In 2007, a family of wolves in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest killed nine sheep. Ranchers who owned the sheep asked government wildlife managers to kill the wolves; but local wolf supporters and conservationists protested, asking instead for a non-lethal solution. So began what became the Wood River Wolf Project, a landscape-scale, multi-year experiment in how ranchers, livestock, and wolves can live together peacefully.
Nearly a decade later, the results are in—and it was a resounding success. In one of the most intensively grazed regions around, non-lethal wolf control led to “the lowest loss rate among sheep-grazing areas in wolf range statewide,” write Wood River Wolf Project researchers in the Journal of Mammalogy. Coexistence, not killing, was best for livestock.
The study’s lead author is Suzanne Stone, a wolf conservation expert at Defenders of Wildlife, a prominent animal advocacy group. The second author is ecologist Stewart Breck of the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program, which over the last several years has been widely criticized for wantonly killing predators. That ostensibly opposed parties should find common ground seems fitting.
As described in their study, researchers from the Wood River Wolf Project collaborated with ranchers to make roughly 450 square miles of rangelands off-limits to killing wolves. Field technicians worked with them to deploy deterrents—guard dogs, wolf-scaring flags, increased human presence—and change practices, such as leaving carcasses on the landscape, that invited predation. On an adjacent rangeland of equivalent size, wolves were allowed to be killed. Business there continued as usual.
Between 2008 and 2014, wolves in the protected area killed just 30 sheep. Wolves in the unprotected area killed 314 sheep. When adjusted for the industry metric of “sheep days,” or the total number of days spent grazing by sheep, livestock mortality rates were a full 3.5 times higher where wolf-killing continued. Both regions had similar wolf populations and similar landscapes; in the protected area, wolves simply focused on eating wild animals and left livestock mostly alone. “The solution becomes pretty obvious,” says Stone. “If you’re going to be on the landscape for a long period of time, you find ways to coexist.”
Stone is excited about the results. Home to some of the highest concentrations of sheep in the United States, the Sawtooth National Forest makes for a dramatic demonstration site. “The US Fish and Wildlife Service told ranchers in our area that because it’s such a large-scale sheep operation, they’d always have problems with wolves if they didn’t kill them,” says Stone. “We picked this region partly for that reason. If any place would be a good test to disprove that belief, this was it.”
An even more difficult challenge than protecting sheep may be convincing ranchers to try coexistence. Wolf issues are extremely controversial, and even potentially amenable ranchers “think their neighbors might judge them badly, as if they’re supportive of wolf conservation,” Stone says. Hopefully the numbers will be persuasive. “When we step back from the politics and look at the goals here,” she says, “for them it’s to keep livestock alive and for us it’s to keep wolves alive. And these methods make the most sense. They do both.”
Ranchers open to coexistence will also need help. While sheepherders took over after several years from the project’s field technicians, that early assistance was invaluable. Such guidance needs to be made widely available. That’s slowly starting to happen as wildlife agencies respond to pressure from an animal-loving public. “We’re seeing entire states take on this new mandate,” Stone says, and the project’s lessons—not each individual wolf-deterring tactic, necessarily, but its general approach to reducing conflict—may extend to other animals.
“A lot of the methods we’re using also apply to coyotes, mountain lions, bears, and fox,” contends Stone. “It’s good for all wildlife, not just wolves.”