Ranchers question value of wolf study

Rob Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at Washington State University, talks about his efforts to work with ranchers to study wolf conflicts next to the stuffed gray wolf on display at WSU's Conner Museum Oct. 15 on the university campus in Pullman, Wash.

PULLMAN, Wash. — A Washington State University researcher studying conflicts between wolves and livestock says ranchers might not have lost as many animals to wolves if they’d been working with his team. But Washington rancher organizations say his study won’t net much new information for the industry.

Rob Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Laboratory at Washington State University, is finishing up the first year of studying wolf-livestock conflicts during grazing season with his team of graduate students and several ranchers over the last year.

Wielgus suggested nonlethal interventions in conflicts between livestock and the Huckleberry and Profanity Peak packs, but state wildlife authorities didn’t implement them.

Wielgus said he hasn’t received the level of cooperation from ranchers he wanted.

“Those cooperators who have accepted to work with us have experienced limited or no livestock depredation,” he said. “Some of those who refused to cooperate with us have experienced severe depredation events.”

Wielgus said he would find the kill immediately through radio collar tracking, use nonlethal methods and the depredations would likely cease.

“Our sample size is really small, but it’s worked so far,” he said. “Let’s get that sample size up and see which of these practices, if any, are really effective. We could have just had a lucky year with our radio-collared sample and a very unlucky year with our un-radio collared sample.”

Various ranching organizations are questioning the value of Wielgus’ work.

“Dr. Wielgus is tapping the cash cow,” said Jamie Henneman, media specialist for Cattle Producers of Washington, charging that he’s using the state Legislature to fund his department. “I do not believe any of the research he is doing is going to edify the body of evidence that’s already out there. I don’t know what it is that we’re supposed to find out about wolves in Washington that we don’t already know about wolves.”

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, would prefer the money be spent collaring wolves, rather than determine what happens when someone tries to deter activity.

“It’s very clear when you put some type of significant activity in there, you can temporarily alter the behavior of a wolf pack,” Field said. “We’re dealing with apex predators. At the point when that pack tips over and begins preying on livestock, we need to quickly and effectively remove the pack.”

Wielgus’ team captured and radio collared roughly two to three wolves from seven wolf packs. The team monitored the wolves and nearby livestock herds, radio collaring 35 livestock and radio ear-tagging 285 livestock.

Wielgus’ team investigated 300 GPS kill clusters. They documented four sheep kills by the Diamond Pack in Idaho and the rest of the kill clusters were wild ungulates.

The researchers and livestock owner moved the rest of the sheep “to a defensible position” and installed flags and foxlights. The depredations stopped, Wielgus said.

Wielgus hopes to study wolf-livestock conflicts over four grazing seasons. He’s examining data on nonlethal efforts from Idaho and Montana from the last 25 years.

Wielgus hopes for more cooperation with ranchers and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. His annual funding of $300,000 lasts through July 2015, halfway through the grazing season. He hopes for more funding from the Legislature to continue the project for another two years.

“I get the sense politics is a huge factor in what is done, rather than science and the facts,” Wielgus said.”If we can get more people to cooperate with us and listen to our recommendations, I think we can really get a handle on this wolf-livestock depredation problem.”

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