Foxlights, Fladry, and Range Riders: Adrian Treves’s research finds three nonlethal methods to protect livestock

This article, by Morgan Smith, is part of a series highlighting members of the Office of Sustainability’s Experts Database. In a collaboration with instructor Madeline Fisher’s course, LSC 561: Writing Science for the Public, students interviewed campus sustainability experts and produced short feature stories.

Photo of Adrian Treves Large carnivores—such as bears, wolves, and cougars—can present a hazard to livestock and other property. Ranchers often think that killing these carnivores is the only way to protect their herd. But Adrian Treves, a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, thinks there are other ways to address this problem. Although it might seem counterintuitive, Treves proposes that non-lethal deterrents—devices and methods that discourage carnivores from attacking livestock—are not only safer for all parties involved but are also more sustainable and effective than simply removing the carnivores from the ecosystem. 

Lethal removal, or the practice of killing carnivores to ensure the safety of livestock, is often considered the way to manage predators. But there are two problems with lethal removal. First, the scientific community isn’t confident that lethal removal works. Some studies even seem to suggest that lethal removal leads to more domestic animal losses. It can also result in more predators in the long term because packs are no longer stable and younger members of the pack begin to reproduce earlier. The second problem with lethal removal is that without these predators the health of the ecosystem falters, leading to a loss of biodiversity and crucial life-support systems. For example, the lethal removal of wolves causes the increase of prey animals such as deer. The large numbers of deer then go on to overeat local plants, and any other animals that depend on those plants for food are then harmed. Lethal removal backfires. 

“There are side effects, unintended consequences,” Treves said.

With this in mind, Treves’s reserach group began to research three non-lethal deterrents as alternatives to lethal removal: Foxlights, Fladry, and Range Riders. The first two methods are passive visual deterrents meant to unsettle predators: Foxlights are flashing lights, while Fladry are colored flags hung along a fence line. The last method—Range Riders, or “non-lethal Cowboys,” as Treves refers to them—function as a more active deterrent. These riders periodically visit the livestock and are trained to notice when the livestock are stressed, injured, or vulnerable. The riders then work to solve any of the herd’s problems before predators have the chance to prey upon the weaker members. 

Do these methods work? In a nutshell, yes. Individually, they vary in effectiveness, but, Treves said, “when lethal methods are juxtaposed against non-lethal methods, often the non-lethal methods are more effective in protecting livestock from subsequent attack.” 

The most promising method thus far has been the Range Riders. Not only are the riders effective at deterring carnivores, but Treves’ work also suggests that this technique is accessible to most anyone. Riders don’t need years of experience to perfect this technique, and as long as they have undergone training from an expert in low-stress livestock handling, the method works. 

“The experience thing was a bit surprising,” Treves said, “because we have this veteran rider who has perfected this technique, and he trained the other two—the newbies, as I refer to them—so well in two weeks that we found no difference between his range riding and its deterrent effect on carnivores versus theirs.” 

Range riders could very well change how we protect livestock from predators, and almost anyone who has been trained by an expert in recognizing the livestock’s stress can do it, Treves said.

Through his research, we are beginning to understand how humans and livestock can peacefully coexist with large carnivores—to the benefit of all involved. The research brings us one step closer to achieving a world in which, Treves said, “the future generations of all life get to experience an unspoiled, unimpaired planet.”