More than 20 years after wolves were reintroduced in Idaho, Idaho ranchers have been surprised to experience a host of issues related to wolves killing or stressing livestock that no one expected or had heard about before.
Direct predation of livestock was expected to occur, although not at the levels seen today. As wolf populations increased statewide, the scale of livestock depredation has steadily increased and it’s become a chronic issue in 8 Idaho counties.
But no one knew, for instance, that range cattle spooked by wolves would attack herding dogs, an essential tool that’s been used for more than 100 years to herd livestock.
“What now happens is you send your dog into a meadow, after cows have been tormented daily by wolves, the cattle will come at your dog, run at your dog, and try to kill your dog,” says Robin Brown, owner of Broken Circle Border Collies near Council. “They will actually rear up like a stallion, and with their front legs, stomp, stomp, and try to pin that dog down so they can protect their babies from the wolves.”
Robin Brown is a professional dog trainer. Raising quality herding dogs is her profession. She has seen first-hand how wolves can change the dynamic between herding dogs and cattle.
Ranchers pay good money for trained herding dogs – often more than $5,000 per dog.
Once cattle have been spooked by wolves repeatedly, ranchers can’t use their dogs to herd cattle, she says.
“So it becomes near impossible, it doesn’t matter if you have 2 dogs, or 5 dogs or 7 dogs, you’re never going to move that cow again with a dog because she thinks the dog is going to kill her,” she says. “So that is how everything has changed. You have to work a lot more hours, more days to get the cows out of places. The dogs are essential.”
Range riders for the OX Ranch northwest of Council have experienced the same issue. It’s all related to livestock getting spooked by wolves during wolf attacks, and the stress-related impacts that occur afterwards. The OX Ranch has 20,000 acres of private land, and 130,000 acres of public grazing allotments, where they raise 1,200 cattle. At least three wolf packs have been living in the same areas as the OX cattle, on private and public lands, for 10 years.
“The trouble is, when you have a pack of wolves in the area, they’re continually putting pressure on those cattle,” says Casey Anderson, manager of the OX Ranch. “So the cattle aren’t using the range the way they did in the past, and to the goals that we have set to be good stewards of the resource. They’re always feel fearful for their lives, that they’re under attack, heads aren’t down eating, they keep getting thinner, they’re not utilizing the area they have to feed in.”
In 2009, a heavy wolf-predation year, Anderson participated in a Wolf-Cattle Interaction study by Oregon State University and the Agricultural Research Service. They tracked a radio-collared wolf that was running in a pack of 12 animals and 10 radio-collared cattle in a herd of 450. The study documented 783 encounters between that radio-collared wolf and the radio-collared cattle from June to November.
That year, the OX had 17 confirmed kills of mother cows, yearlings and a bull, plus wolves injured several horses and killed an expensive border collie. By the end of the season, an additional 65 head of cattle were found dead or missing that couldn’t be confirmed.
All of those impacts cost money.
“You add all of that up – $80,000. Our cattle were coming off the range at least 100 pounds lighter than normal. Those cows had to be put directly on hay. Our conception rate went down to 80 percent.”
Lighter calves and lambs coming off the range, reduced conception rates and cattle attacking herding dogs are three key issues that were not expected.
Other unforeseen wolf impacts include:
- Stressed cattle bunching up together to protect themselves from wolf attacks, leading to less forage consumption and poor use of the range. An Oregon State University study documented that cattle traumatized by wolves suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, the same issue affecting American combat veterans. “Wolf attacks create bad memories in the herd and cause a stress response known to result in decreased pregnancy rates, lighter calves and a greater likelihood of getting sick,” said Reinaldo Cooke, an Oregon State animal scientist who did the study.
- Wolves killing healthy mother cows and sometimes leaving them to rot, sometimes with no outward sign of trauma. Wolves were thought to be likely to kill only the sick and the weak. Last year, wolves killed 45 mother cows.
- Large numbers of elk dropping into private ranchlands at different times of the year to avoid wolves. Elk apparently see the private pasture lands as “safe” zones. The pastures are a vital part of a rancher’s cattle operation, important feed for cattle to eat in the fall.
- A higher percentage of mother cows and calves getting killed by wolves on public rangelands than expected.
All of these impacts increase costs for ranchers, and potentially can cause significant economic harm to Idaho ranch operations, affecting each ranch business and the state’s rural economy. At last count. more than 435 ranchers in Idaho have been affected by wolves killing livestock, and likely, some of the unforeseen issues.
While urban environmentalists wanted to bring wolves back to Idaho to restore a top predator in the food chain, as time marched on, wolf populations grew, causing the negative impacts of wolf-recovery to fall on rural ranchers and the rural economy. Each item on the list can cut into a ranch business, one by one, undermining revenues and people’s livelihoods.
“It’s like a death of a thousand cuts. While no one of these things is very significant, it’s the cumulative effect that starts building up for a small business,” says Dick Gardner, a professional economist for Bootstrap Solutions.
“A rancher is in the forage business. They’re in the business of growing grass, either on their own home place, or public lands … making sure there’s plenty of grass, and it’s converted into pounds for calves or lambs that are sold, and that’s where they get their revenue. The story of wolf introduction to me is the story of ranchers reluctantly accepting the presence of wolves, but then see that presence grow and grow and cause these tiny ripple effects that no one anticipated really.”
Gardner points out that in rural Idaho counties, ranching is a significant contributor to the local economy. The large tracts of private land embodied in a working ranch provide key tax base for local government and public schools.
“In many rural communities, they can still be the bedrock of a rural economy,” Gardner says.
Cattle ranching is big business in Idaho. Cash receipts from the beef cattle industry in Idaho averages about $1.7 billion a year.
“The cattle industry is the 2nd largest ag industry in the state – it’s about 23% of the ag receipts we get from cattle,” notes Garth Taylor, University of Idaho ag economist. “When you look at some of these small communities, this ranching business is very important to the regional economies. For example in the Magic Valley one out of every other job is related to ag business. The cattle industry has some of the highest multipliers. It’s new dollars coming into your community that create wealth.”
In the case of confirmed direct wolf predation on livestock, ranchers can apply for reimbursement from the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation.
But for most of the unforeseen economic impacts caused by wolves, ranchers have to absorb the costs. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
Lighter calves or lambs coming off the range
A Montana study in 2014 detailed the potential cost to ranchers whose livestock were attacked by wolves, leading to lighter calves coming off the range.
In general, the weight of calves and lambs at shipping time determines the annual pay for ranchers.
The Montana study found that on ranches where wolf predation had occurred, surviving calves lost an average of 22 pounds. Based on the sales of 250 light calves, at a rate of $1.15 per pound, that adds up to a loss of $6,679, or 7 times the typical reimbursement rate of $900 for a calf killed by a wolf, study authors said.
“Just the cattle sensing the presence of an apex predator nearby is going to stress those cattle,” Gardner points out. “If they’re stressed, and they’re running and the adrenaline is flowing, they’re not putting on the pounds. And that’s where a rancher makes their money.”
A study by Oregon State University documented the stress caused by wolves in livestock. By examining the brains of cattle impacted by wolves, the researchers discovered that cattle exhibited the same symptoms that American soldiers experienced in war – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“Wolf attacks cause bad memories in the herd and cause a stress response known to result in decreased pregnancy rates, lighter calves and a greater likelihood of getting sick,” said Reinaldo Cook, an animal scientist for Oregon State.
Sheep ranchers also have experienced reduced weight gains with herds affected by wolves. Sheep rancher Harry Soulen estimates that wolves killed 100 head of his sheep in the summer of 2016. Their lambs came off the range lighter than normal because of wolf predation and stress, he said. In 2018, Soulen lost 65 sheep to wolves, right before shipping time.
Lighter lambs translate to less profit, Soulen points out. “As many lambs as we’re shipping, well over 3,000 lambs, and we’re probably giving up 5-10 pounds, if you call that 15,000 pounds, that translates to $20,000 that you’ve maybe given up on weight loss. It’s pretty darn significant.”
Wilder sheep rancher Frank Shirts also is seeing an impact on his sheep herds by wolves. “Every night, they’re on you. If the sheepherder wasn’t there, they’d kill them all,” Shirts says. “Wherever we go, there’s wolves.”
Wolves follow the sheep from the Boise Foothills all the way to Idaho City and Atlanta in the Boise National Forest, Shirts says. When the sheep are shipped to market in August, they’re an average of 8 pounds below optimum weight, he says.
Doing the math, that’s 1,400 lambs per band of sheep, coming off the range 8 pounds light, resulting in a loss of 11,200 pounds. Multiply that by the market value of lambs at $1.50 per pound equals a loss of $16,800 per band of sheep, he said.
“That’s a lot of money. And if you have 10, 12, 14 bands that’s figures up pretty fast,” Shirts says. “It’s just killing us. And it’s putting the sheep man out of business.”
Issue: Reduced pregnancy rates in mother cows – “Breeding back”
The typical pregnancy rates for healthy mother cows is about 95 percent or better. If mother cows don’t get pregnant after being stressed by wolves, that cow is considered to be a financial drain for the next year. But ranchers have at least a two-year investment into that cow to the point where it can give birth to a calf. Some ranchers might hang onto that cow for another year to see if it gets pregnant, and some might just sell it for salvage.
Riggins rancher Doug Boggan said he’s seen the pregnancy rates for his mother cows drop below 90 percent because of wolves spooking his cattle.
“Last year was the worst year in terms of getting cows bred,” Boggan says. “Last year, I was 10 percent open. It’s costing an awful lot of money. Normally, when a cow doesn’t breed-back, she’s down the road. Last year, I felt I had no choice, was the first time that I ever kept those cattle, trying to get them bred-back and I think they’re going to breed-back this year.”
The salvage value of a mother cow would typically run 40 cents per pound or $400-$500, experts say.
But the bigger loss is the potential value of a mother cow raising calves for about 10 years. If the mother cow that doesn’t get pregnant is 2 years old, the rancher has lost 8 years of productivity, or 8 calves @ market value of $1,000 each equals $8,000 in lost revenue.
And then to replace the mother cow, it would cost another $1,000 to raise a heifer calf to the point where it could get pregnant and raise a calf.
Issue: Stressed cattle attacking herding dogs – what’s the impact?
Leadore rancher Chase Whittaker also has experienced this issue with his cattle.
“We run on an association in the forest behind us, and I don’t even take a dog anymore,” Whittaker says. “It’s up and down country, and you’re trying to push cattle up the hill, and the cows are chasing your dogs down the hill. That’s all they know now … it’s a fight for life when they see a canine. They want to kill that dog because they know what the wolves will do.”
“So now it takes more of us to push cows in the forest. It’s universal in the last several years, the young cows are way worse. I never used to have trouble, but now, the young cows are the worst. It takes more time, and a couple of guys to get the job done. More time spent that you don’t really have.”
To recap, the economic impact of a trained herding dog amounts to the lost value of the dog, which might be temporary, and the increased cost of labor to herd cattle. Hiring extra range rider cowboys costs $100 to $120 a day for however many days they are needed, while the herding dog, worth $5,000, sits idle.
Issue: Mother cows killed by wolves – what’s the impact?
On a cool morning in August, Cascade rancher Phil Davis was busy working cattle, sending a group of heifers to market. These are normally happy times for a rancher, a day when they get paid for a year’s worth of work.
But then a neighbor called Davis, saying a mother cow was down in a pasture nearby.
Davis drove across pasture and found the cow dead by a fence. He looked for any external signs of trauma. Was it disease or predation? The only visible sign was some blood on the ground next to the cow’s nose.
Davis suspects that a wolf or several wolves killed the mother cow. He calls Wildlife Services and requests that their trappers come look at the animal.
It was surprising to ranchers across Idaho that wolves might kill mother cows when preying on livestock. Last year, wolves killed 45 mother cows, including two on the Davis Ranch.
“There was quite a bit of surprise when wolves took the first mother cow. … It just didn’t seem likely,” Davis points out.
It’s been even more surprising that wolves may kill calves or mother cows and leave no outward sign of trauma. Trapper Greg Jones encourages ranchers to call Wildlife Services to double-check.
“So many cowboys and buckaroos will see a dead cow, not a mark on her. You wouldn’t think an animal could kill something that big without leaving outside marks. You have to skin them out. Every dead animal, if it’s in wolf country, has to be skinned out.”
The proper protocol is to contact USDA APHIS Wildlife Services and have the professional trappers do a necropsy to determine the cause of death, officials say.
What if a mother cow killed by a wolf? What’s the cost?
Average market value of a mother cow = $1,230. Value of abandoned calf will be about 70% of the full market value, a 30% loss or about $300 per lost calf.
Plus, if the wolf kill occurs in August, that mother cow would be pregnant with next year’s calf, a value of $1,000. So a wolf kill of a mother cow amounts to a triple whammy – the loss of that mother cow, the orphaned calf with diminished value, and the death of the fetus inside the dead mother cow.
Elk hanging out on private ranchland, seeing it as a safe zone
“Wolves have changed the habits of wildlife, elk and deer herds, and they had moved out of the hills into the hay meadows, that’s become a huge issue in the state,” says Richard Savage, a Clark County rancher who sits on the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board. “We always love to see wildlife on our property, but it creates an unfortunate situation for everyone involved really because it’s vital to their livelihood to have that feed for the cattle in the winter.”
Ranchers are seeing this occur in many areas. The economic cost depends on the size of the elk herd, how much forage they eat, and how long they stay in the pasture, eating valuable feed that’s typically needed in the fall for livestock.
Ranchers/landowners can apply to recoup costs from the loss of pasture feed through Idaho Fish and Game. They must notify Fish and Game within 72 hours of a crop-depredation issue, allow sport hunting on their property, and other items on a checklist.
Full-grown elk eats 21 pounds of feed per day. The cost to the rancher is $8 per hay bale or loss of pasture feed – how many pounds of feed consumed multiplied by how many days?
The cost of losing livestock on public range
Ranchers who run livestock on public lands expect that they’re going to lose some animals to predators. Pre-wolf, they lost about 1-2 percent of their herd to predator issues. Post-wolf, that number has jumped to 4-5 percent of the herd, depending on location and wolf predation.
Indian Valley rancher Steve Sutton runs cattle on the west side of the Payette National Forest in the summer. He’s been sustaining losses in the 5 percent range for several years in a row during a time when wolves have been killing large numbers of livestock in the local area.
“We rarely have a confirmed or a probable up here. We simply don’t find them,” Sutton says.
“The bears find those carcasses within a day or two and just clean them up. If we do find the hide and the bones, there’s not enough there for Wildlife Services to determine the cause of death.”
A study by Bjorge and Gunson in Canada found that for every confirmed wolf kill found on public range, there could be another 6 wolf kills that are never found.
Sustaining losses in the 4-5 percent range is too high for a business where profit margins are measured in the 2 percent range, he says.
“Way too much. But that’s not our big cost. We have a huge cost in cows that come in open, don’t conceive, weight loss on our livestock, and they don’t handle well in the forest, we can’t manage our grazing with wolves in the country,” he says.
Sutton could be representative of ranchers who run cattle on public lands where chronic wolf predation is an issue.
“If you are in a place where you’re losing 4-5 percent, all of a sudden that has huge economic impacts on that ranch,” adds Leadore rancher Merrill Beyeler. “We’re going to have to take a really hard look at how we manage predation and how we ensure the economic viability of ranches and how we’re going to make that work.”
What’s the cost? Let’s do the math. For a herd of 100 cattle, 5% loss equals 5 calves with a marketable value of about $1,000 per calf of $5,000 total.
Worst case scenario, ranchers worry that the cumulative impact of the unforeseen issues could force a number of family-owned ranchers out of business in Idaho. That would potentially lead to the conversion of those ranches to subdivisions or small ranchettes, loss of open space and crucial fish and wildlife habitat. It also could lead to out-of-state people buying up those ranches and closing off public access.
Idaho already is seeing new conflicts with out-of-state interests buying up large tracts of private land and posted it No Trespassing.
“They want a private enclave and they don’t want to share it with the public at all,” says Carey rancher John Peavey. “Those of us who have been here a long time accept the fact that people like to hunt, go through our land, and hunt on federal lands. If we go under, the next buyer is not going to want to share that.”
“You could have parking lots and Wal-Marts and all kinds of things out there that people aren’t going to appreciate.”
Maintaining the health of Idaho’s rural communities and landscapes are something that urban people value and enjoy on their way to playing in the mountains, notes Merrill Beyeler, a Leadore rancher and board member of the Lemhi Regional Land Trust.
“I do not believe that we can maintain the health of our urban populations in the absence of our rural communities,” Beyeler says. “The land mass that they occupy is some of the most critical habitat for wildlife, fish, and our avian populations. When we look at what’s driving Idaho’s economy, new businesses, new talent, it’s being able to access our great outdoors.
“All of those urban areas are close to our great outdoors, in just minutes, you can be outdoors and enjoy the diversity that exists. Much of that diversity is dependent on our private lands the health of our rural communities.
“When you want to be outside, open space and the opportunity to see wildlife, clean water, that’s all part of what makes the experience. Whether you’re out rafting, hunting, fishing or hiking and looking for those places of solitude. Seeing a rancher moving a group of cattle across the landscape, that’s something iconic that connects us to the present and back to the past.”
Next: Part 5 – Wolf Management in Idaho 2012-present