Americans have always liked the idea of bison, but living with them is another matter. In the same year Congress made bison the national mammal, more than 1,200 were culled from the Yellowstone National Park herd. Amy Martin reports on why the U.S. is killing so many of the animals it also idealizes.
AMY MARTIN, BYLINE: Thirty miles north of Yellowstone is a place called Paradise Valley. Picture snowy peaks, a winding river, big sweeping meadows…
(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)
MARTIN: …And cows. Drusca Kinkie runs a cattle ranch here.
DRUSCA KINKIE: I think the concept of free-roaming bison will harm agriculture immensely.
MARTIN: The annual bison cull in Yellowstone attracts controversy every year, and this winter was the second biggest ever. But Kinkie supports the reduction of the herd.
KINKIE: There’s a disease issue with bison. They’ve been exposed to brucellosis.
MARTIN: Brucellosis is a bacterial disease, which elk and bison in the Yellowstone area originally caught from livestock. Kinkie says the threat of transmission back to cattle looms large. And it’s that fear that drove the state of Montana to sue Yellowstone in 1995, forcing the park to ship more animals to slaughter. But there’s more going on here than just disease. Bison are caught in the culture wars. Kinkie says she feels misunderstood.
KINKIE: You have all these people out there fighting for free-roaming bison. And it’s a concept. It’s a vision that they have. And we’re fighting for our ability to survive here and make a living as we have for the last 60, almost 70 years. And they don’t have anything to lose in their vision. And we have everything to lose in ours.
ROBBIE MAGNAN: Buffalo has taken care of Native Americans since the beginning of time.
MARTIN: Robbie Magnan says there is a lot to lose on the other side. He’s the director of the Fish and Wildlife Department for the Fort Peck Tribes in northeastern Montana. For him, the culture wars started much further back when Europeans first arrived in North America and more than 50 million wild bison roamed the continent.
MAGNAN: The federal government massacred them because they figured out that was the only way to bring the Indians down to their knees – it was destroy their economy. And that’s why they were almost wiped out.
MARTIN: Now, only about 30,000 bison are protected in North America and, of those, less than half are living in anything close to wild conditions. As Magnan drives up into the hills of the reservation, he says wild bison are an important part of the country’s heritage. That’s why he helped to develop an alternative to slaughter.
MAGNAN: Instead of massacring these animals when they migrate out of the park in the wintertime when they’re hungry, OK, let’s get them out alive and start other cultural herds going.
MARTIN: To do that, the Fort Peck Tribes built a 320-acre brucellosis-quarantined pasture surrounded by extra high fences. Here, the Yellowstone bison can be held and tested and many eventually declared brucellosis free. Last year, the National Park Service said it supported using the facility, but then Magnan says…
MAGNAN: After they found out it works, they quit it. And why quit something when you know it works?
MARTIN: The person responsible for answering that question is Sue Masica, who oversees this region of the park service. But she declined requests for an interview.
Those guys are moving.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How many did you count? Yeah, they’re going.
RICK WALLEN: I’m guessing there’s 200-plus.
MARTIN: Rick Wallen is the team leader for the park’s bison management program. He’s watching a large bison herd move quickly down the valley of the Yellowstone River. It’s a cold day and their dark shapes stand out against the snow. Despite the beauty, the mood is intense. For most of the year, Wallen studies these animals. But every winter, he manages their slaughter.
WALLEN: There is a cost, and that cost is more emotional for some than others. I’ve even had people on days that we were supposed to go there and do the work call and say, you know, I can’t do this anymore. I have to resign my position. I’m sorry.
MARTIN: Wallen thinks a better solution would be quarantine. That would allow him to do what he says is his job.
WALLEN: Protect the wild in wild bison. Otherwise, they go extinct.
MARTIN: That extinction comes in the form of domestication. Bison are increasingly raised as livestock and bred with cattle to make them more docile. Wallen says Yellowstone is a bulwark against this trend, a place where bison still have to use their instincts to survive in the wild. For NPR News, I’m Amy Martin in Yellowstone National Park.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
The billboard is one of two that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies bought, the other being in Helena. Steve Kelly, a board member for Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the artist who painted the picture, said they hope people will see the signs and pressure Montana Gov. Steve Bullock into blocking the annual shipping of Yellowstone bison to slaughter for the year.
“It’s a horrendous thing,” Kelly said. “He’s the one who has the power to stop it.”
The signs went up this week, arriving after hundreds of bison have already been sent to slaughterhouses and while another few hundred wait their turn. Alliance for the Wild Rockies is one of several environmental groups that oppose shipping bison to slaughter, a practice government officials consider necessary to meet population reduction goals each year.
“The National Park Service needs to address bison overpopulation in Yellowstone National Park,” said Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel in an emailed statement.
The culling of Yellowstone’s bison herd happens because of a 17-year-old management plan rooted in fears of the disease brucellosis. Brucellosis can cause animals to abort their calves, and the livestock industry worries that if bison are allowed to roam farther outside of the park that the disease might be spread to cattle herds, though no case of bison transmitting the disease to cattle has been documented in the wild.
Reducing the population is one way they try to curtail the risk of brucellosis transmission. The management plan calls for a population of about 3,000 bison in Yellowstone. About 5,500 bison live there now, and officials want to kill about 1,300 from the herd through public hunting and ship to slaughter this year.
State wildlife officials believe hunters from five tribal nations and those licensed through the state have taken roughly 400 so far. The most recent update from Yellowstone National Park said that 179 bison had been sent to slaughter.
There is precedent for a governor blocking the shipment of bison to slaughter. In 2011, then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued an executive order blocking the shipment of any bison to slaughterhouses in Montana, a move that prevented the slaughter of roughly 500 bison.
Using the same powers, Bullock delayed shipments to slaughter earlier this year over a group of 40 bison originally meant for establishing a quarantine program at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
A quarantine program would take in bison from Yellowstone and keep them in isolation until they can be certified brucellosis free — a certification that would allow the animals to be taken elsewhere. Yellowstone National Park proposed setting up the quarantine operation at Fort Peck in 2016, a political stalemate over transporting bison through Montana stalled those plans. The park had decided to send those 40 bison to slaughter.
Bullock’s action resulted in a deal to send some of those bison to U.S. Department of Agriculture corrals near Corwin Springs and for the governor to lift the shipping ban.
Abel said in her statement that the state “recognizes culling efforts are not everyone’s preferred approach, and will continue to work directly with the U.S. Department of Interior and USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to look at future quarantine as an alternative to slaughter.”
Kelly said they want the governor to either revive the previous ban on shipments or write a new executive order. He said there is probably enough support for the action — aside from the state’s powerful agriculture lobby.
“Certainly there’s enough support,” Kelly said. “He’s just favoring the livestock lobby.”
Shutterstock | irin-k
The second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted as a result of human activities is methane (CH4). In 2014, CH4 accounted for 11% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, and the majority of these emissions were the result of agriculture.
Methane is emitted from a wide range of natural sources including marshlands, livestock farming, and leakage from natural gas systems.1 Domestic livestock including sheep, goats, and cattle produce substantial amounts of CH4 due to the normal digestive processes in the ruminant stomach system.
Bacteria are present in gastrointestinal systems of ruminant animals, such as cattle, to help the breakdown of plant material. Some of the microorganisms (methanogens) use the acetate available from the plant material to produce methane.1,2
Whenever the animal defecates or eructates (burps), it simultaneously emits a substantial amount of methane. Rotting animal manure stockpiled for use by farms in fertilizing fields can be another potent source of the gas. From a global perspective, agriculture is the chief source of CH4 emissions, and methods to measure the effect and reduce the overall emissions are constantly being made.3
Methane is an active part of the carbon cycle but the natural processes in soil and chemical reactions in the atmosphere that help to remove it from the environment are being overtaken by gas production and industrial-scale farming activities.4
In the atmosphere, methane has a lifetime that is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the best known greenhouse gas and lasts for about 12 years. However, CH4 traps radiation more efficiently than CO2.5 Over a hypothetical 100-year period, the impact of CH4 on climate change is over 25 times more than CO2.
Methane produces a dominant greenhouse gas effect, and approximately 44% of anthropogenic livestock emissions (3.1 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalents in a year) are in the form of CH4.
The rest of the emissions are shared between nitrous oxide (N2O, 29%) and carbon dioxide (CO2, 27%). Methane is more devastating to the climate than CO2, although it doesn’t remain in the atmosphere for as long. For effective reduction of the impact of climate change, CO2 and CH4 emissions must be addressed.6
Methane has a 25 times greater impact on climate change than CO2. Shutterstock | JeffreyRasmussen
It is well known that dairy and beef herds are important producers of CH4. Protracted experiments involving a cow in a respiration chamber have to be conducted for several days to accurately determine the amount of the CH4 produced. One method being developed is the use of gas sensors in cow sheds and milking parlors to monitor the CH4produced by animals over a set time.
Although the respiration chamber is the benchmark, the gas sensor technique provides accurate and quick estimates of CH4 emissions which, in contrast to a respiratory chamber, do not disrupt agricultural activities.7
The emission measurements are generally made during ‘milking’, which is done 3 – 6 times daily. The data is invaluable for developing methane-reducing diets and identifying low emission cow species.
Cattle are a significant source of agricultural methane emissions. Shutterstock | andaq
by Marc Bekoff
“Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque and least accountable agencies I know of. It is not capable of reforming itself. They need a mandate for reform… it’s going to have to be imposed on them.” REP. PETER DEFAZIO, Senior U.S. Congressman (D-OR)
A recent essay in the New York Times by Richard Conniff called “America’s Wildlife Body Count” is a must read for anyone interested in the ways in which Wildlife Services, AKA Murder, Inc., conducts business as usual. It is simply amazing how those who work for Wildlife Services get away with killing millions upon millions of nonhuman animals (animals) “in the name of coexistence and conservation” using brutal and sickening methods including poisoning, trapping, snaring, and shooting, even from airplanes. And, of course, non-target animals, including people’s pets, are also part of the carnage.
You can learn more about Wildlife Services’ killing ways in a short film called EXPOSED: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife at the website for Predator Defense. Mr. Conniff’s essay is a nice, but depressing, follow-up, to a recent essay of mine called “The Wars on Wolves, Cats, and Other Animals: It’s Time to Forever Close Down the Killing Fields” (please also see “The Psychology of Killing Wolves, Cats, and other Animals” about people who say they love animals and then support killing them). I know many people simply do not believe what they hear about Wildlife Services and their and others’ unrelenting wars on wildlife, but the facts speak for themselves, and we need to put them all out of business as soon as possible.
Predators are not the leading cause of livestock deaths and killing them doesn’t work
Mr. Conniff’s essay is available online so below are a few facts and snippets to whet your appetite for more, although the body count for which Wildlife Services is responsible will make you ill. He provides a concise review of a recent peer reviewed research paper by the University of Wisconsin’s Dr. Adrian Treves and his colleagues called “Predator control should not be a shot in the dark.” The abstract for this landmark study that analyses if predator control actually works — it clearly does not — reads as follows:
Livestock owners traditionally use various non-lethal and lethal methods to protect their domestic animals from wild predators. However, many of these methods are implemented without first considering experimental evidence of their effectiveness in mitigating predation-related threats or avoiding ecological degradation. To inform future policy and research on predators, we systematically evaluated evidence for interventions against carnivore (canid, felid, and ursid) predation on livestock in North American and European farms. We also reviewed a selection of tests from other continents to help assess the global generality of our findings. Twelve published tests – representing five non-lethal methods and 7 lethal methods – met the accepted standard of scientific inference (random assignment or quasi-experimental case-control) without bias in sampling, treatment, measurement, or reporting. Of those twelve, prevention of livestock predation was demonstrated in six tests (four non-lethal and two lethal), whereas counterintuitive increases in predation were shown in two tests (zero non-lethal and two lethal); the remaining four (one non-lethal and three lethal) showed no effect on predation. Only two non-lethal methods (one associated with livestock-guarding dogs and the other with a visual deterrent termed “fladry”) assigned treatments randomly, provided reliable inference, and demonstrated preventive effects. We recommend that policy makers suspend predator control efforts that lack evidence for functional effectiveness and that scientists focus on stringent standards of evidence in tests of predator control.
Mr. Conniff begins:
Until recently, I had never had any dealings with Wildlife Services, a century-old agency of the United States Department of Agriculture with a reputation for strong-arm tactics and secrecy. It is beloved by many farmers and ranchers and hated in equal measure by conservationists, for the same basic reason: It routinely kills predators and an astounding assortment of other animals — 3.2 million of them last year — because ranchers and farmers regard them as pests.
Referring to Dr. Treves’ study Mr. Conniff notes:
To find out, the researchers reviewed scientific studies of predator control regimens — some lethal, some not — over the past 40 years. The results were alarming. Of the roughly 100 studies surveyed, only two met the “gold standard” for scientific evidence. That is, they conducted randomized controlled trials and took precautions to avoid bias. Each found that nonlethal methods (like guard dogs, fences and warning flags) could be effective at deterring predators.
Note that only around 2% of the studies presented solid scientific evidence about the question at hand. Would you get out of bed if you only had a 2% chance of making it through the day?
Wildlife Services pretty much does whatever they want to do as if they’re the only show in town, and a horrific show it is. When Mr. Conniff tried to get Wildlife Services to respond to queries they were not very cooperative. He writes, “I’ve had better luck getting access at the C.I.A.”
Others also have noted that Wildlife Services gets away with doing what they do with no oversight whatsoever. They just continue killing millions of animals “in the name of coexistence and conservation,” as if the animals were disposable garbage. Indeed, at a talk I heard last year, someone working for Wildlife Services claimed they were “heroes” for the people they served. Many in the audience were incredulous and sighed deeply, as if asking, “Are you kidding?”
Some more facts are worth quoting about Wildlife Services unrelenting egregious and lethal war on wildlife. Mr. Conniff asks:
But why were different species killed, or where? Your guess is as good as mine — and not just about the predators but about the agency’s decision to kill 17 sandhill cranes last year, or 150 blue-winged teal ducks, or 4,927 cattle egrets. Before killing 708,487 red-winged blackbirds that year, did anyone weigh the damage they do to ripening corn and other crops against the benefit they provide by feeding on corn earworms and other harmful insects? Is the scientific support for killing 20,777 prairie dogs (on which the survival of species like the burrowing owl and the black-footed ferret depend), better than that for killing predators?
Mr. Conniff concludes:
In their study, Dr. Treves and his co-authors urge the appointment of an independent panel to conduct a rigorous large-scale scientific experiment on predator control methods. They also recommended that the government put the burden of proof on the killers and suspend predator control programs that are not supported by good science. For Wildlife Services, after a century of unregulated slaughter of America’s native species, this could be the moment to set down the weapons, step out of the way, and let ranchers and scientists together figure out the best way for predators and livestock to coexist.
Please do something to put Wildlife Services out of business once and for all
“Poisons banned since the 1970s, that the official record said didn’t exist, were being bought from the Wyoming Dept. of Ag. to sell to ranchers and predator boards.” REX SHADDOX, Former Wildlife Services trapper & special investigator for Wyoming Sting operation
Please read Mr. Conniff’s essay and contact members of congress and ask them to put Wildlife Services out of business once and for all. Your money is supporting their murderous ways. To wit, Mr. Conniff notes that taxpayers spent $127 million in 2014 to allow Wildlife Services to continue brutally killing other animals with no transparency at all. That’s a lot of money that could be used to foster coexistence in non-lethal and humane ways, an idea that obviously is totally foreign to Wildlife Services. The rapidly growing interdisciplinary field of compassionate conservation(please also see “Compassionate Conservation: More than ‘Welfarism Gone Wild,’” “Compassionate Conservation Meets Cecil the Slain Lion,” and the website for The Centre for Compassionate Conservation) could surely come to rescue of the millions of animals who are wantonly and brutally killed each and every year.
As a reminder of the urgency of putting Wildlife Services out of business, I end with the quote with which I began:
“Wildlife Services is one of the most opaque and least accountable agencies I know of. It is not capable of reforming itself. They need a mandate for reform… it’s going to have to be imposed on them.” REP. PETER DEFAZIO, Senior U.S. Congressman (D-OR)
The Profanity Peak wolf pack was wrongfully slaughtered. They were set up for the kill. The rancher, a known wolf-hater, put his cattle to graze on pristine, forested public land in the core of the pack’s territory. His cattle, of course, displaced the wolves’ normal prey–elk and deer. The cattle then became prey. The rancher did not use anywhere close to an adequate level of nonlethal deterrents to prevent predation. He also put salt blocks near the pack’s den, according to WDFW, which drew the cattle right to the wolves. And so, the wolves predated on the cattle.
After this WDFW’s Wolf Policy Lead had the gall to state in a TV interview: “Is that really the wolf population we want to repopulate the state? Wolves that have demonstrated that behavior and see livestock as prey items.” In other words, wolves being wolves (let alone being set up!) and doing the job nature gave them as apex predators should not be themselves?!
So WDFW has now killed at least 6 of the 11-member pack and is actively trying to kill the rest. This situation is an outrage! The slaughter of the Profanity Peak Pack must be stopped. And cattle should cease being placed in wolves’ territory unless truly adequate nonlethal control methods are in use. There are also areas where it is inappropriate to have livestock, and this is surely one of them.
Executive Director, Predator Defense
The recent killing of six members of the Profanity Peak wolf pack in NE Washington in retribution for the loss of a few cattle is emblematic of what is wrong with public land policy. As I write, trappers are out to kill the remaining pack members – including 4-month old pups.
What is significant about the destruction of this pack is that the Profanity Peak wolves roamed national forest lands. These are our lands. They belong to all Americans and are part of our national patrimony.
Currently private commercial businesses such as the livestock industry are allowed to use public lands if they do not damage, degrade and impoverish our public lands heritage. Clearly the killing of this pack violates that obligation and responsibility.
What is particularly egregious about the on-going slaughter of the Profanity Pack is that it was essentially a preventable conflict. Had the rancher, whose cows invaded the wolf pack’s territory, been required to use other public lands, or better yet, simply lease private pasture, there would have been no livestock losses, hence wolf deaths.
Placing cows on top of a wolf pack territory is analogous to, and irresponsible as leaving picnic baskets or coolers out in a campground. In most national parks, if you leave a cooler or other food available to bears, you are fined for this careless behavior. We don’t blame the bear if it happens to eat that food. But when it comes to the livestock industry, we essentially allow four-legged picnic baskets to roam at will on our lands, and should a predator – be it a coyote, cougar, bear or wolf – kill one of those mobile picnic baskets, we don’t hold the rancher responsible, we kill the public wildlife.
This represents the wrong priorities.
We expect different behavior from people using public resources. I can, and do, mark up and highlight passages in books that I own in my personal library, but it would be inappropriate for me to mark up or otherwise damage books in a public library.
In a similar manner, we should expect different consequences for livestock owners who willingly use public lands (at almost no cost I might add) for their private commercial interests. In this case and others like it across the public lands of the West, we should expect ranchers utilizing public lands (our lands) to at the least accept any losses from predators that may occur while they are using public property. And if conflicts continue, we should remove the livestock, not the wolves or other predators.
It’s important to note that the mere presence of livestock negatively impacts wolves whether they are shot or otherwise killed.
Domestic livestock consume forage that would otherwise support the native prey of wolves, like elk. So more domestic animals means fewer elk. In essence, domestic livestock grazing public lands are compromising the food resources of public wildlife so that ranchers can turn a private profit.
Worse for wolves, especially wolves confined to a den area because of pups, as was the case in the Profanity Peak Pack, when domestic cattle are moved onto our public lands, it creates a social displacement of elk. In other words, elk avoid areas actively being grazed by livestock. If the livestock are grazing lands near a den site, then the wolves automatically have fewer elk to take and must travel further to find their dinner.
Who can blame the wolves if they take the most available prey—which is often domestic livestock. Robert Weilgus, a Washington State University professor, studying the Profanity pack noted that cattle were placed near the den site, or as he was quoted in a Seattle Times article as saying the cattle were released “right on top of the den”.
Some commentators, including Washington State University tried to discredit Wielgus suggesting the cattle were released about four miles away. What that demonstrates is either their ignorance of wolf biology or a not so-veiled attempt to confuse the public. If you are a wolf where regular daily hunting exclusions of 20-30 miles are common, four miles is a short romp. It is essentially “right on top” of the wolves.
If you place cattle within a dozen miles of a wolf pack you are essentially putting the livestock “right on top” of the wolves. And if the presence of cattle forces native prey like elk to abandon the area, can anyone blame the wolves if they resort to killing a domestic animal once in a while?
The loss of the Profanity Peak Pack has occurred on the same grazing allotment where another wolf pack was destroyed in 2012. This begs the question of whether any livestock grazing should be permitted in this area. It is obviously good wolf habitat—except of course for the presence of domestic animals. The only realistic long-term solution is to retire the grazing allotment. Either transfer the cattle to another portion of the public lands or, better yet, simply pay the rancher with a voluntary permit retirement to close the allotment and permanently remove the livestock.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has been studying predators for four decades. He serves on the Science Advisory Board of Project Coyote and is the author of 38 books including Welfare Ranching, Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy, Energy: The Delusion of Endless Growth and Overdevelopment, Thrillcraft, and Keeping the Wild.
Claim that rancher turned out cattle on wolf den untrue, WSU says
Originally published August 31, 2016 at 8:06 pm Updated August 31, 2016 at 8:15 pm
A researcher’s statements about wolves interacting with livestock that stirred up controversy were inappropriate and inaccurate, Washington State University says.
By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times environment reporter
Statements by a Washington State University researcher that a rancher turned out his cattle on top of a wolf den were inappropriate and inaccurate and “contributed substantially to the growing anger and confusion about this significant wildlife management issue,” the university said in a statement Wednesday.
As state officials work to exterminate a wolf pack, the university apologized and said it disavows the statement made by the researcher, Robert Wielgus, associate professor and director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at WSU, to The Seattle Times. Wielgus “subsequently acknowledged that he had no basis in fact for making such a statement. In actuality, the livestock were released at low elevation on the east side of the Kettle Crest more than four miles from the den site and dispersed throughout the allotment,” the statement asserted.
In an interview with The Seattle Times last week, Wielgus had said, “This livestock operator elected to put his livestock directly on top of their den site; we have pictures of cows swamping it, I just want people to know.”
Another statement by Wielgus that none of the participants in his study, in which both wolves and cattle are radio-collared, experienced loss of livestock also was not true, the university stated. At least one rancher in the study had lost livestock to wolves, according to the study.
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Asked to comment Tuesday on challenges to his statements by a conservation group, Wielgus told The Seattle Times that he would have no further public comment on the subject.
The rancher he criticized, Len McIrvin of the Diamond M ranch on the Canadian Border north of Kettle Falls, did not return calls for comment.
In an Aug. 19 email to The Seattle Times, Wielgus stated: “No ranchers in wa that cooperated w us or wdfw had any losses over the last 3 years,” and, “None of the cooperators with me or wdfw has experienced any losses in 2 years. Len Mc (Irvin) has refused to cooperate with us to reduce depredations and has had 2 wolf packs killed so far. He hates wolves … and welcomes conflict … because the wolves die in his allotments.”
McIrvin and another rancher actually had been taking steps to avoid conflict with wolves on their allotments on public land in the Colville National Forest, including deploying range riders, putting out calves at higher weight, and picking up carcasses to avoid attracting predators, according to Donny Martorello, wolf-policy lead for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
But Wielgus gave a very different impression.
“After careful thought…..go ahead and quote me ‘where mcI (rvin) grazes … dead wolves follow’. He will be proud of it!,” Wielgus wrote to The Seattle Times in an email.
The controversy erupted as the WDFW was killing the Profanity Peak pack to protect McIrvin’s cattle, after he and another producer lost stock to wolf kills. It is the second time the department has killed a pack to protect McIrvin’s cattle; the first time was the Wedge Pack, in 2012
- August 30, 2016
- Natural Resources Institute Finland
- In the future, the breeding of the climate-friendly cow can be sped up by using genetic information. A recent study identifies areas in the cow’s genotype which are linked to the amount of methane it produces. Cows subjected to study did not unnecessarily chew their cuds when being placed in glass
In the future, the breeding of the climate-friendly cow can be speeded up by using genetic information. A recent study identifies areas in the cow’s genotype which are linked to the amount of methane it produces. Cows subjected to study did not unnecessarily chew their cuds when being placed in glass cases.
Of the greenhouse gases produced by humans, 16 per cent consists of methane, of which one third originates in cattle production: more than one billion cattle graze the planet, and each of them emit around 500 litres of methane every day, thereby warming up the climate.
Could it be possible to produce a cow with lower methane emissions through the means available for breeding? The genotype and feed affect a cow’s microbial make-up and functioning. Microbes in the cow’s intestine and rumen on their part play a key role in the functioning of the cow’s entire biological system. “A similar interaction was previously detected in humans,” says Johanna Vilkki, professor at Luke.
As part of a project named RuminOmics, led by the University of Aberdeen and funded by the EU, the Natural Resources Institute Finland, in collaboration with ten other European research institutes, investigated the interaction between a ruminant’s genotype, feed, and the microbial make-up of the rumen, examining the role these factors played in the energy-efficiency of dairy cattle and their methane emissions.
Significant differences in methane production between individuals
Under the RuminOmics project, one thousand cows were examined in different European countries. One hundred Ayshire cows visited a metabolic chamber, located in Luke’s Jokioinen cowshed, in which their methane emissions were measured. In addition, their digestion, production characteristics, energy-efficiency and metabolism, as well as their microbial make-up, were monitored.
Substantial differences in measurement results were found between different farms and countries, as feeding practices, for example, differ from each other a great deal. It was expected that Finnish and Swedish cows would produce more methane than cows in other countries. This is attributable to their feed which is dominated by silage, not by the climate.
“If the methane emissions from cows are to be reduced, a straightforward approach according to which only cows with low emissions are left in the livestock is perhaps not the best solution. On the contrary, the results indicate that many cows with low methane emissions are inefficient due to the fact that they are unable to make use contained in fodder.
Relative methane emissions of a cow per production unit, kilo of milk or beef are reduced if the production level or production age are increased.
Therefore, it makes sense, from an ethical and environmental perspective, to favour cows with an excellent production capability and keep them in production for as long as possible,” Viikki says by way of recommendation.
Genes reveal a cow with low emission
Information available in the near future will indicate whether or not cows with low emissions and a good production capability can be selected for breeding on the basis of genetic data. The study identified areas in the cow’s genotype, the variation of which was linked to the amount of methane produced per kilo of milk produced.
“We will investigate whether these genes affect the variation in the microbial make-up of cows’ rumen or other characteristics of cows such as the size of their rumen, production level of capability to use fodder.”
Reduced emissions and healthier milk
Cows’ fodder contains a great deal of unsaturated fatty acids, but the microbes in the rumen transform them into saturated fatty acids. Therefore, approximately 70 percent of the fats in milk comprises solid fats.
The make-up of fatty acids in the cows studied was measured, and its connection to the microbial make-up of the rumen was examined. Further research will reveal whether a cow’s fatty acid make-up indicates the cow’s methane emissions.
“By changing the feed of cows, we seek to reduce the proportion of microbes causing methane emissions, the amount of which is also related to the amount of saturated fatty acids in milk. Using this method, we can perhaps also change the nutritional make-up of milk in a healthier direction,” Viikki remarks.
What is a metabolic chamber?
Methane production of dairy cattle is measured in the four metabolic chambers at Luke’s experimental cowshed in Minkiö. Animal well-being has been taken into consideration in the planning of the chambers.
In order to create an agreeable environment for the cows in their chambers of 20 cubic metres in volume, they have been placed in the vicinity of other cows in the cowshed. The chambers have a steel framework with transparent polycarbonate walls, allowing the cows to see the other cows in the herd. To ensure safety, the chambers have an emergency exit which will open if the equipment experiences a power outage or the carbon dioxide level reaches too high a value.
In the course of studies, air intake and outflow is measured for the concentration of carbon dioxide, oxygen, methane and hydrogen using a gas analyser. The volume of air flow is measured using a mass flowmeter.
Cows’ daily feed consumption and milk production is measured and recorded, and the manure and urine produced is collected. This will enable the analysis of the energy metabolism of dairy cattle in addition to methane measurements.