On Thursday, Aug. 31, the Hopland Research and Extension Center will host “Living with Wildlife: New and Emerging Research,” a daylong forum where wildlife researchers will explore the re-emergence of large carnivores on the Northern California terrain with presentations, demonstrations and discussions about the latest research that explores how to reduce conflicts between humans and wildlife.
The all-day event is open to the public, subject to pre-registration and a $25 fee that includes lunch.
Stakeholders in the discussion about the management of large wild predators should find this event to be a rewarding, engaging opportunity to meet with researchers, ranchers, environmental activists, policymakers and interested members of the public.
While the daylong workshop will explore the increasing encounters between humans and wildlife in general, the centerpiece of the workshop will be an exploration of how livestock producers can prepare for the advent of greater numbers of large carnivores — particularly wolves, which have recently been spotted in Lassen County and are believed to now be migrating southward toward Mendocino County.
“Many people celebrate the return of large carnivores,” said Alex McInturff, UC Berkeley researcher and workshop organizer. “There’s been a change in culture over the last few decades, a change in laws, a kind of change in perspective, all of which have fostered this rewilding of large predators — mountain lions, bears, coyotes — all of these species have expanded their ranges and grown in number in the past few decades.
“So yes, many people celebrate this, but I’d say the group that bears the greatest burden is probably the livestock-producing community. And I would say in California that’s especially people who are raising sheep — sheep are particularly vulnerable.
“So, what we are interested in is on the one hand saying, ‘How do we get people who are celebrating the return of predators [and] people who are really impacted by the return of predators into the same room and able to talk to each other and able to look for shared values and shared strategies that can work for both wildlife and livestock?’ And then, the other piece is that the trend in legislation has been more and more protection for predators. So, there’s a very practical sense in which ranchers need to know and ought to know what they can do to protect their livestock while abiding by the laws that are in place now and that are likely to come in the future.”
“The thing that’s hanging over everyone’s mind is the return of wolves to California, because they are considered an endangered species here,” said McInturff. “We have seen in the other states where they occur — Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington — that they are able to spread very fast. So, many people suggest that it won’t be long before we are seeing wolves in a lot of areas of Northern California.”
The reappearance of wolves in California, while being tracked by wildlife researchers, is presenting challenges that make it difficult to produce enough data to generate reliable predictions on their numbers and locations.
“Right now, it’s very challenging to get these larger carnivores collared and tracked to even know where they are,” said Kim Rodrigues, HREC director. “A lot of ranchers in the area of Lassen, where the wolves were first discovered, said, ‘If you could just collar them so we could have that advanced warning, that would be great, because then we could move our cattle or our other livestock and be ready.’ And if that could happen, I think that could reduce some of the potential conflicts, but right now it’s not that simple to find them and collar them.
“When I first met Justin [Breshears, wildlife researcher and workshop presenter] and we first did the workshop a couple years ago, he said, ‘I predict you will have wolves on the landscape in Mendocino County in three to five years,’ and that was a year or two ago,” said Rodrigues. “So it could be quickly that we need to be thinking about how do we prepare. We just don’t know. The biologists don’t know. As Jesse said, we can’t predict how they are going to respond in a given landscape.”
Given the legal and cultural changes of the last few decades, non-lethal tools are increasingly popular, according to McInturff. “There’s quite a diversity of them. Some of the most common and most effective and most well-known ones are not really that technologically advanced, in fact they are technologically very, very ancient: good fences and good guard dogs. Obviously, humans have been using [fences and guard dogs] for millennia, and I think we are discovering in a bit more detail just what they can do and kind of the parameters that define what you need in terms of how to best deploy them.
“So that’s definitely an area that will be discussed in depth at our workshop, because HREC has invested a lot of money into restoring its fences and has [gone from having one guard dog to having] five or six guard dogs, and we at HREC think that that has made a big difference.”
But according to Rodrigues, even the presence of guard dogs and a sturdy fenceline cannot guarantee the safety of a flock in the presence of an increasing number of large carnivores roaming the landscape.
“Our situation now is [that] we have five guard dogs — we like to have six — so that we can have two to three with each of the groups of sheep. Because then, if the coyotes or other wildlife come in and distract one dog, the other two can still stay with the flock.
“The challenge that people are worried about with wolves coming on the landscape is [that] wolves hunt in packs, and they will go after animals in packs. And so they are worried our guard dogs will no longer be able to protect cattle or sheep here, and so we are starting to look at different tools to prepare ranchers for that as well.”
There are also two relatively new technology-based tools that McInturff describes as being “a bit more sci-fi and cool” that will be demonstrated at the Living with Wildlife event.
An e-shepherd collar is a strobe light-emitting sheep collar that responds to movement. As McInturff describes it, “When a sheep starts running, presumably in some kind of panic from something it sees, … it will begin flashing this really bright strobe light and making this [sound] like a giant robotic cricket. We have put it on the sheep and tried it around the guard dogs, and the guard dogs here hate it, and so presumably coyotes and other predators will, too.”
Another tool that will be demonstrated at the Aug. 31 workshop is called a foxlight. Said McInturff, “It’s kind of a yellow tube that you sit on top of a fence post or something like that, and you basically want to put it in an area where it can be seen from pretty far away.
“Because what it does is once the lights go out and it’s night outside, this foxlight starts emitting a semi-random pattern of light. … It tries to mimic the idea of you being a rancher, going out every so often and sweeping the horizon with your flashlight to look for something.”
When Rodrigues recently demonstrated the e-shepherd collar at the HREC campus for The Ukiah Daily Journal, the collar strobed after it was shaken, and it emitted a high-frequency chirping-grinding noise.
“That frequency freaks out canines,” she said. “So for dingos and for other problem animals in some livestock situations and for coyotes, this is a great option.”
Rodrigues and McInturff are currently conducting a research study on the efficacy of the foxlights, and while the efficacy of the e-shepherd collars is yet to be evaluated scientifically, Rodrigues says that the collars, which come in at less than $100 apiece, seem to be working.
“Our bigger sheep are our rams, and they are often by themselves without guard dogs anyway, so we are testing it there,” said Rodrigues. “[W]e have lost only one ram since we have put these things out, and that’s far less than we normally lose. So, anecdotally, it looks OK. We don’t have data yet, [so] I wouldn’t recommend it, but I’d say, … if you can protect one out of every 10 animals for less than $100, and it actually works, this could be great — not just for big producers, but for small flocks that people are starting to put in their ranchettes and whatnot — so that’s what we’re testing.”
Living with Wildlife will be held at the Rod Shippey Hall, 4070 University Road, Hopland, CA 95449 from 9am to 3pm on Thursday, August 31. Visit http://bit.ly/LivingwithWildlife for event information and tickets. Deadline for registration is Monday, Aug. 28. Registration is $25; lunch is included, and no one will be turned away due to lack of funds.
For more information, contact Hannah Bird, (707) 744-1424, ext. 105, [email protected]