'It's Tough Sleeping at Night': Ranchers Seek to Protect Their Herds as the Wolves Move in

As wolves arrive in California for the first time since the 1920s, ranchers are turning to non-lethal methods to deter the gray wolves, once seen as livestock-killing vermin.


Jake Bullinger, Pacific Standard Magazine (CA) 

Jan 9, 2019


This story was produced in collaboration with the Guardian.


Breanna Owens had no idea where to turn for help when the wolves arrived. The northern California-based rancher used to take her cattle to graze each summer in Oregon, but in 2014, OR-7, a solitary wolf dubbed Journey, found a mate and produced a litter of pups in the vicinity of Owens' herd. The Rogue Pack was the first in the area in generations.


"All of a sudden it's: Oh, he set up camp. And there's a female. And there's pups—oh my gosh!" she recalls now.


Four years later, Owens again finds herself in wolf country. Another pack has settled in the northern California mountains where she and other ranchers graze sheep and cattle. It's news that has environmentalists celebrating—wolves were extirpated from the state in the 1920s—and ranchers wringing their hands amid a handful of livestock killings.


But Owens is taking a remarkably contrarian tack: Rather than calling for the removal of wolves, she's working to ensure safe co-existence with the canines.


Gray wolves were long seen as livestock-killing vermin and were driven nearly to extinction by the early 1900s. They were listed as endangered in 1978, and in 1995 a reintroduction effort began in Yellowstone. Packs have since established themselves throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and in Washington and Oregon.


When the Rogue Pack arrived, Owens had plenty of questions: Did she need to be concerned? What actions could she take? When would the wolves start exhibiting hunting behavior?


Owens turned to an unlikely ally: Karin Vardaman, then a director with the California Wolf Center, a not-for-profit dedicated to rebuilding the state's long-lost wolf population. Vardaman knew conflicts over wolves were imminent, and that a working relationship with ranchers would both minimize cattle predation and the chance of wolves being killed in retaliation. Accordingly, she began meeting with livestock producers across the state's northern reaches.


"People in urban areas get excited," says Vardaman, now with the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife. "But they're not impacted when wolves return."


Vardaman formed the Working Circle Proactive Stewardship, and Owens eventually signed on as its director. It suggests a suite of non-lethal wolf deterrents, including fladry (small red flags) and flashing lights, which can startle predators, and guard dogs. It teaches tactics like bunching cattle together and rotating them around grazing areas, which not only keeps wolves at bay, it also better allows grass to regenerate. And it trains and funds range stewards, who spend time in the field with cattle, observing how best to manage the herd and protect it from predators.


The question could not be more pressing: The new California pack, the Lassen Pack, now consists of at least two adults, two yearlings, and five pups, and has killed at least four calves since July.


Todd Swickard suffered one such depredation. In September, a ranch hand of his found a partially consumed calf, which state biologists confirmed was killed by a wolf. Swickard was in the process of shipping his cattle out of their summer grazing terrain, so there wasn't much risk of further losses. But the specter of the wolves' ongoing presence bothers him.


"They're mostly nocturnal hunters, so it's tough sleeping at night," Swickard says. "You wonder if they're in the middle of your livestock, and we're charged with the husbandry and care of those animals."


Area livestock producers feel their hands are tied if wolf numbers continue growing. Federal and state laws prohibit lethal recourse against wolves. Plus California lacks the robust deer and elk populations such as those in Oregon and Idaho, so ranchers think their herds will be the top option on the wolves' menu. "The wolves have to eat," rancher Daren Hagata says. "If they don't have the wildlife populations ... they're going to come after your livestock."


"Once [wolves] get in and start harassing the cows, especially on a regular basis, weight gains go away, conception rates go down," says rancher Jack Hanson. "That'd be my biggest worry, even more than the mortality issue."


With lethal action off the table—at least legally—ranchers are slowly coming to the realization they must try other methods...