Summer Guardians

We moved our sheep flock to grazing range along the foothills of the Wind River Mountains in early July. We’ve had a refreshingly moist summer, bringing this arid rangeland to life. The ewes are fat, the lambs are growing, and we share the same piece of earth with abundant sage grouse, as well as nesting long-billed curlews. Nine-month old Beyza (an Akbash) has claimed the range as her own, and is a fantastic guardian – as are the others in her lineage, including her mother Luv’s Girl, and sister Rena.

When we moved onto the range, my friend Pete asked if I would take care of an extra female livestock guardian dog. She had just given birth to five pups, and the pups were too small to travel with the herd as they moved into the mountains. I tended to the small family for a few weeks, but one of the 7-week old pups started trying to follow my herd as it grazed during the day. After retrieving the pup from more than a mile away from its siblings, we sent the female to the mountain, and brought the pups to our home, where we have a scattering of orphan lambs and adult sheep.

When people talk about getting livestock guardian dogs off to a good start, much emphasis rests on getting pups introduced to the species it will guard at a young age. That’s important – bonding is best if if starts early. The introductions to the lambs went well.

But what doesn’t get much discussion is how much easier it is to bond pups to a sheep herd that has had a long association with guardian dogs. It’s nearly a cultural thing – this relationship is so close, continuing from one generation to the next. When new pups arrive on our ranch, the adult sheep come to investigate. When the pups walk underneath the ewes, and sniff the underbelly of the rams, the sheep are not panicked or upset. They don’t stomp the pups, and show an amazing amount of patience as pups chew on the big curls of a ram’s horn, or investigate a milk bag on a ewe.

The new pups were soon crawling under the yard gate to hang out with the adult sheep, especially a big range ram. We select and cull sheep based on not just performance and appearance, but behavior. Calm and attentive behavior is ideal. This ram is an ideal babysitter for the pups, and gently disciplines bad behavior.

Spring, and Shared Range

Spring has arrived to our western Wyoming rangelands. We’ve already had temperatures in the 40s and snowmelt, with the resulting visit from our old friend mud – which we haven’t experienced for the longest time in our decade or so of drought. It’s been a pleasure to have to throw the truck in four-wheel drive to get in the driveway. No belly-aching from this corner.

The sandhill cranes have begun to arrive, with their crane calls in morning meadows our true sign of a change of season. We’ll (hopefully) have a few more snowstorms through early May, and I’ll be doing a rain dance for a wet spring to bring this arid range fully out of its dormancy.

The sandhill cranes come close to the house, and follow the sheep flock, nourishing themselves on scattered grain from winter feedlines we fork onto the snow.

Pronghorn antelope herds share this range with the sheep, in larger numbers during the winter months, and less in the heat of summer when they migrate to other areas for grazing. The sheep and the guardian dogs are accustomed to their presence as a part of the landscape in which we live.

It’s this time of year when the wildlife migrations begin, as snowmelt allows big game herds to move from lower elevation desert country and begin to follow the receding snow to the high country. Migratory domestic sheep herds will soon follow, using many of the same trails. Millions of hooves have traveled these paths, for eons. Here’s a glimpse of small herds of pronghorn antelope and elk lining out as they trail back north, to the Wind River Mountains.

Spring has arrived indeed.

Wyoming Winter

We’ve enjoyed a fairly quiet winter in western Wyoming, and are thrilled with the recent series of snowstorms and blizzards hitting our area. We’ve been in a drought so long it was somewhat a pleasure when I buried the feed truck in deep snow this morning. Even though I was sure that the snow would eventually melt and I could retrieve the truck at that time (can’t be more than a few weeks, right?), husband Jim gave it a few tugs with another truck and freed me.

We had high prices last fall during shipping, so we reduced our sheep numbers, and now learn that feeding a small flock within the one-mile pasture around the house is an easy winter chore.

Our winter guardians, in addition to three burros, are three female Akbash guardian dogs, all of the same lineage. After her battle with wolves last fall, Rena healed up nicely. We wondered, and feared, how she might react to predator challenges after such an aggressive fight in which she nearly lost her life. Rather than having fear or aversion, her reaction has been the opposite – she’s a terror on four paws, and seems to have a chip on her shoulder when it comes to the coyotes in the neighborhood.

Rena is joined in guardian duty by her nine-year old mother Luv’s Girl, and her four-month old half-sister Beyza. Following the Tajik tradition of selecting the pup with the bold carriage, I selected Beyza from her littermates because of her swagger – her tail is often held high, curled over her back, and she has aggressive guardian tendencies, even at this young age. She now goes charging out with mother and sister when a threat is perceived.

Our jackrabbit population continues to be depressed, with a corresponding decrease in the number of golden eagles wintering here. Many more bald eagles are concentrated on road-killed animals.

With Jim home taking care of the critters, in between traveling to speak at conferences, I’m spending as much time as possible working on books, with one adult nonfiction title set for release this fall, and a second recently completed nonfiction manuscript under consideration at a publishing house. I’m hopeful that by the end of the year I can get back to the world of books for young readers, but the publishing world continues to undergo upheaval and finding my place in it is like walking blindfolded.

Why We Need Wildlife Services

USDA Wildlife Services – the federal animal damage control agency – has come under increased attack by those who want to shut this agency (which Defenders of Wildlife calls “the hit-man for hire arm of the USDA”), and I want to weigh in after two decades of working fairly closely with the agency in western Wyoming.

Wildlife Services plays a vital role in our livestock operation – whether we are grazing a cattle herd on public land, or our sheep herd on private ground. This agency has the professional expertize we need for lethal control involving problem animals.

But let me back up. Like other livestock producers, lethal control isn’t the only management tool we use with predators, but it is always the one that makes the headlines.

Our sheep herd consists of animals with a strong flocking instinct, making them less vulnerable to predation. Our rams are large and have horns, and when we ran cows, they had horns too, and these animals know how to use them in defense. Our frequent presence in our herds, as well as our frequent shooting to create disturbance, are other methods to discourage predator presence in our active pastures. Our pastures are kept clean of both birth material and animal carcasses. We use both livestock guardian dogs and guardian burros, and believe that these animals are what keep us in livestock production business because they are so effective. Because we use guardian animals, we don’t use traps, snares or poisons because of the threat they pose to the guardians.

We’ve had some success using a motion-detection camera with a flash targeting new den sites to harass predators enough that they’ve moved their dens from our lambing pasture.

Sometimes we use night pens for our sheep, but this option is available only in certain pastures, and is appropriate only under certain conditions. We are well aware that a predator that jumps inside a corral with a penned sheep herd creates a massacre. If your herd is night-penned in large carnivore country, you’d best be sleeping inside that pen unless your perimeter is a high electric fence.

We also allow and encourage sport hunting of predators around our herds, and do some direct shooting ourselves on occasion.

I serve on the county predator board, and the board has a contract with Wildlife Services to perform aerial gunning of coyotes during the winter months to reduce the presence of coyotes on lambing and calving areas on private land in the county. This is the only organized predator control program that takes place in our county. In the past, this program was funded through predator fees collected during livestock brand inspections (so that only livestock producers paid for it), but in recent years the program has been funded through annual budget allocations from our county commission – local tax dollars used for professional predator control. Our board only began contracting with Wildlife Services after the private company we had used for more than three decades was no longer available. Our meetings and our actions (including how much we pay for predator control, and how many animals are killed in the program) are all open and public.

The move to Wildlife Services was made with great hesitancy, but approved based on a real need. The county where I live (Sublette County) is 80% public land, with large portions designated big game winter range where motorized access in winter is prohibited. Our back fenceline is the southern border of the Mesa big game winter range, or as we call it, “the coyote refuge.” Any predator control that takes place in such a sensitive zone must be conducted professionally, and with the concurrence of the land manager – in this case, the Bureau of Land Management. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department provides the predator board with information on fawn:doe ratios in various wildlife herds when the data indicates that these herds are impacted to the extent that predator control is deemed warranted. We started receiving their predator-control wish lists just a few years ago, and the lists are not accompanied by funding to implement.

The most important reason for our ranch to use Wildlife Services is because when there are some conflicts, the agency is our family’s only option to resolve the conflict – the agency keeps us honest, and legal. For example, we’ve had problems with ravens killing newborn lambs. Ravens are federally protected birds, so we are not allowed to kill them, even when they are in the process of killing lambs. Ravens are intelligent, long-lived birds that learn from one another, and when one starts killing lambs, that action draws in others. We call Wildlife Services for rescue when these situations arise. Wildlife Services first must confirm that ravens are the problem, and then places poison bait (avian-specific) on site, and keeps visual observation of the bait to ensure that other protected birds (like hawks and eagles) do not access the bait. Our experience has been that the Wildlife Services effort targets the problem birds and resolves the situation within a matter of hours.

Wildlife Services has also enabled the taking of golden eagles for falconry purposes in Wyoming – the only state in the nation where this is permitted. A certain number of immature eagles (not nesting pairs) are taken from designated depredation zones (areas where eagles are confirmed to prey on lambs). I believe that up to six eagles annually have been live-captured from Wyoming for falconry in recent years, which is a preferred method to federal officials simply killing depredating eagles.

Wildlife Services has also just completed the first year of a new program that targets raven concentrations at Wyoming landfills in five counties that are known as Greater Sage Grouse strongholds. We fully expect that this effort will benefit the sage grouse population, which is under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Since we live in an area with large predators that are protected by state or federal law (grizzly bears, black bears, and gray wolves), we need assistance to resolve conflicts with these species. Other options are extremely limited or non-existent, and we don’t want to be placed in the position of having to make the decision to break the law or save our animals.

Three years ago, the problem was a bear killing our sheep in a desert pasture on private ground along a major river. We needed an authorized wildlife agency to first determine whether the predator was a black bear (protected by state statute) or a grizzly bear (protected by federal statute). With a black bear, landowners are allowed to kill the animal if it’s caught in the act of killing livestock. This bear was wise, and killed a few sheep about once every week, never coming back to feed on a previous kill, and could not be lured into a baited bear trap. We had all our other predator deterrence methods in use, yet the bear kept returning to kill again. Wildlife Services made numerous attempts to capture the bear, but the bear evaded all efforts. We had to abandon the pasture to stop the killing because we couldn’t eliminate the bear. Since we could never actually see the bear in the act of killing (the closest I got was one day when one of the guardian dogs knocked me to the ground in an effort to keep me from going through the willows where the bear had just killed sheep), we weren’t able to shoot it. The most logical and efficient way to find the bear would be through the use of hounds, but that method was prohibited by state law. State regulations allowed the bear traps to be placed only three nights in a row, and the bear would return every seven days, making this impossible. At least by using Wildlife Services to confirm the bear damage, we were later able to receive some compensation for our losses by the state wildlife agency.

This year, wolves got into our sheep herd and killed nine animals. I called Wildlife Services to request their presence the next morning to examine the carcasses and walking wounded to determine what species was responsible for the problem while we worked to develop our plan of action. We had constant bear presence near our herd, with both grizzly and black bears, but the guardian dogs were doing a great job keeping the bears out of the sheep. Between the phone call and Wildlife Services’ arrival, wolves entered the pasture (where I was present, sleeping next to the herd) and tangled with one of our guardian dogs, which was badly mauled but held the wolves out of the herd. As one Wildlife Services specialist was confirming the sheep kills a few hours later, another shot two wolves as they fled from the pasture, ending the problem. Since there is no compensation for our losses to wolves in this part of the county (it’s part of the predator zone, while other parts of the county are in the trophy zone for wolves where losses are compensated) we didn’t need to have all of the sheep carcasses skinned out for confirmation. In this case, what we needed was an end to the problem, which Wildlife Services effectively provided.

In some cases, it is important to have Wildlife Services confirmation of livestock losses because there are some compensation programs available to producers. In our case, when trophy game animals (black bears) kill our sheep, confirmed losses are eligible for compensation. Our herd grazes in the predator zone for wolves, so our losses to wolves are not compensated, so confirmation of wolf kills is made only to initiate wolf control.

We have had some frustration that when we’ve had numerous bear-killed sheep, Wildlife Services is not able to confirm that all of the animals were bear kills. In these incidents, when a bear is repeatedly preying on our herd, if a 60-pound lamb goes missing, that’s not confirmation of a kill. If only the hide from the lamb is found, that’s not confirmation. If only the spattered blood, the rumen and a few tuffs of wool is found, that’s not confirmation. Some believe that ranchers are calling all the shots and automatically getting confirmation of damage, but we know that is simply not true. From our experience, there must be enough evidence for Wildlife Services to make the confirmation. You would think that if there is favoritism by Wildlife Services to certain clients, I might be one to benefit since I have a good working relationship with Wildlife Services and serve on the board that signs the contract and pays for their services in the county. It just doesn’t happen – this is an entirely professional relationship.

Our livestock losses to predators are minimal, and that is because of the combination of both lethal and non-lethal methods of predator control we use. But Wildlife Services is an important component of our success. It is same agency that both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department utilize for control of large carnivores that come in conflict with livestock or humans. These programs are not indiscriminant killing of predators, but targeted control to resolve conflicts.

I have photos of our bear-killed sheep, wolf-killed sheep, sheep that are walking-wounded from predator attack, raven-killed lambs, and flocks of ravens harassing our ewes in labor or as they have just given birth, but am sparing the reader from having to see such graphic images. They may just be predator attacks on livestock to others, but these are the animals we live and work with every day. They are not just our livelihood, but a big part of our lives. Our job as shepherds is to ensure our animals have a good life from the time they enter the world to the time they leave it. We don’t seek elimination of predator populations, and are happy to share the range with a diversity of wildlife. When we can’t resolve wildlife conflicts, we are thankful to have USDA Wildlife Services to turn to.