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Sheep rancher learns to keep the wolves at bay

A dog  watches over ewes at Lava Lake Land & Livestock near the North Fork of the Big Lost River near Ketchum, Idaho. The company uses dogs and other measures to protect its sheep from wolves. Associated Press
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
A dog watches over ewes at Lava Lake Land & Livestock near the North Fork of the Big Lost River near Ketchum, Idaho. The company uses dogs and other measures to protect its sheep from wolves. Associated Press (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

KETCHUM, Idaho – It’s about as thickly populated by wolves as anywhere in the region, but environmentally conscious sheep producer Lava Lake Land & Livestock is developing a track record of minimal conflicts in and around the rugged Boulder Mountains of central Idaho.

The methods are varied, but the gist remains. The huge Hailey-based sheep producer has not lost sheep to wolves since 2005 when 25 sheep and a guard dog were killed in two consecutive nights. The sheep were killed northwest of Ketchum on the North Fork of the Big Lost River in the eastern Boulder Mountains.

Lava Lake President Mike Stevens said the developing track record is, in part, because of preventive measures the company is taking to minimize the number of dead sheep and, therefore, dead wolves.

“It’s an issue of how can we coexist,” he said.

Summer 2002 marked the first time Lava Lake experienced sheep depredation by wolves. At the time, ranch managers believed they were on the far southern perimeter of wolf country. “In our minds the wolves were somewhere else,” Stevens said.

But a three-night period changed that. Lava Lake lost 16 ewes and lambs in the Muldoon Creek area north of Carey.

“We really had no idea what to do,” said Stevens, a former biologist with The Nature Conservancy of Idaho.

The huge ranching operation was created out of several sheep outfits bought in 2000 by San Francisco couple Brian and Kathleen Bean. The ranch’s holdings include the 24,000-acre Lava Lake Ranch and grazing privileges on 730,000 acres of public land allotments that range among the Boulder and Pioneer mountains as well as on the Snake River Plain.

Working with U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services agent Rick Williamson since 2002, Lava Lake ranchers and biologists instituted a number of preventive measures in an attempt to avert additional depredations and avoid lethal control measures for the wolves.

Among the measures is arming sheepherders with radio telemetry equipment to monitor the movements of nearby wolves. In many cases, including this year, herders have detected wolves within less than a quarter-mile of the sheep, Stevens said.

Under Williamson’s tutelage, Lava Lake also brought on additional guard dogs. For the North Fork sheep they use five Great Pyrenees and began arming herders with single-barrel shotguns loaded with non-lethal “cracker shells” and rubber bullets. The purpose with cracker shells is to either scare off wolves with a loud overhead shot, or with rubber bullets to scare them off with a painful but not deadly direct shot.

The best way to use this method is to wait to shoot until a wolf sees the sheep, Stevens said. Under such a scenario, a wolf will run away with a newly conditioned association of sheep and pain.

“They learn that they just don’t want to be in the vicinity of a sheep band,” Stevens said.

Centuries-old protection

Another preventive measure Lava Lake uses is an electrified night pen – a square-shaped, half-acre enclosure composed of 3-foot-tall fiberglass poles and a single strand of electrified metal wire. Hanging from solar-powered electrical wires are 1 1/2-foot-long red ribbons called turbo-fladry.

The modern night pens borrow from a centuries-old practice herders in Mongolia and Tibet used with success, Stevens said.

Because the vast majority of sheep depredations happen after nightfall, Lava Lake sheepherders Hector Vilcapoma and Melendez Orihuela herd their band of some 1,000 ewes into the enclosure at dusk.

Asked Tuesday if the Sawtooth National Forest has considered requiring grazers to institute similar preventive measures to keep wolves away from livestock, Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said no.

Such a policy decision would have to come from a much higher level in the U.S. Forest Service than the district level, he said.

Still, Nelson said local forest officials do encourage livestock producers grazing Sawtooth National Forest allotments to consider “the impact of their operation on carnivore species.” They also ask grazers to institute sound grazing practices like the removal and burial of sheep carcasses, he said.

Since its last incident in 2005, Lava Lake has successfully grazed sheep in the North Fork country while knowing full well that wolves were actively using the same area, Stevens said. Of all the ranch’s federal grazing allotments, the North Fork is the most actively used wolf country.

Several hours after daybreak July 27, Stevens discussed his company’s approach to grazing in wolf country while standing within sight of smoke-shrouded Kent and Ryan peaks near the headwaters of the North Fork of the Big Lost River. The isolated mountain valley falls within the Salmon-Challis National Forest’s North Fork Big Lost grazing allotment.

It’s also prime wolf habitat.

Standing with Stevens were Vilcapoma and Orihuela. Vilcapoma has been herding sheep in the North Fork Big Lost area for 13 years and is in charge of keeping watch over Lava Lake’s North Fork band. Orihuela was recently assigned to the North Fork band to provide an extra eye for the remainder of the 2007 grazing season.

Tracking via radio

Friday morning, Vilcapoma picked up signals from several radio-collared wolves using a handheld radio telemetry receiver provided to Lava Lake by Defenders of Wildlife, a national nonprofit dedicated to preventing conflicts between wolves and people by supporting the use of preventive measures. Frequencies emitted by different radio collars not only indicate a wolf’s position, but also its direction of travel.

Private parties like Lava Lake that wish to use radio telemetry to monitor wolves in Idaho’s forests and rangeland must first acquire the correct frequencies for individual wolves from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

One of the signals Vilcapoma detected Friday came from the radio collar of a wolf belonging to the Phantom Hill wolf pack, which denned last spring north of Ketchum in the Big Wood River drainage. The detection was somewhat surprising, Stevens said, because the pack’s home range is considered to be farther west. A possible explanation for the errant signal was that radio telemetry signals can bounce off terrain features such as high peaks, Stevens said.

Removing temptation

Among the various preventive measures Lava Lake has used is a last-resort decision to simply remove sheep from a grazing allotment if a case warrants.

Earlier this year, the company did just that after Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists confirmed the presence of the Phantom Hill wolf pack, the Wood River Valley’s first documented denning pair since the 1995 reintroduction.

Rather than worry about the presence of the pack and its three pups within the North Fork Boulder grazing allotment, Lava Lake chose to forgo grazing the area this season.

While the company has built into its business plan the flexibility to move sheep around, such decisions do have limits, Stevens admitted. He knows his company’s run of good luck could end in a night, and it’s not lost on him that his operation is atypical.

The organization has vast grazing privileges on a variety of public land allotments, and that gives it management flexibility.

Moreover, the fundamental business model for the operation is to “provide both efficiencies in running a large livestock operation and the opportunity to have a significant impact on conservation,” says the company’s Web site.

From the company’s perspective, agreeing to live with wolves is the least it can do in exchange for being granted the right to graze on public lands.

“Ultimately, it’s a business strategy,” Stevens said. “We know that is important to our customers.”