Saturday, October 28, 2017

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.

If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and apparently has no interest in exploring this complex issue from all sides. This morning’s front-page article was no different, unfortunately.

Despite what some of the more strident wolf advocates would have us believe, livestock-predator coexistence is incredibly complicated. Large carnivores and ranching operations rely on the same rangeland habitats – habitats that in California are shrinking for a variety of reasons. Coexistence is an abstract concept for someone living in Sacramento or San Francisco; it takes on an entirely different meaning when it has to happen in the pasture beyond your barn – and when it’s your livestock and livelihood that are trying to coexist with the predators in your environment.

This particular incident is an important case in point. CDFW offered to have employees camp in the meadow where cattle and wolves were overlapping. While I don’t know the particulars in this case, I do know that the relationship between ranchers and the agency has been strained for years. Many ranchers are reluctant to provide access to their private lands because they fear the agency will “find” a reason to curtail their use of their private properties. Stories like the one in this morning’s paper further erode this trust by implying that ranchers would rather take matters into their own hands. (The article ended by describing the death of a wolf in Oregon, apparently as evidence that ranchers have no interest in coexistence).

The article quoted a wolf advocate as saying that livestock depredations are rare and that “livestock owners have to take ‘common-sense’ precautions when wolves are in the area. These include making sure the livestock stay together for protection.” In the 25 years that I’ve worked with ranchers in California, the best scientifically supported management approach has been to disperse cattle over the landscape to protect and enhance a variety of resources (including mountain meadows and riparian areas). Many ranchers have employed riders and other techniques (including genetic selection of cattle) to keep cattle from concentrating in small areas; this is not a behavior or a management approach that can be turned off immediately once wolves arrive on the scene. While there are a number of well-meaning organizations and individuals who are trying to work with ranchers on this topic, condescending, overly simplistic statements like the one in this morning's paper do little to foster a spirit of collaboration.

At the risk of repeating myself, we have used nonlethal predator protection tools in our sheep operation from the outset. By using livestock guardian dogs, electric fencing, and intensive grazing management, we’ve been able to limit our losses to the predators in our region (mostly coyotes, mountain lions and neighborhood dogs). Our commitment to these tools is partly philosophical (we value coexistence with wildlife) and partly practical (we can’t be with our sheep 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). To date, I’ve never had to kill a predator (which is not to say that I would look the other way if I happened upon a predator in the act of killing a sheep). I will say that the predators have not always lived up to their end our bargain of coexistence – we’ve lost sheep to dogs, coyotes, and probably mountain lions. And while our sheep are a business, the loss of ANY animal in my care feels like a failure – the loss is far more than simply an economic loss.

Others have pointed to our reasonably successful coexistence as an example for other producers. While I do try to share our experiences and approaches with other ranchers, I do so with a clear understanding that OUR tools work in OUR system and OUR environment. Fencing our sheep in 10-acre electro-paddocks and feeding guard dogs everyday works in our management system on the annual rangelands near Auburn where our sheep spend their lives. It would be presumptuous of me to suggest that these tools work universally. It is beyond presumptuous for anyone without direct knowledge of a particular operation (or even the general day-to-day operation of any ranch) to suggest that any particular tool would be effective.

My inclination when faced with a complex issue is to turn to science for answers. The disciplines of ecology, animal behavior and range management (to name a few) can help us address technical questions. However, this issue in particular highlights the fact that bio-physical science can only provide some of the answers. Human behavior and relationships are also critical components. For example, some scientific research suggests that indiscriminate lethal control of predators like wolves and coyotes does not prevent livestock predation (and may in fact increase it). But telling a rancher he/she can’t use lethal force to protect his/her livestock feels like a loss of control to that rancher – regardless of the scientific evidence that it may not work in the long term. A friend who ranches in wolf habitat puts it this way, “We spent more than 500 years in North America using lethal control to protect our livestock from predators; now we’re being asked to adapt and coexist with wolves in a few short years. That’s a difficult thing to do in such a short time.”

CDFW predicts wolves will eventually come as far south as I-80 in the Sierra Nevada (although I'm not entirely clear on whether the interstate would be a barrier to further expansion). Some scientists point to the lack of a natural prey base (primarily elk, but also deer) in our part of the Sierra as a limiting factor; others wonder if wolves (as opportunistic carnivores) will simply switch to the prey that’s available (livestock). Some of what I’ve read suggests that wolves will not inhabit the semi-rural foothills like Auburn, and yet OR-7 (the first wolf to migrate into California) spent several months in the Tehama County foothills to our north. I do know that our small sheep operation relies on the same annual rangelands that our current suite of predators lives in. I suspect that adding a new predator (the wolf) to the region will complicate our relationship with all predators. This problem, in other words, defies simplistic approaches.

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