Warding Off Wolves

Collaboration between ranchers and conservation group demonstrates non-lethal conflict reduction measures are an effective tool in curbing livestock predation

By Tristan Scott
John Hanson, pictured on Oct. 18, 2018 near a new fence he is installing to protect his herd during calving season. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

MARION — Surveying his pasture from the cab of his Toyota pickup truck, his Australian Shepherd Griz by his side, John Hanson bears the appearance of a quintessential Montana rancher, which he is, having grazed cattle on this land north of Marion for decades.

Since the early 1940s, his family has raised grazing livestock on this postage stamp of pale prairie grass, and the Hansons now own nearly 300 acres, leasing an additional 15,000 acres of grazing rights from Weyerhaeuser.

Between his brass belt buckle, plaid shirt and broke-in boots, Hanson is as cowboy as it gets. He’s renowned for his expertise restoring antique aircraft, and he and his wife, Kate, are the largest breeders of Clydesdale draft horses in the state. There are currently 19 of the gentle giants loping around a pasture, playfully gumming a visitor’s flannel shirt, and Hanson aptly describes the majestic animals as “two-thousand-pound golden retrievers.”

There is something that sets him apart from established ranching practices, however — he’s adopted a progressive approach to curbing livestock depredation by wolves, a common problem for ranchers, which Hanson has resolved through uncommonly alternative means.

“I’ve always said the only thing that can stop a wolf is a bullet,” Hanson said. “I was a total skeptic at first.”

The source of his skepticism centers on a centuries-old technique called fladry, which today consists of employing a barrier of orange flags suspended from a single strand of electrified cordage to exploit wolves’ innate fear of new objects in their environment.

Fladry has proven to be an effective deterrent, even in a calving pasture covered in afterbirth and brimming with wobbly-legged baby cows in their most vulnerable state, the effect of the orange ribbons dancing in the wind apparently confusing the remarkably keen canine. The flagging, coupled with the electrified wires, keeps the wolves at bay and is cheap to deploy and maintain.

It’s an odd technique, and nowhere near as intuitive a solution as a bullet. So when Ted North, a wildlife specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, approached Hanson about using fladry to fortify his 40-acre calving pasture, where he was losing up to seven calves a year due to wolf predation — about 10 percent of his 70-head of Black Angus cattle — he was understandably reluctant.

“Ted was pushing fladry on me and I was doing everything I could to resist. It just didn’t add up,” Hanson said. “But finally I gave up and they came out and put it up. I haven’t had a loss since.”

The “they” to which Hanson’s referring is the nonprofit group People and Carnivores, a Bozeman-based conservation group that promotes a wide array of tools and practices to proactively reduce human-wildlife conflicts on the wildland-urban interface.

The group’s field director is Bryce Andrews, who worked as a ranch manager and land steward for more than a decade before joining forces with People and Carnivores. He now owns a small farm in dense carnivore country in the Mission Valley, and he understands the challenges of running a working ranch.

In his role with People and Carnivores, Andrews has established relationships with wildlife managers whose job it is to deal with livestock loss, which costs the state tens of thousands of dollars, generally by shooting and killing predators hunting cattle, sheep and goats.

One of those managers is North, who frequently responded to wolf kills at the Hansons’ ranch, and approached Andrews about deploying a fladry project at the family’s ranch. Andrews has had success with a half-dozen fladry projects in this region of Montana, and agreed with North that the Hanson ranch was a prime candidate.

When he finally acquiesced, Hanson didn’t know what to expect and still had his doubts. But with People and Carnivores funding the project, he decided he didn’t have anything to lose.

So began a multi-year project, which has now proven successful for three years in a row.

In the second year of the fladry project, People and Carnivores installed nine game cameras on the Hansons’ property, the results of which were a striking revelation for Hanson.

“We had wolves around the perimeter of that pasture almost nightly,” Hanson said. “That was kind of the ‘aha’ moment.”

For Andrews, working with the Hansons has been an opportunity not only to procure additional evidence proving the project’s effectiveness, but also to help shift the prevailing mentality that alternative tools to bullets don’t work on wolves.

“The images of the wolves moving around the field was a really powerful piece of concrete evidence that there were wolves circling the pasture but they weren’t entering,” Andrews said. “That was pretty compelling.”

Still, Andrews is the first to admit that fladry is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It works best on smaller enclosures that have a high concentration of attractants, just like the Hansons’ calving pasture perimeter. But it doesn’t deter grizzly bears or mountain lions, and Andrews describes it as one tool in a suite of possible proactive measures.

“We’re in the pioneer stage of this right now, and we are trying to be really careful about not presenting this as a magic bullet,” he said. “It’s not a cure-all, but it is a tool that is extremely effective in certain situations, like when a bunch of calves are bunched up in a tight pasture with a high risk of depredation.”

He also noted that there is a potential for fladry’s effectiveness to diminish the longer it’s installed — that wolves may acclimate to the flagging, and its deterrence will lose its potency.

“It’s great for calving season and those times when animals are most susceptible,” he said. “It’s when they are at their weakest when we have historically seen the most depredation.”

To that end, Hanson has partnered with Wildlife Services-Montana and Defenders of Wildlife, conservation groups that use innovative, non-lethal methods to reduce human-wildlife conflicts, to install a permanent fence with electrified cables around his 40-acre pasture, a prohibitively expensive project for most working ranches.

Hanson, who readily admits that he historically shot wolves, and who says his late father never would have agreed to the fladry project, is thrilled that the experiment paid off, and hopes other ranchers will learn about and adopt strategies like it.

“Right now we’re about the only ones who will try this stuff,” he said. “My dad wouldn’t have tried this. He was just mad. But the fladry really deters them. I’ve been hit by a hot wire and I couldn’t pick up a cup of coffee for three days.”

While livestock losses are a vexing problem for ranchers — Hanson said each calve killed is a $1,000 loss to his family — it’s also a problem for the state, which offers compensation to ranchers who lose livestock.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed 80 livestock losses to wolves, including 49 cattle, 12 sheep, and 19 goats, during 2017 due to wolves specifically. The total was up compared to 53 livestock losses during 2016. During 2017 the Montana Livestock Loss Board paid $64,133 for livestock that were confirmed by the federal agency as wolf kills or probable wolf kills. Fifty-seven wolves were killed to reduce the potential for further depredation. Of the 57 wolves, 42 were killed by Fish and Wildlife Service and 15 were lawfully taken by private citizens.

FWP confirmed the presence of at least 124 packs, 633 wolves and 63 breeding pairs in Montana at the end of 2017.

Hanson believes those figures are low, and even though he admits to having a “healthy respect” for the creature, and marvels at its intelligence, he said the presence of wolves will always keep both cattle and rancher on edge.

“The most we lost was seven, but at a thousand bucks a calf that hurts. And it really stresses the cows out,” he said, noting that the cattle aren’t as hearty when wolves are stalking them.

“I’ve lived here all my life. I know they’re around. And I know I’ve been seen a lot more by them than they have been by me,” he said. “But I can’t patrol the pasture 24/7, and you can’t hunt what you can’t see. I’m a terrible shot, but even if you’re a good shot you can’t hunt what you can’t see. We’ve had wolves out here at night, and the fladry works all night long.”

Andrews encouraged private landowners experiencing livestock losses — whether it’s wolves preying on cattle, bears raiding honeybee hives, or mountain lions killing goats — to consider reaching out and exploring a partnership with an innovative and proactive group like People and Carnivores.

“Non-lethal conflict prevention work really benefits communities and wildlife across the state,” he said. “The project with the Hansons was something that we took on and worked very hard on. This was a multi-year partnership with the family, which is something our organization focuses on. Building multi-year partnerships with landowners and coming to them in good faith and without an inflexible position on this is the most effective way to respect both the human and the wildlife components of complex problems like this.”

Hanson agrees with the complexity of the problem, and now understands that the potential solutions run the gamut, particularly given the high level of intelligence displayed by apex predators.

“That’s the main reason people don’t do more than they do,” Hanson said. “They underestimate them. But their senses are so keen. They are really quite the predator.”

For more information about People and Carnivores or to request assistance, visit peopleandcarnivores.org.