Report — From the March 2016 issue

The Rogue Agency

A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species

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John Peavey is a third-generation rancher in central Idaho who runs 7,000 sheep on Flat Top ranch, which lies fifty miles south of the Sawtooth Valley, and on tens of thousands of acres of adjacent public lands. He served for two decades in the Idaho state senate and worked from a young age at Flat Top. During his time in political office, Peavey was known never to appear in public without a cowboy hat on his head.

I told him I was doing an investigation of Wildlife Services. “I suspect this will be an ugly article,” he said. “But Wildlife Services is pretty vital to our making do. Predators are a big problem for ranchers in the West. It’s our number-one problem. We can’t survive without taking care of the predation.”

Peavey told me that he loses at least 200 sheep a year to predators and regularly calls Wildlife Services to his aid. In May 2013, he said, he lost more than thirty sheep to wolves. “We were range-lambing, and the wolves come and scatter them to hell and breakfast. One little lamb, about ten minutes old, was killed by a wolf. Really tragic, it just makes you cry — a ten-minute life span.” At Peavey’s request, Wildlife Services used one of the agency’s Piper Cub airplanes to track and shoot six wolves from a pack that was roaming near Flat Top ranch.

Peavey has attempted to use nonlethal methods to dissuade wolves from attacking his sheep on the range, but he claims that they have had little effect. “My guys are out blaring their radios and flashing their lights and smoking pots — that’s a fifty-five-gallon drum where we build a fire — and we have big guard dogs, one-hundred-pound Pyrenees and Akbash, though wolves often kill our dogs. We’ve probably lost ten to twelve dogs over the last six years.” His wife, Diane Josephy Peavey, who in recent years has read essays on Idaho public radio praising the virtues of ranching, told me, “It’s a little hard to be where we are, with sheep, and watch them get slaughtered, and we’re supposed to put the money in to coexist nonlethally. That’s fine, but it’s a huge expense. Coexistence means the wolves live and all the other animals die.”

John Peavey told me that range-lambing — in which ewes give birth on open public lands rather than in protected sheds on private land — is the only way for ranchers to make a profit. Shed-lambing requires a lot of hay, at great cost. “Six hundred thousand dollars is probably not enough money to outfit a hay crew,” he said. “Shed-lambing is too expensive. Our business model is to range-lamb when the weather is warm and the grass is growing. And when the wolves come in, it’s incredibly disruptive. We’re very vulnerable.”

Carter Niemeyer, the retired Wildlife Services agent, said that Peavey’s range-lambing operation is also expensive, but the cost gets shifted onto the federal government. “The history of John Peavey over the years has been that when he’s out range-lambing, it’s led to a lot of calls to Wildlife Services for the removal of wolves and coyotes,” he said. “His range-lambing is a long way from home, out there in sagebrush. When the sheep are lambing, the herders aren’t supposed to crowd them. You leave them alone. So you’ve got sheep strung out for miles, ripe for the picking. All you’re doing is inviting attack. In some cases, when you put livestock way out there in the backcountry where it’s beyond the capability of the owner to protect them, it’s a form of animal cruelty. Do we continue to reward this bad behavior by bringing in gunships to kill predators that are simply reacting to lambs on the range as predators should and must react?”

Niemeyer said that it was galling to watch stockmen use public lands for forage while refusing to accept the real price of their business model. He told me about a former Wildlife Services agent who described sheep ranchers as “cry boys and cheap men” — because, as Niemeyer put it, “they’re always whining and they’re incredibly cheap, demanding the public pay their costs.”

I asked him about Peavey’s claim that predators are the number-one problem facing ranchers. The most recent reports from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, a branch of the USDA, suggest that stockmen annually lose almost 500,000 head to predators nationwide. The USDA data, however, is based on self-reporting by ranchers.

Niemeyer told me I should also look at the methods Wildlife Services used to confirm depredations. The agency was supposed to conduct its own due diligence of ranchers’ reports, but the investigations were farcical. “A rancher calls up and says, ‘Goddamn wolves killed twenty-eight of my stock,’ but he can’t prove a thing. And we say, ‘All right, Charlie, we’ll get ’em.’ The trapper shows up to the site and toes the carcass of the animal with his boot. ‘Yep. Wolf did it.’ And that’s the investigation. Of course a wolf did it — the rancher says so, which makes it the truth.”

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is a fellow at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Great Republican Land Heist,” appeared in the February 2015 issue.

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