Range rider program seeks to avert wolf-livestock conflicts

Karin Vardaman (far right) of the California Wolf Center and others, attend a range rider training session in Montana in May. The Wolf Center is setting up a range rider program in which willing ranchers arrange for riders to patrol their properties looking for signs of wolves or other predators.

DORRIS, Calif. — If wolves come on or near his property, rancher Mark Coats wants to know about it.

Coats has received training to be a range rider — a person who goes out several times a week looking for tracks, scat or other signs of wolves or other wildlife that could harm his cattle.

The idea is that a human presence can deter wolves away from cattle or move cattle away from wolves if possible.

“When we’re out there tracking and looking for scat, we’re looking for livestock disposition,” Coats said. “Cattle get pretty nervous when there are predators around. Cattle will actually relay that to you in their disposition.”

Coats is taking part in a new range rider program offered by the California Wolf Center, which sees such programs as a key tool among nonlethal means of preventing wolf-livestock conflicts.

The center has two riders stationed in Siskiyou County, where the Shasta Pack was identified by state officials last summer and where a calf was suspected of being taken by wolves last fall. As many as four more riders will be working in the area by this fall.

Under the program, willing ranchers can arrange for a rider to patrol their properties every few days, Karin Vardaman, the Wolf Center’s director of California wolf recovery, said. Riders go through a training session in Montana and are paid by the Wolf Center for doing the patrols.

“Obviously, we don’t have a handle on where wolves may or may not be, but we wanted to stay ahead of the issue,” Vardaman said. “We’re just kind of starting early and working with producers who are trying to get used to the program.”

State and federal protections make it illegal to kill or hunt wolves in California, even in the case of livestock depredation. Wolf advocates and state officials have been promoting nonlethal means of warding off wolves, including using guard dogs, motion-sensor lights, brightly colored flags or range riders or providing supplemental feed to livestock to keep them away from grazing areas where wolves are known to be present.

The Wolf Center, which uses grants and donations to support its outreach efforts, has tried to develop a collaborative relationship with livestock producers. The conservation group sponsored a series of workshops in far Northern California in April to teach ranchers how to prevent clashes between their livestock and predators.

All of the center’s range riders are from within the livestock community, Vardaman said. They go out in the morning and again in the evening, and in addition to looking for evidence of predators, they’ll also help ranchers spot any sick or injured cattle or calves within their herds that could attract wolves, she said.

Coats said that not all of his neighbors have yet bought into the program.

“You have to respect everyone’s wishes,” he said. “It’s just like a neighborhood. A lot of people believe in neighborhood watch but some people do not.”

However, Coats believes it’s imperative that ranchers learn how to coexist with wolves.

“What other choice do we have?” he said. “It’s an endangered species protected by the Endangered Species Act. What can we do?”

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