We're collaborating with ranchers, agencies, and fellow conservationists on two range rider projects in 2012 . One is in the upper Big Hole Valley, and the other is in the Blackfoot Valley. Watch this page or follow our Facebook page for updates as the season unfolds!
Using Range Riders for Livestock and Wolf Monitoring
Wolves are clearly back in Montana. The success of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho coupled with natural recolonization from Canada has resulted in a biological success story. What is less clear is how to grapple with a carnivore that is highly mobile, has high reproductive rates, eats all year long, and can have economic impacts to livestock producers. However, People and Carnivores, the Blackfoot Challenge, and MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Blackfoot area ranchers, landowners, have been working since 2008 on Livestock and Wolf Monitoring or “Range Riders” as another preventative tool used to reduce the risk of livestock losses and the need to destroy wolves.
For those in the livestock industry, the notion of a Range Rider is probably nothing new. Monitoring, moving, and tending livestock using herders or riders is part of doing business that dates back to early history, where pastoralists raised their livestock in accordance to seasonal production of grasses; typically using higher pastures during summer and lower elevation valleys in winter. This practice still continues and a Range Rider is simply an old tool that can be used by a modern ranch operation to more intensively monitor, manage, and protect livestock in a predator rich environment.
The practice of increased human vigilance using a Range Rider on a herd of cow-calf pairs or yearling cattle is useful on several levels. First, simply having a person regularly checking livestock can act as an effective deterrent to wolves. This may be more pronounced particularly if den sites are initially established in proximity to cattle and people are consistently in the area. In these situations, the physical presence of a person may cause wolves to abandon den sites and reestablish them in areas with fewer disturbances. Range Riders can also be used to haze and harass wolves that may show interest in livestock but are not actively attempting to kill livestock. Ideally, a Range Rider can reduce the frequency of encounters between wolves and livestock thus decreasing the likelihood of wolves finding and killing cattle or sheep.
In the Blackfoot Valley where Range Riders have been working since 2008, roughly 12-14 livestock herds across 50,000-60,000 acres monitored on a weekly basis from May 1 to October 31, the period when livestock are typically “turned out” from home ranches and are at greater risk to depredation by wolves. Approximately 800-1,200 cow-calf pairs are monitored per week and 10-12 livestock producers are actively engaged in the effort since their herds overlap with wolf pack territories.
We have found that range riders can play an important role in carcass detection. For example, we had a situation where our range rider discovered a fresh calf that had likely been killed by a predator. After reporting the event to the livestock producer, FWP and Wildlife Services were called in and the authorities determined that the calf was killed by a black bear, not a grizzly bear or wolf, despite ample sign from both of these species in the area. The early detection of the carcass before it was scavenged helped to alleviate confusion over what predator species killed the livestock and provided the management authorities with useful information for their management decision making.
Additionally, early detection by a range rider of livestock carcasses that are verified as either grizzly bear or wolf kills can ensure that livestock producers are compensated through Defenders of Wildlife (for grizzlies) or Montana’s new Livestock Loss Board (for wolves). Early detection is also important if a range rider finds cattle injured by wolves that subsequently die, since the State of Montana will also pay claims in these cases.
However, range riding is proactive by nature, and another component to a successful program is attention to animal husbandry and monitoring of livestock heath and behavior during the field season.
A rider can monitor herd health and can identify older livestock that may be vulnerable to wolves due to a lame leg or foot rot. Riders can also let producers know if they find any livestock that are limping, have bite marks or suspicious abrasions on their front and lower back legs that would be indicative of wolves. Our riders take careful note of how well distributed livestock are, hopefully finding them well dispersed and unstressed. We monitor whether livestock are alert, feeding, ruminating, or resting—behavioral clues that help determine if wolves may be present. Range riding can also improve forage use by more evenly distributing cattle across pastures reducing range degradation. Riders often fix fences as needed, identify weed outbreaks, and can keep ranchers updated on range improvements. On remote grazing leases, before summer turnout, riders can conduct rapid presence/absence surveys to determine if wolves are active, establishing dens, or rendezvous sites—all conditions that would put cattle at higher risk.
In addition to livestock monitoring and management, range riders seek to learn about wolf pack activity, distribution, and approximate numbers. Since many wolf packs throughout Montana are not radio collared, our riders must use tried and true techniques such as tracking, howling surveys, and scat analysis to determine whether wolves are present in a given area. In some cases where FWP incorporates research into a project, range riders, that are FWP trained volunteers, are authorized to use radio telemetry on collared wolves to monitors pack activity. These methods help a rider develop an understanding of wolf pack behavior, habitat use, typical movement patterns, den site locations, rendezvous sites, and can help livestock producers evaluate the vulnerability of their livestock.
Information on livestock and wolf activity is critically important to livestock producers and our riders are diligent in communicating his findings regularly to ranchers, managers, landowners, and all partners involved in our efforts. Our riders regularly contact ranchers to update them on wolf activity and we produce a weekly wolf activity report distributed over the internet.
Ideally, using range riders can result in fewer confirmed injured and dead livestock and helps people coexist with wolves.
Preliminary Results of Range Rider Effort in the Blackfoot
Wolf populations have increased exponentially in the Blackfoot Valley from 2007 to 2010 with roughly 54-60 individuals across 8-10 packs in the 1.5 million acre watershed.
Thanks to our Livestock and Wolf Monitoring program, we have enlisted more than 100 local volunteers to survey wolf populations and activity and have 4 seasonal range riders monitoring thousands of cattle, multiple wolf packs, and who work with more than 30 ranchers to keep livestock losses low from wolves.
In 2010 we had a total of 4 livestock depredations by wolves and 8 wolves were killed by wildlife authorities due to conflicts. In 2011, we have had only two confirmed livestock losses to wolves. All told we have lost a total of 16 livestock to wolves since 2007 and 14 wolves were removed for conflicts.
For comparison, in other Montana valleys where little effort has been made to reduce conflicts, more than 60 wolves were removed in just two years and dozens of livestock were lost—poor outcomes for wildlife and people.