Range Rider Pilot Project

A collaborative effort between Conservation Northwest and local ranchers, the Range Rider Pilot Project seeks to demonstrate the effectiveness of non-lethal measures in deterring or reducing conflicts where wolves and livestock overlap in Washington state. We also coordinate with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), independent wolf experts, scientists, and other partners to support this project.

Conservation Northwest believes Washington can be the state where wolf recovery, conservation, and management works in the long run, for people, wolves and all the Northwest’s wildlife. But to achieve this goal it will take hard work, respect and compromise from stakeholders on all sides.

A rider on the range. Photo: Laura Owens
A rider on the range. Photo: Laura Owens

Through the support of generous donors, in 2015 we expanded our range rider effort to work with seven ranchers and help them hire six range riders to patrol grazing allotments in the territory of six confirmed wolf packs. 2015 was the Range Rider Pilot Project’s fourth year and 15th project season since the effort began in 2012.

This collaborative work is reducing the potential for conflict where predators and livestock overlap, and by extension protecting wolves from incidents that can quickly become lethal for both predator and prey. The project season typically begins with trainings in April and a field season from May through October.

A “project season” is one full season with a range rider working from spring turnout (typically early May) through fall roundup (typically October). The number of project seasons per year varies depending on how many ranchers we partner with, and how many range rider positions we co-sponsor.

Range Rider Pilot Project season updates

Learn more about Washington’s wolves. Or read more about our Range Rider Pilot Project in articles from The Seattle TimesHigh Country NewsYakima Herald and Wenatchee World.

Watch our range riders in action in this video from High Country News:

When wolves and cattle overlap

Wolves typically hunt by testing, or pushing, a herd of animals to run, and then singling out the weakest, youngest, or oldest animals to kill. As one Alberta rancher put it, “if a calf or yearling runs when pressed by a wolf pack… they die.”  Yet recent efforts by groups of ranchers in places like Alberta, Montana, and Idaho show a solution. Having a human, especially one on horseback, in and around a rancher’s cattle for the entire grazing season can lower wolf/cattle incidents. It helps calm cattle and disrupts wolves’ hunting patterns. This practice is called “range riding”.

From May into October, the Range Rider Pilot Project’s range riders work in northeast Washington, in the North Cascades including in the Methow and Teanaway Valleys, and on the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation in north-central Washington.

Ranchers employ their own range riders, often experienced horse and cattlemen (and women) from local communities. Range riding is a herd supervision method, something that was once the norm for ranchers and cowboys but was not consistently practiced after top predators were eradicated from western landscapes. We’re working to help ranchers bring back range riding, as well as utilizing with other conflict avoidance methods such as carcass composting, fladry (bright flagging typically hung around calving pastures, often with electrified fencing), guard dogs and special animal husbandry techniques.

We also often employ a range riding student intern during the grazing season. The intern works two to three days a week supporting range riders and wolf researchers while also learning about comprehensive range management and predator conflict avoidance methods.

Effective, but not a “silver bullet”

 

Range rider Bill Johnson. Photo: Jay Kehne
Range rider Bill Johnson. Photo: Jay Kehne

While herd supervision is effective at deterring conflicts with predators, we don’t expect it to always be 100 percent successful. And we empathize that it’s an additional challenge with additional expenses for ranchers whose line of work is already tough as it is. We’re partnering with ranchers to provide information, training and cost sharing support. The goal of the Range Rider Pilot Program is to help them successfully coexist with predators back on the landscape. Along the way we’re reducing conflicts with wolves and building tolerance for their recovery.

 

Want to support this important project? Please make a donation today!

Between gas, supplies and pay for a skilled employee, a thorough range rider can cost ranchers as much as $20,000 per grazing season. But livestock producers who enter into our program can receive up to $9,000 in funding from Conservation Northwest and another $10,000 in matching grants from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), enough to nearly or completely cover their seasonal range riding expenses. State contributions come in part from a legislature-approved program that uses vanity license plate sales to fund the implementation of predator conflict avoidance efforts.

Patrolling on horseback, ATV and even mountain bike, these modern cowboys and cowgirls worked from spring turn-out until the cows came home in the fall, covering thousands of miles over the course of the season to provide a significant human presences and make sure the cattle stay calm, healthy and kept away from wolves, the location of whom is often provided confidentially by WDFW through collar data.

Our take on lethal wolf removal

Proactive, non-lethal conflict avoidance measures like range riding, guard dogs, fox lights, fladry and other tools can be very effective at preventing or reducing depredations on livestock by wolves and other predators, from cougars to grizzly bears. However, these tools are not always 100% effective, and even when ranchers and farmers use them thoroughly conflicts can occasionally still occur.

If depredations are persistent and additional deterrence measures fail, the lethal removal of wildlife is sometimes necessary to stop conflicts. We recognize that as wolf populations grow in Washington, under the state’s Wolf Management Plan animals that habitually prey on livestock may need to be removed. This is a fact of responsible wolf recovery, and though it can be heartrending, it won’t stop wolves from flourishing in our region over the long run if removals are done with care and are not excessive.

It’s important to realize that in Idaho, Montana, Canada and other areas where wolves have always been present or have been recovered for years, these experiences are an expected component of a balancing act between people, livestock and predators sharing the same space. When conflict avoidance measures are used diligently, and wolf removals are used only as a last resort and are not excessive, it’s possible for wolf populations to flourish alongside thriving rural communities and healthy populations of other wildlife.