Wolves at the Door
This fall, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) officially decided to reassess the gray wolf for potential relisting as an endangered species. Concerned about possibly declining wolf population numbers in the Western Rocky Mountain region, several groups petitioned FWS to re-examine the wolf’s status.
According to FWS, groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. and Center for Biological Diversity have brought forth “credible and substantial information that increased human-caused mortality in Idaho and Montana may pose a threat to wolves.”
FWS denied the groups’ request for instantly restored protection, however, opting instead for a 12-month long intensive analysis to determine whether relisting is warranted.
The decision comes just nine months after President Trump delisted the gray wolf in the entire lower 48 states in January. In Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Eastern Washington, however, the gray wolf has been delisted since May of 2011. In Wyoming, the gray wolf has been delisted since 2012, so Trump’s decision didn’t have an overwhelming impact on those states.
After a species is delisted, state and tribal agencies are left to manage the populations locally, but FWS continues to monitor the species for 5 years.
According to the FWS website, “the five-year federal oversight period for Idaho and Montana ended in 2015 yet wolf populations remain well above minimum federal management objectives of 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves in each state.”
The recovery has been so profound that several states have recently relaxed hunting regulations; in Montana, for example, gray wolves may now be killed using previously illegal methods such as snaring, baiting, and night-hunting.
Wolves and Ranchers
Many farmers, ranchers, and hunting outfitters fear that the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population is not only out of danger, but out of control. For Montana rancher Monica Prince, those fears became reality 13 years ago.
According to Prince, who runs a cow/calf operation with her husband near Drummond, Montana, wolves nearly drove their 150-year-old ranch to bankruptcy.
Before the Yellowstone Park reintroduction, says Prince, “We had two packs of wolves previous to this. And their wolves came in and killed our packs…those packs never once bothered our cattle.”
Soon after the new wolves took over the area, Prince’s ranch started taking hits – and not just because their calves were getting picked off. In addition to direct predation, cattle suffer from increased sickness, abortions, weight loss, and lower milk production due to the increased stress of having wolves around.
“People don’t get that our cows have motherly instincts and it’s stressful on them,” says Prince.
According to Prince, working with FWS to manage the conflict can be hit-or-miss. They did get a lot of help from their state trapper but found that many officials, including their own area wolf specialist, didn’t have much hands on experience.
“She’d been our wolf manager for I don’t know how many years, but at least 5 to that point – she’d never been on the site of a wolf kill,” says Prince. In addition, she was not comfortable around cattle – something Prince thinks should probably be a job requirement when you’re dealing with ranchers all the time.
“This is how detached the fish and game and the federal – whoever – are from what’s going on on the ground at any ranch situation…they don’t mean to be that way, but unless you get on the ground, unless you talk to the producers, unless you know what we’re going through, unless you can see it – you literally don’t know.”
“Those people that are in charge of the agriculture industry and ‘gifting us predators’ have no idea what it takes to make money to survive in this industry…so maybe, just maybe when they get out of school, they should spend 6-8 months working on an actual ranch…with an actual landowner.”
Unfortunately, despite their best efforts to work it out, including extending their calving season for 5 years, the Princes’ losses could not be recovered.
“We ended up selling off almost all of our breeding cows to cover the bank note because every year for 5 years we were going down in numbers,” says Prince.
“If they’re going to relist them, they better take into consideration every farmer and rancher out there has a right to protect their property. I didn’t ask for them to be put on my property. You want to put them on the forest service, that’s ok. But I didn’t ask for them to be on my property, and if they’re on my property where they’re chasing my livestock, I should have the right to protect my property.”
Making it work
Joshua Uriarte, who works in the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation, is familiar with the struggles ranchers have with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). As the Terrestrial Species Manager and Policy Advisor, Uriarte often acts as liaison between producers, government organizations, and other groups when there is a conflict.
“We try to balance the need of the economic vitality of the state, you know, the livelihoods of the people out there with the species. We try to find a balanced approach,” says Uriarte.
“Many endangered species don’t affect ranchers at all,” he says. Others can have an enormous effect on an operation, usually in one of two ways. Frequently, an endangered species such as wolves and grizzlies is directly depredating ranch animals. Other times, a rancher is required to alter how they manage their land or animals to protect what’s been deemed an endangered species’ critical habitat, ideally preventing unintended “take” of the species. If sage grouse makes it onto the endangered species list, for example, producers may have to follow specific stubble height requirements and reserve large parts of their own land as buffer areas.
One of the biggest problems with federal action, says Uriarte, is that it ties the hands of the local agencies to address the problem in a way that best serves the specific area.
“The ESA comes in and then when the federal agencies are doing their federal action,” says Uriarte, “they can potentially put restrictions in place that really affect ranchers…When wolves were listed, it affects how the state or how the rancher or how the federal government can respond to conflict.”
The ESA makes it illegal to “take” of a protected species, either through direct killing or failure to comply with the rules of critical habitat management – even if it’s on private land. The ESA largely trumps ownership rights, which has many ranchers concerned. Fortunately, Uriarte says producers are not without options.
“The different ways you can always reach out is to your state producer associations, such as the Cattle Association or the Wool Growers Association, you can reach out to the state, such as our office, or you can reach out to your congressionals.”
If wolves do regain their endangered status, Uriarte suggests being proactive. It might be possible to get a Candidate Conservation Agreement (CCA) put in place, which could significantly reduce bureaucratic issues for producers.
In addition, get to know your Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and your local FWS workers, says Uriarte. You can also find out if you’re eligible for federal dollars for depredation prevention measures.
“We get money from FWS…and we reach out to different folks in all the conflict zones and look at where preventative measures could benefit the rancher before a conflict happens,” says Uriarte.
Some places will have money to reimburse losses as well.
“We apply for FWS money every year through the Wolf Livestock Loss Demonstration Project Grant Program,” says Uriarte, “but we can only pay for confirmed kills.”
Unfortunately, as ranchers like Prince will tell you, it’s impossible to reimburse the true financial cost of depredation. It’s not just how much that animal would have fetched at the sale barn – it’s the loss of their future offspring plus the cost of the stress a predator’s presence brings on the entire herd.
It’s important to be prepared for change, says Uriarte.
“If the gray wolf is relisted, the rules for that would severely change. The state wouldn’t have as much management ability to address conflict when it happens, and then we’d probably have to go back to monitoring intensely, which would cost the state quite a bit of dollars, and the producers would be left with not having as many tools to address conflict.”
Not only that, but producers could face hefty fines or even jail time if they address the conflict in the wrong way.
Besides reaching out to advocacy groups and government agencies, the best thing ranchers can do in the meantime is to get educated. Find out what the laws are in your area: how much flexibility there is, whether you need a kill permit – and who to call when the wolves are at your door.
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