Retiring Old Mama

The last few years, we’ve been working Old Mama into retirement. She’s a fine old dog that has traveled many, many miles accompanying her flocks from the low desert to the high mountains each year. We gradually placed her with flocks following shorter trails, and finally stopped allowing her to trail to winter range a few years ago. She’s adapted beautifully to every change; so long as she’s with sheep, she’s content.

Every day she cheerfully sticks her tail straight up into the air and trots off to lead the flock in the day’s grazing. Her face and body carry many scars of war, proof of her unwillingness to back down from a fight with any predator.

Yesterday was the start of a new stage of retirement, as we placed Old Mama into a large pen with orphan lambs that were born this spring. She’s healed up from her most recent battle with wolves, and is in great physical condition, but her teeth are worn with age so she can no longer defend herself. It’s something that she doesn’t understand, as she regularly sounds the alarm and charges out with the other guardians to face danger.

The last few months we’ve had our hands full with wolf problems, so we’ve been night-penning the sheep, and Old Mama is usually the last to enter the pen, following her flock into safety. But when she entered the pen last night, I slipped a leash over her head and diverted her into an adjacent pen, where she could be with smaller lambs. Old Mama was happy to spend time with these youngsters, but when she watched me let her flock out of the neighboring pen at daylight this morning, she stood expectantly at the gate, waiting for me to let her out. But I didn’t. She would no longer be their leader.

With wolves frequently coming so close to the house, I’m afraid we may be on the verge of a major canid brawl. Predictably, Old Mama would rise to the challenge, and would give her life in the process. We’re trying to lessen the risk of that happening.

We had hoped to stop night-penning the sheep as soon as we start winter feeding, probably around the first of December. Instead of ranging out to graze, our providing lines of alfalfa-grass hay near the house will keep the flock close by. But our discovery of wolf tracks within a quarter-mile of the house has cancelled that plan. We’ll be night penning until we can get these particular problem wolves eliminated.

Perhaps during the day Old Mama and her lambs can rejoin the flock as it feeds on hay near the house, and accompany the flock back into the pens at night. Perhaps my indulging in the desires of an old dog will lead to her demise. While I fear for her, far be it for me to deny an old dog her last wish.

Wolves, Brucellosis, & Elk

Wolves have blown elk off western Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds on numerous occasions – it’s something that we’ve come to expect with Wyoming’s protected wolf population. Jim and I learned about the 19 elk that had been killed in one night by a wolf pack on an elk feedground in the northern portion of the county before we left for a getaway with the bliss of little internet or cell phone access for three days.

We were stunned to return home yesterday to learn that the surplus kill on the McNeel feedground had made international news. People seemed to be going bonkers in all directions, including these views:

· kill all the wolves because they are killing all the elk;

· the domesticated elk no longer have wild instincts and stand around on feedlots, so it’s no wonder they were killed;

· it must have been hunters (poachers) because wolves don’t surplus kill.

I view most of the comments as oversimplified nonsense, put forth with little understanding of complexities of the situation.

Elk Feedgrounds
Elk are held at artificially high numbers in western Wyoming through a series of 22 state-managed elk feedgrounds in Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties. The feedgrounds are located on private, state or federal land, and a total of about 13,000 elk are provided supplemental feed in the form of hay each winter. Elk feedgrounds are generally closed to human access – with the exception of the elk feeder, who is a contract employee in charge of feeding hay with a team of horses or with a tractor.

There are only a couple of elk feedgrounds that can be seen from a state highway – these state-managed elk feedgrounds are not like the National Elk Refuge where you can pay to ride among the elk in a horse-drawn sleigh. The elk are not domesticated animals that have lost their wild senses, and they can be easily spooked off the feedgrounds by disturbance.

Elk and bison that inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem serve as a wild reservoir of brucellosis – a highly contagious bacterial disease that can be transmitted to humans, and cattle. In humans, it causes undulate fever, and in cattle, it causes contagious abortions. There has been a national program to eradicate brucellosis from livestock since the early 1930s. It’s why milk is pasteurized, and why federal officials long maintained a test-and-slaughter program for our nation’s cattle herds. The brucella organism is also classified as an agent of bio-terrorism.

Brucellosis is a stealth disease that can hide in an animal’s reproductive tract for years without detection. All cattle producers in this region vaccinate (and boost) against brucellosis, but with an efficacy rate of 70%, the vaccine only provides partial protection. We’ve watched our neighbors here in Sublette and Teton counties go through quarantine and whole-herd slaughter because of brucellosis transmission from wintering elk to their cattle. The thought of watching your entire herd sent to slaughter is too horrific for most ranchers to contemplate.

Closing feedgrounds
Most of the elk feedgrounds were established in the 1940s and 1950s to deal with starving elk in bad winter conditions, and to keep them away from stored hay used by ranchers to provide winter feed for cattle on private land.

To close the feedgrounds would be to face the damage caused by dispersing elk that will seek food elsewhere, as they are involved in collisions with vehicles on roadways, move to cattle feedlines and damage stored hay, transmitting disease to cattle, and the anticipated elk population reduction that will follow. So the Wyoming Game & Fish Department has focused on starting feeding later in the winter, ending feeding as early as possible, and conducting habitat improvements to provide better forage conditions for elk off the feedgrounds. The agency is attempting to minimize its feeding program. If it were as simple an issue as closing the feedgrounds, it would have been done years ago. Maintenance of the feedgrounds perpetuates the disease among elk, but spreading diseased elk across the landscape isn’t a good option either. Meanwhile, research for more effective methods to reduce the risks posed by brucellosis continues.

Wolves & Elk
Most western Wyoming elk herds are near population objectives, but some wolf advocates do not believe that wolves impact big game herds. Which is ironic, since the justification for the wolf reintroduction program was based on the need to control the park’s overabundant elk population, which it has. Yellowstone park’s northern range elk herd numbered 17,000 elk in 1995, the year wolves were released in the park. This elk herd shrunk by 2015 to just 1,130 elk inside the park, and 3,714 elk north of the park. At the same time, the grizzly bear population in the region has expanded. Predators have indeed impacted this elk population, just as they do other populations. In localized areas, the problem can be severe.

Surplus killing
Surplus killing involves a predator killing more animals than it can consume and, in contrast to those who say this is a “rare” event, it is exhibited by a variety of predators large and small around the world. From a fox in a chicken coop, to a wolf pack hitting an elk herd, it’s normal predatory behavior. Not everyday, but not rare.

A similar kill to the McNeel case took place on a Big Piney-area feedground in 2003, and there were numerous cases in the last 10 years in which wolves harassed the elk to the extent that the elk “quit” certain feedgrounds altogether. The 19 dead elk on the McNeel feedground included two adult cow elk and 17 calves – that is, yearling elk, not newborn calves. (When wolves killed beef cattle on a private ranch not far from McNeel earlier in the month, some assumed that the five calves were small animals, but they were 500-pound calves by this time of year.)

Surplus kills occur on both wild and domestic herds. A pack of wolves left a pasture of 120 Rambouillet rams dead in Montana in 2009. We’ve had surplus kills by wolves on our place too. And by a black bear, and by a mountain lion.

Wolves in the Northern Rockies reached biological recovery goals more than a decade ago, but are still under federal protection in Wyoming. Even if the state were in charge now, it’s questionable whether any action would be taken against the wolves on the McNeel feedground. But at least state officials would have options if wolves were under state jurisdiction. Right now, there aren’t any.

Those who believe the Wyoming Game & Fish will manage the species to extinction give credence to fear-mongers who thrive on controversy. They point to the fact that Wyoming would allow wolves to be killed in two-thirds of the state as proof that state officials hate this predator. In reality, the wolf population occurs in the western third of the state in an area larger than that designated as necessary in the original wolf recovery plan – and that’s where wolf harvest will be regulated and controlled. That Wyoming doesn’t want wolf population expansion to the remainder of the state is no surprise, and was never on the table as needed for wolf recovery.

Some wolf advocates do not want any wolves killed for any reason. I understand that, but they aren’t the people who experience negative impacts from wolf activity.

I don’t seek eradication of the wolf, even though wolves sometimes kill our family’s livestock. But I would like to live in an ecosystem where this species is actually managed, and I won’t have to feel jeopardized by an action I may take when involved in a conflict with the species.

What Happens When A Breeding Wolf Is Killed

“Lethal Control of Wolves Provides No Benefit to Livestock”

“Why A Ravening Wolf is a Sheep’s Best Friend”

Those were the headlines yesterday, as media outlets continue to hype a flawed Washington State University research paper that I panned over on Wolf Watch. The WSU researchers noted that through a certain time period:

1) the wolf population increased;

2) livestock depredations by wolves increased; and

3) control (killing) actions wolves to limit livestock depredations increased.

The WSU paper concluded that it was the increase in wolf control that caused the increase in livestock depredations (rather than the very large increase in the number of wolves).

Reminds me of the Ice Cream Murders which found that large cities have increased murder and violent crimes during hot months. During the same time period, sales of ice cream skyrocket. Does this mean ice cream turns people to murder?

Looking for a diversion, I checked my social media feed and found numerous posts about how killing wolves only increases the population when one of a pack’s lead wolves is killed, disrupting the pack’s social structure and making way for more members of the pack to breed. So, you silly ranchers, if you want to save your sheep, don’t kill wolves. Argh!

That someone would believe this stuff makes me crazed. If you’ve got wolves killing your sheep, often the only way you are going to stop it is to kill the wolf/wolves doing the damage – or remove your livestock. The wolves won’t have some Kumbaya moment by the light of the moon that turns them into vegetarians instead of meat eaters.

It’s time to review what is actually known about the effects of the loss of a breeding wolf from a wolf pack – not theory, not modeling, but what has been documented. This issue was addressed in a paper in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2008: “The Effects of Breeder Loss on Wolves,” written by Scott Brainerd and 18 contributors. The Brainerd paper summarized nearly 150 records of breeder loss in wolf populations around the globe from 1970-2003 and found:

• Wolves reproduced within territories the season after breeder loss in about 47% of cases. (Less than half.)

• Breeders were more likely to be replaced within 12 months where breeders of one sex remained (60%) than where breeding pairs were absent.

• After a breeder loss, if the pack doesn’t reproduce the next season, the pack size is smaller than if the pack does reproduce. (Yes, this is a duh).

• The ability of wolves to reproduce the season after breeder loss was greater in cases where one breeder had to be replaced, than in cases where both breeders had to be replaced.

• The average time it takes for breeder replacement differs with the size of the wolf population. Recolonizing populations with less than 75 animals take an average of 19 months for breeder replacement, while populations with more than 75 wolves take just over 9 months. Average times to next reproduction were 22 months in small wolf populations, and 12 months for larger recolonizing populations.

• In 38% of cases, wolf packs dissolved and abandoned their territories after breeder loss, leaving territories vacant or occupied by solitary wolves. Of these dissolved groups, 53% became reestablished when occupied by new wolves, or when the remaining solitary wolves found new mates. In 21% of cases, neighboring wolves usurped vacant territories. When the cases in which neighboring packs usurped territories were excluded after breeder loss, wolves became reestablished in territories after an average time of 2.72 years.

Montana State University researchers Scott Creel and Jay Rotella co-authored a 2005 paper on human-caused mortality and wolf population dynamics (entitled “Meta-Analysis of Relationships between Human Offtake, Total Mortality and Population Dynamics of Gray Wolves”) that examined 21 North American wolf populations and the relation between total annual mortality and population growth to annual human offtake. The paper noted that the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population increased 15-fold over the preceding 15-year period. The paper’s findings “reinforce the expectation that harvesting is not likely to increase reproduction or decrease natural mortality by reducing competition for resources.”

The complexity of breeder loss on social structure was also revealed in “Impacts of Breeder Loss on Social Structure, Reproduction and Population Growth in a Social Canid,” by Bridget Borge and three co-authors (including Brainerd), published in July 2014 in the Journal of Animal Ecology. These researchers examined a 26-year dataset of 387 radiocollared wolves in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. Borge, et. al, concluded: “The importance of individuals to the dynamics of populations may depend on reproductive status, especially for species with complex social structure. Loss of reproductive individuals in socially complex species could disproportionately affect population dynamics by destabilizing social structure and reducing population growth. Alternatively, compensatory mechanisms such as rapid replacement of breeders may result in little disruption. The impact of breeder loss on the population dynamics of social species remains poorly understood.”

Wolf Miscellany

I think there is an unstated human obsession with wolves, perhaps because they contain in essence both the genes of our species’ best animal friend, and the age -old simultaneous rep as humankind’s most visible enemy. Here are a few recent instances.

I have always heard the some of the big Central Asian flock protection dogs are interbred with wolves. As wolves are among their chief adversaries, and the phenotype is so different, I never took the myth too seriously. I was wrong– apparently there is a surprising amount of fraternizing. One of the scientists involved puts it just that way: “”The shepherd dogs are free-ranging, largely outside the tight control
of their human masters. They guard the herds from wolves, which are
common in the areas where they are used, but it appears that they are
also consorting with the enemy.”

The implications of this, in such areas as nature vs nurture, are enormous. Obviously genes aren’t all, or the offspring would not be useful. Training and loyalty must come in somewhere.

John Wilson participated in a “round- up” of some of the breeding Mexican wolves held at the Sevilleta, where they needed to capture a pair to send to Mexico. I was happy to see they are really being kept in isolation these days, having seen evidence of the contrary a few years back– letting in television news helicopter crews for a shoot is not isolation! Also interesting was how passive and shy the wolves are, offering no resistance. The workers formed a line and swept down the hill to where the den boxes are; the wolves retreated to the boxes; the volunteers then opened the den, pinned the wolves, trussed them, drugged them and carried them out. No one, human or wolf, was injured.

Some notes from John (odd format is from his notes):

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.

Of Livestock, Predators, & Guardians

This summer, our sheep have been grazing a series of private pastures in the foothills of the southern Wind River Mountains – pastures that have been used by domestic sheep herds for more than 100 years. This small herd is protected by the three burros that are always present, and by livestock guardian dogs. The range here is fluid and complex, with thousands of sheep and their guardian dogs coming and going, as well as the shepherds that accompany them. The sheep herds carry the same genetics, and I’ve raised many of the dogs that use this rangeland that covers many square miles, some of which is divided into pastures, while others are allotments that include public land.

Last weekend, there were about 1,000 sheep grazing in about a two-mile area, with at least six livestock guardian dogs. The sheep may spread out to graze during the day, but bunch up together to bed at night. Where each dog was located with what bunch of sheep at any given time is fluid. We’ve had a lot of bear activity, and the dogs have done a fantastic job of keeping the bears out of the sheep in this area.

One night last month, when a bear got into a nearby cattle herd, two of the dogs from my bunch raced to the rescue, as did another guardian dog that came from the south. The two dogs returned to my bunch within about 45 minutes, and the other dog returned to the south. Rena (a five-year old Akbash female) had stayed with my sheep – the only reason I know this much is because I was sleeping on the ground next to the herd that night. I had believed that if we had problems in the sheep, it would probably be with wolves. When both black bear tracks and grizzly bear tracks were found the next morning, I gave up sleeping under the stars, and started using a tent as a more visible sign of human presence. The only wolf tracks that were found were old, but it quickly became evident that bears were a constant presence. Two particularly enthusiastic dogs (Luv’s Girl and Tigger) are excellent at hazing bears away.

Back to last weekend: Saturday morning, there was a combination of Akbash and Central Asian Ovcharka dogs guarding the herds, which were divided into two pastures, with the sheep bedded close to each other, but with a fence line between two main bunches. Some of the dogs were back and forth on patrol, and others stayed inside the flocks. I don’t know what happened Saturday night, since I wasn’t there and the herder camped on the hill to the south couldn’t see anything in the dark. They next day, we found dead sheep, and walking wounded sheep that had to later be put down. One dog was missing, but later returned. The big herd in the adjacent pasture had been moved into the next allotment (still abutting my bunch), and we made plans to move Monday morning since there wasn’t enough time on Sunday to do all that needed to be done. We checked all the sheep and hiked around both inside and outside the pasture, trying to find all the dead sheep, looking for tracks, and covering up some of the carcasses lest they be destroyed by ravens or other scavengers. In total, there were nine dead sheep (two 90-pound lambs and 7 adult ewes weighing about 175-200 pounds each). I notified federal wildlife officials that we had a problem and needed an on-the-ground assessment. That would happen at first light on Monday.

Jim had to work on Monday, so we raced back to the house to drop him off, and I threw my gear in the truck and went back to the herd. Hud the herding dog helped me bunch the sheep and drop them in a corner of the pasture where I would hold them all night. I stayed outside with Hud, sitting on the ground nearby in a soft drizzling rain, until after dark. I parked my truck about 100 yards from the herd, and slept in the cab with Hud, with the window down so I could hear and check the herd through the night. The last I saw that night with my spotlight was Rena patrolling from the truck toward the far end of the pasture where the kills had happened the night before. I knew the burros were on that end as well, but couldn’t see that far with my spotlight. I could see Luv’s Girl (Rena’s nine-year old mother) sleeping with the herd in front of me. It was very dark, with the drizzle from the rain and the clouds completely hiding the crescent moon that was finally visible a few hours before sunrise. There were a few ruckuses during the night, and I could hear guardian dogs barking in various directions at infrequent intervals. Only once during the night did I see the sheep stand up from their beds, but Luv’s Girl was still visible in front of them. They settled down and I went back to sleep. About 4 a.m., I kicked Hud out of the cab of the truck, and found Rena sleeping on her side next to the truck, with fresh blood on her tail. I talked to her and she responded, but quickly went back to sleep. I spotlighted the sleeping herd, with Luv’s Girl still present, and waited for daylight.

When darkness started easing, I could hear the neighboring sheep herd as the animals started rising from the hillside to the south and I saw two Ovcharka guardians between that herd and my bunch, as well as Luv’s Girl still bedded with my herd, and Rena next to the truck. When I saw a pickup truck driving in, I went to meet it, and within minutes, a federal animal damage control airplane flew in, breaking through the morning fog, shooting two wolves as they fled to the east. From her wounds, we know that Rena had tangled with a wolf or wolves during the night, but the wolves never made it to our herd because of her efforts. I don’t know how many other dogs or wolves were involved, since I didn’t see the confrontation. We also don’t know what role, if any, the burros played.

When Rena tried to stand and walk, she labored to work her hind end. I found two major bite marks – one near her spine and the other on her tail, both deep punctures through her long hair and undercoat. I never tried to assess further damage, but backed the truck up to the ditch so she could load up, with me helping to lift her back end, her crying when I lifted her. She collapsed in the bed of the truck, into an exhausted, wounded sleep.

There was a flurry of activity from that point, much of it involving other people coming to the rescue while I turned my attention to Rena and getting her to the vet clinic an hour away – my herd was moved to the south, and the carcasses picked up while I was driving to Pinedale. There would be at least two other large range herds exiting the mountains in the next few days (each herd with up to 11 guardian dogs), and they had been slated to rest and transition in these private pastures for a few days before they would begin trailing to the south. The plans were changed to speed the herds through this area. I learned that another guard dog was brought off the mountain with his throat slashed by a predator. He’s not expected to live.

By the time we got to town, Rena was unable to get up on her own. I climbed into the back of the truck and lifted her onto the gurney, with the help of two other women. Rena was very sweet about it all, as she was strapped down and rolled inside the vet clinic. The clinic staff let me stick around for a few minutes to comfort Rena, as they checked her vitals and began preparing a plan of action. First would be fluids and sedation before they would shave her to find the damage underneath.

When I returned to see Rena in the late afternoon, she was still groggy from sedation, but her numerous wounds had been cleaned and stapled. She wagged her tail at me, which gave me hope that she’ll pull through. The vet clinic staff said that the tags on her hind end had probably saved her life. Much hair had been pulled out, but cushioned the bites. On Tuesday afternoon, the clinic released Rena to come home, where I could help keep her wounds open and draining, and feed her painkillers and antibiotics. She’s not out of danger, since the greatest threat is infection.

As I’ve said before, when large carnivores and livestock share the same range, some animals will be killed – some wild, some domestic. It happens across western rangelands routinely. It is not pleasant, but it is reality. There’s no compensation for our recent losses, or our vet bill, and our priority is always to stop the depredations. You won’t hear our family calling for eradication of any species, but you will hear us advocate that dangerous predators be killed when there are conflicts, and we do support sport hunting as a wildlife management tool. We share the range with many other species. We share.

This is really only a story because rather than it being some ranch that you don’t know, you do know our family, and some of the animals involved. Rena is famous because she was the runt of a litter of Akbash pups that was featured in my children’s book, The Guardian Team: On the Job with Rena and Roo, and in my adult book, Shepherds of Coyote Rocks: Public Lands, Private Herds and the Natural World. Thousands of Wyoming children have met her through school and library programs. Many of you have seen pictures of our sheep, burros and dogs through my Facebook posts over the last few years.

Some readers will want a more satisfying conclusion to this story – something that tidies up all the loose ends – but I can’t give it to you. This is not an automated system, with predicted events and outcomes. There is no magical number or breed of dogs, or combinations of breed, age or sex, or set acreage, or fence design, or terrain, that allows a livestock producer to follow a formula to safeguard their herds from predation. I can’t tell you how many black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves are in the area, let alone how many of these animals the guardian dogs come into contact with. This is a fluid system, with livestock, predators and guardians sharing rangeland at random times and spaces, sometimes in conflict, but with varied outcomes. It’s never perfect, but it works really well most of the time.

What I do ask is for more compassion for fellow humans. The blame for the recent sheep deaths, dead wolves, and Rena’s injuries is directly on me, since it is my responsibility as a shepherd to protect my flock. But don’t expect me to take any crap from someone not working alongside me to minimize conflicts on the ground. Further polarization of those passionate about ridding the rangelands of something (either wolves or domestic livestock) does no one any good.

I am thankful for those who offer understanding to others involved in difficult situations, well wishes for the critters we share this earth with, and hope that peaceful days outnumber all others.

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.