Few people in the Wood River Valley are likely to welcome slack quite as much as Suzanne Stone, program coordinator of the valley’s Wood River Wolf Project.
The project just wrapped up its fifth season of keeping wolves and sheep apart, and Stone said that despite the season’s success, she is “relieved” that it’s over.
Trailing of the Sheep marks the end of the official grazing season in Blaine County, and for Stone, it marks the end of her field crews’ desperately trying to keep wolf packs away from the flocks of sheep grazing in wolf territory.
“I’m so exhausted,” she said. “It was a long season this year.”
The Wood River Wolf Project crews started in May, around the time that Flat Top Ranch owner John Peavey lost more than 30 sheep to the Little Wood wolf pack. Peavey had not been using non-lethal deterrents at the time, saying the fladry got caught on sagebrush and other methods were difficult to use at the ranch itself.
However, once Peavey’s sheep reached public land, they joined the more than 27,000 sheep that were under the careful watch of specially trained field crews.
Stone said that number was much higher than the number of sheep the project started with years ago.
“When we first started, it was something like 10,000 to 12,000,” she said. “I thought we were still somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000.”
At last count, she said, there were 27,305 ewes and lambs on close to a million acres of land, mostly public grazing allotments.
The project lost four of those sheep when the Lake Creek pack north of Ketchum unexpectedly encountered the flock in mid-July. Stone said project members had no idea there was a pack in the area.
“There are no radio-collared wolves in the entire county,” she said. “This was a new pack on the landscape.”
But after that one incident, Stone said, there was no conflict.
“It’s great!” she said. “If you look at statewide averages, statistics show somewhere between 3 to 4 percent loss to predators. Our project area loss rate was 0.014 percent. It’s massively low.”
Lava Lake Lamb and Livestock owner Brian Bean said he was “impressed” with the crew’s success, and looks forward to working with them next year.
“At Lava Lake, we validate the proposition that nonlethal methods are effective in greatly reducing predation on sheep by wolves.”
Stone attributed part of the project’s success to the fact that the crew is getting better at figuring out what methods are most effective in which situations.
“We’re all getting better at using the tools we have,” she said. “We’re also finding out that it’s not about the tools, it’s about people being able to adapt those tools [to the situation] and use them at the appropriate time.”
Stone said that, for example, guard dogs actually draw wolves during early spring, which is when the wolves den with their young and get much more territorial.
“They interpret them as being strange-looking wolves,” Stone said. “Most of the time, wolves will avoid conflict with them, which is why dogs are so successful.”
Stone said the project no longer uses the dogs in early spring, and instead relies on starter pistols and fladry.
She said the project has also tried to help herders stay up with herds at night by providing one with a guitar and another with a harmonica.
“Those guys should probably go on the road,” she said with a laugh.
Kate Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org