The federal Wildlife Services agency killed a young male wolf in the upper Corral Creek drainage in September in response to a report of depredation by wolves on 10 sheep. It was the first killing of a wolf in response to livestock depredation in the Wood River Wolf Project’s area of operation since it began providing ranchers with nonlethal deterrent tools in 2008.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Ketchum district ranger, Kurt Nelson, said he was informed by Wildlife Services state Director Todd Grimm in early August that Flat Top Sheep Co. had reported a total of six ewes and lambs killed and four injured.
Flat Top owner John Peavey said in an interview that he had about 700 ewes and 750-800 lambs grazing in the East Fork of the Big Wood River drainage just over the ridge south of the Corral Creek drainage.
He said that on the same night that the sheep were killed, wolves killed a guard dog and injured another. However, Wood River Wolf Project steering committee member Brian Bean said investigation by a project employee determined that it was uncertain whether the dogs were attacked by wolves or were damaged in a fight with each other. Bean said male guard dogs can get aggressive with each other when a female dog is in heat.
A big-game mortality report filed with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game by a Wildlife Services employee states that he killed a juvenile gray wolf in the Corral Creek drainage on Sept. 13.
Before the beginning of the Trump administration, questions from the press about Wildlife Services’ activities in Idaho were handled by the agency’s state director in Boise. Now they must be sent via email to the agency’s office in Riverdale, Md.
Wildlife Services spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa confirmed in an email that a young male wolf was shot on Sept. 13. In response to a question, Espinosa stated that the agency did not send out any public announcement about the killing of the wolf.
Hailey resident Jon Marvel, the founder and former executive director of the conservation organization Western Watersheds Project, which has challenged many aspects of livestock grazing on public lands, contended that Wildlife Services’ activities have become “extremely secretive.”
“The agencies involved are not particularly trustworthy or transparent in their PR,” he said. “It’s a secret, but it shouldn’t be a secret. It’s on public land and people like to see the wildlife.”
Peavey said that before the sheep were killed, his herders tried to scare the wolves off by shooting guns whenever they heard the guard dogs barking at night, and posted an extra man to sleep close to the sheep. He said the shooting is usually effective, but it didn’t keep the wolves away this time.
Flat Top Sheep Co. is one of five operators that participate in the Wood River Wolf Project, which was founded in 2008 by the nonprofit group Defenders of Wildlife and was taken over in 2016 by the Lava Lake Institute for Science and Conservation, a nonprofit organization founded by Brian and Kathleen Bean, co-owners of the local sheep-producing business Lava Lake Land & Livestock.
Brian Bean said the Wolf Project did not learn of the depredations until several days after they had occurred in early August and after the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had authorized Wildlife Services to kill wolves in the area at Flat Top Sheep Co.’s request. He said Flat Top’s communication with the Wolf Project had been satisfactory in the past, but was absent during this incident.
Bean said the Wolf Project’s acting project director, Kurt Holtzen, hiked through the area during a three-week period beginning Aug. 7 to investigate the incidents. Bean said Holtzen found two dead lambs and skinned one to do a forensic examination, and determined that it had in fact been killed by a wolf.
Bean said that Flat Top Sheep Co. had been supplied with three “band kits,” which contain deterrent tools consisting of flashing Foxlights, air horns, a starter pistol with blank ammunition and small cylindrical boom boxes. The Wolf Project also provides “turbo fladry”—red flags strung along a solar-powered electrified wire to surround the outside of a band of sheep at night.
However, Bean said the Wolf Project’s field manager, Kris Thoreson, also investigated the incidents and reported that none of the band kits was with the Flat Top herd when the depredations occurred.
“The Wood River Wolf Project operations protocols were not followed in this depredation incident,” Bean said.
Bean said the herders’ camp was 2.5 to 3 miles away from the sheep. He said that’s not unusual, but human presence with the band had been only “episodic.”
“Human presence is No. 1 in preventing depredations,” he said. “Guard dogs are No. 2.”
Bean said the Wolf Project had warned all the sheep ranchers using its services at the start of the grazing season that the Wood River Valley was “full of wolves,” with three packs consisting of a total of 12 to 17 animals having been detected. He said operators other than Flat Top heeded the warning and used nonlethal deterrents to guard their sheep.
“They were deployed effectively, with wolves around the sheep day after day after day,” he said.
Bean said that when he was informed of the Flat Top sheep being killed, he told Peavey that the Wolf Project would do “everything in our power to prevent depredation by wolves” if Peavey would rescind his lethal-control request. He said Peavey declined.
Peavey said in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express that after the initial attack by the wolves, they continued to kill one or two lambs per night over the next month.
“It was awful,” he said. “You can’t lose one or two lambs a night, day-in and day-out—that’s not going to work.”
He said lambs are worth about $200 each.
However, Bean said a Flat Top employee told Thoreson that subsequent depredations were caused by coyotes. Bean said that among local sheep operators, coyotes kill five to 10 times as many sheep as wolves do.
Peavey did not respond by press deadline Thursday to a phone message left by the Idaho Mountain Express seeking clarification of his and Bean’s descriptions of events.
Bean said he and Peavey are in the process of organizing a meeting, probably in early January, to discuss what should be expected from ranchers and from the Wood River Wolf Project.
“I look forward to working with Flat Top in 2019 and future years to efficiently supply the services that we are confident will result in a better outcome,” Bean said.
He said that despite the Wolf Project’s losing its perfect record of no wolf mortality, it is still functioning well.
“This was a successful year in all other respects, with much more wolf presence than we had seen in previous years,” he said. “We have no reason to believe they will leave anytime soon.”
Peavey said he has considered not grazing his sheep in the upper East Fork Big Wood area next season due to the extent of depredations there last summer.
“I think we’ll probably try it, and if we have a real bad event we’ll deal with that when it happens,” he said.