GOODING, Idaho — For years, people could choose a side when it came to wolves. Either you were for their re-introduction or against it. That’s defined the battle lines in the West since 1995 when they were first returned to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park.
A group in Idaho says there are now other options - but they need everyone at the table and willing to compromise for a better solution.
Rancher John Faulkner has been in the sheep industry all his life. For generations, herding sheep from the Snake River Plains into the rugged back country has been part of his family heritage.
Faulkner and other ranchers in Idaho are used to roughing it. For months every summer they roam the unforgiving Boise National Forest. Sheep graze on steep mountain sides and in the dense trees for grass that you can’t find anywhere else. Faulkner says it’s a tough job because they are constantly on the move.
“We never sleep twice in the same spot…the sheep don’t,” he says with a gravelly drawl.
Faulkner says wolves are threatening his business. But make no mistake. He doesn’t count himself among those ranchers who think the only good wolf is a dead wolf.
“I think I’m as good an environmentalist as any of them.” says Faulkner. “I’m out here in the environment all my life. It’s my livelihood. If we don’t take care of the environment, we’re in trouble.”
Faulkner was the only rancher to sit on the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Team that developed the 1987 Federal Recovery Plan for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. He says a lot has changed since then. But as long as wolves don’t bother him, he won’t bother them.
Suzanne Stone with Defenders of Wildlife hopes more ranchers will consider wolves as part of that environment they’re taking care of. She doesn’t think the conflict will end until the conversation moves on. Instead of continuing to question the decision to reintroduce wolves, she says, people should be talking about how they can coexist with the predators.
“If you are talking to each other and you are trying to put that energy into resolving the conflicts. Sometimes the answers are really easy and pretty effective,” Stone says.
Now that wolves are here and protected by law, Defenders of Wildlife is trying to show ranchers how to coexist with the predators. The wolf-advocacy group recently held a workshop in central Idaho. It drew a half-dozen ranchers who came to learn more about non-lethal methods to deter wolves. Defenders of Wildlife was invited there by Blaine County.
Commissioner Larry Schoen says his central Idaho county is actively trying to support both ranchers and wolf advocates by leading the non-lethal control effort.
“But non-lethal predator control can be an economical and effective source of reducing livestock losses,” Schoen says. “That’s really what this project is saying.”
In Oregon, ranchers have an incentive to use non-lethal methods to stop wolf predation. Under a new law, compensation for livestock losses will only be made to ranchers who use these techniques to keep wolves away from their calves and sheep. That’s not the case in Idaho or Washington.
Carter Neimeyer is the former wolf recovery manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the debate about wolf re-introduction is over. It’s time, he says, to move on … One of the terms is called co-existence. Sometimes that is an inflammatory term you know because there are people who say we can’t co-exist. The fact is, we are going to have to because wolves are here and they are going to be here for a long, long time to come.”
While it’s easy to claim it’s time to move on, getting ranchers and wolf advocates together at the same table isn’t a simple matter. That’s why involvement by community leaders like Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen is vital to success.
“You have a much higher likelihood of success when you collaborate with other people and you have a much higher likelihood of satisfaction in the outcome when you can be heard and when you are willing to listen to other people,” he says.
It’s also important to have solutions. Defenders of Wildlife will help ranchers who need help, the group is always investigating new ways to keep wolves away from livestock. That’s where central Idaho’s Carol Williamson is helping the effort. She has developed a new method of fladry, a way of hanging cloth as a barrier to keep wolves away. She added an electrical component and renamed it. “Turbo fladry came about because they had documentation and footage of wolves coming into an area and the regular fladry had been there for quite some time and the wolves had paced back and forth and one day one of them decided to try and bite the line to see whether or not it was going to hurt them.”
Williamson thinks curious wolves are less likely to overcome fear if they know pain is associated with these fences. “If they bit at the fencing, it would give them a stimuli to to make them shy away from it.”
Williamson even designed a portable fence so ranchers can pick up the solar powered fence and move it with the herds. But rancher John Faulkner doubts this is a serious solution. He says due to the remote area, steep mountains and plentiful trees where his sheep roam. When non-lethal methods fail to prevent wolves from preying on livestock, he says, the only remaining solution is to kill those predators. “You can maybe scare them off now and then” but Faulkner says “you are better off if you have a bad one to get rid of it.”
For now, there is no quick resolution. Ranchers are paying the cost for lost sheep and cattle. Wolf advocates say wolves need to be allowed to live in the Northwest. But at least they are talking. Now the question is, will they find common ground?