Bivouacking with sheep high in the mountains around Sun Valley, Idaho, field technicians with the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife are gaining deeper insights into strategies they can use to keep wolves at bay without shooting them. While their effort is four years old, it has gained renewed relevance as residents prepare to vote on a proposed amendment to Idaho’s constitution that will enshrine hunting and trapping as the prime wolf management tool in the state.
The group’s nonlethal experiment, known as the Wood River Wolf Project, is a collaboration with Blaine County officials in central Idaho, the United States Forest Service, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and some local partners who support alternative ways of protecting wolves in historic sheep-grazing country. The project covers 1,200 square miles, or around half of Blaine County, up from 120 at the program’s inception in 2008.
Idaho is one of several states where wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to help populations recover from decades of attritition through hunting, trapping and poisoning. Since then, their numbers have rebounded to the point that the federal government recently exempted them from protection under the Endangered Species Act in several states. Instead, the government has accorded those states the authority to manage the wolves as long as the population stays above a certain level – in Idaho’s case, 150 individuals.
At the end of 2011, the Idaho population was estimated at 746 wolves plus 24 documented border packs that were also counted by Montana, Wyoming, and Washington State.
The field technicians work to deter the wolves from attacking sheep through a number of strategies. First, there is their mere human presence by night near flocks. Upon hearing a wolf approach, the workers may shine a flashlight, vigorously shout, blow an air horn or, if that fails, fire a small pistol into the air. They also collaborate with sheep herders on the use of guard dogs and portable fencing.
“Our program is designed to keep livestock alive,” said Patrick Graham, a 31-year-old field manager. Just a few nights earlier, he recounted, he came nearly face to face with a wolf.
“It was the most intense moment I have had in the field,” he said. “I was scared – nervous that they were becoming habituated to the nonlethal deterrents. I yelled my head off. About 20 minutes later, I heard the wolf howl in the distance.”
By setting so-called camera traps by day, the field technicians are also gathering empirical evidence on the wolves’ behavior. In areas where signs of wolf activity have been found or wolves are thought to have killed sheep or cattle, time-stamped images transmitted by cameras identified by GPS coordinates are bolstering a theory that wolves can be managed in ways other than sanctioned killings, Defenders of Wildlife says.
Support for the coexistence project is growing: this year, the Wood River Wolf Project received half of its $50,000 budget from a grant sponsored by the National Audubon Society and Toyota.
The Defenders project in Blaine County is well attuned to a local sheep-ranching heritage that dates back to the Civil War. Pro-hunting and trapping sentiment runs deep there, but Defenders and other conservation groups hope their growing trove of biological data will help change attitudes on both a local and state level.
During last year’s hunting season, from fall 2011 to last spring, hunting accounted for 255 wolf deaths and trapping for 124, according to Idaho Fish and Game. Nineteen cattle, 26 sheep, one horse, and one dog were considered probable wolf kills in that period, the department reported.
So far, only a few weeks into the 2012-13 Idaho hunting season, 25 wolves have been killed. However, no wolves have been taken in Blaine County other than two killed by agents from the federal Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. They responded to an Idaho Fish and Game “lethal control order” that was issued after 37 sheep deaths attributed to wolves on a ranch during lambing season, when ewes bond with their offspring.
As the Wood River Wolf Project wrapped up its seasonal work last week, Mr. Graham, who works as a skiing guide the rest of the year, said he was gratified by the experience despite all his yelling and the scant sleep. Wherever the team is active and has good information about the wolves, he said, it seems that no sheep are being killed.
When the first wolf kill of livestock is reported within the project’s territory next year, Mr. Graham said, he will consider calling Fish and Game to request a nonlethal deterrent.