Working with Ranchers to Save Predators of the Northwest
In January 2018, two wolves were caught on trail cameras in Mount Hood National Forest, in Oregon’s Northern Cascade mountains. It was a hopeful sign: the first time multiple wolves had been sighted in a new area since the species officially returned to the state in the 1990s. A success for conservationists and a potential headache for ranchers.
A male wolf, labeled OR7, photographed in Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest. Photo credit: Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service
Over the past two years, increasing political polarization has widened the gap between those on opposites sides of seemingly every issue. It follows that the debate over protecting endangered species would be no exception. And yet, conservationists and ranchers — stakeholders who have long been antagonists — are finding some unlikely common ground.
“I believe we can all get better by listening to both sides of the fence,” said Keith Nantz of Deschutes River Beef, an Oregon rancher. Nantz and others like him are part of a growing number of ranchers implementing “predator friendly ranching,” in order to preserve an intact ecosystem with predators in place.
With the current administration intent on rolling back the Endangered Species Act (ESA), conservationists are finding that they need to take a new approach to protecting wildlife. This means working directly with the people living alongside endangered animals in the Northwest. Residents in the rural parts of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, many of them ranchers, traditionally see large predators as a serious threat to their livelihood. They resent the federal policies supported by “pro-predator groups” that make it more difficult to protect themselves and their livestock. Conservationists, in turn, usually paint ranchers as owners of anti-environmental businesses who only care about their bottom line and don’t understand the role that these animals play in a healthy environment. Despite their hostility, these two opposing groups are beginning to engage in a dialogue on endangered species, and with it bridging a wide culture gap in an age of increasingly divisive politics.
“The more you appeal to the middle of the road people – through reaching out and not alienating – we can make more progress,” said wolf conservationist Zee Soffron. As a staunch wolf advocate, he feels that being pro-predator does not have to be the same as anti-rancher; calling for protection of predator species doesn’t mean someone wants to put ranchers out of business. “Ranchers have the right to their industry, their livelihood, they’ve been doing this for generations,” Soffron emphasized.
“Entrenched behaviors and attitudes can change relatively quickly and not in the way you expect,” said Patrick Field, Managing Director of the globally active Consensus Building Institute (CBI). Field and the CBI work to facilitate agreements between stakeholders – both private and public – regarding natural resources, land use, energy and water. Field has worked on environmental issues for the Environmental Protection Agency, National Wildlife Federation and World Wildlife Fund. Initial progress has been made by both environmentalists and ranchers, as they attempt to see where the other side is coming from and spread that perspective among their colleagues, paving the way for a collaborative effort.
A poll released June 2018 by Oregon Wild provided a hopeful indicator that stances may be softening, with 61 percent of respondents from rural Oregon stating they did not see wolves as an economic threat to the cattle industry. Additionally, 52 percent of the same demographic said they supported continued protections for Oregon wolves.
Consider the situation in Massachusetts, where these predators are now extinct. The first American colonists, following their arrival in the 1630s, set about purging the area of large predators seen as threats to their livestock or farming needs and competition for hunting. The last sighting of a mountain lion in the state was in the 1930s, and the wolf population had been eradicated by the 1840s. Until relatively recently, most people thought this could only help.
Fast forward to present day: with no predators to keep them in check, the deer population in the state has exploded.
A healthy population density of white-tail deer is about 10 to 15 per square mile, according to Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife. Instead, estimates place state numbers over 80 per square mile. In addition to overbrowsing and overgrazing which leads to decreased plant diversity and the attendant ecological strain, deer have even settled in suburban towns. Having Bambi move in next door has brought a rise in property damage, car accidents and tick-borne diseases. In fact, in May 2018 the Boston Globe published findings that Massachusetts counties had the highest instances of lyme disease in the country. When a species is completely removed from the food chain, like the mountain lions and wolves, it can have far reaching and unpredictable consequences.
All animals, predator and prey, are part of a complex network. Choosing to preserve or protect a species means choosing to preserve its ecosystem along with other species who live alongside them. Species that include humans. This is the argument that helped implement the Endangered Species Act of 1975. Predators emblematic of the American wilderness, such as wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears, have seen substantial recovery thanks to the legislation. Grizzly bears, once reduced to scattered, isolated populations in the contiguous United States, are steadily climbing back in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team (IGBST), a coalition of federal agencies that track grizzly bear population trends.
An attack on the Endangered Species Act is nothing new, but with a White House heavily favoring deregulation, this one has the most chance of succeeding. The law has been under fire since its creation, facing the most opposition from conservative states, claiming it is too strict for how broadly it is applied. Wildlife management, they argue, should instead be left to the states, which are better equipped to make decisions balancing the needs of both their people and animals.
In the largely conservative ranching regions of the Northwest, east of the Cascades, this almost always translates to fewer regulations, where they favor small government. This could lead to privatizing public lands, which often include protected habitats, and scaling back protections of endangered species in favor of industry development. These areas, such as the Yellowstone region, often cross state lines, meaning different parts of an animal’s habitat would fall under the jurisdiction of two, or even three, different states. In the case of grizzly bears, this would be Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Lasting recovery of an endangered species requires interconnected populations, which in turn needs federal oversight as opposed to states that might follow different regulations.
Wolves were one of the first animals to be granted protected status and arguably the nation’s most controversial. “Wolves are the abortion issue of the environmental world,” in terms of polarization, says Soffron, who is Facility Director and Public Relations Officer at Wolf Hollow, a non-profit wolf sanctuary and education center in Ipswich, Mass. The North American Wolf Foundation, along with its Wolf Hollow facility, was established in 1990, rescuing young wolves around the country and raising them where they can be ambassadors to the public.
Soffron’s family is an example of Field’s observation that attitudes can change in unexpected ways, as his father was an avid hunter turned conservationist. For many years, hunters viewed wolves as competition for game, though that has begun to change as they realize they have a stake in healthy ecosystems. “Without wolves and other predators killing the sick and the weak, [eventually] human hunters will have less of a quality species to go after themselves in the deer and elk,” Soffron explained. “Looking at things like wasting disease and tick-borne illnesses that are mutating and spreading, especially up in Maine right now.”
In cattle country, Soffron’s holistic viewpoint is rare. Sounding even remotely “pro-wolf” can get someone labeled “anti-rancher,” something no one wants. Especially in an industry that generated almost 11 billion dollars in 2017, according to the USDA, from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. If anything, this mindset was even stronger in the 1970s, so with the species on the verge of extinction in the contiguous United States, there was simply no time for a reasoned discussion. Under the ESA, portions of the wolf’s habitat were marked as protected and closed off to development and ranching. While successful at decreasing the loss of wolves, such unilateral actions in traditionally conservative areas of the country were largely unpopular and viewed as a classic example of federal overreach.
As an unintended consequence, people were now doubly inclined to shoot at wolves, not only as alleged cattle thieves, but living symbols of big government as well. “The environmental movement in the 1970s threatened the traditional uses of the land – such as logging, mining and hunting – and that in turn has engendered resentment against the federal government,” explained Nate Blakeslee, author of American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, in a 2017 interview with web magazine Signature. Despite the fact that in 2015, the USDA reported that of all cattle deaths, only 2.5 percent were taken by predators nationwide. Zooming in further, only 4.9 percent of those predator related cattle deaths were attributed to wolves.
Listing a species as threatened or endangered is now synonymous with large restricted or off limits tracts of grazing land. While this top-down approach was necessary at one time, it’s a big contributor to the culture gap and a reason why it is difficult to bring ranchers to the table today. “The long term consequences of the heavy hand approach,” like the Endangered Species Act regulations, “are very problematic,” said Field. Livestock farmers are distrustful of outsiders trying to tell them how to manage the land they have worked on for generations – once burned twice shy, as the saying goes. Fish and Wildlife has to “say we want to work with you, partner with you,” Field underscored. The notion that protection of any species equates to government seizure of private land turns the debate over wildlife management into yet another liberal versus conservative flashpoint. Consequently, charismatic animals such as mountain lions, grizzly bears and wolves have been turned into political lightning rods.
This is the least productive thing that could happen, according to Diane Nahabedian, spokesperson of the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island. “Don’t politicize this,” she says, in an age where almost everything falls along political lines. “It has nothing to do with politics — whether you’re left, right or in the middle, we’re all breathing the same air.” The Roger Williams Park Zoo is known for its conservation efforts, particularly in regards to critically endangered local species like the New England Cottontail rabbit or Timber rattlesnake. The zoo has been working to repopulate these animals in their original habitats in the New England area.
While the environment should not be a political issue, many of its related policies are considered part of the “liberal agenda” by the public. This politicization of science was fully on display during the 2016 presidential election, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center. Views on climate change largely correlated with participant’s candidate choice, where 70 percent of Clinton supporters believed climate change to be the result of human activity versus only 22 percent of Trump supporters. Similar breakdowns along classically liberal and conservative thinking could be seen in attitudes towards policy and even the reliability of climate science itself.
Climate change has hit the cattle industry hard and shows no signs of letting up any time soon. A report published in the 2017 issue of Climate Risk Management described the impact of climate change on livestock worldwide which affects a rancher’s bottom line. Rising seasonal temperatures contribute to heat stress in most livestock that harms productivity such as milk yield, weight gain, reproduction and increased susceptibility to disease. Maintaining adequate water supplies grows steadily more difficult with milder winters and less precipitation year round. Rains become limited to short intense events, that while dangerous in themselves with flood damage, are separated by long dry spells that cause severe droughts. This is devastating news for areas that have little enough water to begin with. “People tend to forget a lot of the west is very dry,” said Field, and water is always a concern. “When they think of Oregon they picture green forests and mountains, but about two-thirds of Oregon is dry as hell.” In 2012, the state suffered its worst drought in over 30 years, the effects of which can still be felt today.
The immediate cause of climate change is the high level of carbon dioxide, a core greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere that contributes to global warming. It follows that anything which stores the vast amounts of industrially generated carbon dioxide and keeps it out of the atmosphere can help reduce global warming. Forests and grasslands play an essential role in this capacity, hence overfeeding by unchecked herds of deer or elk can greatly reduce natural carbon storage and exacerbate climate change. A study released in March 2018 by The National Academy of Sciences found evidence suggesting wolves and other predators that cull such species notably increase the amount of carbon stored by any given ecosystem. Along with direct population control, the very presence of a predator in a habitat will change prey animal behavior, forcing herds to stay on the move and lessening pressure on plant life, allowing it to replenish.
The extinction of grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves may seem ideal for ranchers in the short term, but like in the northeast, the role played by these large predators will only be starkly clear once they’re gone. “There’s actually a crossover between anti-government overreach groups and environmentalists” said Soffron, in that both parties want to safeguard the land. These ranchers are keenly aware of anything “that would affect the quality of the land they raise their animals on.” Raising livestock on a large scale means that environmental factors contributing to the long term health of range land always have to be taken into consideration. The conditions that ranching operations depend on to feed their cattle can only come from a healthy ecosystem, which in turn requires all of its components, including predator species.
Nantz is familiar with how to balance a viable ranching operation with the necessity of a healthy ecosystem. “Soil health is where it starts,” said Nantz. “Carbon sequestration” – natural carbon storage in plants – “correlates to good feed for [cattle],” as higher carbon levels encourage growth of ideal grazing lands. More carbon also means the soil can better retain water, allowing it to get the most out of each rainfall to weather the increasing droughts. “I know that if we don’t treat our land properly, we will go out of business by our own hands,” Nantz wrote in a January 2016 opinion piece for The Washington Post. “It is of utmost importance that [ranchers] be true conservationists.”
However, conservation doesn’t necessitate government involvement. Schedules and restrictions for grazing on federal land are meant to prevent overgrazing, but could be doing just the opposite. The strict rotation of herds doesn’t take into account the condition of the land and time needed for plants to recover. Ranchers are invested in using the most sustainable grazing practices and are actually in the best position to find when and where to graze their herds. “The key is letting the land rest,” Nantz emphasized, “short duration, high intensity grazing,” then moving on, mimicking the original grassland ecosystem that supported the vast herds of buffalo, in which animals would move between feeding grounds.
This practice when followed by ranchers is known as adaptive grazing management, which most use within their own operations. Nantz states that ranchers working together would be better able to utilize available land through working out their own grazing management program without the rigid constraints imposed by distant policy makers. “The government pushes for the same timelines every other year,” but for the best soil health “we need to let specific plants propagate themselves and recover.” As a first generation rancher, he has a slightly different perspective than his colleagues in the industry, who are more inclined to do the same thing as their parents and grandparents before them. “I’m more open to trying new things,” he said in contrast, which includes more non-lethal predator control.
Use of specific methods have notably increased, some as basic as frequent checks on livestock during high predation seasons. This speaks to a change in attitude taking place among America’s ranchers. “Predator friendly beef has great opportunities,” said Nantz. Products from animals raised on predator friendly ranches can even be sold with identifiable stickers, similar to free range or organic eggs, boosting sales among environmentally conscious consumers.
Though relatively small, the use of non-lethal predator control has grown substantially, according to USDA data released last year, between 2000 and 2015.
The question is how viable are these methods? Can they be used on a cost effective scale? Some are less practical than others. Expensive noise setups or brand new electric fencing have their drawbacks. “We got miles of grazing land … you can’t drag electric fencing everywhere,” Nantz said. The same issue of mobility goes for the noise deterrents or “fright tactics,” in which loud noises are triggered on proximity alarms to scare off a bear or mountain lion. Additionally, to get compensated when a predator does take an animal, “we have to show we tried to use non-lethal control first. That’s not always possible.”
Other than fright tactics or electric fences, a far cheaper tool of predator control is the livestock themselves. Soffron described new animal husbandry techniques could help bring back some of the old herd instincts that their wild counterparts use to ward off predators such as changing cattle habits to graze in tight, enclosed groups rather than spread out in ones and twos. “Training cattle is a huge, huge paradigm shift,” said Nantz, when describing his fellow ranchers’ skepticism. Though herding is one of the most basic ways for prey animals to defend themselves, more ranchers are starting to realize how much time and energy could be saved if the animals stayed together themselves without the need for dogs and riders constantly circling them. “Good husbandry practices are instrumental in decreasing human-animal conflict,” said Soffron, equating the situation to keeping pets safe from coyotes in the Northeast. “Cattlemen and pet-owners, we all have our own responsibilities,” he added, himself a dog-owner.
Other ranchers take this a step further, bringing in guardian animals who still retain their anti-predator instincts. Though dogs have had this market cornered for centuries, llamas and donkeys are starting to take on the job as well. Both animals will aggressively defend an area they consider their territory, their large size allowing them to run off most types of solitary predators such as coyotes, foxes, feral dogs and even bobcats.
For skeptics, non-lethal predator management has immediately noticeable benefits as well, since leaving local predator species alive can decreases future losses. Hunting actually has little effect on predation – not only is it notoriously difficult to ensure the “problem animal” is removed, it can even make the situation worse. In the case of the mountain lion and bears, a single animal will defend its territory from others, leaving only one predator in the area. If that individual is killed, others will move in to fill the gap and until the territory dispute is resolved, a rancher can be faced with as many as five or six large predators on their land.
This isn’t to say that Nantz doesn’t support locals being allowed lethal control when needed, or “strong management” as he calls it – something that the current protections make very difficult. Compounding the issue, according to Nantz, is that policy makers are not playing fair. “The goal posts keep changing,” as animal populations increase and the question of what constitutes “recovered” is never truly answered. With bears and wolves, many people “have no idea of what population point we can start protecting ourselves.”
Field agrees that Fish and Wildlife Services and other environmental agencies could improve how they communicate with ranchers. Even a state biologist on the front lines “doesn’t really get ranchers and ranching,” he recalls from his own experiences working on his family’s Colorado ranch, “but the government…is working with the tools they have. Policy is very hard to write and very hard to get right.” It’s a delicate process in which neither side feels the other understands their position.
On top of the logistical challenges, there is the issue of cultural antagonism towards large predators. The wolf, mountain lion and bear have long been viewed as the enemy of ranchers, actual cattle loss data notwithstanding. It is undeniable that how an animal is perceived can make reintroduction a tougher sell than others. In the case of the once ubiquitous Timber Rattlesnake, almost extinct in some areas and severely endangered in other parts of its Massachusetts habitat, local objections in the Quabbin area of Western Massachusetts have put repopulation efforts on hold. In its defense, it is shy and wants nothing more than to keep to itself but plays a valuable role by preying on rodents who carry diseases such as Lyme. This doesn’t change the fact that no community will be happy to hear about the reintroduction of poisonous snakes to their area. In fact, Nahabedian was not surprised, “You can’t really get mad at people for not liking a rattlesnake,” she stated.
In stark contrast, is the New England Cottontail rabbit, whose numbers have dwindled to dangerous levels due to loss of habitat. It is widely accepted that the species needs help. Rabbits seen today are not native and several organizations are working to reintroduce the original species. The goal is to get as many rabbits in the wild, but this will generate a milder reaction than the same plan of action for snakes. “Let’s face it, the New England Cottontail rabbit is cute,” said Nahabedian, “and when they get out and start repopulating, it’s not perceived that they will hurt anyone.”
Education is a huge part of dispelling stereotypes for animals such the rattlesnake or wolf, that carry a certain amount of cultural baggage. “I think the more we can open up and learn,” said Soffron, “and learn from each other,” he added, “there is hope out there.”
“From the tiniest little insect to the largest mammal, everything has a place in the system,” said Nahabedian, “and when they go away, it throws everything off and it’s up to us to make sure that doesn’t happen.” The first step is spreading this message, something for which zoos are uniquely suited. “I think when you come to the zoo, a lot of it is the interactions that you’re going to have,” with the animals and the keepers. “You see an elephant, what makes an elephant so interesting? What makes it fun is engaging with the expert – the keeper is full of interesting information.” The zookeepers are the front lines of public engagement and embody the spirit of productive dialogue. It’s a challenge because “a zoo is a tourist place, it’s entertaining, but how do you turn that into a million teachable moments, without people knowing it?”
An example, of what could happen without conversation and collaboration, is a tiny, obscure frog, that was the subject of a case before the Supreme Court in one of the most recent clashes between economics and ecology. The Dusky Gopher Frog, an endangered species, is at the center of the case Weyerhaeuser Co. v. United States Fish and Wildlife. Timber giant Weyerhaeuser won the case and is allowed to develop 1,544 acres of private land in Louisiana that Fish and Wildlife had designated “critical future habitat.” The ruling significantly hindered the government’s ability to create habitats from private lands for other endangered animals and plants — at a time when climate change is rendering many species’ longtime habitats unsuitable. Without dialogue, what’s left? It’s not feasible to keep sending every case to the Supreme Court.
If the culture gap can be crossed on species conservation, it could be the same for other divisive issues as well. “When we have the conversation,” Nahabedian said hopefully, “people often say ‘oooh, now that makes sense’ but we have to listen.” Perhaps listening truly is the first step across the gap.