Nt’l Geo: Why Killing Wolves Might Not Save Livestock

[What do they mean “save” livestock. The cows and sheep are all doomed to be sent to the slaughterhouse eventually anyway…]

copyrighted wolf in water


New study fuels debate over how to reduce attacks on cows and sheep.

Warren Cornwall

for National Geographic

Published December 3, 2014

In late August, a government sharpshooter in a helicopter hovering above a wooded eastern Washington hillside killed the lead female wolf of the Huckleberry Pack. The aim was to end attacks by the wolf pack, which had killed more than two dozen sheep.

But in the long run, a shooting like this could just make matters worse. A new study has found that—paradoxically—killing a wolf can increase the risk that wolves will prey on livestock in the future.

The research, published today in the scientific journal PLOS One, flies in the face of the common idea that the swiftest and surest way to deal with wolves threatening livestock is by shooting the predators. It adds to a growing understanding of how humans influence the complex dynamics driving these pack animals, sometimes with unexpected consequences.

As wolves spread across the West, triggering more encounters with sheep and cattle, and as two states host wolf-hunting seasons, the new research also adds more fuel to an already heated political debate about how to deal with wolves.

“The livestock industry, they’re not going to be happy with this,” said Rob Wielgus, a Washington State University ecologist and the study’s lead author.

Back From the Brink

Shooting wolves is a long-standing practice in the ranching world. It helped lead to the animal’s eradication in the western United States in the 1930s. Since the wolf’s reintroduction in the mid-1990s, government officials and ranchers have frequently reached for a gun to cope with livestock problems—killing more than 2,000 wolves by 2013.

In 2011, wolves were removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in Idaho, Montana, and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Utah. (Wyoming got a similar stamp of approval in 2012, but a federal judge recently overturned that decision.) That has made it easier to shoot wolves—Idaho and Montana now even allow recreational hunting.

But there have never been any large-scale studies of whether killing wolves really helps protect livestock.

Enter Wielgus. He has a track record for turning conventional wisdom on its head when it comes to attempts to control predators. In 2008 he made news with research that found shooting cougars led to more attacks on livestock. When mature adults were killed, Wielgus said, less seasoned adolescents moved in and were more likely to prey on cows and sheep.

After wolves arrived in Washington in 2008, growing to 13 packs by 2013, Wielgus turned his attention to the newest carnivore on the block. He examined 25 years of data on killing of wolves and cases where wolves attacked cattle and sheep in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—the first states where wolves were reintroduced.

What the Data Say

Wielgus found that when a wolf was killed, the chances of livestock getting killed increased the following year in that state—by 5 to 6 percent for cattle and 4 percent for sheep. With each additional wolf killed, the chance of livestock attacks rose further. The trend didn’t reverse until more than a quarter of the wolves in the state were killed in a single year. Then livestock losses started to decline.

That level of wolf-killing happened several times even while wolves were federally protected, under rules that allowed shooting of wolves that threatened livestock. And it is happening now in Idaho and Montana. Last year, hunters killed 231 wolves in Montana and 356 in Idaho, helping to reduce the population to slightly more than 600 in each state. The Idaho legislature this year created a Wolf Depredation Control Board, a move critics say is aimed at pushing wolf numbers down to just above 150—a cutoff that could trigger renewed protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Wielgus isn’t certain why more livestock die when smaller numbers of wolves are killed. But he suspects it’s tied to changes in pack behavior. Packs are led by a male and female breeding pair. If one or both of those wolves is killed, the pack can break up, giving rise to several breeding pairs—and thus an uptick in the wolf population. Livestock losses decline only when enough wolves are killed to overwhelm their ability to keep up through reproduction.

The theory fits observations made in and around Yellowstone National Park. Wolf packs inside the park—where wolves aren’t shot—are large and complex, with wolves of a variety of ages living together, said Doug Smith, a lead wolf researcher at Yellowstone. Wolf packs elsewhere tend to be just a breeding pair and pups.

For Wielgus, the upshot of his study is that while killing a wolf might sometimes be necessary, as a routine practice it’s counterproductive and unsustainable. Either livestock losses go up or, if enough wolves are killed to reduce livestock deaths, wolf numbers eventually drop so low that wolves wind up back on the endangered species list. If the killing slows to less than 25 percent of the wolf population per year, his study suggests, depredation rates shoot back up.

“It’s a bit of a catch-22,” Wielgus said. “You can reduce them now, but you can only reduce them so far, and when you stop that heavy harvest, now you’re at maximum livestock depredation.”

Is There Another Way?

Reaction to the new study was split down predictable fault lines. Wolf conservationists pointed to it as evidence that shooting wolves to save livestock usually doesn’t make sense. “You have this very archaic paradigm of kill first, ask questions later,” said Suzanne Stone, senior northwest representative for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. Overall, people in the livestock industry are “still pretty rigid in their views that the only way to deal with predators is to kill them. And that’s not true. It actually works against them.”

Stone has run a program with sheep growers in one Idaho valley aimed at finding ways for sheep and wolves to coexist. The ranchers there resort to a number of tactics to protect roughly 30,000 sheep: monitoring wolves to avoid grazing the sheep near denning sites, using guard dogs, flashing bright lights to scare off wolves, stringing a wire hung with small strips of fabric around the flock at night, and increasing the number of people herding the animals.

Stone said the program is cheaper than dispatching a gunman in a helicopter. Fewer than 30 sheep have been lost to wolves in seven years, and no wolves have been killed.

Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said his group works with members to help them deter wolves without shooting the animals. But he still sees guns as critical tools, and he says wolf problems have declined recently as the number of Idaho wolves has gone down.

“Wolves get into livestock, we kill the wolves. And that works well,” Boyd said. “The professor can say whatever he wants. We’re not going to just let wolves run wild.”

In Washington state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which paid for Wielgus’s research, is waiting for him to complete a broader examination of all options for managing wolves, said John Pierce, the agency’s chief wildlife scientist. “In the long run, we definitely would prefer to do nonlethal removal if we can figure out how it works,” Pierce said.

Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Huckleberry Pack. In the aftermath of the shooting of the lead female, will fewer sheep die in wolf attacks—or more?

8 thoughts on “Nt’l Geo: Why Killing Wolves Might Not Save Livestock

  1. Asinine Wolf Killing Called Management
    Wolves never should have never been de-listed from protection by political maneuverings and now politically managed by states and ignorantly managed in western states that are hostile toward them and by agencies that have traditionally been hostile to them in particular as well as other predators. Western and midwestern states are going very far away from hunting ethics or anything that resembles fair chase to cull wolf populations down to marginal numbers. Now, in Montana and other states we are even having extended trapping/hunting seasons, and even more drastic measures, such as allowing MT landowners or their agents to kill up to 100 “threatening” wolves which is a carte blanche for wolf killing. Basically, this majestic, apex animal is being treated as a varmint by sportsmen, ranchers, state and federal wildlife agencies. Hostile western states cannot responsibly manage the wolves or even other predators. Wolves are a very healthy factor in wilderness ecological systems. Man is not. We need man-management more with regard to man’s long traditions of blood sports and war on wildlife.
    Managing wolves by hunting and trapping is asinine, cruel, barbaric and unnecessary, and poor management strategy, and terrible public relations. It does not work well. It is bad public relations for Montana and other western states. It is vendetta, anti-wolf hysteria, pushed by self-serving hunters, trappers, ranchers, and wolf hating colloquial minds, with a mindset of anti-wolf folklore that has existed over the centuries, supported by rancher politicians and rancher government officials and agencies. If Montana and other states have to hunt, why not stick with a short (normal) fair chase season and then call it good no matter what the outcome. Spare us the perverse arguments of need for management by trapping, extended hunt seasons, bounties, more than one kill ticket, use of calling devices, need to drive down the population, or use of other barbaric measures of unneeded control. Hunting and trapping are barbaric “blood sports” and a war on wildlife, not legitimate management tools. We do not do near enough or do enough about non-lethal means of control or management, which would work much better and be true wolf management and conservation.
    Actually, hunting wolves is asinine. A hunt and trap season is indiscriminate in killing. Wolves causing no problems are killed. Alpha males and females are killed. Wolves are a very social family with special roles assigned. Families are disrupted. Juveniles are left to learn on their own. Wolves are family units. Younger wolves spend up to 25% of their younger years being schooled by the adults. Wolves and packs that are leaving humans alone are killed. Animals are wounded and not killed. Many hunters and trappers take a sadistic pleasure in how they kill. Hunting and trapping disrupts families and leads to more breeding. Some younger wolves are not given the opportunity to learn from adults to stay away from human domains and how to hunt their natural prey. Wolf packs are fragmented and de-stabilized. Wolves do not need to be managed by hunting or trapping at all. They will fill up wilderness niches and limit their own populations relative to prey and territory as they have in Yellowstone and Denali Parks. Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are giving themselves a black eye with the rest of the nation with an anti-tourism, anti-science, anti-wolf hysteria.
    Trapping is cruel even if done legally, even if it is a tradition, even if seen as a management tool. Traps are cruel. It should be banned for the public, allowed as necessary for wildlife officials who use it vastly too much with a pervasive kill attitude of their own. Why should animals suffer for private economic gain on fur sales or to artificially farm (boost), a mistaken notion, elk herds (elk farming)? In the USA over 4 million animals are trapped each year for “sport” and millions more for “management” and millions more as collateral damage. Hunters worldwide kill over 100 million animals annually. USDA Wildlife Services sees killing animals, for control or management, as their mission. USDA Wildlife Services kills 3-4 million animals a year.

    The western states are locked into a mindset of quotas or no quotas and attempting to marginalize wolf populations by hunting and trapping and other lethal methods. Quotas for delisting were based on outdated figures for sustainable wolf populations. Wolves have not harmed game populations or significantly harmed stock populations (statistically zero, .0029%), contrary to repeated and repeated anecdotal opinion. Elk populations are up, from around 89,000 in 1989 to over 140,000 plus in 2014 in Montana. Hunters have great seasons on killing ungulates in Montana and Wyoming with a 20-25% success rate. Elk numbers are generally up, 100 to 127% per MT FWP (March-April Montana Outdoors 2014). Wolves regulate their own populations as they have in Denali National Park and Yellowstone. Problem wolves and problem packs may have to be “managed” but usually not always by lethal means and not by hunters and trappers and free wheeling ranchers. Wildlife agencies seem only to have a kill mentality wanting to control predators by hunting and trapping and other lethal means. Wolves belong in the wilderness and are good for the ecological systems. Wolves are natural parts of the wilderness ecology for millennium, good for it and belong in the wild. Man creates an unhealthy distortion of ecology by his (additive) sports and management killing. Hunters, trappers and ranchers and their state wildlife agencies are leading a war on wildlife.

    • “Trapping is cruel even if done legally, even if it is a tradition, even if seen as a management tool.” Right, there’s no excuse that justifies it. “Traps are cruel. It should be banned for the public, allowed as necessary for wildlife officials…” Wrong, that’s just another excuse. This sort of cruelty is never necessary.

  2. Rancher Nonlethal Wolf Management Cost Effective
    If ranchers would do better management of herds with regard to wolves and other predators they could actually make more money per one study referenced below. Killing wolves in general, driving down the population, rather than dealing with chronic, specific offenders, probably does more harm than good. We should also all be aware that many ranchers having wolf problems are grazing on public land and crying wolf. There are 772 permits to graze on national forest lands in MT and 3776 permits to graze on BLM land. Ranchers encroach on wildlife in a huge way but feel entitled to do so as they have a history with the US government of doing so. Also, the number of cattle killed by wolves is greatly exaggerated, 65 out of 5.2 million in 2012 and less (54) in 2013, which is less than 0.002% for which the rancher is reimbursed. Oregon has the most sensible wolf policy: Nonlethal means have to be in place, at least two, and tried, and then only chronic offenders are dealt with in a lethal way. We can live with wolves and true wilderness. But it seems that most ranchers are viscerally anti-wolf and that sportsmen and state wildlife agencies in some states, like MT, want to farm elk in the wilderness and eliminate or marginalize predators and thereby ruin true wilderness of which wolves are a vital part. Older wolves teach the young, most often to stay away from man, and we kill the teachers, leaving juveniles unschooled.

    Wolf populations are not increasing in ID, MT, WY. Wolves will regulate their own populations relative to wolf pack elbow room and game. Most wolf deaths are from other wolves, 65%. Wolves spend a quarter of their lives learning from elders what to hunt and how to hunt their culturally passed on hunting traditions. Left alone they will stabilize and fill up available niches then disperse to other regions, like to WA, OR, eventually CA. A wolf from this region was just discovered in the Grand Canyon. Killing wolves indiscriminately interrupts families, learning, cultures. Wolf populations in the wolf jihad states of MT, WY, ID have evidently about stabilized; in MT at around 600-700. Killing them is asinine in terms management. In fact is is not intelligent management: it is counter productive.





  3. Predation solutions to Encroachment
    Get wildlife-encroaching cattle and sheep out of the wilderness. Stop wildlife agencies and hunters from farming elk and deer in the wilderness.
    A sheep rancher turned 1,800 sheep loose on rugged hillside land in eastern Washington on an allotment — a lease — and then complained about wolf predation and wanted the wildlife agency to do something about the wolves. Ranchers in the Tetons of Wyoming placed cattle in prime predator country, then complained about predation and want “balanced” treatment of the predators.
    Hunters in the wolf jihad states want a war on wolves and sometimes lions and bears and want to basically farm sport targets in the wilderness. Idaho sent a professional hunter into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness to kill a pack of wolves so there would be more elk for hunters to kill.
    Ranchers should not be allowed leases in the wilderness or prime predator country. Ranching is taking up more and more public land — 23,000 grazing permits in 16 western states. Ranchers are on public land, complaining about predators and bison, and some even resent sharing with grazing wildlife. Turning cattle or sheep loose in back country is predator baiting. Ranchers are not seeking balance with wildlife; they are seeking power and control of public land and the killing of predators on that land.
    We, as a society, need to start retiring public land leases, not expanding them. Allow no more encroachment; stop the hunter-rancher war on wildlife, albeit a tradition.

  4. I’m pleased to see this study, but I don’t think the motivations for killing wolves are rational; I’m not optimistic that it will make a difference to the bloodthirsty state and federal wildlife [killing] agencies or to most ranchers and farmers. Their beliefs about wolves and other predators are hate-based, and killing anything is considered an act of prowess — or a viable recreational activity. Mental illness exhibits itself in many ways.

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