Sheep graze on the Flat Top Ranch near Carey. Ranch owner John Peavey said he’s lost 31 sheep in the past week to wolves.
Express file photo
The owner of the Flat Top Ranch near Carey said Wednesday that he recently lost more than two dozen sheep to wolves over a two-day period.
John Peavey said numerous lambs and ewes were killed by wolves on Friday, May 10, and Sunday, May 12.
Idaho Wildlife Services State Director Todd Grimm said Thursday that the final mortality count was at 31—18 lambs and 13 ewes.
Peavey said a Fish and Game representative determined that wolves were to blame, rather than another type of predator. As a result, Grimm said, Idaho Wildlife Services is carrying out a kill order on “at least” two wolves in the area.
Peavey said the sheep are currently vulnerable because they are in lambing season, when young lambs and birthing ewes can become easy prey. One of the ewes killed was in the process of birthing triplets, he said, and one of the lambs killed was the first—and only—one of the triplets to be born.
“The guy was probably out of the womb five minutes,” he said. “It was really a heartbreaker.”
Peavey said the lamb, the ewe and the two unborn triplets were killed Sunday morning.
Some wolf advocates argue that Peavey’s method of lambing leaves his sheep especially vulnerable. Peavey said he practices “range lambing,” which he calls a “fairly revolutionary” process. In the process, the herd ranges free, feeding on wild forage. As ewes give birth, they are split into smaller groups of ewes and lambs.
“Every day, you create another little nursery,” he said.
Peavey said the nursery groups help socialize the lambs to other sheep, and that he protects the bands with people, spotlights and guard dogs that are meant to deter wolves and other predators.
“There’s only one way to range lamb these sheep, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re putting lots of extra help out at night, sleeping with the sheep in several locations.”
However, he said he cannot put up flagging—also known as fladry—to deter wolves, because it tangles in the sagebrush and is rendered ineffective and difficult to gather back up. He said guard dogs are effective against coyotes and other small predators, but that they are less effective against wolves.
“Our dogs seem not to want to confront animals bigger than they are,” he said. “If the guard dog stands up to the wolves, they are going to end up probably dead.”
Suzanne Stone, program manager for the Wood River Wolf Project, said range lambing inherently makes sheep more vulnerable to predators because of the high number of small groups scattered across a landscape.
“He would have to have a few hundred people out there spread over 15 miles, probably even more than that,” she said. “As long as they are going to use that practice, they will continue to have high losses to predators. You are putting unguarded sheep with newborn lambs and scattering them.”
Peavey said his lambs are not unprotected; the protections have not been effective, he said, and certainly not effective enough to prevent the wolf attacks. Still, Stone has stated that the Wood River Wolf Project cannot and will not help Peavey reduce losses if he does not change his practices.
Garrick Dutcher, program director for the advocacy group Living with Wolves, said Thursday that the only foolproof way to keep lambs and ewes safe is “shed lambing,” in which ewes give birth in structures that can be more easily protected.
Dutcher said one option for Peavey could be to allow ewes to give birth in enclosed pastures adjacent to homesteads, where producers can hear potential conflicts and dogs can more easily alert producers to danger.
Range lambing, he said, is the equivalent of placing a meal in front of carnivores and expecting them not to eat it—there’s little attempt to effectively separate carnivores and sheep in that way.
“If you put a lamb burger in front of me, you’d expect me to eat it,” he said. “People of the Wood River Valley want to see their wildlife protected, and hope that livestock producers would implement the necessary measures to prevent conflicts with wildlife.”
Dutcher added that he is sorry to hear of Peavey’s losses.
Peavey said he switched to range lambing several years ago as a financial choice. He said the operations he’s seen in Nevada that use the method are “prosperous,” and that allowing sheep to graze on the range while lambing allows him to save money on feed.
Without range lambing, he said, he’d be paying $100 per ewe during the season for feed.
“With the dairying that Idaho is experiencing, you have an incredible demand for high-quality hay,” he said. “The prices are not going to go down that much. It costs less than a dollar a day to feed a ewe out on the range.”
Grimm said there are other producers that use this method, but noted that those producers are not as vulnerable to wolves as Peavey is.
“They are not the only ones who are range lambing, but they are the only ones that are exposed to wolves coming on their private land,” he said.
Grimm said the kill order will be in effect through mid-July, but that it could be extended if the Peavey ranch loses more sheep. Sheep were killed in three separate incidents on the Peavey ranch last year during lambing season.
As of last year, the Little Wood Pack located in the Carey area was estimated to have two to three adults and no pups. Grimm said Thursday he’s not certain there is still a cohesive pack near Flat Top.
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org