Siskiyou County ranchers on edge over wolf encounters

The cattle were acting nervous and flighty in late October as David Cowley and his father, Jack, rounded them up to move the herd off the mountainous summer grazing land they lease in eastern Siskiyou County.

Ten yearling heifers, each worth potentially more than $2,000, had broken off from the herd. David Cowley rode off on horseback to bring them back.

He approached and saw a female wolf and three of her pups slowly tailing them.

The pups scattered when he closed in, but the female didn’t. Jack Cowley said his son recalled she stared him down – “challenged him” – before sauntering off to join her pups.

The encounter left the Cowleys shaken. Even more so when they learned that just a few days later, on Nov. 10, a group of ranchers on a similar cattle roundup nearby came upon a pack of wolves tearing apart the carcass of a calf.

Wildlife officials announced this month they had classified the November incident as a “probable” wolf kill. They said the calf may have died through other means, and the wolves may have merely scavenged the carcass. But ranchers in Siskiyou County have little doubt the wolves made the kill, in what would be the first documented attack on livestock by a wolf in California in a century.

The news has put ranchers on Siskiyou County on edge. More broadly, it highlights the deep divide between rural and urban California on the issue of wolves returning to the state after being exterminated almost a century ago.

Those living in California’s faraway cities seemed to respond positively this summer when state wildlife officials announced that a pair of gray wolves had moved into the woods of Siskiyou County, likely from Oregon, and had five black-furred pups. They welcomed the notion of majestic predators again howling in some distant corner of their state.

The reactions were different in Siskiyou County.

“I don’t really know what to do here,” said Jim Rickert, who ranches just a few miles from where Cowley encountered the wolves. “It’s one more thing on our plate. It’s a burden, as far as I’m concerned.”

State and federal officials and wolf advocates say that livestock predation is rare and attacks on people are even less likely. That hardly eases the fears among the 45,000 people who live here.

The fifth largest county by land mass in California, up on the Oregon border, can feel like a place out of time, thanks in large part to the county’s ranching culture. Drivers on rural roads commonly get stuck behind ranchers on horseback walking a herd of cattle. Herefords, Charolais and Angus cows still graze unattended in the same evergreen forests, mountain meadows and high desert plains that ranchers have used for more than 100 years.

Where howls are heard

Ranching also is an economic driver in this chronically impoverished county, where nearly one person in five was unemployed during the recession. Ranchers have a sense of dread that the wolves will continue to grow in numbers, and they’ll develop a taste for their livestock, harming a business model that’s already susceptible to sudden declines in cattle prices. They’re not just worried about wolves picking off calves from time to time. They say that even if wolves don’t directly prey on their herds, just having a pack nearby stresses cattle to the point where heifers have fewer or less healthy calves. Stressed beef steers, they say, also lose weight, fetching a lower price at the auction house.

The wolf resettlement in Siskiyou County also has added fuel to an already simmering sense of frustration with Sacramento and the federal government. Siskiyou County is home to the founders of the movement to carve a state of Jefferson out of staunchly Republican counties in Northern California and southern Oregon.

When it comes to wolves and other predators, the ranchers and Jefferson activists say California’s perceptions and management strategies amount to out-of-touch city dwellers making decisions without regard for those whose livestock investments are under increasing threat.

“I wonder how city people would feel if their life’s savings walked around on the street,” said Nadine Bailey, a longtime north state agricultural advocate and former state legislative staff member.

There’s little, the ranchers say, they can do about it. Because gray wolves are listed under both state and federal endangered species acts, one cannot legally be killed even if a rancher sees a calf in its jaws.

That hasn’t stopped some on social media from chiming in to say that Siskiyou County ranchers should take matters in their own hands. “SSS” is a common refrain, short for “Shoot. Shovel. Shut up.”

“Those poor little puppies are gonna get dirt naps,” one online commenter posted on Facebook in response to a recent Sacramento Bee story describing the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s investigation into the probable wolf kill.

The agency has no evidence that such threats are anything more than online bluster. Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement chief, David Bess, said it has no plans to increase game warden patrols in the region to protect the wolves from human attack.

Ranchers told The Bee that while they would like to kill a wolf if it’s caught preying on their animals, it would be a bad idea to do so. They said that they know the animals are beloved by many in the state, and that anyone who killed one would receive little forgiveness in the legal system should he be caught. Killing a gray wolf is potentially punishable by hefty fines and years in prison.

“As far as ‘shoot, shovel and shut up,’ I don’t think anybody here would ever do that because we are – under this new agenda – guilty until proven innocent,” said Debbie Bacigalupi, whose family raises cattle in the Montague area of Siskiyou County.

Bacigalupi said she wishes those in urban areas understood the personal toll for ranching families when predators attack their livestock.

“My parents have been out in the middle of the night when it’s snowing and a cow is giving birth and a pack of coyotes is eating the calf out of the mother,” she said, her voice quavering with emotion. “The calf is now dead and my parents are up in the middle of the night, sewing that cow. There is investment of the heart in a place like this.”

Rickert said he’s had similar experiences with predation on his livestock. He said he has a fondness for his cattle similar to how others might love their dog or cat.

He said a few years ago, a mountain lion killed a number of sheep close to his ranch house. Wildlife officials were called to deal with the animal.

When they arrived, he said, he wryly told them he had the ideal place for the animal’s resettlement: a park in Los Gatos, a wealthy city in the Bay Area, a region in which voters supported a ballot initiative in 1990 that prohibited mountain lion hunting.

When a predator is nearby or attacking a rancher’s stock, Rickert said, “it’s very personal for us. But for them, it’s abstract. It’s very theoretical.”

The call to adapt

Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said ranchers have not been left out of the discussions of how to manage wolves. She said they played an integral role in shaping the agency’s recently released draft wolf conservation plan. In addition to state management strategies, the plan outlines possible state funding for providing reimbursements for livestock killed by wolves, or for ranchers using nonlethal methods to scare the predators away from their herds.

The public has until mid-February to comment on the draft. Three meetings are scheduled around the state to solicit input, including one Jan. 21 in Yreka, Siskiyou County’s seat.

Amaroq Weiss, a biologist who advocates for wolves for the Center for Biological Diversity, said she was encouraged to see that the draft plan broadly explores nonlethal strategies to reduce conflicts between ranchers and wolves. She also liked that it sets goals for public education to promote coexistence with the predators.

But she said she’s troubled that the plan calls for the state to authorize killing wolves when the population reaches as few as 50 to 75 animals to keep their numbers in check.

She pointed to a recent Washington State University scientific study that showed that killing wolves actually leads to more predation on livestock. She said that when a pack is disrupted by a death, the rest of the pack targets easier prey. Often, that’s docile sheep and cows.

Weiss said ranchers will have to learn to adapt to wolves on their rangeland by changing their animal husbandry practices. She and other wolf advocates call for such measures as spending more time checking their herds, building wolf-proof fencing, corralling livestock when wolves are present, staking flags around grazing land to frighten the animals away, and employing technology such as alarms that go off when wolves that have been radio-collared by biologists are nearby. State officials said they hope to place collars on the Siskiyou pack to track the wolves’ movements, something that has been done in other states.

“Change is part of the world. Everybody adapts to change,” Weiss said. “Everybody that has a business adapts to change, otherwise you go out of business. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rancher or you own a dry cleaner in a city. That’s part of a successful business model.”

But Siskiyou County ranchers said that many of the nonlethal methods wolf advocates suggest they use again show how out of touch they are about how ranching actually works. Many of the methods, they said, would be costly or impracticable. For instance, Rickert challenged the idea of placing flags around his grazing property. He said that if all of his grazing lands were put together they would be a mile wide and stretch on for nearly 60 miles.

Jack Cowley, the rancher whose son had the close encounter with the wolf, expressed similar sentiments.

“This crazy stuff they talk about putting the flags up and all that, that’s totally, completely impossible,” he said. “We can’t have a rider that spends his full life up there.”

David Cowley did change one habit after his wolf encounter. Even though many of his fellow ranchers carry handguns, Cowley had never purchased one. He said he did soon after his wolf encounter.

The Cowleys were troubled by how little fear the animal seemed to have of him. Wildlife agency officials noted in their investigation of the probable wolf-kill that the wolves got very close to them as well.

On Nov. 11, a day after the ranchers found the dead calf surrounded by the pack, the investigators visited the site and played recordings of a pair of wolves, wolf pups and a rabbit to see if there would be any response. Almost immediately, they heard multiple howls in return.

One wolf walked within 100 yards.

A photo later taken by an investigator shows one of the black wolves with its head back in a howl. Three other wolves also were photographed.

Jack Cowley said his family is considering not grazing their cattle in that area next year. And not just because of the threat – perceived or real – to their cows. The ranchers themselves are nervous to be in this newly reclaimed wolf country.

“You better believe we are. You better believe we are,” he said. “You don’t know what they’re going to do. You just don’t know.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.

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