Blaine County and its cities have demonstrated model leadership for the entire West by tackling one of the West’s oldest public land use conflicts—the love of wildlife and support for our ranching heritage. A love critical to our economy and way of life. Our residents have risen above partisanship and mythology by crafting a model way for wolves and sheep to co-exist on public lands in Blaine County.
Sheep herding, which has been a part of Blaine County since the 1880s, is celebrated each year during the October Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which draws thousands of tourists to the valley. Blaine County residents and visitors also love wildlife and thrill at the opportunity to see wolves in the wild. The modern economy prizes lamb as a gastronomic experience and, in places like Yellowstone, wolf watching is a multi-million-dollar recreation experience.
The unfortunate killing of a male wolf in September in Corral Creek is one of the few times a wolf has been killed in Blaine County since the establishment of the Wood River Wolf Project. The Wood River Wolf Project promotes co-existence between livestock and wolves on public lands and has proven how a suite of non-lethal control measures can keep sheep and wolves alive while sharing the same landscape. Over the past 12 years, Blaine County has had the lowest rate of livestock loss in Idaho in high-density wolf and sheep grazing range. Human presence with livestock and the use of flashing lights, air horns, starter pistols, boom boxes and electric fences with red flags have deterred wolves from bands of sheep. Use of these deterrents is hard work but it has proven that we can protect livestock, reduce lethal actions against wolves and save ranchers money.
The project has been so successful that similar programs have been adopted in the Centennial Valley and Tom Miner Basin in Montana, in Klamath County, Wallowa County, Oregon, and in areas in Washington state. When I was a Blaine County commissioner in 2007, the county funded the Wood River Wolf Project because of our citizens’ core values of wildlife protection. The county commissioners had for years rejected the “Wildlife Damage Control” program that other counties in Idaho were funding to poison and kill livestock predators. The new initiative of co-existence, not killing, was a powerful alternative. Hence, the county provided funding to make this a reality. Grants from the Wood River Women’s Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Lava Lake Institute and others also support the program.
When the state of Idaho took aim at widening its war on wolves in 2014 with the creation of the Wolf Control Board, expanding programs for the killing of wolves statewide through trapping, snaring, aerial shooting and expanded hunting seasons, the city of Ketchum formally protested. The city contacted the governor and other agencies to argue that these state of Idaho policies negatively impact Idaho’s reputation, our local stewardship values, recreation and tourist economy, and undermine the Wood River Wolf Project’s efforts to continue to show that predators and livestock can co-exist.
To maintain the values of co-existence, we believe that the five livestock operators must continue to be full-time partners in the Wood River Wolf Project on public lands where they herd their 25,000 sheep. We know that protecting livestock in high mountain terrain is difficult, but the community strongly supports you and your partners in your commitment to use non-lethal methods to protect sheep and wolves. This is the kind of leadership between livestock producers and wildlife advocates that resonates throughout the West.
Sarah Michael, a former Blaine County commissioner, lives in Blaine County, north of Ketchum.