Don’t kill wolves – just keep them away

You’re operating a farm or ranch. What do you do when wolves are killing your livestock or pet dogs? Trap them and shoot them, right? That’s what farmers and ranchers — and government agencies — have been doing for decades.

Now there are new, nonlethal alternatives. Even better, these solutions are more permanent than lethal methods. Kill a wolf, and there’s another wolf behind him, eager to attack. Keep a wolf away, and the rest of his pack will stay away too. They may even help keep other packs away.

“We don’t believe that hunting wolves on a broad scale necessarily will help mitigate livestock depredation,” says Brian Roell, wildlife biologist and wolf specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s not the wolf population that’s the reason for an increase in livestock depredation,” Roell says. “It is the pack of wolves at a much smaller scale. So, if you have a hunt and you don’t affect the wolves that are the ones causing the problem, you won’t change the depredation.”

The goals of Michigan’s wolf plan include minimizing conflicts with livestock and pets and looking after the state’s wolves in ways that are “science-based and socially responsible,” he adds.

A Michigan project

Brett Huntzinger is applying more effective, nonlethal techniques to prevent wolf depredation in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And it’s working. Prior to Huntzinger’s project, most of the farms had wolf depredation issues. In FY 2022, there were no confirmed depredations by large predators on the farms where Huntzinger worked.

Huntzinger is a federal Wildlife Service employee who earned a master’s degree doing wolf research with Professor Emeritus Rolf Peterson at Michigan Technological University. During 2022, he worked with 10 farmers who are raising approximately 900 livestock. He helped them install fencing, fladry — which is temporary fencing with flapping flags attached–lights, sound devices, and multi-strand electric fencing around carcass burial sites and in predator travel routes near livestock.

When he installs radios to use sound to keep wolves away, he tells his kids: “I’m setting up all-night cow disco parties.”

Every farm he has worked with presents unique challenges. “I tell my kids that sometimes it’s like the crime/murder investigation shows on TV, and we are the detectives, Huntzinger says. “You never know what you will find.”

Huntzinger uses trail cameras to monitor predators’ travel routes. “I often find there are more predators around than people think,” he says.  

Rolf Peterson, his former teacher and ongoing advisor, has high praise for Huntzinger. “Brett is extremely good at this, and he’s devoted to solving problems that wolves might pose,” says Peterson.  “He is the type of person who can easily relate to farmers and landowners, as he lives on a farm himself and has several horses.  He also has very extensive field experience from his MS thesis work at Michigan Tech, when he tracked wolves for hundreds of miles on skis to find out what they were killing in winter.”

According to Huntzinger, nonlethal wolf depredation prevention techniques are not only effective in the short run. They can have an unexpected long term benefit: turning predators themselves into livestock guards. “If you can teach a resident wolf pack to not attack livestock, they will defend that area against other wolves and predators,” Huntzinger says. “In a way, the resident packs act like guard animals for the farms inside their territory. The trick is to use the nonlethal methods to keep the individuals in the wolf pack from starting to attack livestock.”

In 2022 Congress increased the Wildlife Service’s funding for depredation prevention to $2.5 million, up from $1.38 million in FY2020 and 2021. Michigan’s funding doubled from $60,000 in FY2021 to $120,600 in FY2022. With this additional funding, Wildlife Services in Michigan was able to stock many types of nonlethal equipment available for loan, including 1,800 yards of electrified fladry, fencing supplies, posts and solar fence chargers. The agency can also provide 100 solar-charged flashing LED lights and other types of motion- activated flood lights and alarms, as well as three solar-powered radios with deep cell batteries for use as an audio predator deterrent.

Minn. wolf research

In nearby Minnesota, the national Wildlife Service and a research team from the University of Minnesota have been applying nonlethal wolf depredation prevention techniques with great success. They helped a rancher fence a huge, 1,500 acre cattle ranch near Voyageurs National Park, close to the Canadian border. On that ranch, three or four wolf packs have been killing calves and university research animals for at least 20 years. Since 2002, 86 wolves have been trapped and killed near the ranch.

“Each year, Wildlife Services would come in and trap and kill the wolves,” says Tom Gable, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota and project lead of the university’s Voyageurs Wolf Project.

When more funding became available for nonlethal approaches to wolf depredation, Gable approached the rancher and Wildlife Services with a proposal for a massive project: fencing the 7.5 mile perimeter of the ranch, including an apron of fencing on the ground outside the entire fence, to keep wolves from digging under it. “Wolves are good jumpers, but they’d much rather dig under. That’s why the apron of fencing on the ground outside the fence is so important,” explains John Hart, wildlife biologist and district supervisor for the US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services in Minnesota.

The rancher, Wes Johnson, had tried other nonlethal approaches: flagging, motion-activated sound-blaring devices, even donkeys to kick the wolves. He rode the perimeter of his property at dusk. But he couldn’t be on watch 24/7. “I don’t hate wolves,” he says. “I just don’t want to worry about my cows getting eaten at night.”

They all agreed to work together on the fencing project. “There was great synergy,” Gable says. “Everyone wanted the same thing: a permanent solution. It was a real collaborative effort.”

It doesn’t always work that way. “Often in conservation, it’s challenging to find a solution that everyone agrees on,” Gable points out.

So the fencing project was launched. Materials alone cost $60-70,000. Gable and Hart estimate that the whole project probably cost over $100,000, factoring in labor and other costs.

It took two years to put the fence up. The rancher contributed the heavy equipment necessary and did a lot of the work himself. The fence was completed last fall, so this spring will be its first real test. “I’m very optimistic that it will work,” Gable says.

Hart sees the fencing project as a step in the right direction. “It’s always better to prevent a problem in the first place than to try to clean up after it,” he says.

The idea of nonlethal depredation prevention has been very well received by the livestock community and the population at large, Hart goes on to say.

A much smaller fencing project around a sheep pasture in Effie, Minnesota, has already recorded spectacular success. Almost every year for two decades, wolf trappers had to be called in to trap and kill wolves that were attacking the sheep. Since the fence was installed in 2020, there hasn’t been a single wolf attack on a sheep. And no wolves have had to be trapped and killed.

Gable realizes that there will always be a few who just want to kill wolves, but most farmers and ranchers are enthusiastic about a nonlethal approach like fencing. After a news story was published as the project was getting started, Johnson was inundated with calls from other ranchers: “How do I get my fence? Where do I sign up for mine?” they asked.

“If we go two or three years without a single calf killed, farmers and ranchers will be flocking to this solution,” Gable predicts.

In Michigan, Huntzinger agrees. “Most of farmers I talk to are open to using some sort of nonlethal methods. When they see that it can work, I’m sure they’ll want flashing lights or fencing or a radio making sounds to help prevent depredation when they cannot be out watching over their livestock.”


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