Protecting Sheep, Protecting Wolves

by Heidi Ridgley

© Erin MacCallum

© Erin MacCallum

It’s not every day that county commissioners in the middle of Idaho call for coexistence with wolves rather than death to those that prey on livestock. But that’s exactly what happened earlier this year, when local officials signed a letter of support saying they wanted Defenders to continue with their nonlethal wolf-deterrent program in the south-central part of the state.

Called the Big Wood River Wolf Project, it began after Northern Rockies wolves expanded their range into the Sawtooth Mountains to raise their pups in 2007—the same 116-square-mile area that is also used by grazing sheep in the summer. That year the pack—called the Phantom Hill—preyed on several sheep and were scheduled for extermination—until Defenders stepped in.

The next grazing season Defenders began working with sheep herders to keep livestock and wolves separated, using livestock guard dogs, tracking devices to monitor the movements of the pack and sirens and spotlights to scare wolves away. Defenders also provided portable corals of solar-charged electric fencing to protect sheep at night.

Over the next three years, only 14 of 30,000 sheep grazed on public lands here were lost, and the only major incident—with 12 sheep killed—was caused by a miscommunication that left sheep unattended all night. “Before the project began, ranchers many times easily lost that many sheep in a single night,” says Suzanne Stone, Defenders’ Northern Rockies representative. “Sheep on public lands are hard to protect.”

The project involves three of the biggest sheep producers in the West as well as state and wildlife agencies. “It just goes to show that while some anti-wolf extremists seem hell-bent on getting rid of wolves, other people just want us to properly manage them,” says Stone.

Given the official, local support, Defenders is working on ways to continue to fund the Wood River project and its possible expansion.

“At a time when the wolf issue is so polarized and controversial, it’s critical to continue to develop and demonstrate effective, practical solutions that can reduce conflict, and this valleywide project demonstrates the effectiveness of nonlethal deterrents,” says Stone. “This is one of Defenders’ most important goals.” 

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