Range Sheep & Big Predators

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.

12 thoughts on “Range Sheep & Big Predators”

  1. the author of this blog, the rancher indicates it is self serving of us to respond to this occurrence in Idaho? so be it, but what I would say is we should want both successful ranching and successful biology on the public rangelands. ranching is a livelihood that brings revenue to local economy. it also provides a product we (most) all utilize. meat, wool, lanolin, whatever. the other side of the coin, the biology informs us that all living things are connected. to the point. if you wanna make your livelihood in nature, you gotta learn to live with nature's rules & provide your own defense, alertness, and guard animals such as canines and burros. seems to me this rancher and the herders let their guards down or didn't have them stationed properly to (hopefully) avoid the dilemma.

  2. 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.

    He probably wouldn't have been charged with any crime if he'd shot a human vandal killing his sheep and threatening him.


  3. 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 …

    I fault him for not having a shovel.

    These idiots sit in their climate-controlled castles and have no idea what it is like dealing with stock. You put your life on the line all the time for your livestock — weather, terrain, equipment, the animals themselves in some cases, can tear you up if not kill you. You do it because you love it, and so some judge can wear a nice wool suit or eat mutton or beef or put milk on his cereal. Then those same judges and lawyers and politicians — most of whom have never had a real job or produced a thing in their worthless, parasitic lives decide to destroy you because all they know about predators or ranching they learned from "Grizzly Adams".

  4. Cat, if you don't already have one, you might find a night vision monocular useful on the range. They aren't too expensive and they work. Gil

  5. It's SAD(and aggravating!) to watch the polarization on this issue–urban wolf lovers without a clue, and ranchers who want to destroy anything and everything that threatens their livestock(or they imagine is a threat….). I think it will just take time for things to achieve a BALANCE–the pendulum swung too far against Nature and predators for many years, now it is swinging back the other way(predictably so, of course–that's how pendulums work!) unrealistically and unfairly. Perhaps in a coupla human generations things will finally reach a balance where we can have BOTH(predators and ranchers raising livestock) without such politics and propaganda–but it WILL take time. I can't help but think of the ranchers in Alberta we interviwed on their opinions of their very populous wolves, that they ALWAYS had to live with(in a wolf study program prior to wolf reintroduction sponsored by the University Of Montana in Missoula, way, way back in 1982, that I participated in as a student)–only ONE rancher we spoke to wanted to kill every wolf, coyote, fox, bear, cougar, and bobcat out there–all the others were quite reasonable and tolerant in their views of predators–even wolves! But they were allowed to protect their livestock when threatened, without all the government controls and controversial politics. If a wolf or wolf pack caused problems, they took care of those individual wolves and that was the end of it. I never will forget one of the Alberta rancher's comment that ranchers in the U. S. were "pussies about wolves!" So hopefully one day, U. S. ranchers will be able to protect their own(within reason), and the generally ignorant public will understand SOME CONTROL–i. e. -KILLING–of predators is inevitably ALWAYS going to be necessary. I always remind such people that wolves, cougars, and bears don't hesitate to kill each other, if they can, whenever members of their own species tresspass in their territories, instinctively understanding they have to control the competition!…..L.B(Someone who loves wolves and all other predators, but also hopes small ranchers can continue to be a part of our great West as well…..)

  6. Anonymous- Yeah! I remember reading an article where only the 'Kill all the wolves!' and 'Don't kill any wolves ever!' viewpoints were mentioned. I think maybe that's when I realized that articles were silly.

  7. I think the mistake is they brought the wrong wolves back, instead of the wolf that was native to the US or even the Mexican grey wolf they brought it arctic wolves, much bigger and more aggressive, even with the smaller wolves there would be problems but not what we are seeing now.

  8. To Harry Hill–I have to disagree with that somewhat–that is becoming a popular(and I believe) very erroneous belief–that somehow different subspecies of wolves behave differently. Purty much ANYWHERE where there have been wolves and livestock living in the same area, wolves will kill livestock! They went to INANE efforts to reintroduce ONLY wolves descended from the "Mexican Wolf" subspecies in the Southwest U. S., but they still occaisionally kill livestock and always have! What was Seton's famous outlaw(i. e. livestock killing) "Lobo, King Of The Currumpaw" if not of the "Mexican Wolf" subspecies? It is the same all across Europe and the Mideast as well, regardless of the size differences in subspecies(the Arabian/Israeli wolves are hardly bigger than coyotes!). Also, "Arctic" wolves were not used in the Yellowstone reintroduction, but mostly wolves from the Canadian province of Alberta(I think a few might have come from nearby British Columbia too–but still a far cry from what are considered "Arctic Wolves") just North of Montana/Wyoming–and these same wolves had been gradually infiltrating and beginning to repopulate the area on their own without any human assistance or taxpayers' dollars, long before human reintroductions began! The "original" wolves of Montana/Wyoming could not have been hardly any different than those just North of the Canadian line to begin with–after all, they travel enormous distances, and are constantly "interbreeding" anyway–there is little difference between wolf types EXCEPT wolves from totally different parts of the world, adapted to very different environments–like the Arabian Penisula wolf vs. Arctic wolves, for example. And, of course, why were the "original" wolves eradicated in the first place from out West in the U. S.? For killing livestock, of course……L.B.

  9. ….and again, to Harry Hill–I hope that last response didn't sound too persnickitty–it's just I am a TOTAL wolf geek, and have been since childhood(there IS the rumor my parents found me in a wolf's den….), and I was meaning to be "interestingly informative" rather than persnickitty! But another thing that has been forgotten by many modern wolf afficiondos (and haters!) regarding the wolf type of the Northern Plains areas in Montana/Wyoming etc.–they were called "buffalo wolves" in the old days, and were considered the largest wolves around–no doubt adapted to hunting and pulling down bison–so very large wolf types have ALWAYS been indigenous to that part of the U. S…..L.B.


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