SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. -- On a luminous fall afternoon, a couple of Carey Dobson's sheep graze in a pasture stretching across a high valley edged with ponderosa pines. A wire fence keeps them from wandering into the adjacent road.
But this is no ordinary fence. All along its length, long slips of magenta plastic flagging wave in the wind, like streamers on a parade float. No one knows exactly why, but wolves typically stay clear of these decorated fences. Dobson put up the "fladry" and electrified the fence about three years ago after losing nine sheep to wolves in one year.
So far, the combination of visual repellent and electric shock seems to be working.
"From the time we started doing that in 2007 up to now, we've had zero wolf depredations," Dobson said, sitting at the kitchen table of his family's spacious log home on a private inholding surrounded by the Apache National Forest. "I think the fence has a lot to do with it."
A few miles away, rancher Sydney Maddock and Eddie Lee, her ranch manager, have hired a range rider -- a cowboy or cowgirl who monitors the herd -- to make sure her cattle stay safe. They have also started allowing calves to grow bigger before turning them out onto their federal grazing allotment so that they are less vulnerable to depredation.
Wolves tend to prey on young, old or weak livestock, although they do sometimes kill healthy adults.
"I don't know if it's going to work out or not," Lee said, standing around a late afternoon campfire at his camp near a cattle and horse corral. "But it's been two years, and it seems to be working."
Meanwhile, on the New Mexico side of the Mexican wolf reintroduction area, about 70 miles to the east, rancher Alan Tackman is putting up a fence to keep his cattle from wandering up the mountain toward a known wolf den.
"They're not smart enough to remember, 'A wolf ate my baby here,'" said Pat Morrison, district ranger for the Glenwood District of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, where Tackman's fence is being erected.
An elk calving area lies between the den and the fence line, and the hope is that the wolves will eat the elk calves -- typically their preferred prey -- and leave the cattle alone, Morrison said.
'Something everyone can get behind'
Such deterrence projects are slowly gaining favor with ranchers living in wolf country, and they reflect a new, more collaborative way of dealing with Mexican wolves, which the Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico in 1998.
For most of the Mexican wolf program's history, the focus has been on removing "problem" wolves that prey on livestock, either by killing the animals, relocating them in the wild, or retiring them to a holding facility. But wildlife officials and some ranchers say it is better for both livestock and wolves to prevent conflicts from happening in the first place.
"Nothing is as divisive as this," Chris Bagnoli, Mexican wolf interagency team leader for Arizona, said of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program. "But some folks have come to understand that they're here, and there are ways to live with it."
About 15 ranchers in Arizona and about a dozen in New Mexico have tried wolf deterrent strategies over the past several years, and many of them -- particularly in Arizona, where grazing is for the most part seasonal instead of year-round -- have seen some benefit.
"One of the most effective things you can do is separate cattle and wolves," said John Oakleaf, a senior Fish and Wildlife Service biologist with the Mexican wolf program. "Reducing wolf depredations -- that's a common goal for sure. That's something wolf biologists and ranchers and everyone can all get behind."
That does not mean, however, that ranchers have come to embrace having wolves in their midst.
"If they were to take the wolves out tomorrow, I'd be happy," said Barbara Marks, who has worked closely with Bagnoli to keep her 110 cattle and two dogs away from the local Blue Stem wolf pack in the Apache National Forest's rugged Alpine District. "But they are here, and we have to work with everybody to try to get along and to survive."
Antipathy toward the program is still strong, however, and some ranchers who are working with agencies and advocacy groups on deterrence projects have experienced a backlash -- even from family members.
"I got flak from my father, my neighbors," Dobson said. "But I want to stay here. I'm a fourth-generation rancher. The wolves are on us, so what are we going to do?"
But it took several years for Dobson to warm to the idea of taking a proactive approach to reducing wolf-livestock conflicts. Ten years ago, he was a vocal critic of the Mexican wolf reintroduction program.
In the winter of 2000, Dobson suspected that wolves "chewed up" the leg of a newborn stud colt. But after wildlife officials assured him there were no wolves in the area, he concluded that his guard dogs had attacked the colt and reluctantly put the dogs down. Soon after, he spotted a FWS agent in the area and was told a wolf had been shot, confirming his earlier suspicion.
"I lost a colt, two guard dogs, and I'd been lied to," he said. "I was so upset."
At the time, Dobson was so angry that he refused compensation from Defenders of Wildlife, which had set up a program to pay for confirmed wolf depredations of livestock.
But around 2006, after a spate of wolf depredations, he changed his mind and began collecting compensation while also working with Defenders and state and federal agencies on new deterrent strategies. He now receives weekly calls from FWS and the Arizona Game and Fish Department with updates on wolf activity in his area.
"I just got to the point where I'd had enough," he said. "It wasn't the wolf's fault. The wolf's an animal. It was the way things were being managed. I said, 'We need to come together and figure out what we're going to do.'"
Changes in funding
Money to fund prevention projects comes from a mix of private and government sources.
For more than a decade, Defenders of Wildlife paid ranchers for their losses and helped fund deterrence projects, but the group phased out its compensation program last month after the federal government established its own program, which will pay ranchers for livestock depredations and support conflict prevention projects.
The money for the federal interdiction fund comes from a $1 million outlay authorized under the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act and issued last April to Arizona, New Mexico and eight other Western states to help support non-lethal programs to prevent wolf-livestock conflicts (Land Letter, April 1). Arizona and New Mexico each received $140,000 to fund such efforts.
The states will add matching funds, either by direct cash payments or through in-kind payments of labor, supplies and other supports. Craig Miller, who ran Defenders of Wildlife's compensation program for the past several years, said the group contributed about $45,000 to help establish the federal interdiction fund, but will now shift focus to its own conflict prevention program. The Mexican Wolf Fund, a non-advocacy group that funds wolf deterrent projects, will also contribute to the interdiction fund.
Both Defenders and ranchers say the new federally administered program should bring some advantages. A livestock compensation board made up of a range of stakeholders, including both ranchers and wildlife advocates, will decide what types of losses and deterrence projects merit funding.
Dobson and other ranchers hope the new system will allow compensation not only for the loss of livestock, but associated losses such as lower animal weights due to stress or fewer calves resulting from the loss of a cow that would have borne offspring over the course of her life.
"It allows people to feel they have some say in what's going on," Bagnoli said.
'Everyone's getting a little smarter'
Stakeholder groups will also likely benefit from several years of trial and error in implementing conflict prevention projects. Patrick Valentino, director of the Mexican Wolf Fund, said that agency officials, funders and ranchers now have a better understanding of what works and what does not.
"Given the experience over the past few years, I think everyone's getting a little smarter, maybe combining a couple of things, like fencing with feed, or feed with range riders," said Valentino, whose organization has funded conflict prevention projects since 2006. "These programs can work well together sometimes."
Variations in livestock operations, topography and behavior of both the livestock and the wolves also need to be considered when determining which method, or combination of methods, are likely to work best, added Bagnoli.
Relocation of cattle, use of fladry, range riders, fencing and radio-alarmed guard boxes, or "RAG boxes," that emit loud noises and flashing lights have all been used in the northern Rockies as well to deter wolves, with some success (Land Letter, March 18).
In the Great Lakes region, researchers are experimenting with "howl boxes," which play digital recordings of wolf howls in the rendezvous areas of five wolf packs. The goal is to trick the wolves into believing that another pack has claimed the same territory, in hopes that they will move to other areas (Land Letter, July 29).
These deterrent strategies are essential to the recovery of Mexican wolves in the Southwest, where after 12 years, there are only about 42 wolves -- 27 in Arizona and 15 in New Mexico -- those involved with the program say.
"I think in order for wolves to achieve recovery in ecologically meaningful levels, tolerance from landowners, from people using the landscape, is the most important component," Miller of Defenders of Wildlife said. "This isn't a biological problem, it's a social problem. The real challenge is in helping humans accept wolves as part of the landscape."
Yet Miller acknowledges that deterrence projects do not always work. In some cases, wolves have lost their fear of the deterrent, or ranchers lose interest in continuing the projects, which they typically contribute some funding or labor to.
But with more than two-thirds of the Blue Range Mexican wolf recovery area permitted for grazing, they are worth a try, agency officials say. "We're trying to make both the wolf and the grazing permittees viable here," said Morrison of the Gila National Forest's Glenwood District in New Mexico.
At the same time, even some ranchers who are trying deterrence projects still actively oppose the reintroduction program.
Tackman, for instance, is named as one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed in August by Catron and Otero counties and other New Mexico ranchers over changes to the program that they say have resulted in fewer removals of wolves that attack livestock. Tackman did not return calls seeking an interview for this story.
While some ranchers remain highly skeptical of conflict prevention projects, Dobson and others say the lack of depredations in areas where they have been tried demonstrates that wolves and livestock can co-exist.
Yet he wonders what will happen as wolf populations increase. FWS biologists set an informal target of 100 wolves on the landscape when the program first began, and a forthcoming update to the Mexican wolf recovery plan is likely to call for at least that many and possibly more (Land Letter, July 22).
"It can always come back and bite me on the rear. ... Everything could be taken away from ranchers," Dobson said. "But at least I know I've tried."
Reese writes from Santa Fe, N.M.