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Ranchers, Range Riders Brace For Another Grazing Season Among Wolves

D. Kopshever
National Park Service

Ranchers in northeastern Washington state can turn out their cattle to graze on the Colville National Forest June 1. Last year a statewide battle broke out over how best to manage wolves and cattle together.

In the end, half of one wolf pack was shot from a helicopter and some ranchers received death threats.

Aaron Scotten’s family has lived in northeastern Washington for five generations After retiring from the military, he came back to start ranching and to “try to live a quieter life.”

“And that didn’t happen because of all the wolf issues,” Scotten said.

Scotten is also a contract Ranger Rider for the state of Washington. He spends the summer on horseback checking grazing allotments on the Colville National Forest for signs of wolf predation on cattle.

Last summer, he watched the Profanity Peak wolf pack kill and injure cattle there. That’s why the Department of Fish and Wildlife shot more than half the wolf pack from a helicopter.

By the end of the season, cattle were still being killed and environmental groups and state lawmakers were at odds.

“I just couldn’t handle the fact that it felt like every rancher in the community was being beat up beat down and literally terrorized sometimes,” Scotten said.

'You really need to think like a cow'

And that sense of disillusionment may have kept ranchers away from a workshop that aims to help ranchers improve rangeland, increase livestock production, and help reduce wolf predation on cattle.

But how do you keep a wolf from killing a cow?

“In Low Stress Livestock Handling, you really need to think like a cow,” fourth-generation cattle and sheep rancher Whit Hibbard said.

He recently led a workshop in Republic, Washington, to show how he not only thinks like a cow, but also moves like one.

“We need to put ourselves in that animal's hooves so to speak and get behind its horns,” Hibbard said.

In a video, you see him zig-zag walk behind an entire herd of cattle. The only sound is wind, as the cattle move quietly through a few gates, up into a chute and then willingly into a truck.

Conventional methods for moving cattle are far more chaotic. Men on horseback whoop, holler and wave arms and sticks as cattle run frantically into a corral. Hibbard says that kind of stress is why he changed his ways back in 2005.

“It changed my relationship from one that was adversarial and me against them—it was a contest of like the strongest will win, and now I see it as a relationship, of me with them instead of against them,” he said.

He has since taught over 40 workshops. He maintains that low stress techniques help cattle stand their ground, stay with their herd and have fewer fatal run-ins with wolves.

That’s why he was invited to Republic where people are bracing themselves.

Successfully reducing cattle kills

Alongside Range Riders and low stress handling, Hibbard also uses wildlife tracking and flagging to deter predators, like wolves, at his ranch north of Yellowstone National Park. It’s part of the Tom Miner Basin, where a similar situation between wolves, grizzly bears and cattle played out years ago.

Hibbard works cattle alongside fellow rancher and wolf biologist, Hilary Anderson. Over the last two decades, their community has used low stress methods, wildlife tracking, flagging and range riders to bring the number of cattle kills in their region to nearly zero.

“The people who didn’t like wolves before, they still don’t like wolves,” Anderson said. “It’s just that instead of feeling that they were a victim, they’re moving into a place where they do feel support, they do feel they have resources and there’s a sense of empowerment.”

Those methods are also becoming popular in California. But, Hibbard said it’s a total lifestyle change for ranchers.

“They basically have to admit, as I did—and that’s why I resisted it for several years too—was that what ‘geez, i spent more than three decades learning and getting good at, was basically wrong.”

Range Riders are in particularly high demand in Northeast Washington, because that region is home to nearly 85 percent of the state’s wolf population.

But, Scotten said local ranchers are disappointed and dismayed by the potential for a repeat of last summer’s events.