From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 2, Number 5 - May 2, 2002
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Put the scare back in the bear

by Cat Urbigkit

Put the scare back in the bear

Imagine being a sheepherder with a band of sheep in the mountains of western Wyoming and shortly after falling to sleep in the wagon, you awaken to the sounds of a grizzly bear mauling the sheep you are there to protect.

You grab the gun and rush out, firing into the air. The bear runs away. The same events are repeated throughout the night, until sometimes the bear just doesn’t even run away. You’re not allowed to kill the federally protected animal and there is simply nothing you can do to stop the killing.

That’s just about the situation that sheepherders working for the Thoman family experienced last year, according to Mary Thoman. But the herders reacted in ways some people never would have dreamed. One grabbed a flashlight and a can of pepper spray, jumped on his little bay mare and charged a grizzly, spraying it in the face until the bear fled. Another whipped a black bear off of a ewe.

Sheep rancher Mary Thoman wants the herders to have more options available to them than risking their lives. She asked for a brainstorming session with natural resource agency personnel to discuss non-lethal means of controlling predation on her sheep herds.

But what she was told last Friday in that meeting, is that alter-native methods are very limited and doomed to eventual failure. She also learned that if she were willing to forego her Upper Green River grazing allotments, "incentives" could probably be provided.

The Thoman family runs three bands of sheep, with about 1,350 ewes, yearlings and lambs per band. The Thomans have three grazing allotments on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, located about 25 miles outside the official grizzly bear recovery zone. The one wilderness allotment is slated for rest this year, Thoman said. Each band has its own herder and two or three Great Pyrenees guard dogs in addition to herding dogs.

John Shivik of the USDA Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., said it’s his understanding that the guard dogs work well in discouraging coyote depredation, but can actually be an attractant for wolves, which then proceed to kill the dogs. Thoman said her guard dogs are neutered or moved out before the females come in heat as a way to minimize the attractant. Although more aggressive breeds of guard dogs are available, that could cause problems with recreationists, Thoman said.

Thoman described the problems encountered last year, a dry year. There were one to three bears preying on the herds every night, nearly all summer, Thoman said. Herders weren’t able to sleep at night, going out and making noise and shooting over the herds to try to deter the bears, to no avail.

Thoman questioned: "He’s killing the sheep. We’re standing right there. What do we do?"

One herder charged a bear with a can of pepper spray and considered it a great success when the bear didn’t come back into the herd for eight days, she said.

"These bears are smart," Thoman said, and have figured out that the noises made by the herders amount to idle threats.

"The herder has no tool to get it to stop killing," Thoman explained. "He can’t get the bear out of the sheep."

When depredations occur, it can be two or three days before the agencies can be notified. The herders can’t and won’t leave their flocks, and cellular telephone coverage is so limited as to be non-existent.

Thoman said the herders are putting their lives on the line with just a can of pepper spray because they believe it is their duty and responsibility to protect their flocks. Last year was the first time the herders were given .30/. 30 guns as part of their gear. Thoman said the herders were told to shoot a bear as the last resort and only to save a human life. Even though black bears may be shot while in the act of killing livestock, most producers prefer to have agency personnel resolve the problems, especially when the difference between a grizzly and black bear can make identification difficult.

While the majority of the Thoman herders are Peruvian, one Indian herder poses a cultural challenge. Because of his religious beliefs regarding bears and wolves, he will not report damage done by these species, but will allege that the dogs did it, or that the animals died from another cause, although the real cause is apparent, Thoman said.

The dedication of the herders was commented on by several agency personnel, as was concern for the personal safety of the herders.

Mark Bruscino of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said his agency "would certainly rather pay for the sheep."

Thoman responded: "But you don’t pay for them. What you’re paying comes out to about one third of what we’re losing."

Thoman said the worst season that her family experienced resulted in the loss of 490 head: 220 breeding ewes and 270 lambs. Last year the documented losses only totaled about 100.

Under state law regarding compensation for damage due to grizzlies, Thoman must notify WG&F when a loss occurs because the statute allows for compensation for losses "proven to have occurred." The agency will call in USDA Wildlife Services to respond to the depredation.

Bruscino said while his agency does have a legal obligation to compensate for livestock losses to bears, it does not have a statutory obligation to minimize conflicts.

"If given the opportunity, we’ll try to take some kind of control action," Bruscino said. "Opportunity is often limited by access and the timing of the event."

Shivik suggested that Thoman determine what constitutes an acceptable loss: "What’s the breaking point? I guarantee you we’re not going to fix this 100 percent ... but can we get close enough?"

Thoman said her ranch is being pushed to the breaking point and "we’re not going to exist much longer" without some changes being made.

Management of depredation problems in the wilderness grazing allotment is more difficult since the response time is longer and options are limited. Bruscino said if you travel into the wilderness on horseback and catch grizzly bear, "what do you do with them? You let them go."

Bruscino made it clear he doesn’t want the herders or wildlife services personnel to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the sheep.

Mike Jimenez of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said wolves aren’t viewed as a human-safety issue in the area, but with wolves and bears preying on livestock in the same area, determining which species caused the problem can be an issue. Jimenez said his agency does not relocate wolves involved in livestock depredations, but eliminates these animals from the population instead.

Ideas to discourage predation varied, and included temporary fences on bedgrounds; the benefits of various dog breeds and having herding dogs that could be sicked on bears; flagging, lights and noisemakers; cracker shells shot from a 12 gauge; propane exploders; lasers; and chemical repellents.

Thoman pushed for more research on bear spray that would increase the range of the delivery system so that herders wouldn’t need to be so close to the bears to use the spray.

"Everything in the world, short of lethal, will fail at some point," Shivik said, but suggested if flagging worked for a few days, and another method lasted a few days, the herders could in effect pull these items out of their toolboxes for some relief.

Scott Edberg of WG&F asked about the possibility of the Thomans not using the Upper Green allotments, but moving somewhere else with their herds.

Levi Broyles of the Bridger-Teton said, "There are some options out there," and said he would discuss those options privately with Thoman.

Bruscino told Thoman, "I know that there are people out there who would throw incentives your way."

It was near the end of the meeting when Bruscino once again raised the issue of the Thomans moving their sheep somewhere else "until conditions can be made compatible for co-existence." Thoman said she could see how the outcome of the meeting could be "totally counter-productive" rather than helpful.

Creation of a safe haven was an idea given a lot of support, with some discussion of using a temporary pen for such an event, and experimenting with vegetation changes at the same time. Forest service personnel agreed to work with Thoman in identifying safe havens in each allotment before the sheep enter the forest this year. These are areas where the sheep can be taken while depredations are being dealt with.

It was also agreed that the agencies would develop a written access agreement detailing specific areas that may be used by agency personnel in responding to depredation problems.

The possibility of having Defenders of Wildlife help pay for needed equipment, such as satellite telephones to increase communications, will be explored as well. Bruscino said his agency is in the process of creating alternative language information describing when a herder can legally kill a bear and other legal information.

Rod Krischke of Wildlife Services said while his agency is often criticized for using lethal control, the day’s discussions demonstrated that in such cases there are few options outside of total removal of the offending animal.

Grizzly bears and wolves are federally protected species that have been completely immune from persecution for nearly 30 years in this state. Both species are expected to be the subjects of petitions calling for removal from federal protections in the next few years. It is expected that litigation will stall the delisting process for some time.

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