Oregon 7, the wandering wolf from northeast Oregon, is raising concerns with California ranchers. Their concern is valid. Wolves do occasionally prey on cattle and other livestock. However, there is evidence supporting the rarity of these attacks, as well as the effectiveness in using non-lethal methods to prevent problems. It’s a little bit like life insurance. If you do your research and prepare ahead of time, you’ll be covered when “the time comes.”
Carter Neimeyer is perhaps the most popular go-to guy regarding wolves these days. A former wolf recovery coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he has studied wolves for over 30 years. A guest of the Siskiyou County Department of Agriculture, Neimeyer was in Yreka on May 10. With an unruffled, middle of the road manner, he spoke for three hours about wolves, doing much to squelch the irrational fears these animals incite in some people.
In his words, “Wolves aren’t as good as we hoped, and not as bad as we feared.”
Focusing on livestock concerns, Neimeyer cited statistical evidence compiled from 1987 to 2011 that showed the actual losses of livestock to wolves in the entire Rocky Mountain area. Predators, including wolves, were responsible for less than 5 percent of livestock losses; the rest could be blamed on disease, aging, poison, lightening, accident and good old cattle rustling.
Neimeyer also discussed ways to prevent wolf problems. He explained how essential it is for ranchers to remove attractants, including bone piles of dead livestock. The value of this was recently proven. Oregon 7 located such a pile in Northern California and was spending a lot of time there. The rancher responsible was assisted by officials in cleaning up this bone pile and Oregon 7 has not returned to the site since.
Other ways to prevent problems include using range riders, those lucky cowboys and cowgirls who ride the range and scare wolves away from cattle. I discovered through online research that range riders and ranchers in Montana and Alberta have learned to herd the cattle up in tight groups, mimicking the behavior of bison. Wolves have a harder time attacking ungulates when they are in close groups as opposed to being strung out across the plains. This method also greatly reduces weight loss in cattle as they aren’t run as much by the predator.
Neimeyer emphasized the importance of vigilance in keeping predators away from livestock. This includes the use of night penning, guard dogs, shepards, fladry (waving flags that frighten the timid Canis lupus), and RAG (radio activated guard) boxes that emit obnoxious sounds scaring off radio collared wolves as they approach livestock areas.
Earlier, I spoke with Kim Kovacs, Wildlife Program manager for the northern region of the Fish and Game Department. In response to my question of where ranchers in Northern California can find resources about potential wolf issues, she suggested they look to publications by Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that has paved the way in helping livestock producers solve problems with wolves. Kovacs reminded me that the situation is a bit premature in California to expect a comprehensive state plan, but there are plenty of educational program underway.
I found that the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) website provides detailed information on wolves. Their words should dampen fears about cattle losses: “… in Idaho – which currently has a population of more than 700 wolves – a cow has a less than one in 21,400 chance of being killed by a wolf. In Idaho, wolves kill three or four times more sheep than cattle but the individual probability is still small, that is, less than 1 in 500.”
Sheep ranchers, don’t despair. Others in your shoes ward off wolves using non-lethal methods including fladry, electric fences, sheepherders and guard dogs. The Wood River Project in Idaho is a great example. Sheep in the area were becoming prime prey for wolves but with the coordinated efforts of Defenders of Wildlife and local sheep ranchers, only 20 out of 40,000 sheep have been lost to Canis lupus in the last four years.
In my estimation, the concerned folks in Northern California have three things going for them. First of all, there is only one wolf (and not an exceedingly large one at that) in their vicinity. There may never be more. Secondly, there is ample time to prepare, to educate yourself on the facts and be ready if wolves do repopulate California. And thirdly, there are plenty of resources to help, including Carter Neimeyer, who has devoted himself to serving as middle man between wolves and the humans who don’t particularly like them.