Rocky Barker: When the wolf and the lamb live together

May 26, 2013 

The killing of 31 sheep by wolves near Carey earlier this month appears, at first look, to be the classic Idaho story.

Wolves kill sheep. State issues order to kill wolves. Wolf lovers criticize rancher and state. Wolf haters say I told you so. The 23-year Northern Rockies soap opera continues.

This time, the story could be different.

John Peavey, the former Democratic state senator who owns the Flat Top Ranch, has been a part of a cooperative project between ranchers, local officials and the Defenders of Wildlife aimed at protecting sheep and wolves. The five-year program has pushed nonlethal methods of controlling wolves instead of traditional trapping and aerial gunning by federal agents.

Last year, 27,000 sheep were in the project area around the Wood River Valley; two or three packs of wolves were on landscape. They lived in harmony with only one late incident when the bands of sheep came upon wolves no one knew were there. Four sheep were killed.

What they had achieved on a small scale was the prophesy of Isaiah: "In that day the wolf and the lamb will live together."

Sadly, Peavey's approach to lambing has led the project to draw the boundary line to exclude the Flat Top Ranch during lambing season.

Peavey chose to use a method called range lambing. Most ranchers lamb in sheds in Idaho, which gets lambing over with earlier in the spring and also gets the lambs fattened earlier.

And, shed lambing keeps the lambs away from predators longer.

The advantage of range lambing for Peavey is he doesn't have to buy hay to feed his ewes. Idaho's growing dairy industry, along with high demand from China for exported hay, has driven hay prices sky high.

Peavey estimates he would pay $100 a ewe for hay during lambing compared with a dollar on the public range. That cost differential makes a few losses to wolves and other predators acceptable to him.

But this spring his heart broke as he found a ewe and three triplets killed by wolves. His reaction is the universal response that comes from the overriding ethical imperative of shepherds to protect their flocks.

Suzanne Stone has the same feelings for the wolves that run wild throughout Idaho and the northern Rockies. The Boise representative of Defenders of Wildlife fought hard to bring wolves back to the region and has shed tears over the deaths of many wolves since 1995.

The kill order issued by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is, to her, an attack not just on her precious wolves, but also on the project she has championed to show that wolves and ranchers can co-exist with fewer killings. Peavey's range lambing does not fit into the nonlethal management model that seeks to keep the sheep together, protected with guard dogs, noisemakers and colored flags.

The Wood River Valley is one of the few places in Idaho where wolves are actively embraced. The Phantom Pack several years ago turned thousands of observers into wolf lovers.

Who can forget the wolf pup discovered last spring and embraced by people throughout the nation? The Wood River Valley also loves its sheepherding history, celebrated each summer with the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

When lambing is over, Peavey will bring his sheep in with the others under the protection of the nonlethal management cone. Look at a map of wolf depredations statewide and this area stands out for its empty space - before this spring.

I hope Defenders of Wildlife will march, as they did last year, with the herders and the sheep at this June's festival.

If the wolf issue were not so polarized, and if every major livestock or wolf killing was not elevated to national news, I suspect the players would get over it and move on just like neighbors usually do after a spat. But today, this is not just a local argument.

It will be fought out on social media and in blogs, including mine. The biology of wolf recovery is far easier than the cultural and political aspects of wolf management.

But in the end, it all comes down to being good neighbors.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service