This series of articles originally appeared in the Hells Canyon Journal in Halfway, Oregon.
By Gail Kimberling
Thank you for permission to reprint here.
Producers and the public gathered at the Halfway Lions Community Hall for two days this month to discuss and learn ways to cope with the growing wolf population in Northeast Oregon. The group included 56 individuals representing Baker, Union, Umatilla, Grant and Klamath counties in Oregon and Ada County in Idaho. The featured speaker was Hilary Anderson, a Montana rancher and co-founder of the Tom Miner Basin Range Rider Project.
Other participants and speakers included Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett; Roblyn Brown, wolf coordinator for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW); and Brian Ratliff, district wildlife biologist with the ODFW Baker City Field Office.
The January 10-11 workshop was spearheaded and organized by Pine Valley ranchers Shella and Barry DelCurto. Sponsors were United Community Partners, Inc., ODFW, Defenders of Wildlife, U.S. Bank, Northwest Farm Credit Services, Boehringer Ingelheim, Pacific Inter-mountain Mortgage Company, Eagle Telephone System, Zoetis, and Merck, with additional donations from Robin Kerns, Baker County Cattlewomen, Baker County Wolf Committee, Evan Kaeseberg of Sunfire Realty and Liz McLellan Strategy.
“This is a major topic. We have accepted grudgingly we are going to have wolves now. We have to figure out how to have balance in the livestock industry so it not only survives but thrives,”
— Commissioner Bennett, who is also a producer and a lead in the state’s wolf management discussion, said.
Proactive Versus Reactive
Anderson and her husband operate a sprawling ranch on the outskirts of Yellowstone Park, in an area with one of the three highest densities of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. “Grizzlies make wolves look like cake,” Anderson commented. But unlike grizzly bears, wolf behavior is more predictable and becoming more understood, making coexistence possible. Anderson, who is also a wildlife biologist, said, “Right now we do not understand bears at the same level as wolves. With wolves, we now feel a sense of empowerment so we can make decisions that are sound and have good results.”
When wolves first entered the Andersons’ territory in the late 1990s, the couple relied heavily on outside agencies for information and advice. “Part of our frustration in dealing with agencies is some were transparent, and some were not,” Anderson said. “Now, it has completely shifted. We took the initiative and we are the ones out in the field uncovering information and telling them what’s going on. Our dependence on agencies at this stage of the game is next to nothing.”
Anderson said it took a change in attitude to make the shift from being reactive to proactive – not just for predators like wolves but also for other challenges such as weeds, drought and wildfire. She explained they are now managing for healthy cattle and herd units instead of managing for reduced wolf numbers; managing for healthy grass and soils instead of managing for fewer weeds; and working towards a diverse healthy rangeland rather than just fire suppression. “Without a doubt we use both proactive and reactive measures every day, but we start with the proactive. Our approach is to build a core, rather than react on the periphery,” Anderson said.
When it comes to wildlife management, Anderson said the proactive approach is to minimize the probability of conflicts before they occur as opposed to the reactive, waiting for conflicts and then having wildlife management take drastic, sometimes lethal, measures. “We are managing for what we want, not for what we don’t want,” Anderson said. “Our goal is to pass on an economically viable operation to our next generation. We don’t want to just ranch until it runs dry or sell or move or pass on a struggling operation. We want our kids to want to ranch and have hope.” She added, “The number one worst thing that can happen beyond wolves or anything is subdividing and selling out. We love the wide open landscape, and we want to preserve our landscape and resources, so we were motivated to make the ranch as strong and resilient as possible.”
Anderson described resilient ranching as “growing the capacity to hold multiple values and withstand the tests and changes of time.” While admitting a calf lost to wolves feels different than a calf lost to pneumonia, Anderson advised producers to start with an open frame of mind and complete objectivity, “Learn about your predators, the food source availability, the habitat connectivity, where wolves are overlapping with your cattle, and then incorporate that knowledge into your grazing plan,” Anderson explained, adding, “You cannot make good management decisions based on myth.”
Early on, Anderson said, “It was easy to call someone, and someone would come. But eventually people stopped answering and stopped coming so we were more and more on our own and no better off 10 years later than on day one. Our investment in solutions has gotten us much further than waiting for fish and wildlife to do something. “None of us wanted wolves in the first place, but they are here – and so are drought, wildfire and other factors,” Anderson said. Common management practices can often lead to predation, Anderson explained, saying, “We raise prey, and wolves will always be hunters.” These practices include highly scattered herds, long calving periods, a low human presence, aggressive handling (“We and our dogs cannot be the equivalent of wolves in the minds of cows,” Anderson said), and leaving sick or injured cattle out with a herd. “We can’t just turn cattle out and go home. That doesn’t work anymore,” Anderson said. The Andersons adjusted their management practices to decrease the vulnerability of their livestock by:
* Running gathered herds of cattle;
* Low stress handling;
* Progressive range management;
* High human presence, mainly through range riding;
* Shortened calving periods;
* Quick doctoring and care; and,
* Factoring in predator presence with pasture types and grazing plans.
“These are not black and white, but guidelines,” Anderson said. She added it was important for other ranchers in the area to also adopt these practices, and said, “Community collaboration has helped relieve the responsibility and pressure of just one ranch taking the risks.”
Conflict Versus Challenge
“My husband, Andrew, never looked at wolves as a conflict. A challenge, yes, but a conflict, no,” Anderson said. “He saw the crisis as an opportunity and now we have a thriving operation to meet our goal of passing it on to the next generation. We were never really mad, it was just another challenge, like the sage grouse or the grayling.”
Early on, Anderson said the state of Montana killed four wolves and paid out $12,000 following two calf depredations. “The light bulb went on, and we thought this isn’t the right path,” Anderson said. “There were still losses and it was costing a lot of money. We asked, what can we do that’s different? “Plenty of our neighbors are still mad and still working through it, but that doesn’t translate into a sustainable operation ready to be passed on,” she continued. “But we all have skin in the game, and we are all on one planet. If one ranch is going down the drain or having issues or subdividing, we all suffer. The actions we take do affect each other and in the long run a healthy landscape is our goal.”
Pine Valley ranchers Shella and Barry DelCurto lost a calf to wolves in the spring of 2018. Rather than wringing their hands in frustration and leaving young calves vulnerable to more predation this coming spring, the DelCurtos actively sought information on how to deal with this new threat. Their search led them to Defenders of Wildlife and attendance at a multi-day workshop on a Montana ranch owned and operated by Andrew and Hilary Anderson. Impressed with the Andersons’ success in an area fraught with grizzly bears and wolves, the DelCurtos arranged for Hilary Anderson to discuss her range management methods in a workshop titled “Strategies for Ranching on a Landscape with Wolves” held January 10 and 11 at the Halfway Lions Hall.
As part of the presentation, Roblyn Brown, wolf coordinator in Northeast Oregon for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), updated the 56 workshop attendees on the wolf situation in this state. Brown said her job entails “helping district biologists throughout Oregon learn about this new species.” Listed as endangered by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974, wolves were grandfathered onto Oregon’s own ESA in 1987. According to ODFW, wolves are native to Oregon and the wolves currently in the state migrated naturally from Idaho or were born here. No wolves were captured elsewhere and released in Oregon. Brown said the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan “has been in place since 2005 to ensure conservation of gray wolves as required by law.” Developed by ODFW with a diverse stakeholder group, the plan was updated in 2010 and was due for a second update in 2015, the same year wolves were delisted as an endangered species in Oregon. But the update was postponed indefinitely to give stakeholders – members of farming, ranching, environmental and hunting organizations – more time to reach consensus. (Earlier this month, four environmental groups withdrew from the stakeholder process, citing their opposition to ODFW’s oversight and proposed revisions.)
Brown explained the Wolf Plan divides the state into two management zones with Highways 97/30/395 as the boundary. Wolves in each zone are managed in three phases as determined by their numbers, their reproductive success and their distribution. The plan is more protective when wolf populations are low and less restrictive as the population increases.
OREGON WOLF MANAGEMENT ZONES – PDF
The zone west of Highways 97/20/395 (the West Wolf Management Zone, or West WMZ) is
considered to be in Phase I, as there was only one breeding pair counted in 2017. To move out of Phase I, there must be at least four breeding pairs (defined as an adult male and an adult female with at least two pups that survive to December 31 of the year of their birth) for three consecutive years.
The zone east of Highways 97/20/395 (the East Wolf Management Zone, or East WMZ) was moved to Phase III after a minimum of seven breeding pairs was documented for the third consecutive year. Brown added wolves remain under federal endangered status mid-state, basically in a vertical swath from the Columbia River to the California border between Bend and Burns.
Wildlife officials release a “minimum count” of wolves each year based on hard evidence such as visual observations, remote camera photographs and tracks. Since it’s nearly impossible to document every wolf, especially lone wolves or new pairs, the actual number is likely higher than the minimum count, Brown noted. She said at the end of 2017 Oregon’s minimum count was 124 wolves, including 12 packs and 11 breeding pairs. “We think the numbers will be bigger in 2018 as the population has been increasing dramatically,” Brown stated.
In 2017 there were 11 packs in Northeast Oregon and one in Southwest Oregon, distributed in parts of Baker, Grant, Jackson, Klamath, Lake, Umatilla, Union, Wallow and Wasco counties. “A single wolf can roam a huge area – two to three times a pack area – so those are the ones you don’t see all the time, except for when they are passing through,” Brown commented. She added ODFW officials diligently follow up on all public wolf reports by surveying tracks, reviewing trail camera footage and taking genetic samples from scat, hair and tissues.
Radio collars also assist in monitoring wolves, however, Brown called the collars “a mixed blessing” due to their high rate of loss and failure. She said ODFW uses two types of collars: the VHF version can last six to seven years while a GPS collar only works for about one year. Brown stated, “Out of 68 wolves collared in Oregon, we’re currently monitoring 16 collared wolves. We had 11 collar failures and dispersals in 2017.”
Air surveillance is another method used by ODFW officials, although Brown admitted flying in a helicopter at $570 per hour can make a big dent in her budget.“How much do you spend to find the next pack, and the next?” Brown asked. Brown added she willingly used her resources last year to find enough wolves to ensure the East WMZ remained in Phase III of the Wolf Plan. “If we didn’t have seven breeding pairs at the end of the year we would have gone back to Phase II, and then we would be required to have seven breeding pairs for three years to go back to Phase III,” she said.
The Allure of Bone Piles
Brown stated it was natural for wolves to move away from where they were born and travel for long distances. However, she added a single wolf is much more vulnerable than a pack. Through a radio collar, ODFW officials tracked a wolf that left the Chesnimnus pack in late December one year. The wolf traveled to La Grande where, after several attempts, it crossed Interstate 84 in early January, and then continued west for another 236 miles until finding a mobile slaughtering operation.
“A wolf will travel until it comes across something interesting,” Brown said. “We contacted the owner of this slaughtering operation and found out he was also getting ready to calve nearby. He finally buried his bone pile, and without this attractant the wolf finally left.” A similar situation was documented in February 2010, when a collared wolf left the Imnaha pack to feast on bone piles in the valley outside of Wallowa, sometimes bringing another 13 to 16 wolves with him. The attractant was another mobile slaughtering operation where the owner was feeding offal to his dogs. That spring, Brown said, “We had our first conflict when the wolves were hazed out of a pasture near a ranch house, where the producer was putting the hides of dead calves on other calves.” The wolves finally left the valley after the owner of the mobile slaughtering business cleaned up his bone piles that summer. “If you leave this stuff around it may keep wolves in the area and could increase depredations,” Brown said. “Bone piles and carcasses can attract wolves and keep them in the area. An ounce of
prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Documenting Wolf Deaths and Depredation
In 2017, the most recent year statistics are available, there were 13 documented wolf mortalities. Twelve were human caused (five lethal removals, four illegal killings, and three additional killings, all under investigation). There was also one wolf death due to disease. There have been a total of 40 documented wolf deaths since 2000: 34 were caused by human activities, both intentional and unintentional; three died from natural causes; and three died from unknown causes.
Confirmed livestock losses in 2017 included 11 calves, one llama, one alpaca and 23 domestic fowl, compared to 11 calves, seven sheep, one goat and one llama in 2016. The 2017 depredations occurred in Jackson, Umatilla, Union and Wallowa counties. Interestingly, Brown said depredations in Oregon have not increased at the same rate as the wolf population, and she credited livestock producers for removing attractants. Brown added not all packs depredate, and only about one-quarter of the packs in Oregon have confirmed kills.
Since 2009, there have been 242 animals confirmed injured or killed by wolves, and Brown noted there were no horses, bulls or any pets targeted by the predators. She said 75 percent of confirmed wolf depredations occurred on private land, with the majority of cattle and sheep depredation (59 percent) taking place in May, August, September and October.
Brown said ODFW has two primary roles when it comes to wolves: to delineate wolf areas and confirm depredation using an evidence-based investigative process. Brown explained a wolf kills by repeatedly biting an animal to death, but the wounds are not always visible until the animal is shaved or skinned. “A wolf’s teeth are not sharp. It doesn’t break the skin, but still causes severe trauma,” Brown said, adding, “Wolf depredations have serious business ramifications.” Brown said in the East WMZ a person or agent may shoot a wolf without a permit if it is caught in the act of “biting, wounding, killing or chasing livestock or working dogs” on their property or land as long as no bait or other actions were taken to attract the wolves.
Brown added this has already happened twice in the East WMZ, once by a herder who caught a wolf attacking his sheep, “but this doesn’t make the news.” She cautioned that any landowner or agent who shoots at a wolf “must have their ducks in a row or it won’t be legal.” For instance, if a wolf is feeding on a dead calf on the ground the wolf cannot be shot as there is no immediate concrete evidence it actually killed the calf.
Brown also cautioned about the use of “agents” and she said Baker County Commissioners are working with legal counsel to draft a blanket agreement for landowners. “You don’t want just anybody shooting (wolves) on your property. The producer is responsible for what happens,” Brown said.
The Oregon Wolf Plan states non-lethal measures to prevent wolf-wildlife conflict must be the first choice of wildlife officials. Lethal methods are to be a last resort, as in the five wolves removed in 2017 (four from the Harl Butte pack and one from the Meacham pack) due to chronic depredation situations.
Compensation for Depredation
The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Wolf Depredation Compensation and Financial Assistance County Block Grant Program was implemented in 2017 to provide four types of financial assistance: direct depredation payment, missing livestock payment, preventative measures and program implementation costs.
Monies for the program were set aside by the Pittman-Robertson Fund for Tomorrow’s Needs Act of 2017 and are derived from hunting licenses and other fees. Ten Oregon counties were awarded $252,570 in grant funds in 2017. Baker County received a total of $23,219, with zero dollars allotted to death/injury; $16,125 allotted for missing livestock; $6,599 for preventative measures; and $495 for administrative costs. Umatilla County received the highest grant award ($96,558) followed by Wallowa County ($76,640).
The funds are dispersed in each county by a special committee appointed by the county commissioners. Locally the Baker County Wolf Depredation Compensation Committee consists of one county commissioner, two people from the livestock industry, two people representing wolf conservation and two people from the business community. The group meets on an “as needed” basis.
The most recent meeting of the Baker County committee took place January 23, 2019.
Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett, who serves on the committee and was in attendance at the January workshop, anticipates Oregon will run out of financial assistance funds this year due to the number of requests. He added that, due to a cost-sharing provision in the program, “Oregon is limited on the amount of federal money we can get because of what Oregon is providing. We’re totally at the mercy of what the legislature allocates.”
Information for Producers
Brown urged producers to check out http://www.odfw.com/wolves for updated information about packs and predation. Producers can also sign up for regular e-mail updates from the agency. Finally, Brown reminded ranchers there are several things that can be done to help reduce predation. She asked producers to “share all wolf reports so we can assist and inform; scare or haze wolves away from livestock; and clean up all carcasses.”
Montana rancher and wildlife biologist Hilary Anderson knows wolves – gray wolves to be specific. Soon after the once-endangered species was reintroduced to Northwestern Montana in the mid-1990s, Anderson and her husband, Andrew, were faced with protecting cattle on their sprawling ranch that borders Yellowstone National Park from the new predators.
After unsuccessfully relying on fish and game and other agencies for assistance, the Andersons took it upon themselves to learn all they could about wolves, and then devised their own methods for successful coexistence. Anderson shared the couple’s experience during a workshop held January 10 and 11 at the Halfway Lions Hall.
“Strategies for Ranching on a Landscape with Wolves” attracted more than 50 producers and members of the public from as far as Klamath Falls and Idaho. Pine Valley ranchers Shella and Barry DelCurto were instrumental in bringing the workshop to the Panhandle after experiencing their first wolf depredation in the spring of 2018.
Anderson told the group it was critical to first find out all they could about wolves, from their build to their hunting methods. Wolves, Anderson said, have large feet which allow them to travel across many types of terrain, and they have the endurance and ability to travel for miles to find prey. Wolves are highly adaptable and quick learners. “That’s why reintroduction worked,” Anderson commented. “They learn habitat features to lead to hunting success, and the balance between being too aggressive and too timid. “They are opportunistic hunters and prefer to hunt on their own terms based on the condition of their prey,” Anderson continued. “Wolves do not kill for fun – that is a myth – but they are instinctively programmed to survive. They may not need a particular food source, but if easy pickings are available, such as a sick calf, that’s what they will do.” Anderson said the most influential factor in determining wolf hunting success is prey vulnerability. “They can and will kill anything, but always something weaker and younger that has made it vulnerable,” Anderson said. “As wolves circulate around their territory and encounter and test prey under various conditions, they gain information about prey vulnerability. Through trial and error wolves end up with every prey they can capture, and if your livestock is vulnerable out there, that’s what they will choose.”
How a Wolf Catches Its Prey
Anderson went on to describe a wolf’s hunting sequence. First, she said, is the search.
“Wild ungulates (deer, elk, antelope, etc.) are constantly moving to reduce predation risks. If they are camped out in one area, predators catch on to where they can be found,” Anderson explained, adding, “That’s why livestock is so vulnerable.” Once wolves find their prey, they watch how the prey reacts to their approach. Anderson said, “Different prey respond differently. Deer, elk and antelope flee the majority of the time, where other ungulates like bison will stand their ground.” Then comes the attack. “Wolves want their prey to run. It helps identify and exploit weakness in the herd and poses the least risk to the wolves,” Anderson said.
The difference in a prey’s defense strategies changes the behavior of the wolves, as well as the risk factor. “The goal for wolves is to kill without being killed, and there is always a risk/benefit analysis on their part,” Anderson commented. She added elk numbers have steadily declined in Yellowstone Park following the reintroduction of wolves but the bison population has been on the rise. “It’s standing your ground versus fleeing. All species can use all strategies, but some are just more successful than others,” Anderson said. Anderson added it often comes down to “speed and split-second decision-making” on the part of prey, and she urged producers to think about ways to improve their herds’ ability to make life-saving decisions and increase risk in the minds of the wolves when they encounter livestock.
Dens and Rendezvous Sites
The Andersons carefully studied the movement of wolves on their rangeland to identify dens and rendezvous sites. “A den is a hole, sometimes a hollowed out log, and a rendezvous site is more of a gathering place,” Anderson said. “Mothers will move older pups to a rendezvous site, which then becomes somewhere to camp out and ‘own.’ These locations will have wolves all coming together and you have to manage your cattle accordingly.”
Anderson said some wolves change rendezvous sites on a regular basis while others use the same locations “like clockwork.” Watering areas are also an attractant for wolves as well as prey. The Andersons, who run just under 3,000 head of mixed age classes, were once forced to drift their cattle away from a central watering hole to make them less vulnerable to wolves.
“Once we figured out this was an issue, we came up with plan B and moved the cattle out to the end of our permitted water,” Anderson said. “Fortunately, we operate at a scale that is larger than needed, and we had enough room to take cattle out of the area.” Admitting not all ranchers have this luxury, Anderson suggested collaborating with neighbors or requesting more flexibility with allotments.
Pack size and dynamics have a direct correlation to hunting, as well, Anderson said. She explained, “Optimal pack size equates to food availability produced from the prey that is hunted. The larger the pack, the less food obtained per wolf.” Anderson noted, however, they experienced less predation on their ranch as the pack size increased. She explained when hunting elk, success peaks at four wolves. When hunting bison, success continues to increase with the pack size. “When food availability is high, the pack has a greater ability to resist [going after] cattle,” Anderson said, adding, “I have seen a single wolf capable of killing, but they are designed to work as a pack.”
Predation also changes with the seasons, with pack cohesion high in the winter and less in the summer. “We never see large packs working together in July, but we will see higher rates of depredation in the fall when packs come together as the seasons change,” Anderson commented.
Extent of the Problem
Anderson said there is “nothing better at keeping out wolves than other wolves.” She explained the size of a wolf’s territory depends on the availability of prey, and wolves will fiercely defend their territory from other wolves.“Wolves will hunt prey out of the core of their territory the hardest, while avoiding or minimizing the time spent hunting on the edge which possibly overlaps with another pack,” Anderson said.
According to Montana Fish and Wildlife, a total of 190 cattle and 409 sheep were confirmed killed by wolves between 1987 and 2004. In that same period 166 wolves were killed in Montana. Anderson said it’s hard to know the exact extent of wolf predation due to the huge “gray area” that exists between the number of cattle a rancher turns out and the number that return. “One neighbor had 43 that didn’t come back, and they only knew what happened to two,” Anderson said.
Still, the gray area has shrunk as the Andersons have adopted ranching practices to better coexist with wolves. The Andersons’ annual predation rate to wolves and grizzly bears has declined from between two and three percent to about half of one percent; their gray area has also decreased to less than one percent. “The key in this situation is we have a business model that can absorb that level of loss. Our goal was to make management decisions to reduce the gray area and, yes, it’s easier said than done,” Anderson said. “Our cattle are our livelihood, and our bottom line was at stake. We needed to take our own responsibility. I’m a fighter, and we decided we could either be the leaders or the victim. The thing that’s at stake is the ranch and the way of life.”
Few ranchers, Hilary Anderson says, can run a viable operation in the midst of wolves.
Yet, Anderson and her husband, Andrew, have defied the odds by operating a successful and thriving cattle ranch in an area filled with grizzly bears and wolves in northwestern Montana. It was a conscious effort born of frustration from the lack of assistance by local wildlife officials – an effort that involved dedication and trial and error. “We were thoroughly invested in making it work, that was the critical piece,” Anderson said.
Brought to the Panhandle by Pine Valley ranchers Shella and Barry DelCurto, Anderson was the featured speaker at the “Strategies for Ranching on a Landscape with Wolves” workshop held January 10-11 in the Halfway Lions Hall. A wildlife biologist in addition to being a rancher, Anderson spent considerable time during the workshop discussing specific methods the couple developed to successfully coexist with natural predators, from reducing the vulnerability of their herd to increasing range utilization. “There has been an instrumental shift in how we do things, and it’s been really, really valuable
for us,” Anderson said.
Low Stress Livestock Handling
One of the first practices the Andersons utilized was low stress livestock handling (LSLH). A technique already popular with horse owners (it’s also known as “natural horsemanship”), Anderson said the method depends on “clear communication in terms the cow understands.” Whit Hibbard, a Montana rancher who promotes low stress livestock handling, defines the practice as “a livestock-centered, behaviorally correct, psychology-oriented, ethical and humane method of working livestock which is based on mutual communication and understanding, not coercion.”
By comparison, Anderson said conventional livestock handling is human-centered and
physically-based. In conventional livestock handling the cattle are expected to be difficult and unruly and are therefore treated accordingly, with force and coercion.
Using videos to demonstrate the difference between the two methods, Anderson explained, “A big key in low stress stockmanship is knowing how to get out of the way, or not getting in the way in the first place. This helps avoid panic. The cows remain calm and in a mental state where they can think. It also takes less time, effort and manpower to complete the task.”
Anderson said the foundations of low stress livestock handling are:
- Mindset: “Taking responsibility and empowering yourself to make the switch to get where you need to go.
- ”Attitude: “Be positive, confident, dedicated, decisive and willing to make mistakes. Cows are constantly present right in that moment, and as you work with them you need to be present in that moment, too – not on the cell phone or thinking of dinner.
- Preparing animals: “Establish trust and familiarity, and work with their mind to work with you.”
Anderson admitted the method takes time, commitment and routine. “You can’t start doing this with 1,000 head scattered throughout the country. It comes back to little moments day to day,” she said. “We need to use small ways to make them comfortable with the process and avoid pressure.” The basic premise, Anderson said, is keeping the animals in a normal frame of mind to avoid a fight-or-flight response. She explained cattle want to be in a herd and go with other animals in the direction they are headed. But they also want to see what is pressuring them so it’s important to always stay out of
their blind spot, Anderson added.
“Under excess pressure they want to move back to where they came from,” she said. “You need to outthink them.” Anderson continued, “Everything you do has meaning for the cows, whether you intend it or not. There are tons of small opportunities throughout the day to make adjustments that make a difference.”
Using low stress livestock handling can improve quality of life, efficiency and production, which all leads to more profitability, Anderson said, adding, “We all have a great skill set. This is our way of life, and it’s just a different way of looking at it. It has made us more successful and brought us joy.”
Rekindling the Herd
Low stress livestock handling can also help rekindle the herd instinct and enhance the mother- baby bond, Anderson said. “We wanted to rekindle the herd instinct to reduce vulnerability. We didn’t arrive at this because someone told us, but it happened through observation and trial and error,” she stated. While in a herd, cattle are less likely to panic or make deadly split-second decisions, Anderson said.
“All ungulates can distinguish between predatory and non-predatory moves,” she continued. “We need to take responsibility for our relationship with our livestock and not be the equivalent of wolves in the minds of cattle. You don’t want cows to respond to predatory-type pressure and you don’t want the cows’ mindset to switch to the ‘flight’ zone. You want to give a cow time to think and respond positively to you or your dog.”
Anderson said the pressure zone is different with different individuals within the herd, and producers must act accordingly. She also said the couple spends considerable time reinforcing the behaviors they want by taking new cattle on dry runs across scales and through pens, commingling new cattle with older animals to unify the herd, and working with calves right from birth.
“Babies are the most susceptible to predation, and if we can keep babies with mothers and mothers with mothers we can minimize the loss,” Anderson said. “Our goal is to enhance and not otherwise detract from the mother-baby bond.” Emphasizing the significant impact of these practices, Anderson noted they have only suffered
the depredation of one calf out of 61 herds in five years.
“As managers we can bring out what cattle have going for them,” she stated. “Every day,
whatever we do has to have meaning to the cows and translate into behaviors we want to see.”
Increasing Human Presence
The term “range riding” has different meanings to different people, Anderson said when
discussing the need to increase human presence on their land. “It can be a volatile,” she admitted. Some range riders are hired to basically use telemetry to track and report collared wolves, while others focus on observation, herd management, engaging with the landscape, and communicating with landowners.
“There is no one way to do it,” Anderson said. “Range riding can be done by individuals on their own ranch or through a community effort. Either way, the rider needs to be there to support YOU. You don’t want someone with their own plan and to lose the trust of the community and other ranchers.
“Our definition and application turned out to be different,” she continued. “We don’t care about what wolves are doing ‘out there,’ we want to know what wolves are doing with our herd and that our livestock are OK.”
Anderson added the use of range riders should be ground up, instead of top down, and she mentioned some ranching communities are using federal and/or local funds to hire range riders. “They are paying thousands of dollars to hire riders to be out there just looking around, but it’s expensive and not sustainable,” Anderson commented. “What happens when funding runs out?” For the Andersons, the use of individual range riders is cost effective and quickly paid for itself.
Previously, it would take the couple eight to ten hours to find just 50 to 70 percent of their scattered herd. Now, Anderson said, they can find 100 percent of the herd in just an hour or two. “You minimize the vulnerability of cattle by increasing human presence and gathering the herd,” Anderson said. She added increased human presence can also help ranchers obtain real-time information from the landscape, haze predators, remove or doctor sick animals, and find carcasses in a timely manner and respond accordingly.
A common misconception, Anderson said, is once wolves get taste of beef they will always choose cattle over wild ungulates. “They eat what they can kill, and they kill what they can capture,” Anderson said. At the same time, wolves are opportunists and will scavenge whatever is easiest, from old bone piles to carcasses. With that in mind, Anderson said they developed two goals for carcass management on their Montana ranch: decrease the encounter rate and prevent habituation.
“Wolves and bears get used to where a food source is if ranchers dump (carcasses) in the same area,” Anderson said. “We have found bone piles, even really old ones, are such a strong attraction that wolves and bears will alter their usual patterns to access the piles. And what happens is you have predators concentrated in an area seeking a food source and then they come in contact with live cattle, increasing the encounter rate.” Anderson said in one instance, ten cows were killed on a nearby ranch before the owner figured
out an old bone pile was attracting predators to the area. “The only thing to do is kill the predator or change the circumstances to make cattle less vulnerable,” Anderson said.
Anderson said ranchers in the Blackfoot watershed of Montana collaborated with environmental groups and the state fish and wildlife department to create a carcass pick-up program; in other areas, Anderson said, counties have established dump sites.
Local rancher Shella DelCurto said carcass dumping is a big problem in the Panhandle, not just by producers but also by hunters. DelCurto is worried the carcasses will bring more wolves into Pine Valley, further endangering cattle.
“It’s a major thing we need to address, and we want to get the word out,” DelCurto said.Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett, who is also a rancher, said the county is looking at ways to assist with the problem through enforcement and carcass removal.
“We can talk to ODOT [Oregon Department of Transportation] and say we have a problem and they may be receptive,” Bennett said. “But as producers you have to pre-plan to help reduce wolf attractants. If the ground freezes four feet deep you just can’t go out and dig a hole.”
Other methods to eliminate and/or reduce carcass attractants include using landfills, incineration, composting, and speeding up decomposition. “On the open range you can move the carcass away from areas where cattle congregate,” Anderson added.
Additional management methods discussed by Anderson included: Synchronized Birthing and Illnesses: Long calving periods, or trickle calving, leaves young cows especially vulnerable to predators. Anderson said they have changed to synchronized birthing on their ranch to shorten the calving season; they also make sure calving is done as far as possible from known predator routes.
The Andersons also pay close attention to sick or injured cattle, immediately treating the
animals to reduce opportunities for predation. “All of our wolf predation last year was in the fall on several animals sick with pneumonia. Both my neighbors and I lost animals due to wolves,” Anderson said. “We found the cows right away and treated them and didn’t have any more problems. But our neighbor didn’t, and he has continued to have problems. He viewed it as a wolf problem and then killed ten wolves, but it still didn’t change his bottom line.”
Ground Cover and Movement: Whenever possible, Anderson urged producers to pay
close attention to the terrain and ground cover where cattle graze, as landscape features
can be used to outcompete predators. She said, “With cattle this is a very important component to consider. If there is less than ideal footing it increases vulnerability.”
The same can be said for vegetation, and Anderson explained, “The element of surprise is a game changer. Low visibility areas are tricky because cows will be able to smell wolves and bears, but they can’t calculate the threat. To have something jump out of sagebrush or trees can be really scary.”
Anderson added caribou and bison move constantly to avoid predation, and ranchers can apply the same concept, but on a smaller scale, to cattle herds “There was an incident where a wolf killed a bison and that night the bison herd moved
50 miles,” Anderson said. “It’s all about spacing and movement. We have used this, and
it’s been extremely valuable for us.”
Physical Barriers: Anderson said they have had limited success on their ranch with a variety of predator deterrents and physical barriers. Trail cameras provide awareness and “extremely valuable information,” but operation and placement take considerable skill, Anderson said. Radio-activated guard systems, or RAG boxes, feature a strobe light, loudspeakers and an internal computer to collect and store information received from wolf radio collars. The boxes are generally placed on a fence line and programmed to emit sound and light whenever it picks up a signal from a radio collar. Although initially effective, Anderson said wolves soon lose their fear of the boxes with repeated exposure.
Temporary electric fencing can be effective for short-term, high intensity grazing. “It
reinforces the herding goal where and when it works,” Anderson said, “but you have to
be on a four-wheeler stringing up fence instead of on a horse riding with cattle.”
She added the same goes for high tensile fencing, depending on whether it’s used for
smaller operations or open range conditions.
Fladry fences are very effective but also labor intensive. Used with or without electrified
fencing, fladry involves red flags hung at 18-inch intervals along a thin rope. Anderson
doesn’t recommend fladry for large areas, “but it’s worked great for us on a small scale in the short term,” for example, during calving. Anderson added the placement and maintenance of fladry is important. “I’ve never had wolves breech a fladry fence unless there was some kind of gap,” she said.
Goals, Obstacles and Solutions
Anderson asked workshop attendees to discuss and share their goals, obstacles and solutions. Goals ranged from profitability and maintaining a viable family tradition of ranching to reacting proactively to the wolf issue. Obstacles included lack of space (land), politics, financial burdens, and environmental stressors such as wolves and sage grouse.
Solutions mentioned were increasing livestock numbers and communication – with other ranchers, the public and governmental agencies.
Anderson said the question for each producer to ask is: “Can you ride it out and get to a place where you can work it out? Are we building an operation that can ride out one storm after another?” She added, “Managing all of these peripheral storms is exhausting, so we need to focus on building a strong core.”
Anderson said she and her husband have learned, “The human/wildlife conflict often has much less to do with the wildlife and a lot more to do with the humans, and the success of one does not have to be contingent on the failure of the other. Both can be made better. It’s hard to invest in your best if you are defending yourself from the worst.
“We have worked on building a foundation of social resilience through incentive, safety, trust and communication,” Anderson said. “You don’t need to wait until there is a crisis, until there is something too great to lose. The common goal for us was just one thing: it required the investment of the people who were there living it.”
Our next workshop is in Klamath Falls – February 26th-27th, 2019. Ticket sales end soon so buy yours now! No tickets will be sold at the door.