Range riding standards set in updated Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol

Range riding standards set in updated Wolf-Livestock Interaction Protocol

Conservation Northwest / Oct 27, 2020 / Range Riding, Wolves

New standards seek to improve performance and accountability of range riders working to reduce wolf-livestock conflict in Washington.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wolf Advisory Group (WAG), of which Conservation Northwest is a member, recently unanimously approved recommended amendments to the Wolf-livestock Interaction Protocol in order to standardize the efforts of range riders working to deter wolf-livestock conflict. Director Susewind approved those recommendations which have now been incorporated into an updated version of the 2017 protocol.

A rider on the range. Photo: Laura Owens
A range rider in the area of the Teanaway Wolf Pack. Photo: Laura Owens

The 2017 version of the Protocol lacked specific expectations for the duties of range riders and their frequency, which has led to some ambiguity in deterrence efforts prior to recent conflicts, as well as at least one case of alleged abuse. We have been pushing for specific range riding standards through our collaborative work on the WAG in order to avoid such issues going forward, and are glad to see this language in the updated Protocol.

“These amendments came from a lot of persistence and overcoming some big issues raised by ranchers, but we ultimately improved the description of expectations, especially for publicly-funded range riders, and clarified roles of the entities involved in directing and providing range riding services,” said Paula Swedeen, Ph.D., Conservation Northwest Policy Director and a representative on the WAG.

The absence of specific standards in the Protocol has been a criticism of groups who have filed lawsuits against the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and petitioned Governor Inslee to request new formal rule-making for how the state responds to wolf conflicts.

A wolf track photographed this spring in an area where range riders operate. Photo: Jay Shepherd

The new guidance for range riding in the updated Protocol provides additional accountability for both livestock operators and the state, while also supporting shared ownership of the rules and uptake of conflict deterrence methods. This is a positive step toward reducing wolf conflict while also growing social tolerance for wolves—progress not easily replicated through a regulatory process.

“By creating and agreeing on these standards through the WAG, these changes will likely prove to be more successful as a result of collaboration, rather than lawsuits and top-down regulations that undermine social tolerance among stakeholders,” said Swedeen.

The specific duties and expectations of range riders are described in the amendments of sections 3 and 4 in the Wolf-livestock Interaction Protocol, and include:

  • Checking on wolf activity within grazing allotments daily or near daily (at least 4-5 times per week), starting before cows are turned out.
  • Checking on the behavior and health of livestock, daily or near daily, including making sure there are enough riders—contingent on available resources—active to check all portions of grazing allotments that have animals in areas where wolves are active. This is an important point given that there have been instances when riders have been spread too thin to be able to provide credible deterrence of potential wolf depredations.
  • Opportunistically hazing wolves when they are seen close to cattle.
  • Assisting with carcass removal and sanitation measures described in protocol
  • Publicly funded riders (through a WDFW and Washington Department of Agriculture grant) are expected to ride at times of day when wolves are active, including at dusk and dawn, and camping with livestock overnight, especially during periods of regular wolf presence near livestock.
  • Producers who hire and fund their own riders can call on publicly funded riders for enhanced riding presence during times when depredations look likely to occur (increased testing behavior has been observed) or have already occurred.
  • Publicly funded riders are required to document their activities using geo-referenced data in addition to activity logs to improve the accountability of rider activities paid for through public dollars. All range riders are expected to provide detailed activity logs.
  • More intensive coordination between the rancher, WDFW conflict specialist and range rider when wolves start testing livestock, or after first depredation.
  • Assisting in moving livestock to avoid wolf depredations with rancher’s permission.

Also included in the amendments was a clarification of WDFW’s role to collaborate with ranchers to implement deterrence measures that follow best management practices and provide high applicability for specific operations and landscapes, ensuring the Department is an active partner in reducing conflict and the need for lethal control.

While these standards are a bit complex, they will help standardize range riding effort in Washington, help avoid wolf-livestock conflict through non-lethal means, and maintain the collaborative approach and buy-in that exists through the WAG.

Through our Range Rider Pilot Project and other efforts, we’ve spent significant money and effort working with local ranchers to reduce conflicts and promote coexistence between people and wolves.