By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist
In a January 30, 2022 letter to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service urging that wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming be placed back under federal protection, Jackson Hole-based Wyoming Wildlife Advocates (WWA) used Sublette County livestock producers as an example of negative attitudes toward wolves, claiming this leads to “unnecessary wolf deaths that could be prevented if proper protections were in place for wolves statewide and if livestock producers were using preventative, non-lethal methods to avoid losses.”
The letter stated: “The cultural attitude that originally exterminated wolves in the Contiguous U.S. is alive and well. Until this is ameliorated by drastic increases in livestock protection and more protections for wolves, this species will need protection.”
Well, let’s provide some schooling, shall we? Apparently getting their information from one inaccurate article in a local newspaper, WWA made some assumptions when writing to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that in Sublette County, “only three cattle conflicts with wolves were confirmed in 2021 with only two of those leading to deaths of livestock. For sheep, only seven were killed in 2021 by wolves. Even with these very low losses of livestock, the county Predator Board is killing wolves ahead of any conflicts.”
Notice how WWA Executive Director Kristin Combs discounts the importance of wolf-killed livestock by consistently inserting “only” prior to the number of dead livestock?
I can report that as the owner of some of those livestock that they weren’t “only” numbers to my family. And the numbers reported were strictly for kills that were verified by a federal animal damage control agent.
In fact, 2021 was our family’s worst year ever for predators killing livestock, as we grazed livestock in some of the most inaccessible, roughest range available so that our cattle and sheep could be on live water in a dangerous drought. Only a few kills by wolves could be confirmed; notice that this is the proper use of the word “only” when discussing predator kills of livestock.
This particular pack of wolves has been confirmed as involved in chronic livestock depredations (both cattle and sheep) along the southern end of the Wind River Mountains for years – contrary to WWA’s claim that the county predator board (of which I am a member) “is killing wolves ahead of any conflicts.” But the facts just don’t fit the narrative that WWA provided in attempt to justify reimposing federal protection for wolves.
A few years ago, after hearing repeated claims that ranchers weren’t doing enough to protect livestock, our family started making a list of all the methods we use in a year to protect our livestock.
The list now includes nearly two dozen different non-lethal methods or techniques to reduce the risk of depredation on our livestock, and to minimize losses when they do occur.
We spend a lot of time and money using non-lethal prevention, and we’ve learned that all methods fail at some point. Wolves are intelligent animals that adapt to changing situations, and there is no magic method that provides fail-safe protection from these large carnivores. We know that, and we continue to try to minimize conflict.
Let me back up and provide a little history of the pack. Our family has had conflicts with the Prospect wolf pack for the last five years.
In September of 2017, after the pack successfully raised pups in the national forest above us, it moved down onto our ranch, where the 60-70-pound wolf pups could practice hunting and killing prey by attacking our sheep. The surplus kill of 16 members of our beautiful flock was devastating, as were the three wounded livestock guardian dogs that battled to protect the flock as the wolves attacked under the cover of darkness.
One wolf was killed in response, and the wolves moved away for a few months. But they returned a few months later, killed more sheep, wounded more dogs, and we killed another wolf. That fall, the situation escalated, with the loss of two guardian dog and two herding dogs before we killed two more wolves.
When the wolves started visiting the ranch about three nights a week that November, I requested the pack be eliminated, and 5 wolves were killed by animal damage control specialists, including a female wolf we had trapped, collared, and released on the ranch.
When a group of wolves showed up on the ranch the next spring, we monitored them, and again trapped and placed a collar on an adult wolf. The wolves killed one of our pregnant ewes just prior to the start of lambing in May 2020, killed at least one of our calves, and wounded numerous livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) in consistent conflicts.
Among my ranch journal entries documenting wolf presence at various locations on the ranch are entries naming the dogs that were injured by wolves that summer of 2020:
May 13-17, 4 LGDs injured in last 5 days
June 8, Panda injured
June 15, Snoop injured
June 21, Nika injured
June 23, Awbi injured
July 13, Awbi & Panda injured, Ash head split open
The guardian dogs did a warrior’s job in protecting the livestock, but they were walking wounded and needed some relief. We killed another wolf from the pack, but within a month the remaining pack of three wolves were back on the ranch. They killed sheep in October and November, then went away for a few months.
By May 2021, the wolves were back on the ranch, but the pack remained at three animals. They killed a yearling ewe as we took the flock downriver on the desert to get out of range the wolf pack, then killed an adult cow at the home place. We trapped and killed two wolves, including the big male that we knew was the primary culprit in the recent livestock kills.
We knew that there was an adult female wolf remaining, but fearing that she had pups in a den, we stopped the lethal control effort. Perhaps foolishly, we didn’t want her pups to starve to death in a den. Livestock killing in this area stopped with this partial pack removal.
That is, the killing stopped for six months. But in November 2021, the female wolf returned as a member of what had by then become a pack of six wolves.
Our ranch monitoring system detected their presence prior to any confirmed livestock kills. Within a day of the pack’s arrival on the ranch, one of our adult female livestock guardian dogs disappeared, and I fear she met her fate to the wolves.
One of the wolves, a big black male, looked mangy and wounded, and I really didn’t want our healthy guardian dogs interacting with a sick, wounded wolf on the ranch.
We trapped, collared and released one of the wolves, a young female. In the coming weeks, animal damage control officials killed half of the pack, and we halted control, hoping that the remaining wolves would prey on the abundant elk wintering in the area and leave the livestock alone. They didn’t.
The pack of three wolves went to a neighbor’s place and killed two yearling cattle, and wounded a third, in two nights earlier this month. We reinstituted lethal control, taking out the remaining pack members.
The WWA assertion that here in Sublette County we are “killing wolves ahead of any conflicts” is pure fallacy, as is the assertion that lethal control wouldn’t be needed “if livestock producers were using preventative, non-lethal methods to avoid losses.”
WWA doesn’t know or understand just how gut-wrenching it is to find that wolves have injured or killed our most important “non-lethal” deterrent, our devoted livestock guardian dogs.
The 110-pound wounded wolf I was concerned about did indeed have mange and had been severely wounded in battles with other members of his canine family. In fact, his tail had been completely severed from his body – something the Prospect pack had attempted on Rena, another of our livestock guardian dogs, years ago.
In WWA’s telling, livestock producers in Sublette County demonstrate “the cultural attitude that originally exterminated wolves,” and ask the federal government to step in to protect the wolves from me and my neighbors. Too bad that concerns for protecting our animals, our livelihoods, and our families, never crosses their minds. We give far more consideration to wolves than WWA does to people.
Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.