Time consuming wolf tracking falls to ranchers as collars fail (2022)

The North Park Stockgrowers Association and Western Landowners Alliance hosted a meeting in Walden, Colo., on June 20 for northern Colorado ranchers focused on reducing conflict between working lands and wildlife as naturally migrating wolves are bearing down on the state ahead of an anticipated 200 additional wolves as a result of Proposition 114. The group heard from Cat Urbigkit, a Wyoming producer with years of experience ranching alongside wolves, and agency wildlife managers responsible for wolves in Colorado.

At the event, Western Landowners Alliance distributed “Supporting working lands and wildlife with the 4 C’s: Policy lessons from the Conflict Reduction Consortium.” The memo, produced by the Conflict Reduction Consortium (CRC), a network of ranchers, conservation organizations, state and federal wildlife management agencies and research scientists convened by the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA), calls on policy makers to take action to support thriving rural communities and their working lands and wildlife populations in the American West.

Part of supporting both working lands and wildlife has been complicated recently with all of the radio collars on the wolves breeding in the Walden area failing, leaving the wolves unable to be tracked. This was the situation Urbigkit found herself in on her ranch in Sublette County, Wyoming, a number of years ago. The solution, though effective, relies heavily on the ability to utilize lethal means of control and a tremendous time commitment on the part of the producer.

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Depredations were occurring on Urbigkit’s ranch and though one wolf track had been identified, they were unable to capture images of wolves on a series of trail cameras. The local wildlife services trapper, though, had mountain curr dogs and he was able to utilize the dogs to identify brush where the wolves had been. Those areas were marked and when they placed trail cameras at those locations, they were able to capture images and determine the areas the wolves mark. Even now, Urbigkit knows where the wolves, bob cats, and coyotes mark — scent stations or hot spots, as she calls them — and she takes her livestock guardian dogs to those areas to scent mark. She also watches for tracks across roads or hair in a barbed wire fence. She’ll also use plaster to make impressions of tracks to determine how many wolves are present and what they are. This is done daily, year round.

Lures, a hole with commercial wolf urine or beaver scent for wolves to dig down to or a pig hide for them to roll on, she said, will hold wolves in front of a game camera longer, without rewarding them. They’ve also used this method alongside leg hold traps in conjunction with local wildlife officials to collar wolves. Having the ability to trap and collar wolves with wildlife agencies on the ranch is helpful as they are able to close the gates and control access to the public.

“Even though we put out signs that say we’re doing active animal damage control with traps, do not enter, we will still have people who will shoot the locks off our gates and drive over our traps, even in the remote part of western Wyoming where I am,” she said. “Because we know those wolves will come back to those scent stations or hot spots, that’s a great place for trapping should the agency need to do that.”

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There are five camera traps on the ranch, all with Bushnell E3 cameras, that are affordable. The more expensive cameras that transmit images to a phone are certainly available, she said, but without cell service, it’s unnecessary. Each camera on the ranch has two memory cards marked for that specific camera and each camera is set to take a burst of three still images. As she’s doing other chores, she’ll take one card to review and replace it with an empty card. Cameras are located at hip height on fence posts near the areas identified as scent stations. She also recommends using the date and time stamp on the cameras and carrying extra batteries. She reviews images nightly and documents the images as well as photographing tracks. She uses a calendar to document and that allows her to see trends and anticipate wolf activity.

“The camera images will tell you the minimum number of wolves that you have,” she said.

TIME-CONSUMING TASK

Once Urbigkit explained this to the crowd of producers, one asked her if this is all she accomplishes daily, noting the incredible number of hours she spends each day.

“No, but there is no agency that is responsible for taking care of wolf problems in my area or for providing compensation,” she said. “It’s on us. We are in a chronic depredation area. Wolves were there 100 years ago and I’m confident they’ll be there 100 years from now.”

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She explained that she is documenting the tracking information to provide to the wildlife services trapper so that if they need to be collared or controlled, they have the information at the ready. She also has the ability to, for example, call the U.S. Game and Fish department if she documents photos of a wolf wearing a radio collar, allowing Urbigkit and the department to determine the wolf’s origin location.

When management of wolves was turned over to the state of Wyoming in 2017, different areas were created as part of the wolf management plan. In the northwest corner of the state, there is a portion of the state that is national park and closed to hunting, a Trophy Game Management Area, a Seasonal Management Area, an area under tribal management and the remainder of the state is in the Predatory Animal Management Area. Wyoming Game and Fish does not manage wolves outside the Trophy Game Management Area.

The local county predator board funds the purchase of the collars used on the wolves collared on the ranch with wildlife services doing the tranquilizing. At $800 each, they don’t send data to satellites but can be contacted during a fly over. It’s information, but it’s not real time, making her documentation all the more valuable. Producers up and down the valley around their ranch have since adopted the tracking systems and the neighbors are able to text one another with information, keeping the cattle-producing community connected.

The benefits of the meticulous tracking system extend beyond wolves, she said. Several months ago, mountain lions killed three ewes. She also documented the presence of a bred female mountain lion in the area so her lambs that typically would move to the area after lambing, will go elsewhere.

There is an experimental 10J designation that could allow livestock producers to use lethal means of control. The caveat, she said, is the need for evidence.

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“That means blood,” she said. “That’s not wolf tracks on the ground. You had to have them draw blood before you could kill one, and very few ranchers were willing to take on that responsibility because if you made the wrong call, you could lose your grazing permit. It’s a lot easier to talk about killing a wolf, than actually killing a wolf, especially once they have a reason to fear man.”

She said when fully protected wolves began coming out of Yellowstone National Park, they had wolves in their yard. With no reason to fear people, they literally walked down the middle of the county road.

Once lethal control was authorized, she said the story changed, with the wolves learning a fear of lethal means and with officials having the ability to remove problem wolves.

ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL

One of the overreaching themes of the meeting was that one size fits all solutions are not solutions. An attendee asked for the proper ratio of guardian dogs to cows, a number that Urbigkit said depends entirely on the operation and the dogs and the rancher and the wolves. One of the major challenges is introducing dogs to the operation and keeping them safe until they’re large enough and experienced enough to be effective. Urbigkit said she uses spike collars on her dogs for additional protection against wolf attacks.

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Alex Few, WLA’s Working Wild Challenge coordinator, said in order for producers to protect their livestock from wolves, they also need flexibility in their grazing management, which ranchers have in different degrees depending on the percentage of privately owned and leased public land. Additionally, she said implementing non-lethal conflict prevention tools is an adaptive process that requires ranchers know how the wolves are utilizing the landscape and the flexibility to manage around that use. The consensus among the producers, she said, and the sentiment WLA hears from producers across the West is the importance of the availability of lethal means of control.

“It takes a lot of time to be able to protect your livestock, remain economically viable, and share the landscape with wolves,” she said.

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