I am weary of the snide, ignorant, and vicious comments made in response to last week’s death of 176 sheep due to a wolf attack in eastern Idaho (see stories here and here). Some of the sheep were directly bitten and killed, but the majority of the animals were killed in a stampeding pileup as they tried a hillside escape.
Range sheep are not stupid or defenseless animals. Our cull ewes weigh about 175 pounds, and will turn on a dog or coyote and try to stomp it into the dirt.
They flock closely together as a defense mechanism against predators. In response to a predator, they will bunch up, and flee in panic. A herd that has already sustained attack has high stress levels, and will remain nervous and flighty. Flee response is similar in many other ruminants and ungulates – everything from pronghorn antelope to domestic horses have the same response. We know that herds persecuted by predators sometimes experience ill health, even if those animals aren’t directly bitten. They suffer weight loss, and may abort their lambs if they are pregnant.
Deadly pile-ups aren’t unheard of. In a winter storm, the sheep will try to drift, and if they encounter a fence, they may pile up and die. It’s similar to what happened in that famous antelope die off with the Red Rim fence. But a panicked stampede in response to extreme danger isn’t unheard of in other species either – it happens with humans as well, with people trampling other people to death in attempt to escape. There are cases of mass trampling deaths around the globe, from walruses to wildebeest.
Range sheep are hardy animals that give birth to lambs in early spring snow storms, and those babies get on their feet to nurse, and thrive from there. They have much of the same life cycle as the pronghorn antelope they share the same range with.
Some have demanded to know where the herders and guard dogs were during the Idaho attack. It’s worth noting that three of this ranch’s guardian dogs had already been killed by this pack of wolves during this grazing season.
Do you expect the herders to hear a ruckus in the night, go outside and be able to ascertain what is happening in the dark? It might be plausible at the ranch homestead where there is outside lighting, but in a camp on the range, it’s not. A herder in the Bridger-Teton National Forest tried to do just that a few years ago, and he was mauled by a grizzly bear. Some faulted the herder for going out to find out why the dogs were in an uproar.
Montana rancher John Shuler got up one night to see what was causing the ruckus he was hearing from his sheep pens at his home and found three grizzly bears killing his penned sheep. When one of the grizzlies turned to him, rising on its hind feet and roaring, Shuler shot it. He was charged with a federal offense, with the judge faulting him for placing himself in danger, stating that he should have stayed in his house that night. It took nearly a decade for Shuler to be cleared of the charges.
As I write this, I am sleeping in a tent alongside my own sheep herd as it grazes private pastures near the Wind River Mountains. We’ve had bear incidents in two of the last four nights. The first incident involved a bear coming into the pasture, only to be confronted by the guardian dogs, which then chased the dark blur up the fence line and past me as they chased the bear back up the draw and deeper into the mountains.
The second incident involved the dogs chasing a bear from the nearby cattle herd. I was concerned about both the sheep and dogs, so I walked around in the dark, using a headlamp and carrying a firearm, as I checked the herd and inspected the dogs upon their return. Had I been mauled or bitten by a predator, some would have faulted me, staying I should have waited for daylight. At the time, I didn’t know what species of predator was involved in the night’s chaos.
My point is that while it is easy to sit back and pass judgment on others about what they should have, or should not have, done in a moment of crisis, it’s generally not helpful and is really only self-serving. What is the right thing to do isn’t always clear at all. There is no consensus about what herders should do in response to predation at night, but it’s best to err on the side of human safety – no amount of dead livestock is worth a human life. Some herders don’t carry firearms, and some aren’t proficient with them anyway, even if they could pick out a predator in the dark.
We as humans try to do the best we can, and different people will respond differently. I simply advocate more compassion for fellow humans. I do also recognize that the nasty comments about the Idaho sheep pile up probably have little to do with what actually happened. Instead, it’s about the ongoing polarization of those still bickering over wolves, predator control, and over public lands livestock grazing.
We who tend to herds in large carnivore country have our own opinions on those issues as well, but those views take a back seat to our actions on the ground. Day by day, we take action to protect both ourselves and our herds, but always work with the knowledge that when large carnivores and livestock share the same range, some livestock will die, as will some predators. It’s not a perfect situation, but it is reality.