COLVILLE – Before the sun breaks over the mountains, Leisa Hill is firing up a generator in a remote cow camp in eastern Stevens County.
Soon she’ll be poring over satellite data points on her laptop, tracking the recent wanderings of a GPS-collared wolf.
Hill is a range rider whose family grazes 1,300 head of cattle in the Smackout pack’s territory. Knowing the collared wolf’s whereabouts helps her plan her day.
She’ll spend the next 12 to 16 hours visiting the scattered herd by horseback or ATV. Through the regular patrols, she’s alerting the Smackout pack that cattle aren’t easy prey.
Her work is paying off. Last year, 100 percent of the herd returned from the U.S. Forest Service allotments and private pastures that provide summer and fall forage. This year’s count isn’t final, but the tallies look promising, said Hill’s dad, John Dawson.
“We’ve lost nothing to wolves,” he said.
Hill’s range rider work is part of a pilot that involves two generations of a northeastern Washington ranch family, the state and Conservation Northwest. The aim is to keep Washington’s growing wolf population out of trouble.
Last year, government trappers and sharpshooters killed seven members of the Wedge pack for repeatedly attacking another Stevens County rancher’s cattle.
That short-term fix came at a high political price: The state Department of Fish and Wildlife received 12,000 emails about the decision, mostly in opposition. Two wolves have again been spotted in the Wedge pack’s territory, either remnants of the original pack or new wolves moving in.
It upped the ante for all sides to be proactive.
Ranchers can’t fight public opinion
Many Washington residents want wolves, said Dawson, a 70-year-old rancher whose son, Jeff, also runs a Stevens County cattle operation.
“I can’t fight that,” John Dawson said of public opinion. “You have to meet in the middle; you have no choice.
“We put most of our cattle in wolf territory for the summer,” he said. “I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about wolves so we can meet them at the door.”
For ranchers, “it’s a new business now, a new world,” said Jay Kehne of Conservation Northwest, a Bellingham-based environmental group that works on issues across Washington and British Columbia.
Conservation Northwest supported last year’s controversial decision to remove the Wedge pack. “We wanted to do what we felt was scientifically right, what was supported by the evidence, what people knowledgeable about cattle and wolf behavior were telling us,” Kehne said.
But the organization obviously prefers preventive, nonlethal measures, he said. Conservation Northwest had talked to Alberta and Montana cattle ranchers who use range riders and was looking for Washington ranchers willing to try it. The Dawsons were interested.
Conservation Northwest helps finance three range riders in Washington – the Dawsons in Stevens County, and others in Cle Elem and Wenatchee.
Hiring a range rider costs $15,000 to $20,000 for the five-month grazing season, Kehne said. The state and individual ranchers, including Dawson, also contribute to the cost.
In addition, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife provides daily satellite downloads on GPS-collared wolves to help range riders manage the cows.
Collared wolves are known as “Judas wolves” for betraying the pack’s location.
The downloads give the wolves’ locations for the past 24 hours, though the system isn’t foolproof, said Jay Shepherd, a state wildlife conflict specialist. Dense stands of trees can block signals, and the timing of satellite orbits affects data collection.
Last winter, the state captured and collared three wolves in the Smackout pack. One of the collars has a radio-based signal that can be detected when the wolf is nearby. The other two wolves received GPS collars. One of the collars has stopped working. The remaining GPS collar is on a young male that doesn’t always stay with the pack.
Ranchers must sign an agreement to access the satellite downloads. “They understand it is sensitive data that’s not to be shared,” said Stephanie Simek, the state’s wildlife conflict section manager.
GPS tracking adds a high-tech element to modern range riding, but much of it is still grunt work. The Smackout pack’s territory covers about 400 square miles. John and Jeff Dawson’s cattle graze 10 to 15 percent of the pack’s territory, but their range encompasses the heart of it.
Leisa Hill’s work starts in early June, when the cows and calves are turned loose on Forest Service allotments and private pastures. The range riding continues through 100-degree August days and wraps up in early November after the first snowfall.
She travels nearly 1,000 miles each month by horse and ATV through thick timber to reach scattered grazing areas. She watches for bunched or nervous cows, as well as sick or injured animals that wolves might consider easy prey.
She’s also alert to patterns in the wolves’ movements. Regular visits to a particular site probably indicate the presence of a carcass.
Hill has fired noise-makers to scare off adult wolves that were in the same pasture as cows. Last year, she spotted four wolf pups on the road.
The 46-year-old prefers to stay in the background, declining to be interviewed for this story. However, “the success of this range rider program is because of Leisa,” her father said. “She knows the range and she understands cow psychology.”
Skinny calves mean a financial loss
On a recent fall morning, John Dawson drove a pickup over Forest Service roads past small clusters of Black Angus, Herefords and cream-colored Charolais cows with their calves.
The cows were just how he likes to see them: relaxed, spread out and eating. Calves should be putting on 2 to 3 pounds a day.
“When they’re not laying around, resting and eating, they’re not gaining,” he said.
Dawson heard his first wolf howl in 2011, the year before the range rider pilot started. He and his son lost seven calves that summer, though they couldn’t find the carcasses to determine cause of death.
The remaining calves were skinnier than usual. They probably spent the summer on the run from wolves, or tightly bunched together and not making good use of the forage, Dawson said. For ranchers, skinny calves can be a bigger financial blow than losing animals.
Say a rancher has 500 calves and they each come in 40 pounds lighter than normal. At a market price of $1.50 per pound, “that’s a bigger loss ($30,000) than losing seven calves, which is about a $5,000 loss,” he said.
Over the past two years, the Dawsons have seen robust weight gain in their calves. They credit the range rider program.
Earlier this year, Jeff Dawson and Shepherd, the state wildlife conflict specialist, talked with Klickitat County cattle ranchers. Wolves have been spotted in south-central Washington, and some of those ranchers are starting to experiment with range riders.
“The success the Dawsons have had has gone a long way to helping promote nonlethal means and proactive measures to reduce conflict,” said Jack Field, the Washington Cattlemen’s Association’s executive vice president.
If ranchers take extra steps to protect their animals, the public is more likely to accept the occasional need to kill wolves that repeatedly attack livestock, said Conservation Northwest’s Kehne.
John Dawson and his wife, Melva, spent decades building their ranch, working other jobs while they grew the herd. To preserve that legacy, the family was willing to try new ways of doing business, he said.
“I think (range riding) would work for a good share of other ranchers,” he said. But “they have to be open-minded enough to want it to work.”