright-red ribbon called fladry, which shimmer in the darkness when blown by a slight breeze.

While the combination of waving ribbon and electrified wire may not sound menacing, its track record keeping wolves from attacking sheep elsewhere around the West is well documented. On the east side of the Boulder Mountains in the upper North Fork of the Big Lost River, Lava Lake Land & Livestock, one of the ranching outfits involved in the project, has used the night pens with success in an area heavily occupied by wolves.

A unique aspect of the fledgling project is that the three rancher outfits who have permits to graze sheep on grazing allotments on this portion of the Sawtooth are taking part. Although Lava Lake is well known for its environmentally sensitive grazing practices, the other two sheep producers involved in the project—Gooding rancher John Faulkner and John Peavey of the Flat Top Sheep Ranch—have only recently agreed to come on board.

"They're multi-generational, very large operations and they're coming to the table," Lava Lake president Mike Stevens said during the training session.

And this all comes at a time when the three ranching outfits all lost sheep to wolves in recent weeks in other nearby grazing areas. They've each lost upwards of a dozen-and-a-half sheep on rural lands north of Carey in the southern Pioneer Mountains or west of the Wood River Valley in rolling sagebrush-covered hills near Hill City.

But despite these losses, the ranchers say they still feel it's worthwhile to implement the proactive deterrents on lands roamed by the Phantom Hill wolves.

Each ranching outfit also recognizes that success is not a guaranteed thing. They admit the success of the project may need to be measured in a reduction of sheep losses and wolf control actions rather than all-out peace. Another measure of success will be how much weight sheep put on this summer.

Sheep constantly harassed by wolves have a harder time adding the weight, a loss that directly translates into ranchers' pocket books, Williamson said.

People will have a harder time condemning the killing of individual wolves involved in livestock depredations if the ranchers are working hard to keep wolves and sheep separate, he said.

"If we try everything we can and we have to resort to lethal approach we're beyond reproach," he said.

Williamson and others involved in the project also say that finding success will require the trust and patience of the general public.

And while their actions may be well intentioned, they said having too many people traipsing about in the Phantom Hill home range in an effort to keep the pack away from sheep may habituate the wolves to human presence and actually harm the effort. According to Olson, an experienced hand at interacting with the public, a simple explanation by the field assistants about what they're doing and why they need to work alone should suffice.

"I need to do this by myself. I need total concentration."

Many challenges remain

One significant question mark that could undermine the project is the suspected wolves biologists believe are living unseen in the valley. Lacking radio collars on the wolves, neither the field assistants nor the herders will know if wolves are approaching sheep, said project participant Carter Niemeyer.

"That's the wildcard out there," said Niemeyer, the former head of the Idaho wolf recovery program for the Fish and Wildlife Service and now a part-time employee for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

In the end, how successful the program becomes will also come down to stopping the first wolf from attacking sheep.

"You can't let them get in the sheep," Niemeyer said.

According to Williamson, once a wolf gets a taste for mutton, it's a lot harder to stop it from attacking sheep a second and third time. And that's where radio telemetry tracking will let the field assistants know how seriously they should take an approaching wolf, at least those with radio collars, he said.

"We can teach you to say they're two miles out or a mile," he said.

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