AoR 41: Stewart Breck & Matt Barnes, Livestock-Predator Interactions

Stewart Breck is a research carnivore ecologist with the USDA-APHIS-WS National Wildlife Research Center and a member of the new Colorado State University Center for Human Carnivore Coexistence in Fort Collins. He has been focused on carnivore ecology and behavior and minimizing conflict between carnivores and people many years. The interview also includes Matt Barnes, a grazing consultant out of Colorado who works with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and has a long history in the middle ground between ranchers and wildlife advocates. 


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>> Welcome to The Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, Range and Livestock Specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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Welcome to The Art of Range. I have with me today in the virtual studio both Matt Barnes and Stewart Breck. Stewart is a research wildlife biologist with USDA APHIS and he's part of the new Colorado State University Center for Human and Carnivore Coexistence out of Fort Collins. His research is focused mostly on carnivore ecology and behavior and also minimizing conflict between carnivores and people. Matt Barnes is a grazing consultant out of Colorado who has a long history as, what I call, the man-in-the-middle between ranchers and wildlife folks. Matt and Stewart, welcome to the show.

>> Thanks, Tip.

>> Yeah, thank you for having us.

>> For anybody who is in the world of rangelands-based livestock production, they recognize that the relationships between people and predators and livestock has a long history and remains pretty controversial at especially, I think, in the states that the three of us work in. And so, we're going to, we're going to talk about what we know about those relationships today and some of the best practices for minimizing conflict and allowing coexistence. But before we dive into some of those topics, let's talk a little bit about how the two of you came to be speaking to me about this. Stewart, how did you end up as a carnivore ecologist?

>> Yeah, that's a long story, and it started -- and I'll give the short version, but it started where a friend of mine, Doug Smith, in 1994 went to Yellowstone to help run the Yellowstone Reintroduction Project for Wolves. And he invited me to come out. I was between jobs, between graduate degrees, and had a month or two to spare. And so, I went out and worked on that project. This was in 1995. And I was having a great time watching wolves, recording data on wolves, interacting with grizzly bears and killing elk and living out in the back country of Yellowstone. And then Doug and Mike Phillips, who was running the project at that time, decided to send me out to a ranch in Montana where one of their wolfpacks had dispersed onto this ranch out of the Park. And that was my -- really my first introduction to this whole issue. And it was, you know, it was one of those forks in the road that, in hindsight, pretty meaningful. And you know, I was going out as an ecologist to this ranch and my job was to live out there for -- just monitor these wolves. You know, this was in May, it was raining, it was cold, and I was living in a tent, and, you know, the cowboys were, you know, living in the bunkhouse and, you know, having these warm meals every day. And at some point, the ranch manager said, Hey, you want to come join us? So, I came down for breakfast, and soon that turned into a dinner, and then I was living in the bunkhouse. In that experience I spent more time building fence, working with the ranchers, and occasionally talking about wolves. It was a really meaningful experience. And I think, you know, it was one of those things in hindsight, it was, like, wow, that had a big impact on my career because as it -- when I went to work for Wildlife Service, the job I'm currently in, that was in 2000, I got the job. You know that was, that -- one of the experiences they were looking for was, you know, what's your philosophy working with ranchers and, you know, finding the balance. And definitely it was -- that experience was a step in that direction. So I've been at the agency now for about 20 years. I was hired to develop nonlethal tools for wolf management, predator management, things like that, and that's expanded into all kinds of different projects. My job encompasses not only looking at nonlethal tools but also lethal tools and -- but I'll get all kinds of opportunities to work with different livestock producers and folks like Matt who I respect deeply and his, you know, what he's trying to do and NGOs that are kind of conservation bits. So, it's a really rich, interesting job, and I feel very privileged to be here.

>> I love it. Matt, I don't even know if I described your current occupation accurately. How would you describe yourself and how did you end up doing what you're doing now?

>> Yeah. So, well, at the moment I work through an NGO called Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative which is based in Northwestern Wyoming but works throughout Western North America. I worked for a few other NGOs, government agencies, ranches, over the course of the years, and I have my own ranch consulting business so, yeah, I guess I wear a bunch of different hats, and like most people how I got to where I am today is an impossible to repeat winding path. But it started with chasing black bears out of campgrounds and parking lots, first to the ranch in New Mexico, then Yosemite National Park and that evolved to trapping and radio collaring grizzly bears in Idaho. And then I ended up getting a Master's Degree in Range Science and called myself a range scientist more than anything else for the last 10 or 20 years and -- but I was running some cattle in Southwestern Colorado for several years on a little custom grazing operation up in the mountains and I just had a, what I call a green fire moment when I realized that we were not losing cattle to these coyotes that had a den right in the middle of my best irrigated pasture, even though those cattle came from another ranch where they had been essentially at war with the local coyotes. And I had a realization that there might be some things we were doing in managing our range and livestock that were also helping us reduce conflict rates. And if that was so, that that would be an important tool for carnivore conservation more generally. And then, since then I've been trying to figure out how to apply that, you know, on a larger scale in places that have wolves and grizzly bears and with some success, and not always, so. yeah. But that's the short version.

>> Good. I often make the mistake of assuming that other people have the same starting point that I do, whether I'm talking to ranchers or agency folks. So I want to avoid making the mistake that everybody who might be listening, especially those that maybe don't come from states where printed or reintroduction is happening right now. Don't want to make the mistake that people know something about the history of predators in this country and predator suppression and in many cases near eradication. So, I'd like one of you to give your version of a brief history of the decline of large predators in the US, you know, say since white man started moving west and trying to raise livestock out there. It doesn't have to be a book, but the high points.

>> I could probably give you a short version of that. So, head back about 200 years, and North America was full of a whole lot of animals including wolves across basically almost all of North America, grizzly bears in almost all of the western half of North America, cougars throughout most of it, coyotes, interestingly, primarily in the West. That's changed, obviously, in the last 200 years. But as a consequence of Euro-American settlement moving west across the continent, well, the vast majority of those animals were killed, so especially wolves and grizzly bears. Black bears managed to survive probably because they're more generalists than they are predatory. Cougars managed to survive primarily because they're so hard to find and so hard to kill. And coyotes actually thrived, so when wolves were killed out, the coyote population essentially exploded and expanded eastward across the continent in a phenomenon that ecologists would call mesopredator release. But it's essentially evolution appearing before our eyes as an empty niche was filled. So that's a big part of the history of carnivores in North America that's not well-recognized outside of the ecology world. But there were probably something like 50,000 grizzly bears at the time Lewis and Clark travelled across the continent. And maybe a similar number of wolves. Both of those were very nearly extricated from the lower 48 except for just a couple of pockets of individuals, and they've been brought back through -- mostly under the Endangered Species Act. And grizzly bears have not actually been reintroduced. They've just -- the populations have been encouraged to rebound where they are. There's still a small number. There's probably less than 2,000 grizzly bears in the lower 48 right now, and in five populations. And Stewart could probably tell you about how many wolves there are.

>> Yeah, a quick question before we go there. Would you say that those predators were removed because people were experiencing, you know, significant, economically significant livestock kills? In other words, those animals were spending a fair bit of -- were getting quite a bit of their diet from domestic livestock instead of wild animals, or was it primarily because, you know, humans have always had a rough relationship with predators, and in general, the feeling is that the fewer the better for the same space?

>> Yeah, it, yeah, it's both. So, so what happened -- you know, humans have always had a rough relationship with predators, and that's the case all over the world. There's a lot of places where people kill predators, a few places in the world that predators kill people. But in most of the world it's not always been pretty, but people and predators usually find some way to coexist where some of those predators are getting killed, but not always. In the case of North America, you have to see this against the background of the history and the culture, so -- and what was happening to all the rest of the native wildlife at the time. So in the history of North American wildlife, we're talking about the era of market hunting when there was absolutely no regulation of hunting game animals, and all, all the North American game animals were heavily, heavily hunted at the same time that European Americans were moving westward across the continent and some of this was intentional that [inaudible] --

>> There was a quote from an essay by Nathan Sayre a few years back that I liked about sustainability. He said, "It's not that beaver trapping and bison hunting are unsustainable in and of themselves. But they're unsustainable at the levels that they were being applied in the mid-1800s."

>> Yeah.

>> "You can kill some buffalo. You just can't kill all of them and expect them to last."

>> Right. That, that's exactly right. Of course, the killing of the buffalo was also one aspect of the taking of the land from Native Americans. But that was a federal policy as well as a case of unregulated hunting. So I think it's important to recognize that, and so as all the large game animals were heavily hunted, the native carnivore populations did start killing livestock in significant numbers. Because livestock had essentially replaced not just the bison but also elk and deer in other parts of the West, so at that time there were a lot of livestock killed. And that's -- that part isn't made up. That's known for sure. And that resulted in essentially a government-funded campaign to exterminate a lot of these predators, especially wolves. I think there was a $2 bounty on wolves for a very long time. And it probably never would have worked without government support. But I think it's important to recognize that essentially all of American society was behind this effort at the time. It wasn't just the ranching community.

>> Stewart, anything you want to add?

>> Yeah, I think -- well, I think Matt covered it well. I think one of the really interesting things about today is, you know, is that we are -- you know, we're kind of riding that wave of, you know, having systems without, you know, large carnivores in them. And it wasn't until the '70s or so where that started changing. We started, you know, stopped the widespread poisoning and the suppression of the different carnivore populations and started letting them recover. And you know, we've done a good job between then and now in terms of, you know, black bears and cougars and coyotes as Matt mentioned, and then wolves and grizzly bears. And so, I mention that just because, you know, we've got recovering carnivore populations and we got landscapes where people haven't had a lot of experience living with them, so it's -- it brings on some really interesting and new challenges.

>> Yeah. And I would add one thing to that, Stewart, which is that the entire discipline of range science evolved in this time of very few predators. In fact, the profession came into existence at essentially the nadir of North American predator populations. And, actually, to go back to Nathan Sayre, if you read his book of "The History of Range Science," he argues that it essentially began with the predator-proof pasture experiment --

>> In Oregon.

>> In Oregon.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah. And, and so one of the blind spots of our profession was for decades we had this assumption that we were dealing with a landscape of few or no predators.

>> And how would you say that predators responded since the 1970s when a lot of the large scale, particularly poisoning efforts, but also some, you know, bounty trapping, was ended? How did predator populations bounce back, you know, without active reintroduction like we've had over the last 15/20 years?

>> Well, some, you know, there's no generalization that applies to every predator's [inaudible]. Certainly the world's needed a boost, and that occurred in 1994-95 when wolves were introduced into Idaho and into Yellowstone, and as Matt mentioned, the grizzly bear recovery has been an ongoing effort since, you know, kind of late '70s and has, you know, has benefitted from, you know, some really good work in terms of protecting bears but also trying to minimize conflict and such. But black bears have done well, kind of without a whole lot of help. In some cases there's been efforts to reintroduce them and things, but then, I think, the same's true for mountain lions. You know, they kind of recovered without a whole lot of active recovery efforts.

>> And bears are a little more generalists in their habitat requirements and dietary needs, right? So they, they seem to thrive in, or at least live in quite a bit of North America. Like I grew up in Northern Arkansas and at one point black bear oil was one of the primary exports from that region. That didn't end so well for the black bear, but they're beginning to come back. But, but we also find black bears, you know, everywhere else in the country it seems.

>> Yeah. I think there are probably 26/27 states now and some of those populations are doing really well, you know, like in, in Florida. They have thousands of black bears. And across the West in, you know, there's robust populations of black bears throughout the West and so, yeah, that, that's a, I mean, like you said, they've benefitted because they're very much general species and not strictly carnivores and probably not, not a threat that some people might deem more strict carnivores like wolves and the mountain lions.

>> Yeah. In terms of current actual numbers of known depredation, you know, what are the species that, that cause the most economic damage if we're talking about, say, cattle and sheep?

>> Yeah. By far and away it's coyotes.

>> Right. Just by virtue of sheer numbers.

>> Sheer numbers, yep, that's, that's the, the number one, you know, species that, that is a concern. You know, if we look at kind of across the country and it -- industry-wide.

>> And what are some of the things that are being done to minimize the -- I'm aware of, you know, for more active projects, trying to minimize conflict with wolves because there's a lot larger interest in not killing off wolves that are trying to come back. You know, we don't apply this same restraint to coyotes because they're ubiquitous and have large numbers. But I guess we can, we can jump into talking about control and conflict avoidance strategies here. What is, if anything, is effective in minimizing those conflicts with coyotes?

>> Well, there's a -- you know, just like any of these species we talk about, you know, there's a lot of different ways to look at it. You know, I think taking a sort of integrated approach is probably the best way to think about work like this, especially with coyotes in that, you know, there are -- there's certainly lethal control that occurs. But there's also a lot of nonlethal preventative methods out there that people use. And some of that -- you know, some of those preventative methods include, you know, things that livestock producers do, you know, night penning young livestock, to using guard dogs, to, you know, different management practices associated with their livestock. You can kind of turn into, you know, more techniques that are oriented towards, you know, like the predator management. So we know that, you know, inhibiting reproduction in coyotes can, can really influence depredation rates. The problem with that tool is we don't have a good way of inhibiting reproduction at a sort of a cost-effective way. But there's also, you know, different non-lethal tools that you can -- from, you know, lights and sound devices that you can use that work on a temporary basis and then, you know, you move into the, the lethal control methods which include, you know, really targeting problem individuals to, you know, taking a more general approach of trying to suppress the coyote population temporarily. So, all -- you know, all those tools come into play at different, different levels. And my agency gets involved in a lot of that. But there's also a lot of other, you know, private companies that do similar kinds of work.

>> Yeah. And, you know, I would add to that just a little bit, which most of the, the tools that we'd come up with are kind of gadget-type tools. And that's the one thing that the conservation and science communities have been fairly good at coming up with. But all those tools work. But they all have serious limitations. So it, it's not like we've got all the tools in the toolbox, and we can all now live happily ever after. There's, there's still a lot of work to be done. But I'd also point out that most of those tools are focused on the potential predator as opposed to being focused on the livestock. So I would say that there's at least sort of two competing perspectives here, and it's important to be able to see it from both of those at the same time. So most of what you would read about carnivore/livestock coexistence issues is really heavily focused on the carnivores. You know, the idea that it's, it's all about the wolves and what do you do with the wolves? It's a wolf problem or it's a bear problem, et cetera, et cetera. I think that's only one-half of the truth. The other half of the truth is what can we do with our livestock to prevent these problems in the first place, or to reduce the vulnerability? You know, can we, can we look at sort of nature's model for ways that we could manage our livestock that make them perhaps just a little bit less vulnerable? It's the way we might use those other tools a little bit less.

>> Yeah. I think the focus on the predator also ignores the, the more holistic nature of some of the, some of the problems, you know. Ranchers would say that the problem with predators like wolves isn't so much the economic impact of direct mortality but, you know, some of the other types of stress that it puts on a herd, especially a herd that's out in the middle of nowhere that may have effects on reproduction and those are some, or gain, body condition, how well they respond to people. You know, those are potentially larger economic impacts than, than a direct kill, but those are also things that maybe you can address as much by, you know, through herd management or animal husbandry as through doing something to the predators that are, that are causing the problem. How would you describe, Matt, some of the, you know, the lesser-known effects on livestock of having large predators around?

>> Yeah, you're exactly right, Tip. Those other effects are real, but they're very difficult to measure. So, and they're all, they're all related to stress. And, of course, the big question is, how much stress do cattle actually experience just because there's a wolf or a bear nearby? And it probably all depends on how that interaction between those animals ends up evolving. So cattle probably don't experience a lot of stress just because a wolf or two trot by and don't do anything. But, if those wolves initiate a kill attempt, it will be highly stressful even though the vast majority of kill attempts are unsuccessful, you know. For instance, there's evidence from Yellowstone that one out of every 15 to twenty kill attempts that wolves initiate on elk actually succeeds. So they don't have a number yet for that on kill attempts with cattle, for example. But, but it's less than one might think. But you're right. The real effect of that, though, is that you've got animals, in this case cattle or sheep, that are experiencing a very high level of stress, and that has cascading consequences in terms of nutrition, reproduction, weight gains. And so, you know, for example, if your entire herd has an average 20 pounds less this year than they did last year, that costs you a lot of money when you add it all up, so. But this isn't experienced by all cattle in wolf or grizzly country. This is experienced by those cattle or sheep which are having a negative interaction with wolves or grizzly bears, if that makes sense.

>> Yeah. And I could, I could add a little bit of that, a little bit to that as well in that, you know, at least one of the points Matt made was, you know, this notion of managing this issue by managing some of the livestock in different ways. And that know that there can be a real benefit for the, you know, for the tools that we do have, the non-lethal tools we do have for managing carnivores. You know, you get some benefit by having the livestock managed. For example, if you're, you know, night-penning your sheep at -- there's a -- some of the non-lethal tools become much more effective because you're dealing with a smaller, smaller space to protect, and so, you know, those tools become more effective that way. So there's, you know, there's a lot of interaction between, you know, all this -- whether we're talking lethal management of carnivores or non-lethal management of carnivores or management of livestock, it's a -- it becomes a real integrated system. And I think, you know, we're really just starting to think that way and starting to think about the holistic nature of this, and even expanding it into, you know, how does that, that kind of management activity influence other aspects of the, of the, you know, the grazing system?

>> Now you mention that you had found some -- you had seen differences on a ranch that you were managing in coyote depredation on cattle, I assume. What, what was different about the place you were on versus the one next door, the one you'd been on previously?

>> Yeah. So, so in that case, like I mentioned, there's a, a coyote den right in the middle of our best pasture, and we actually didn't lose any cattle to coyotes or black bears or cougars. This was in western Colorado. I didn't have wolves or grizzly bears there, obviously. But other, other places nearby were feeling that they needed to kill coyotes and, and the ranch where these cattle spent the rest of their lives was killing a lot of coyotes. And so what we were doing that was a little bit different was we had a -- well, we were using the holistic plan grazing model, and so it -- which is a variation of rotational grazing, although a lot of people would get really hung up on the semantics here. But for this purpose, the important thing is we had cattle in one large herd and the landscape divided up into pastures. And we had a plan for moving those cattle sequentially through those pastures. So, you know, by definition in ranch science terms, that's rotational grazing. Of course, there's more to it than that. We were using the holistic plan grazing model and there's -- so there's more than just putting up some fences and moving cattle around. But the important thing here is we were trying to sort of recreate what we think is nature's model in the ranching world, and that would, that would be a relatively large number of cattle, but moved fairly often from one place to another. And that, that actually came, to a large degree, from Allan Savory's observations in Africa where, where you see large numbers of grazing animals, moreso than we would see here in North America. But in ecology it's generally thought that what we now call the herd evolved in response to predation pressure. And there's several reasons for that. So I won't go into all of them but the general idea is that each animal is safer when it is closer to other potential prey animals. So even if you know that the potential predator is going to be successful at killing at least one prey animal, it's still in the prey animal's best interest to form a herd for their own defense. So, in short, its safety in numbers, but combine that with frequent moving so that they're not always in one place because predators return to the same places over and over again after they've been successful. And so, you know, we were applying this for, for range management reasons. We, we weren't doing it because we thought it would prevent predation because we didn't even have a predation problem. But what I kind of realized was -- you know, one day I was sitting there watching these cattle, and I was watching the coyotes, and then the coyotes and the ranch dog saw each other for the first time and it was a mess, you know? But what, what quickly happened, which is more interesting, was that the cattle would not allow the ranch dog to be there anymore. They realized that they could mob up and function as a herd rather than as a bunch of individuals. And, and that herd all acting together as one large sort of meta-organism, if you will, they ran the dog out of the pasture. And they weren't -- this wasn't like curiosity that we've all seen with cattle. This was -- they were going to trample her to death if she didn't get out of there. And, and I, and that was what I call my green-fire moment. That was when I realized, hey, there is something about what we're doing here with these cattle that changed their behavior and on some level, and I don't know how this works in a cow's mind, but they figured out that they could run off predators if they just did it together. And our management with these relatively small pastures, probably combined with our half-way successful attempts at [inaudible] livestock [inaudible] really encouraged this herd instinct. And I would say that it was that herd instinct as much as it was the small pastures or the rotation that enabled those cattle to start running off predators. And that's been seen in the wildlife world many times. It's probably pretty well-documented in wildlife, just not so well-documented with livestock. But it was that realization that made me think, hey, if we could figure out how to apply grazing management and low-stress livestock handling in ways that could prevent some of these conflicts with large carnivores, it would be a win-win solution for just about everybody.

>> Yeah. It seems like a lot of the conflicts, at least in the Northwest, are in places that are forced in environments that are not quite as conducive to, you know, say, a group of 400 or 500 mother cows sticking together as a large herd. I'm not so sure it's impossible, but it, it definitely is different than if they're in a grassland or a shrubland. Have you seen, have you seen that, that herd instinct function when animals are in a forested setting?

>> Yes. But you're right. It's a lot harder to do. So where I've seen it successful, it's been places where the ranch was really dedicated to this idea and especially really dedicated to the low stress livestock handling part.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> And, and this, I know this is pretty esoteric, but there -- if, if that's done really well, it does seem to increase the animals' natural herding instinct and that, of course, is their natural instinct anyway. But the way we handle our livestock really tends to either increase that or decrease that. So if we act like a predator then they're not getting rewarded when they do the right thing because we, we -- from their perspective it's like they're getting punished whenever we do something that they don't like.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> So, so you have to try to think about it from the, from the cattle's perspective as how they experience their interactions with us as handlers. But, anyway, what I was trying to get around to was where people have developed herds that have a really strong herd instinct where their interactions with their handlers are usually relatively not stressful events, they tend to have that herd instinct and it tends to carry over time. So the only way to, to have it in a forested environment is to build it during the -- whatever part of the year that you're not in that forested environment. It's really difficult to -- you can't start that out on a forested mountain range. You got to start it at home in some kind of a pasture setting and build it slowly over time. But it will last. We, we did some experiments in the mountains of Western Montana where we found that if we, if we could successfully herd cattle for the first few weeks of the summer using those low-stress livestock handling methods, by which I mean the methods developed by Bud Williams, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not perfect at doing this, but we found that we could increase the herd instinct and that that herd instinct would, would kind of stay in place over the course of an entire summer up in the mountains as long as we didn't fall back on our old habits of punishing them every time we got frustrated that we weren't getting the exact result we wanted.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> So -- but you're absolutely right. It's much harder to do in large country, forested country, mountainous country. So, yeah. The take-home message I found was that you got to do it where it's easy and, and then develop that instinct in your herd so that they still have it in places where it's harder to develop it.

>> Yeah. Stewart, on, on the predator side, it seems like the main social flashpoint is around wolves. That's, you know, they're politically charged. They're just a different, a different situation than coyotes. What would you -- what are some of the things that you've seen work in trying to reduce conflict between people and wolves and livestock?

>> Yeah, you're, you're right. The wolves are a different, different story here. They're, you know -- first they're, they're much more effective predators and so they become a lot more of a threat to cattle than, than, say, coyotes in general. You know, they can take down adult cattle if they, you know, if they, if they want to, and -- whereas a coyote, you know, you really don't see that. So that's one thing. The other, you know, the other aspect to this is, is it -- you know, there's some deep cultural, I don't know how else to say it, stuff associated with wolves. You know, for whatever reason, it brings out a lot of emotions in people and that, you know, that's on all sides of the, of the wolf issue, whether you're pro-wolf or anti-wolf. And so, you know, that's, that's a component of what wildlife managers are, are dealing with. It's just like, you know, this, kind of this cultural aspect of, of wolves. And part of that is well -- you know, having the federal government come in here and reintroduce wolves. And so you, you know, you, you, you develop these different attitudes and beliefs and perceptions that, that carry through the culture. And so, you know, management of the wolf issue becomes as much about managing wolves as it does about, you know, managing people or, or educating people or, or thinking about people and how they fit into the system. And so that's a really important component of this discussion. You know, in terms of, you know, how we manage predators or how we manage wolves, you know, one of the interesting things about wolves is that they're, they're kind of scaredy-cats in some ways, you know. We, we've been able to take advantage of what we call neophobic behavior which is afraid of new things. And so, you know, there's been some tools that we've been successful in bringing into, into the management equation for wolves, and one of those is, is something called fladry. You know, it's just basically a rope with, with flags hanging off of it and, you know, it moves around in the wind and is -- provides a, you know, kind of a low-cost, fairly low-cost technique where you can, you know, string it up around this small pasture and provide effective protection on a temporary basis. So we can, you know, we can, we can take advantage of those kinds of discoveries about, you know, wolf behavior when we have -- and that becomes a important component of this story. But I'll, you know, I'll come back to, you know, a lot of this is, is how we as, you know, as researchers or scientists or as managers, how we start integrating people into the equation in better ways. And, you know, it's working with those producers that are struggling and, and, you know, might need some, some help figuring, figuring out some of these tools or might benefit from thinking about things in different ways. And I think, I think what you need out there is practitioners that are, that are really understanding of a lot of different aspects of whether it's livestock behavior to carnivore behavior to human behavior, and are able to recognize, you know, what context and what, you know, situations, or different tools, different methods, going to work. And so it becomes -- there's a lot of art to this as well as some science.

>> You mentioned night-penning. To what extent has that been tried and, and worked with cattle? I can see how that makes a lot of sense with sheep, but in a lot of range or forested grazing situations, you know, most people don't have the kind of human presence or ability to control animals that would be necessary to pen up cattle for the night in any large quantity.

>> Yeah. I would, I would agree with you. I mean, in some ways sheep are easier to deal with in terms of, you know, dealing with some of these predator problems.

>> And cattle ain't quite as helpless either. I realize that.

>> Yeah. And say -- right. And so, you know, comparing across livestock is probably not a safe thing to do because, you know, sheep are much different than cattle. But, but you're, you are correct in that some of these techniques managing livestock probably don't work as well for cattle. I'll defer to Matt on this, but it is probably one of the bigger challenges that we face. It's these remote grazing allotments where people are used to putting out their livestock and, you know, checking on them occasionally, and then after a few months coming back and, and, and picking up the livestock. Those, those are super-challenging systems where, you know, [inaudible] we got a lot of work to do to figure out how to, to optimize the existence of large carnivores on that landscape with the livestock.

>> Yeah. You know I do agree with all of that. I, I would say that if you consider that the different ways that the sheep and cattle industries have evolved in the American West, it's kind of instructive, actually. But the sheep industry has really never been predator-free the way that cattle have been. For instance, the sheep industry has always had herders. Part of that is because it's simply easier to herd sheep. Their natural herding instinct is higher than that of cattle, but, but the sheep industry has never been able to just turn animals out and forget about them for days, weeks, or months at a time the way that cattle people have. The ranch I was on in Western Colorado, for example, that used to be a sheep ranch years ago. Actually, all of that country was old sheep country. But I think they probably switched to cattle for a combination of reasons, one of which was that they thought it would be less labor-intensive. And that was probably partly true, although they eventually discovered that they had to replace those herders with some cross-fencing for grazing management reasons. And I think that, you know, maybe in the bigger picture we should look at it like, well, we could accomplish multiple things with having herders and cowboys back out on the landscape that we can't really accomplish with fences which the real purpose of fences is essentially to babysit livestock in absence of living people. But the best tools are, the best tools are always the ones with brains and by that I mean, number one, humans, and, number two, livestock guardian animals, especially livestock guardian dogs. That's probably -- of all the tools, that's the one that's the most well-studied. But, but most of those studies are essentially social science studies reviewing what people who've used them think about them. It's a lot harder to act -- to just directly measure and then get success in an objective sense how effective they are. But we know that they are effective. Of course, using them with cattle is a little different than using them with sheep and using them in places that have actual wolves instead of just coyotes is also different. So one of the reasons that livestock guardian dogs work so well in places that have coyotes is dogs are essentially analogous to a wolfpack. Dogs technically almost are wolves so -- and wolves and coyotes do not get along. But when you have actual wolves out there, it's a little bit different. So for livestock guardian dogs to work, you got to have more of them, and they probably have to be larger and more aggressive than the [inaudible].

>> Than the Border Collies?

>> Right. Yeah, exactly. So there, there's, there's active research going on in that realm as far as, you know, which breeds might be better. And it's, it's, it's probably, probably goes back to the old adage that it's more of the size of the fight in the dog than --

>> Mm-hmm.

>> -- vice versa. But the, sort of the simple easy-to-say-and-remember maximum is something like outweigh and outnumber. But you also have to realize that if, if you got actual wolves out there, one of the costs of having livestock guardian dogs is that some of them probably are going to get killed sooner or later.

>> So, so it's, it's important to realize that when we advocate for these tools, we're not saying that they're 100% effective all the time. It's all of them work some of the time. And it's a real art to figure out what combinations are going to work in any one situation. And we also probably have to acknowledge that when we say that it's working, we mean that the rate of conflict is less than it would be otherwise, not that it's always zero.

>> It does seem, too, there's some economy of scale in terms of being able to use some of those different strategies. I really like philosophically the idea of cattle being herded and having somebody attending to them most of the time, more like you would with sheep. But that obviously isn't economically feasible with a group of 50 cow/calf pairs, for example.

>> Right.

>> You know, there's some, there's some threshold below which it's not feasible to pay a person to do that. And the kind of person you're paying to do that really has -- is sort of skilled labor. You're not -- this is not $10 an hour work, I don't think. And so I'm curious if you have any thoughts on, you know, where that -- I realize it's changes by context, but, but, in general, any ideas on, on where that threshold might be?

>> Yeah.

>> Or just try to get there, you know? If you've got people that have 150 cows, you know, are there examples of places where four of those operators pull together so that you had a group of 700 instead of 150?

>> Yeah. You know, unfortunately, there's not many great examples of that, but that's exactly right. And maybe I should preface this by, by saying there's a couple of things we might need to acknowledge about our own industry here in the ranching world. One of those is that the size of most ranches, from a simple economic perspective is too small. So the way that the West has evolved geopolitically for 100 years is that we have now essentially what worked 100 years ago. We have a lot of small cow/calf operations that made sense economically in the economy that existed a long time ago, and that -- we have not kept up with the changing economy, so economies of scale matter in the livestock world for a whole lot of reasons and this is one very small reason among many larger reasons. So -- and the other thing we have to acknowledge is that we have not historically recognized the amount of skill that goes into things like herding cattle. The, the -- for some reason the agricultural world has never had parity in what we pay our labor. For some reason we think we're exempt from just about every labor law that exists in this country. And I think we probably need to come to terms with that in some real way. I don't know many ranchers who have actually heard of the 40-hour workweek yet. But those are some big issues within our ranching culture that I think we need to deal with in a bigger picture, and when we do, it'll help us figure out some of these, these other things that are -- you know, in all honesty for most ranchers, these are the small issues, the producing that we're talking about. But they take up a lot of our mind space because we feel so strongly about them. So, in any case, so I'll circle back to that. You're absolutely right. There's economy of scale when it comes to herding cattle because it takes a lot of cattle to pay for the cowboy. In the case of the ranch that I was on, we were able to pay my salary by the number of cattle we ran. And by that I mean that we were able to run more cattle because of our grazing management than we could have without that grazing management. So the labor I was doing, and a lot of this was -- when I say labor, I mean like, you know, fixing fences, building fences, maintaining fences, whether that's barbed wire or poly wire, and then the effort of actually moving the cattle around. But the major benefit of that for us didn't have anything to do with predators. It was the fact that we were able to use that landscape so much more efficiently that we were able to run about one-and-a-half to two times as many cattle on it just because we made more of those acres usable than would have been had we not done the management. So that was kind of -- and I think for most ranches in the West, that's true. Most of us are not using our -- we're not harvesting our entire landscape very efficiently, so -- and that's the major reason why rotational grazing works so well out in the real world but not always in the science world. It's because -- and it's that economy of scale issue. So it's a way to deal with scale issues on a real complex landscape. And when you try to boil that down to a research study, for example, you usually control out all the variables that made it effective in the first place. And then you don't necessarily see the difference between rotating and not rotating. So, so to bring that back around, in the case of a ranch where we had several hundred cattle, it -- that labor paid for itself. But it really depends on what that person's doing. Like if all -- if I had only been looking for a potential predator who's putting out trail cameras, things like that, it would not have paid for itself. So another way to look at that is, when ranching for profit they suggest that one person should be able to handle more than several hundred head, closer to 1,000 head I think. And, of course, that just depends on the value of every animal, the value of every animal unit month of grazing, and the value of every day of labor. But you're right. To make it all work, most of these places are, are too small and their best bet in the long run would be to figure out how to amalgamate herds so that no one -- so not that every ranch needs to incur the same expense of hiring range riders.

>> Yeah. I think your point about distribution is good. You know one of the claims made by advocates of rotational grazing or holistic planned grazing that is often mocked is the idea that you can increase the stocking rate. And I think the assumption is that the claim is being made that the amount of per-acre production is going up, forage production is going up and, therefore, the stocking rate can be increased. But, at least in the West, I see very directly exactly what you were talking about, that in any kind of a large landscape there are going to be a whole lot of places, you know, by virtue of topography or distance from water or, you know, whatever, that, that have a lot of forage that would just never get grazed if you had animals that were continuously grazing for lack of a better term. If you have, you know, what ought to be an appropriate, conservative stocking rate, but no efforts at animal distribution, there's going to be a whole lot of places that ever get touched, and a lot of places that are going to be hammered. And you could significantly increase the number of animals that could be sustained if they were actually accessing more of the acres on a large piece of ground. And you really -- the only way to get there, especially on a really large landscape where fencing is cost prohibitive, would be to herd the animals.

>> Yeah, yeah. That's exactly --

>> And that might very well pay for itself.

>> Mm-hmm. Right. That's exactly what I found, both on that ranch I was on and the, the research that I'd done over my careers, that that's pretty much the explanation for most of the debate about whether rotational grazing works or not. It does if you're, if you're using it to deal with distribution problems. But you don't necessarily need to grow more grass in order to harvest more grass.

>> Stewart, are there some things that you want to talk about that we haven't gotten to? We're coming up on time, and so I want to give you the last word here.

>> Yeah. Well, I don't know if I deserve the last word. But I'll add to that conversation about economy a bit, in that, you know, we're -- one of the things that, that is really, really lacking is an understanding of cost benefits of these different management techniques, be they carnivore management or livestock management, you know. And that, that's a, that's an area that deserves quite a bit of attention to figure out, you know, for, for those producers. Like what is it that makes sense, you know? And there may be times when it's like, as Matt said, predation's not a huge issue, and so it doesn't make sense to do a whole lot of work associated with managing carnivores or what have you. In putting some cost benefit to those, those types of questions is, is really important, you know. Other -- because there could be situations where it makes sense to do, to do lethal control or not or, you know, to focus more on non-lethal methods. And so that's a -- that's a, you know, kind of a big void right now that deserves quite a bit of attention.

>> Good enough. Matt, anything else you want to add?

>> Oh, yeah. You know, I would just say one thing is -- we would talk about all the various tools. I think it's important not to think of it just in terms of whether they're lethal or nonlethal because that -- it sets up a sort of a false dichotomy where ultimately we're going to need both the lethal and the nonlethal tools. And if we can figure out how to use the nonlethal ones preventatively, we'll need less of the lethal ones. And to me that's what coexists and ultimately looks like. It doesn't mean that it's always going to be peaceful and bloodless. It just means that we're going to figure out how to have a West that still has a livestock industry, hopefully one that's doing better than it is now, and a West that also has its native predators again. And to me, that's coexistence.

>> Matt Barnes, Stewart Breck, this has been a really useful conversation I think, and we'll try to get it out there in time for people to apply it during the season in which we tend to have predator and livestock conflicts. Thank you for your time today.

>> You bet. Thank you, too.

>> Thanks for having me.

>> Thank you for listening to the Art of Range Podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering range line managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Connors Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


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