Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Keeping peace in the mountains

Proactive effort seeks to keep sheep and wolves apart

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 in June 2008. For the third year in a row, the portable “night pens” will be used this summer in the upper Wood River Valley to help keep grazing sheep safe from roaming wolves. Photo by Chris Pilaro

In the upper Wood River Valley, a dedicated group of sheep ranchers, conservationists and state and federal officials are quietly redefining what it means to live and work in wolf-occupied Western lands.

On the morning of June 13, the first sheep bands of the summer will be released onto Sawtooth National Forest lands above Ketchum. These lands—in the western shadow of the Boulder Mountains—are also occupied by the Phantom Hill wolf pack.

Since their discovery in spring 2007, the Phantom Hill wolves have attracted quite a lot of attention, both positive and negative. The pack's first notoriety came when they were implicated in a sheep-killing incident.

Thirteen domestic sheep died on national forest land near lower Baker Creek during a single night in summer 2007. Officials initially considered lethal removal of the pack, but relented after the rancher—Gooding sheep producer John Faulkner—agreed to see if non-lethal methods to keep sheep safe from wolves could work.

The result of those talks and follow-up negotiations between three main ranching outfits, the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, USDA Wildlife Services and the Sawtooth National Forest resulted in the Wood River Wolf Project. Across the West, people have taken notice of this unique blending of interests all dedicated to one thing: keeping sheep and wolves alive.

"This project is very much a model project," said Jesse Timberlake, manager of the Wood River Wolf Project for Defenders of Wildlife.

The only major incident since the project began was the deaths of 12 sheep last August when miscommunication left a sheep band unattended in Baker Creek for a night. Other than that, the loss of just one sheep—of about 13,000 that graze the area each summer—has been tied to wolves.

Whether the project's successes can be replicated elsewhere remains to be seen. Participants use several methods to repel wolves that venture too close to sheep, including loud air horns, .22-caliber starter pistols and radio-activated guard boxes that set off loud noises and strobe lights when triggered by radio-collared wolves.

They also herd the bands into electrified pens at night. Hanging off the wire in regular intervals is bright-red ribbon called fladry, which shimmer in the darkness when blown by a slight breeze. These pens have proven to be quite successful at repelling wolves.

Collaborators in the joint venture—which enters its third year this summer—hope to prevent deadly interactions between the thousands of domestic sheep that graze the forest's rural grazing allotments, which stretch from Lake Creek north to Galena Summit. Defenders of Wildlife spent $30,000 of its own money last summer on the project. Blaine County has also donated funds to Wildlife Services for the past two years for the project's non-lethal efforts.

This summer, Defenders of Wildlife will have four field staff sticking close to the grazing sheep bands to make sure none are lost to wolves. They spend many nights out in the field sleeping under the stars and listening to their radio telemetry receivers for the distinctive pings that signal the approach of radio-collared members of the Phantom Hill pack. They also work closely with the herders that tend to each of the ranching outfits' sheep bands.

In addition to Faulkner, the other two ranching outfits involved in the project are Carey-based Lava Lake Land & Livestock and brothers Mike and Mark Hensley of Plateau Farms in Hagerman.

Mike Stevens, president of Lava Lake Land & Livestock, said they've received an overwhelmingly positive response to their efforts from customers, many of whom are locals. He said they appreciate the company's efforts to live in harmony with wolves.

Stevens said they've taken the proactive tools used to deter wolves in the Wood River Valley and replicated them with similar success on wolf-occupied lands they graze outside of the valley.

"These methods work," he said.

Jason Kauffman:

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