If it’s possible to manage a wild, working landscape that sustains both people and wildlife, it is possible in Wyoming.
For that reason, the Western Landowners Alliance is enlisting input from people who work and live outdoors — Wyoming’s landowners — in an initiative aimed at reducing conflicts with wildlife in the northern Rockies.
“Land management conflicts involving grizzlies, wolves and elk are a great challenge,” said Albert Sommers, WLA member and landowner from Pinedale. “It’s critical to have perspectives from people who are out working on the land with these animals every day at the table to shape future management practice.”
The WLA is a member-based nonprofit organization focused on advancing policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species. With support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, its latest initiative is intended to engage landowners, partners and nonprofit organizations in coordinated efforts to share knowledge, provide increased resources and improve policies and practices that help reduce losses to both wildlife and livestock.
The relationship between ranchers and large carnivores, usually native predators capable of killing and eating livestock, has been predominantly adversarial, according to a December 2018 report by the WLA. Ranchers and, more recently, government-sponsored programs employed poisoning, trapping, culling, shooting and eventually aerial gunning to reduce predator numbers and conflict.
As a result, the gray wolf was extirpated in the lower 48 states and the grizzly bear was reduced to a small population in the Northern Rockies.
The black bear and mountain lion fared better, maintaining populations in most western states. Coyotes fared best, seeming to thrive in the face of persecution, nearly doubling their range to inhabit the eastern as well as western United States, according to the report.
It was not only predators affected by Western expansion and ranching practices. Migratory animals can be impacted by fences, roads and other infrastructure.
Elk and other large ungulates, including bison, bighorn sheep, mule deer and pronghorn, were once so over-hunted they were nearly wiped out. However, elk represent at least one conservation success story: Once hunted until only a small population remained within Yellowstone National Park, elk have repopulated the western states and several eastern states thanks to efforts by nonprofit organizations and state wildlife agencies, according to the WLA.
Agricultural challenges from elk and other ungulates include crop depredation, forage competition and disease concerns. Wolf, and even coyote, contact can involve livestock depredation. Bears, both grizzly and black, are omnivorous and attracted to a wide range of food sources.
In the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Sheridan Region, which covers a good portion of northeastern Wyoming, officials have counted eight pronghorn herds, four mule deer herds, one white-tailed deer herd, four elk herds and one moose herd in recent years.
In many areas along the base of the Bighorn Mountains, elk find refuge on private land, especially during hunting season, according to Christina Schmidt, Sheridan Region Public Information Specialist for the WGFD. In fact, each fall, several hundred elk avoid hunters by moving to private lands.
This means, though, that they reside in areas likely open to livestock as well.
“It’s so important for people to understand the critical role private ranches play in connecting landscapes together,” said Sommers, who is also a state legislator representing District 20.
Legislators need to support programs like the Farm Bill to help private ranchers with conflict mitigation practices, fence modifications and conservation easements, he said. And for their part, ranchers need to learn what wildlife need on the landscape they are stewarding.
“Big game migrations wouldn’t exist without ranching as an industry that maintains open space. If you have land churn (a high rate of ownership turnover) in the marketplace, it’s less likely that the landscape will remain intact,” he said. “Keeping ranching economically viable is the best way to keep wildlife habitats connected and available for wildlife. Working ranches are generally a better place for big wildlife species than in housing developments.”
The WLA represents that landowner voice, “so we can find ways to help reduce and better manage wildlife conflicts,” Sommers said.
As a main component of its work, WLA will facilitate a conflict reduction network to connect collaborative, conflict mitigation efforts and partners across the West. Participants in the network will meet regularly to increase coordination and knowledge sharing among partners, and to advance funding and joint policy recommendations that will better support coexistence solutions such as carcass pickup and composting, range riding and more. Conflict reduction strategies, practices and resources will be made readily available to landowners.
For more information about WLA’s conflict reduction efforts or to learn how you can support this important work, please consider becoming a member or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.