Sun Valley area wolf and sheep project shows sheep predation can be greatly reduced without killing wolves

Project has a successful sixth year-

In Idaho when a wolf kills a lamb or is even suspected of doing so, the solution today is nearly the same as a hundred years ago — kill the wolf and maybe all the wolves you can find in the area with the costs of operation be damned.

For six years now, however, the Wood River Wolf Project has shown that with a tiny bit of goodwill, a lot of volunteer help, and a relatively small expenditure of hard money the number of sheep killed (and wolves killed in retaliation) can be reduced by 90%.

The project, spearheaded by Defenders of Wildlife, is intended to demonstrate the feasibility of non-lethal methods of keeping sheep alive in an area where wild wolves roam. The Wood River Wolf Project involves the cooperation of several ranchers, Blaine County, and Defenders, plus volunteers.

The  Nov. 18, 2012 issue of the Spokane Spokesman-Review has a long feature article about the project detailing this summer’s events in the project area which includes a fairly large amount of mostly public land around the Sun Valley-Ketchum-Hailey, Idaho area. See Wolf Project shows promise for sheep herds, wolf packs. By Becky Kramer.

The project has conserved the lives of about four wolf packs, at least until Idaho’s uncontrolled wolf hunting season comes, and has shown that the use of the federal agency USDA, Wildlife Services’ high tech wildlife (wolf) killing methods are probably more expensive than having people on the ground with the sheep and  changes in the herding practices.

Not all wolf conservationists agree with the methods employed by the project. The Western Watersheds Project points out the general unsuitability of the rugged Idaho backcountry for tender animals like sheep, the subsidized nature of sheep running on public lands of the United States, and the negative effects sheep have on many other outdoors resources and activities.  WWP would rather use methods to buy out federal grazing leases and retire them and also reduce funding for agencies like USDA -Wildlife Services,

The issue is more cultural than economic. When sheep die in highway accidents, bad weather, or are killed by roaming domestic dogs the story barely makes the news and little is done. This was dramatically shown by the recent mild scolding of dog owners who let their pets run by the sheriff near Riverton, WY after the dogs killed over 40 sheep. Dogs kill 44 sheep in Wyoming. Ho hum, but what if it had been wolves?. Oct. 13, 2012. The Wildlife News.

Given the entrenched political and cultural pressure to kill wolves in Idaho, however, Defenders of Wildlife certainly shows how a different mindset put into practice can change things on the ground.


  1. Nancy Avatar

    “Not all wolf conservationists agree with the methods employed by the project. The Western Watersheds Project points out the general unsuitability of the rugged Idaho backcountry for tender animals like sheep, the subsidized nature of sheep running on public lands of the United States, and the negative effects sheep have on many other outdoors resources and activities. WWP would rather use methods to buy out federal grazing leases and retire them and also reduce funding for agencies like USDA -Wildlife Services”

    Its kind of like two sides gathering (livestock & wildlife) to play kick ball in a mine field and one side has had the home advantage for decades 🙂

    1. Craig Avatar

      That’s a very good way to put! Today driving past Mountain home from King Hill all the cattle are eating what is left after 75% of it burned. Elk, Deer, Antelope are going to have a hard winter, hope it’s mild.

  2. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    Maybe defenders of widlife should foot the bill for increased labor to watch the sheep and if the grazing leases are bought these ranchers will want subsidized for loss of grazing and DOW should pay that also.

    I think it’s wrong to segregate one group from public lands. Maybe more restrictions are needed.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Robert R,

      The matter of buying and retiring public grazing leases on the lands of the United States is no simple legal matter requiring only money.

      If the grazing leases are “purchased” with a payment from some organization to the grazing permittee(s), they really have not been legally bought. Except for a few situations, there is no legal provision to buy a federal grazing lease.

      Federal grazing leases are and remain government property. The grass on them and the occupation of the land with the permittee’s livestock is legally only a rental to the rancher. The rancher pays the rent by paying the grazing fee.

      Of course, we all know that the rent they are required to pay is just a mere token. The trivial payments the ranchers make is only due to the continuous pressure from Western congressionals to help their landed gentry friends, but this tiny fee does establish that the government is the landlord. The federal courts have also ruled that the grazing permit is not a property right, and it cannot be bought or given away unless some Act of Congress permits it.

      So how is it that we read sometimes that some organization has bought out a federal grazing lease and retired it?

      For example, the National Wildlife Federation took a big risk (and accomplished a great deal for conservation) when they paid various ranchers to give up their leases in parts of the Greater Yellowstone. As a result, a lot of formerly grazed public land in the Greater Yellowstone has been retired. The reality was, however, that it all took place with a wink and a nod from the US Forest Service who knew damn well that retiring these leases was the right thing to do for fish and wildlife. The Forest Service was the one who actually retired the leases by honoring this not strictly legal payment to the ranchers. The Forest Service or the BLM was in no way required to honor the payment the NWF or any other organization made.

      In other words, the agency could have simply reassigned the grazing lease and said it was a nice thing of them to give the former permittee a bundle of money for nothing (because they — the Service — think the land should be grazed.

      Other private organizations have had this bad luck, especially with B.L.M. which has a tradition of being very backward. I don’t recall the exact resolution of the matter, but some conservation organization (the Grand Canyon Trust?) bought some grazing leases from southern Utah ranchers with the idea of ridding the land of the destructive cattle, but then another group of ranchers applied for the vacant leases and the BLM Neanderthals leased the lands and the Trust lost their money.

      Someone might want to correct me on the details of the matter I just described, but my point is correct.

      One of the goals of the Western Watersheds Project is to allow organizations to buy out grazing permits legally from willing ranchers, and thankfully there are a few places where Congress does allow it. Once place Congress allows it is in the Owyhee Canyonlands area, but WWP wants to do it nationally.

      1. Craig Avatar

        So what would be the ramifications of the Federal Gov’t turning over Federal land to the states? With obama care which could bankrupt states and the Federal Gov’t selling off it’s lands it would/could Bankrupt many states. But would they charge more to ranchers or just sell them off to the highest bidder and the ranchers would be screwed?

        1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
          Ralph Maughan


          Under the WWP plan the ranchers would be paid for the grazing leases (which I should add they don’t own). They would, of course keep their base property. This is their long time private property and could do whatever they wanted.

          Under various Sagebrush Rebellion scenarios the ranchers would be given the land, but other factions of the land transfer folks like, let’s say the Koch Brothers, would want a general auction, and the lands would then probably end up owned by a mix of corporations and super wealthy people mostly far away.

          1. Craig Avatar

            That’s what I was guessing, and that is Fd..up. Our Gov’t is so corrupt and only thrives on money from lobbists. Anything us taxpayers say does not mean nothing! It’s so far past repair I can’t imagine it ever being fixed.
            With the problems we have now, Wildlife is on the back burner unless they can figure out a way to make more money off of it!F…ing sad!

      2. PNW Avatar

        I realize this is an exercise in futility…but what if the conservation group that purchases the grazing permit from the previous rancher pays the government to graze x number of sheep, but doesn’t in fact graze sheep. What if they continue to pay for those x number of ghost sheep each year or season or however it works? The government is getting paid their “rent”. It stands to reason they could not take money from more than one group at a time.

        1. SAP Avatar

          I don’t think you can do that, at least not on BLM or USFS allotments. They have “qualifications” for who can hold a permit. See

          What you could do would be to “qualify” per agency criteria, then run a handful of cattle for a few days each season.

        2. SAP Avatar

          see also a law review article on BLM qualifications:

          1. PNW Avatar

            Thank you SAP. I am now in the process of reading the law review article and it strikes me the more I ponder public land issues that the grazing issues are not so different than the timber issues were.
            Fortunately we’ve gained ground with the establishment of the NW Forest Plan. The NWFP gives non-timber entities some leverage and a seat at the table. Environmental impact studies are necessitated and decisions must be based on science. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) guides the process. Non-timber wildland and wildlife advocates are still often ignored but we have the option to sue if the rules are bent or broken and if we can prove impropriety then a timber sale or harvest can be halted. It’s not just about the trees though. It’s about the forest. It really came about due to the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

            Are grazing allotments subject to NEPA?

            Below are the five major goals of the plan:
            1)Never forget human and economic dimensions of the issues;
            2)Protect the long-term health of forests, wildlife, and waterways;
            3)Focus on scientifically sound, ecologically credible, and legally responsible strategies and implementation;
            4)Produce a predictable and sustainable level of timber sales and nontimber resources; and
            5)Ensure that federal agencies work together.

            Just exchange forest with public lands and timber sales with grazing allotments.

            Could this work? Is this what it takes?
            What exactly do we want to happen?

  3. Robert Avatar

    Dr. Maughan’ credibility suffers considerably by his frequent pejorative remarks. If we can’t state our case objectively, it’s not worth stating.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      Which remarks were pejorative, or were they merely stated in way that were politically distasteful to the powers that be or to the point of view of some of the charitable trusts that fund some NGOs?

  4. Ken Cole Avatar

    What I find distasteful is that sheep are allowed to graze in these areas in the first place. At the very least, the sheep grazers should be footing the bill for this kind of program. When others do it they implicitly approve of these destructive, disease ridden animals being on wild lands where they don’t belong. It is not the wolf causing the conflict, it is the presence of the livestock on landscapes where they don’t belong.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Domestic sheep in these areas preclude recovery of bighorn sheep to their rightful place on the landscape.

    2. WM Avatar

      ++At the very least, the sheep grazers should be footing the bill for this kind of program.++

      At its core this is a demonstration project for co-existence with wolves. Defenders keeps saying, “see sheep growers/cattle grazers you can co-exist with wolves with a little extra effort.” The thing that is woefully missing from this model program is the total cost to implement the measures on a sustained basis, as well as a critical rating of what works well, and what does not. If there is an expectation of wide implmentation of these techniques, it will never happen UNLESS Defenders can show it has a very high rate of success over the long term, works for everyone who uses them, and the costs can be quantified and justified in the economics of range grazing on private and public lands. Even better if someone else pays for them, in the livestock owners view.

      As it is, this is just a Defenders PR stunt, which shows promise.

      And, Ken, I don’t disagree with you about not wanting as many or any sheep or cattle on Western rangelands, but that is a separate issue. I don’t think the Congressional types in the West are going to give up the fight easily by increasing or eliminating Taylor Act grazing fees, and without making similar demands for loss of farm subsidies in the Midwest and elsewhere. I watched the Ken Burns “Dust Bowl” series the last couple of nights on PBS which was the basis for many of the federal programs for soil conservation, including taking crop land out of production or not growing crops in exchange for a payment from the federal government to do so, or not using sensitive lands. This climate change thing isn’t going to help it go away; it may even increase it.

      1. WM Avatar

        Sorry, last paragraph second sentence should read,

        …I don’t think the Congressional types in the West are going to give up the fight easily by increasing Taylor Grazing Act fees, or ELIMINATING PUBLIC LAND grazing altogether.

    3. Louise Kane Avatar

      Very well stated Ken. when you state that when others foot the bill they implicitly approve of these animals being on wild lands where they don’t belong, that is exactly one of the main problems with the recovery plan and the ESA “special status” of wolves. The recovery plan created the basis for an implicit stamp of approval that cows and livestock held greater value than that of an endangered species. Wildlife should not be valued less then domesticated animals, especially those that are grazed on public lands and subsidized already.

  5. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    I was reading your article Ralph, and your comments.I am confused,if an organization buys the public lands,it can be taken away from them,after the lands are retired? Then why go to the trouble of trying to buy these lands in the first place?

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      An organization cannot buy public lands. That’s why they call them “public” lands.

  6. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    Wait can’t a organization ouyright buy the lands from the government ? Why don’t they just try to purchase it from the BLM instead of buying them from a rancher? Tis is confusing, too much politics .

    1. Savebears Avatar


      Normally you can not outright buy the land belonging to the Government, you can purchase a lease to use the land, but the land remains the property of the state or US government.

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Richie G

      It is as Ken says, you cannot buy public lands unless there is some particular Act of Congress allowing it. SaveBears’ response could be read a bit confusing. You cannot buy a lease outright either. After all a lease for anything is for use for a limited period of time, and you do not own it during that period of the lease. For example, a person might say, “I don’t own this truck. I am only leasing it.”

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    This was on the front page of my local newspaper this morning.

    Wolf Pack Blamed for killing a Lamb near Tetons

  8. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    Thanks,so no matter what the government always has the right to take back the land even if the land is retired.This puts the government always in control. Thanks Ralph

    1. Savebears Avatar


      When has the government NOT been in control?

      1. Craig Avatar

        That is a sad fact SB! But a better question is when are they going to lose control? When will the people say enough is enough? It’s been breed out by welfare,and taking care of everonye… ect, I wonder if it could ever happen again.

        1. Bob Burns Avatar
          Bob Burns

          Here we go again. It’s those lazy, shiftless, recipeints of welfare that are the cuase of every damned thing not sync’d with those who want to “own” everything. The “government” owning a piece of land means “the people of the United States” own that land. And thank God. Without such ownership Disney would be putting up amusement parks in Yosemite and no wild animal would be left alive save those in zoos.

  9. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    I agree with you sb,but it still surprises me,every new story gets to me.

  10. Richie G Avatar
    Richie G

    I must say shocking to see that headline in the news paper, Ralph when will the hatred stop against wolves, is this in our heritage? Just a question nobody has to answer,just thinking out loud.I can’t help but say what a shame wolves have to suffer like this.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Richie G,

      The hatred is a sub-cultural thing primarily. It will not stop in the foreseeable future because there are interests willing to fund the hatred so to accomplish political purposes.

      Take your militant anti-wolf person, not just someone who floats with what they see a the views of their friends and associations, and I think you will find that emotional anti-wolf views are associated with right wing political and other cultural attitudes.

      Pro wolf views are also associated with sub-cultural views too, although my hypothesis (meaning it has to be tested) is that its relationship to other things will be more complex. I’d bet JB could help here.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan