Letters From the West

Fires and wolves take toll on Idaho ranchers

Wolves panicked 176 sheep that ran over a ridge and were trampled or suffocated near Fogg Hill on the West Slope of the Tetons in near Tetonia (Photo courtesy Cindy Siddoway)

Wolves panicked 176 sheep that ran over a ridge and were trampled or suffocated near Fogg Hill on the West Slope of the Tetons near Tetonia (Photo courtesy Cindy Siddoway)

Nature has been hard on Idaho ranchers in August.

First, the Pony and Elk Complex fires in the Mountain Home area killed more than 250 head of cows according to some firefighter estimates.

“I would say it’s closer to 500,” said Wyatt Prescott, executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association. “They’re still counting.”

The fires and others have burned hundreds of thousands of acres of grazing land as well. Ranchers are scrambling as far out as 500 miles to find places they can keep livestock temporarily. But much of the land will be closed to grazing for up to three years until it is restored.

“It literally means they have to sell cows,” Prescott said.

The high cost of feed, combined with the high agriculture prices that has most of the irrigated farmland tied up in crops that are still growing, leaves little option than to sell out for some ranchers.

Cattle prices are relatively good, but when they sell the mother cows, they end up as hamburger. Even grind-meat prices are up, but a cow worth $1,500 to $2,000 to the rancher will bring only about $1,000 for hamburger.

The Elk Complex fire also killed about 100 head of sheep, state officials said just about the time they were ready to go to market.

Meanwhile, 176 sheep died on the West Slope of the Tetons in Idaho when wolves panicked them and they ran over a ridgeline and were trampled or suffocated. The sheep were part of a 2,400-head band owned by the Siddoway Sheep Co., grazing in the area of Fogg Hill near Tetonia.

Wildlife Services has confirmed that wolves were the culprits with eyewitnesses, bite marks and tracks. At about $200 dollars a head, the Siddoway’s loss is about $35,000.

For Cindy Siddoway, the wife of Idaho Sen. Jeff Siddoway, this incident is the latest in a long string of losses, personal attacks and death threats that have made wolf reintroduction a nightmare.

“It’s painful,” she said.

Siddoway, who often was a voice for working across divide, remembers all the meetings and all the political discussion about reintroduction. She tried to find common ground in the 1990s with the main advocate for reintroduction, Hank Fischer, the Northern Rockies Representative of Defenders of Wildlife, but always opposed it.

“I’m angry with Hank Fischer and Defenders of Wildlife,” Siddoway said. “I wish we would have fought harder in the first place.”

“You learn lessons from these experiences,” she said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West