Predators—Friend or Foe?

by Tony Malmberg, Montana Rancher

The tendency of our ranching culture has been to resist, fight and kill predators. In the United States there are even government “predator boards” that manage the hunting of predators. The recent reintroduction and protection of wolves and grizzly bears has brought a new twist to predator management for ranchers. Likewise, there is increased pressure from society and many special interest groups who desire predator protection.

These interests, at one level or another, are part of our future resource base. As a result, we must ask, “How must we be perceived, far into the future concerning our predator management actions?” To achieve sustainability, i.e. profitable domestic livestock production, functional ecosystem processes, and our future resource base, we must revisit our relationship with predators.

Living with Predators

The Sun Ranch, near Ennis, Montana, takes a holistic, big-picture view and wants to minimize the loss of life, as viewed from the dynamics between wolf and cattle populations. From this perspective, a wolf kill is viewed as a problem and not a zero tolerance catastrophe.

When Sun Ranch started managing to be in harmony with the wolves, some friends became enemies and some enemies became friends. When this happens it is imperative to have a clear understanding of the future resource base in your holistic goal. James Stuart, manager of Sun Ranch, says that straddling the fence can be difficult. Sun Ranch has partners and friends in both the ranching and environmental communities. They simply view wolves as part of the landscape they manage.

Sun Ranch livestock operations are mostly confined to private lands, which gives them more flexibility than ranchers operating on federal lands. Sun Ranch makes extra efforts to use that added flexibility for advancing the future of wolf/livestock interactions. They started Sun Ranch Institute toward this endeavor and have committed to more employees than “ranch only” operations would demand.

James thinks a root cause of wolves killing domestic livestock lies in habituation, which reduces the effectiveness of human presence as a tool—reintroduced wolves have not had sufficient negative feedback from humans or domestic livestock, and they do not have a fear of humans.

Addressing the root cause and creating fear could be a federal offense if actions are too heavy handed. At this point the Sun Ranch, the Sun Ranch Institute, and other community members are working to understand wolf social structure, their habits, and their seasonal cycles. The group develops a proactive grazing plan to avoid exacerbating a livestock-wolf interface. Their grazing plan notes the location of the wolf dens, rendezvous sites, and elk movement. For example, when wolves move into an area, on a rendezvous site or den, the tendency is for cattle in the area to leave, if given a choice. Planning helps the Sun Ranch avoid unnecessary interface between their livestock and wolves.

Understanding the different roles of the animals in the pack helps too. Like cattle, a wolf pack has babysitters. Wolves have scouters, an alpha male and an alpha female. Adult pack behavior is a big force and needs to be understood if one is to manage the situation.

When the livestock become hunted, the ranch initiates disturbance practices to deter the wolves. Disturbing begins with less harmful actions, like hazing and non-lethal ammunition creating a loud sound called cracker to incite fear. Fladry consists of an 18-inch (450-mm) high polywire fence, with flags attached to the wire every 12 inches (300mm) and hanging just above the ground. Fladry lines have been used for this purpose for several centuries. They are effective, but only temporarily, as the novelty may soon wear off.

Extended effectiveness can be gained with “turbo-fladry,” which simply adds an electric charge to the flapping straps and reduces habituation. Turbofladry can be used effectively for greater lengths of time. Putting up the fladry lines has been good for Sun Ranch’s community efforts, as people volunteer to help.

Livestock & Wolves

To inform land and livestock managers on ways to avoid killing wolves, Defenders of Wildlife has produced a great resource available to anyone titled, Livestock & Wolves: A Guide to Nonlethal Tools and Methods to Reduce Conflicts. You can find this publication by clicking here.

Defenders of Wildlife is a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native wild animals and plants in their natural communities. The guide covers the tools, strategies and tactics practiced by Sun Ranch and more.

The introduction to the guide stresses the importance of addressing the root cause of the problem. First, it asks us to think about the class and species of livestock, the season, the grazing area, and our level of human interaction. The guide addresses non-lethal tools used by Sun Ranch, including fladry, range riders, increased human presence, crackers, rubber bullets, changing grazing sites, changing class and breed of livestock. Different tools work at different times and require constant plan-monitor-control-replan.

The guide advocates removing sick animals and keeping dead animals cleaned up and in a carcass pit. The pit should be at least eight feet deep (2.7m), with straight walls and a fence to keep scavengers out. Dead carcasses are attractants to scavengers and predators.

Finally, if the challenges are just too much, the guide explains programs that can help purchase or exchange your government permits/allotments.

The guide has mention of herding and developing predator-wise livestock. There is growing evidence that cattle running in rough, wild-country are more equipped to deal with predators.


This is an abridged version of Predators—Friend or Foe? Read the full article.

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