For a century and a half, ranchers in the northern Rocky Mountains have been grazing cattle and sheep in the backyards of bears, lions, coyotes and wolves. Despite these temptations, predators are responsible for only a tiny fraction of livestock deaths each year (according to USDA NASS statistics, about 6.5% of deaths in Montana, and 5.5% nationwide in 2010). Weather, disease, complications from calving and other reasons unrelated to predation cause the vast majority of losses. However, depredations do occur (there were 98 confirmed and 27 probable wolf depredations in Montana in 2012), and it is important to work to prevent them, to save the lives of livestock and predators alike.
All too often, landowners and government agencies resort to lethal measures in response to livestock attacks. While killing an offending predator may provide a temporary solution, it rarely results in any long-term fix. That is because when, for example, a depredating wolf pack is destroyed, another pack will quickly move in to reclaim the vacant territory, and the cycle of death will simply repeat itself. In fact, studies suggest that killing carnivores may even lead to more conflicts. For example, killing a wolf or coyote pack’s experienced hunters could cause the rest of the pack to resort to easier prey such as livestock. Also, disrupting a pack’s social structure could lead to an increased number of breeding pairs, resulting in more hungry mouths to feed (consider the old adage, “Kill a coyote, and two will show up at its funeral”).
Fortunately, a growing number of ranchers, researchers, and government agencies are supporting and adopting nonlethal tools and techniques for preventing predator-livestock conflicts. Last month, my colleague Matt Skoglund and I attended a two-day workshop organized by Defenders of Wildlife focused on nonlethal alternatives. We were pleased to see a broad consortium of folks in attendance, including representatives of several state and federal wildlife management agencies, research institutions, and conservation organizations.
I came away from that conference with a new appreciation for just how many options are available to livestock owners who want to protect their animals – and wildlife as well. Using livestock guarding dogs; erecting fencing and fladry (rope draped with flags that flutter in the breeze); removing attractants like dead, injured or diseased animals; using radio collar- or motion-sensitive alarms and lights; bunching and herding cattle; increasing human presence around flocks and herds; using nonlethal projectiles such as bean bags and cracker shells; and many other techniques and combinations of techniques can all be effective in keeping livestock, and wildlife, alive.
Just last week, on a cold, windy, beautiful day in the mountains, I joined ranchers and members of Keystone Conservation to help put some of these ideas into practice. We set up a fence of “turbo” (electrified) fladry around a small calving pasture. The fence had a dual purpose – both to keep predators out, and to keep the pregnant cows (and their soon-to-be-born calves) in, and relatively bunched together.
At the end of the day, as we packed up, I glanced toward the group of future moms, huddled around a pile of fresh hay in the middle of the pasture, contentedly chewing and flicking their tails. Three or four gangly new calves laid comfortably on the hay itself, tucked out of the wind, warm in the bright sun. One of them caught my stare and looked back at me with huge, black, unblinking eyes. Even in the shadow of 10,000-foot peaks, in the middle of prime griz and wolf country, the little calf looked calm and confident. Perhaps, surrounded by our strange barrier of flapping red flags, he felt just a little more secure.