Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Wolves




We live in an area that is heavily populated with wolves, despite their being a bounty in our County on them. With the bounty, we have mostly had transient (dispersers) wolves passing through the area.  We have noticed that since the wolf bounty was implemented, the deer and elk populations have become more stationary in our area, causing problems for many of the grain farmers, and there has been an increase in hay predation, with the elk feeding, jumping on, and urinating on hay bales meant for cattle.  We have also heard of a dramatic increase in the number of cougar sightings in our area, possibly due to the abundance of prey. The wolf bounty or as it is euphemistically called “wolf hunting incentive” was implemented in our area to help cattle ranchers to reduce wolf predation on cattle.  Despite the ongoing bounty (about 8 years now, and well over 500 dead wolves), cattle ranchers still lose livestock to the wolves, it is like this revolving door, you shoot some and the next wave moves in. Wolf problems are not solved with the bounty, if livestock management does not change, the cycle continues. 


At times I feel very conflicted because the two passions in my life are the ranch and wildlife, and for many this seems almost counterintuitive. It appears that if one supports ranching, that you are expected to be anti-wolf. To me, it is unimaginable not to have the full array of wildlife here, including all the predators. I do understand that wolves do and can wreck havoc among livestock keepers, but I also see many ranchers not taking any measures at all to ensure that their livestock remain safe. In our operation we strive to co-exist, we do no lethal control of predators on our ranch (we run cattle and sheep), and we focus our attention on the livestock, something we can control and manage. We cannot control bears, cougars, wolves, and coyotes but we can control where, when, and how our livestock are managed.

This past spring our good intentions were put to the test, when a pack of wolves decided to move in and den on our ranch.  Smack bang in the middle, about 300m from our sheep, and sharing a fence-line with the cows. The wolf den was located centrally on our ranch and about half a mile from our barn and home.


This photograph shows the proximity that these wolf pups were to our barn and corrals.

 I had remarked to my husband that the coyotes were very quiet, and for us, when the coyotes are quiet, that normally signals that wolves are in the area. Nothing unusual for us, as wolves come and go, we see scat, we hear them, we see tracks and we catch an occasional glance of them.  Some forestry land surrounds our ranch, and we are close to a provincial park. We are accustomed to seeing predators and other wildlife. What we did not realize at that time, that the wolves were not transients, but had decided to move in, live, den, and raise pups on the ranch.


On a nice sunny day in the early part of July, my husband set out to go and make the first cut of hay. As he started to cut the grass, he could see some animals scattering and running into the bush. At a distance, it looked like coyotes. The following day, the same scenario but this time he caught a better glimpse of them and realized that these were not coyote pups but wolf pups, as they were much larger and moved differently. As we continued to hay in the area, the pups would come out of the bush, play in the open field, and bed down together. Occasionally, we would see an adult, who would be the first to bolt for the bush.  We soon realized that the wolves had denned on our land, and the field we were haying was being used as a rendezvous site by the wolves and pups. In total, there were 7 pups. 




 We were feeling a little concerned about this situation as these were not “regular transients”, with the expectation that they would move on. This pack was established and were not going to move anywhere due to the young age of these wolf pups. It was highly concerning due to the proximity the wolves had to our livestock and our barn. Our grazing season was in full swing, sheep and lambs out grazing, cows and calves spread over 3 different pastures. We understood that raising 7 wolf pups would be hard on the female, and the risk to the livestock would be extremely high. Part of the concern was simply not knowing what to expect or being able to predict what would be the best way for us to manage this situation.




We decided to inform ourselves on wolf behaviour, den sites, rendezvous sites, and discussed this with a few wolf experts. After these discussions, we certainly felt some panic, as they too stressed that this situation was very concerning. At times the panic felt a little overwhelming, but by making a concrete plan and knowing what we were going to do certainly helped. We planned what we would do with the livestock, and how we were going to graze them under these circumstances. We concluded that these pups were probably around 10-12 weeks old before we saw them, which meant this pack must have been here at least 3 months already (denning and whelping). In this time, these wolves had not harassed the livestock or given us any indication that they were problematic. So, with this added knowledge, a concrete plan and the realization that the wolves had up to this point not been problematic, we decided to take things one day at a time.

 That they were not being problematic at that point, did of course, not mean that they would not become problematic over time. With higher food needs for the growing pups, the wolves could easily switch from wild game to domestic livestock. We knew we had to encourage these wolves to move off the ranch and back into the bush before fall came around, as one normally see’s an increase in depredation of livestock in fall.

The adult members of this pack were very human shy and we could only catch a glimpse of them occasionally. We never caught any adults on the game cameras and from tracks it appeared that there were only two adults with the pups. It appeared to be the mother of the pups and possibly another sub adult. The pups however, were not very shy and would often run to the edge of the bush while we were working and then slowly come out and watch us. They would lay in the field and only move away if they felt really threatened. We certainly did not want them to habituate to our presence and felt that it would be best to ensure they remind fearful and wary around people. 

Our plan to manage the livestock included night corralling the sheep and subdivide the grazing area with electric sheep nets to ensure the sheep were tighter contained, this would make it easier for the dogs to patrol. We decided to forego grazing in the wooded pastures and kept the sheep grazing open fields. We did multiple checks daily and, in the evening, brought the sheep closer to the barnyard area. We decided to add in more of our LGD to the main sheep flock to ensure we had more dog power in that area, removed any sick or weaker animals to the barn and kept the rams close to the barn, as one of the wolf experts suggested that wolves were more attracted to rams.


We certainly did consider letting the livestock guardian dogs into the area where the wolves were denning, however after some careful consideration we decided it would be better to increase the number of dogs in with the livestock. With pups, the wolves would be highly defensive and territorial of this area. Letting the LGD into that area would likely result in confrontations, which could mean seriously injured or even dead dogs. Having several dogs injured or lost would then mean that the livestock would be less protected and therefore more open to predation.  


With the cows, we did not have too many options for grazing other pastures, so we decided to have the cows with the oldest, biggest, and fittest calves in one group, grazing the pasture closest to were they wolves were, and closer for us to monitor them. The cows with the youngest calves were moved to a pasture about 15 miles away, where the people were living close by. This pasture, is surrounded by grain farms and we felt the risk to these newborns would be less in that area. The rest of the cows went to a pasture about 10 miles away. 

Besides keeping the livestock safe, we also wanted to encourage these wolves to move off our ranch and go back into the bush. We also understood that with pups this age, the female was not likely to move them very soon and that we might have to wait a few more weeks before they would be mobile enough to move. We certainly did not want to have them habituate to us or to people, so we decided we would put pressure on them when we saw them.  If the pups did not run off as soon as they saw people, we would fire bear bangers in their direction.

 

We decided to increase the amount of “human presence” in that area, hoping that this activity would make the female wolf uncomfortable and that she would lead these pups away. We would go quading, horse riding, working the land and we even decided to take our backhoe out and clear a fence line in that area, this fence line was in the planning, but we decided to prioritize it now.  This increase in human presence and a few well-timed bear bangers, certainly had an effect as we noticed that within a few days of this increased activity the wolves had moved further away. After a few weeks, we saw that the pups had again moved closer to the perimeter of the ranch and they were becoming more elusive.


We started to plan that if the wolves did not move away, we would have a “range rider” camp out in the pasture to ensure a constant human presence in that area. This was ultimately not necessary, as a few weeks later we saw that the wolves had left the ranch. We placed more game cameras around the ranch to see if we could figure out where they had moved to. Ironically, they moved off our ranch and moved to where the cows and calves were pastured. As the cows are contained by 4 strand barb wire fences, we added in some hotwire between the barb wire strands. We contemplated hanging up fladry in the pasture where the cows were grazing but decided to hold off on the fladry until we either saw an escalation in wolf activity or harassment of the cattle.  We did regular checks and counts to keep track of all the animals.  In the evening, I would usually go to the cattle, feed them a bit of grain, and try and get them to bed down together. The wolves would occasionally be moving through the pasture with the cows, but they never seemed to actively bother them. We lost no calves and had no bite injuries either. 

The last time I saw the wolves was at the start of fall, there was one adult with two of the pups left.

 
In hindsight, I can certainly see how management choices we made the previous winter had probably led to these wolves moving in. Understanding these factors certainly highlighted to us the need to adjust certain aspects of our winter ranch management. We had, the winter before the wolves moved in, lost some cows in an accident. As the ground was frozen solidly, we decided to dump the carcasses in the back bush, this is a “legal” disposal method in Alberta, we felt this would be the easiest method to dispose of these dead animals.  We did know this would be an attractant for predators but felt that the carcasses were far enough away to not be a problem.  The next management mistake we made, was towards the end of winter we had moved the cattle to the calving pasture which is closer to the barn area. With the cows and sheep closer, we shut the gate to the back half section. This kept all the guardian dogs close to home, and for the rest of winter and early part of spring no dogs, or people, went to the back section. This created an ideal opportunity for the wolves, as there was a ready and easy food source, no humans, no big dogs, thick bush cover, water, and plenty of wild game. This really highlighted to us, the need to allow our guardian dogs to have access to the entire ranch,  we now leave the gates open to this area, compost all the deadstock we have, and we make regular trips to the back section.


This whole situation was very stressful, and I am thankful to the wolf experts ( Sadie Parr) and friends for their help and advice. Their willingness to discuss options and even organise help if needed, was fantastic. We collected scat from the wolf pups to learn what they were eating, and it was very educational to learn so much about wolf behaviour. It highlighted to me the importance of helping others in such situations, and the crucial role all ranch management plays in avoiding wolf/livestock conflicts. I do want to stress that there is no perfect solution and every situation is fluid. What works in one situation might not work for another, there really is no magic bullet.









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