When wolves kill sheep

One morn­ing earli­er this month a Wisconsin farm­er dis­covered three dozen of his sheep had been at­tacked by wolves. Some were ly­ing in the pas­ture; oth­ers had been car­ried over the fence. Some were dead; some had to be euthanized.

Scenes like this aren’t un­usu­al when it comes to wolves and live­stock. Depending on the size of an op­er­a­tion, los­ing thirty an­im­als, half a dozen or even one can severely af­fect the profit mar­gin. Finding in­jured or dead an­im­als takes an emo­tion­al toll, too. There’s also the re­duced sale value of oth­er an­im­als due to stress-re­lated weight loss, the time spent treat­ing in­jured an­im­als, live­stock that don’t con­ceive or abort due to stress and so on.

Hunting is learned be­ha­viour for wolves. Killing live­stock is much easi­er than tak­ing down wild prey and once done, is likely to con­tin­ue. Sometimes guilty pack mem­bers can be des­troyed soon enough to pre­vent oth­er pack mem­bers from learn­ing bad habits but of­ten the en­tire pack needs to be destroyed.

The prob­lem is killing wolves doesn’t al­ways work. Killing one or both of the breed­ing pair of a pack can splinter the so­cial or­der, which may res­ult in more an­im­als breed­ing and lead to more wolves, not less. Eliminating the en­tire pack simply opens up the ter­rit­ory for a new one to move in.

And killing wolves is com­plic­ated or im­possible if a farm is loc­ated in areas where wolves are con­sidered en­dangered and are thus pro­tec­ted by le­gis­la­tion. But some farm­ers are suc­cess­fully rais­ing live­stock in wolf coun­try; they rarely have prob­lems but neigh­bour­ing ranches do.

A key ele­ment of their suc­cess ap­pears to be live­stock guard­i­an dogs (LGDs). But there needs to be enough of them and a vari­ety of breeds.

Liesl Lockhart, co-own­er of Candll Lamb & Cattle Co., raises sheep and cattle in north­ern Saskatchewan near Prince Albert National Park where wolves are pro­tec­ted. The Lockharts usu­ally have around el­ev­en LGDs, a mix of five breeds in­clud­ing Great Pyrenees, Kangals and Anatolian shepherds.

If a predator’s close, one dog will sound the alarm in the pas­ture,” Lockhart ex­plains. “The Pyrenees will gath­er the flock to­geth­er in a tight group. They’ll stay with the sheep and bark. Then there’s a staggered line of dogs mov­ing away from the sheep to cre­ate a buf­fer zone. The Kangals are the ones that go out the fur­thest and chase the predators.”

The Lockharts have lost LGDs to pred­at­ors, es­pe­cially in the be­gin­ning when they didn’t have as many dogs or breeds as they needed. As well as pur­chas­ing ad­di­tion­al LGDs, they began us­ing spike col­lars. These, they found, pro­tect the dogs from that of­ten fatal bite to the throat.

LGDs aren’t enough on their own; oth­er strategies are also re­quired. These can in­clude elec­tric fen­cing, fladry (red flag­ging) and noise makers like ra­di­os. Some ranches em­ploy old-fash­ioned range riders who keep the herd close to­geth­er and whose very pres­ence can de­ter a pred­at­or. Sometimes a gov­ern­ment agency will mon­it­or a collared wolf in a nearby pack and let a farm­er know when they need to step up their protection.

Louise Liebenberg and her hus­band raise sheep, cattle and horses on Grazerie, Canada’s first pred­at­or-friendly ranch. Liebenberg gives present­a­tions through­out North America and Europe on rais­ing LGDs and co-ex­ist­ing with wolves.

The ranch has lost one ewe and one calf to wolves over the last ten years, mostly due to a hu­man man­age­ment er­ror. Liebenberg usu­ally un­der­stands why an in­cid­ent has oc­curred and al­ters their man­age­ment plan to pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again.

You can’t just use one man­age­ment sys­tem all the time due to ha­bitu­ation; you need to com­bine vari­ous meth­ods,” she says. In 2017, a wolf gave birth to sev­en pups in the middle of the farm. “It was very stress­ful and we had to be su­per vi­gil­ant un­til the fall when the pack moved on. Now I have to change my strategy to make sure that doesn’t hap­pen again.”

In Switzerland they have an emer­gency pro­gram to help farm­ers ex­per­i­en­cing prob­lems. A team of people show up with elec­tric fen­cing and LGDs and sup­port the farm­er un­til the wolves move on. They also teach the farm­er dif­fer­ent ways to pro­tect their livestock.”

As wolf pop­u­la­tions re­bound, many farm­ers are deal­ing with the pred­at­or after an ab­sence of 50 or 100 years. It’s a new era in live­stock pro­duc­tion that of­ten in­volves a steep learn­ing curve, as well as time and money to work out the kinks. Ranches that abut for­es­ted land will have more prob­lems and small op­er­a­tions will take a harder hit. As long as there are wolves, pred­a­tion will be a problem.

There’s no one solu­tion that fits all; each ranch needs a per­son­al­ized pred­a­tion pro­gram and must be pre­pared to modi­fy it over time. Fortunately, most, if not all can ob­tain fin­an­cial and/​or phys­ic­al sup­port from or­gan­iz­a­tions such as Defenders of Wildlife and the USDA Wildlife Services.

Photos cour­tesy Liesl Lockhart.