Ewes to pasture

Janet Heslin leads a group of ewes out of the barn toward pasture on her Alta farm.

In the evenings, Janet and Buol Heslin can sit on their back porch in Alta and watch wolves emerge from the nearby national forest. The couple has raised sheep for the last 10 years and the last seven on their farm in Wyoming, and they’ve had a few problems with wolves.

Last Wednesday, as Janet drove down their driveway, she looked into the fenced pasture to her right and realized the wolves had struck again.

“It was 100 yards from our house,” Heslin said. “It was a massacre.”

A total of 16 sheep—nine ewes and seven lambs—were killed. A few had been partially eaten, but the majority had been killed and then left. Heslin said in the years raising sheep she has gotten to know wolf behavior, and she has learned how wolves will come, kill everything that moves and then have a meal.

Alta, Wyoming, like other parts of Teton Valley, is a mix of farms, ranches, vacation homes and long-terms residents. For many new residents, Heslin said, part of the allure of living on the edge of the forest is the chance to see wildlife. But the other side of the coin is tough for those who are trying to raise animals in the area.

“We lost basically half of our operation in one night,” Heslin said.

In Wyoming, where wolf regulations have flip-flopped in recent years, the Federal Government now has control over the federally-listed wolf population, and private citizens aren’t allowed to kill them.

Mike Jimenez, the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that wolf attacks on livestock haven’t necessarily gone up, but that there will be an occasional uptick in attacks. Now, the wolf population has rebounded far beyond the goals from decades back, he said, and the government intervenes when chronic attacks occur.

“The wolf population is doing just fine,” he said. “Young wolves like to expand, check out new areas. You’ll see young wolves trying to exploit the environment around them.”

Jimenez said they have a pretty good idea it was two wolves, part of a pack that has been radio-collared and studied off and on, which lives in the forest below Grand Targhee Resort. Now, a federal trapper is out looking for the culprits. The goal is to track them down and cull them from the population.

“We try to help out producers, whether they’re large or small,” he said. “In this case it’s a remnant of a pack.”

For now, Heslin is taking extra measures, including penning her sheep and keeping them indoors for longer periods. On Tuesday, she finished installing electro-netting, a fence that resembles a volleyball net and skirts the pasture. It’s electrified by a solar charging unit, and costs over $2,000.

The sheep killed last week, the third attack she’s seen this year, represented several thousand dollars of livestock. Local game authorities came, took an official report, and the couple will likely be compensated for their loss through a Wyoming state fund.

With a new group of lambs born just weeks ago, she’s planning on being even more vigilant.

 “It’s all about trying to outsmart them.”