End-of-season Range Rider Pilot Project and wolf field program update

End-of-season Range Rider Pilot Project and wolf field program update

Conservation Northwest / Jan 14, 2022 / Ranching, Range Riding, Wolves

Conservation Northwest shares annual update on its wolf recovery efforts in Washington

Since the first wolf was observed in Washington in 2008, the population has grown to more than 178 wolves in 29 packs. In 2020 alone we saw a 22% increase in the population. Yet wolf recovery in the West brings with it the age-old problem of wolf-livestock conflict.

Teanaway range rider on a horse
Teanaway range rider in 2013. Photo: Lauren Owens

In 2011, after years of learning from collaborative efforts in Montana, Conservation Northwest launched the Range Rider Pilot Project as part of our ongoing commitment to sustainable, pragmatic solutions that benefit both wildlife and local communities. For the past 11 grazing seasons, we have helped Washington ranchers deploy range riders in areas where wolves and cattle intersect.

After more than a decade in operation, this collaborative and sustainable effort is paying off. The presence of active riders in the mountains of eastern Washington has caught on and spread and state wolf control efforts are lower than other western states. 2021 saw a significant milestone: the successful wolf coexistence and mitigation efforts with low lethal removal of wolves in WA.

Demand for range riders currently exceeds supply as the northeast Washington wolf population expands and southeast Washington has seen a nascent, growing population. Range riding, other year-round herd supervision techniques, personnel training, and equipment cost-sharing have become part of a more extensive network across Washington State. Simply put, as a conservation organization, we are successfully working with the ranching community to not only develop fair policy, but help with the cost and implementation of non-lethal deterrence efforts.

A WA Wolf Advisory group meeting in Ellensburg.
WA Wolf Advisory group in a 2018 meeting in Ellensburg, WA. Photo: Chase Gunnell

At present, Conservation Northwest spends approximately $200,000 a year to keep multiple riders in the field on a near-daily basis from June through October, directed by the Conservation Northwest Wolf Program Lead based in northeast Washington. Conservation Northwest also provides “rapid response” range riding year-round should conflicts arise in the spring within calving areas in northeast Washington and during the grazing season in other parts of the state where wolves are present.

Our Wolf Program Lead also administers a separate organization we helped get up and running, the Northeast Washington Wolf-Cattle Collaborative, which hires rancher-approved range riders from the local community. The collaborative has hired approximately 20 riders in each of the last two years, more than any organization in the country. The expanding effort also includes riders from other local organizations and private riders working for ranches that also may be cost-share riders supported with ranches, Conservation Northwest, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife funding.

We are proud of this ongoing effort to support both wolf recovery and Washington ranchers. However, more work is required to ensure wolf recovery and co-existence is successful in the long term.

In the year ahead, we will help craft sound wolf management policies and provide tools to help communities coexist with wolves. We will also continue to support several ranchers with cost-share range riders to help reduce wolf-cattle conflict. Through our role on the state’s Wolf Advisory Group, we will advocate for sound wolf management policies, such as a post-recovery ban on sport hunting. We will work in the legislature to maintain robust levels of funding for effective and efficient proactive non-lethal wolf deterrence measures.

We are also excited to participate in a west-wide study funded in part by a Conservation Innovation Grant from Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS). This study will include an analysis of the effectiveness of range riding and other tools that will hopefully someday be in Farm Bill-funded NRCS programs. We will work specifically with a Ph.D. student from Utah State University and contribute range rider and camera data to the effort. We hope that this study will show the effectiveness of our work and will lead to an expansion of similar efforts in Washington and across the West.

Learn more about wolf recovery on our WEBPAGE
A white wolf in a green prairie
A member of the Teanaway wolf pack. Photo: Lauren Owens