France is to allow the wolf population to grow from about 360 now to 500 by 2023, despite protests from farmers worried about their livestock.
A new plan announced by the government represents a rise of nearly 40% in the wolf population.
After being eradicated by hunters in the 1930s, the wolf made its way back into France from Italy in the 1990s.
Wolves are listed as a protected species by the Bern Convention that France has signed up to.
- France on alert for prowling wolves
- Wolf hunters deployed to French Alps
- Wolf makes a comeback in France
Animal rights groups had been pushing for a more radical proposal and accused ministers of lacking political courage.
In a gesture to farmers, the government said that hunters in France would still be allowed to cull 40 wolves this year, the same as in 2017. Up to 10% of the wolf population could be culled every year from 2019, and that proportion could rise to 12% if more frequent wolf attacks were registered.
Almost 12,000 sheep were killed by wolves in France in 2017 and the government has come under strong pressure from farmers in French regions – particularly in the Alps and the Pyrenees.
“We place trust in all of the stakeholders and local lawmakers to calm the debate and enable co-existence over the long-term,” Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said in a joint statement.
The new plan also envisages that livestock owners will be able to apply for state funds to protect their animals from wolves.
France is not the only Western European country witnessing the return of the wolf.
Last month a wolf was spotted in the Flanders region of northern Belgium for the first time in over a century.
There were an estimated 60 wolf packs living in Germany in 2017, a rise of some 15% on the previous year.
Few Americans probably know that their tax dollars paid to kill 76,859 coyotes in 2016. The responsible agency was Wildlife Services (WS), part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its mission is to “resolve wildlife conflicts to allow people and wildlife to coexist.” This broad mandate includes everything from reducing bird strikes at airports to curbing the spread of rabies.
Controlling predators that attack livestock is one of the agency’s more controversial tasks. WS uses nonlethal techniques, such as livestock guard dogs and fladry – hanging strips of cloth from fences, where they flutter and deter predators. But every year it also kills tens of thousands of predators, including bears, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, hawks, cougars and wolves.
However, there is no clear evidence that lethal control works to reduce human-predator conflict. In fact, it can even make the problem worse. At the same time, research shows that predators play key roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems. As a conservation biologist specializing in human-wildlife conflicts, I see growing evidence that it is time to reconsider lethal control.
Warfare on the range
Coyotes have been a target ever since European explorers first arrived in their territory centuries ago. Nonetheless, their range has expanded from the western plains across most of the continent.
The most common reason for killing coyotes is to reduce predation of livestock, such as sheep and calves. In a 2015 USDA report on sheep losses, ranchers reported how many of their animals died in 2014 and how they died. Twenty-eight percent of adult sheep losses and 36 percent of lamb losses were attributed to predators. Of those animals, ranchers stated that 33,510 adult sheep (more than half of total predation losses) and 84,519 lambs (nearly two-thirds of all predation losses) were killed by coyotes.
According to the American Sheep Industry Association, about UD$20.5 million of ranchers’ losses in 2014 (roughly one-fifth of their total losses) were attributed to coyotes. Importantly, however, these numbers were based on self-reported data and were not verified by wildlife professionals. External review would be useful because even experienced ranchers may have trouble determining in some cases whether a sheep was killed by a coyote or a dog (dogs are second only to coyotes in reported predation on livestock), or died from other causes and later was scavenged by coyotes.
To keep coyotes in check, WS employees set neck snares and other traps, shoot coyotes on the ground and from planes and helicopters, arm sheep with collars containing liquid poison and distribute M-44 “bombs” that inject sodium cyanide into the mouths of animals that chew on them.
As in warfare, there is collateral damage. M-44s killed more than 1,100 domestic dogs between 2000 and 2012. Scientists have also criticized WS for unintentionally killing numerous animals and birds, including federally protected golden and bald eagles, while failing to do any studies of how its actions affected nontarget species. Early this year the American Society of Mammalogists called for more scientific scrutiny of the policy of killing large predators.
How effective is lethal control?
It is understandable for struggling ranchers to blame coyotes for economic losses, since kills leave tangible signs and killing predators seems like a logical solution. However, a widely cited 2006 study called coyotes scapegoats for factors that were more directly related to the decline of sheep ranching in the United States.
The author, Dr. Kim Murray Berger, who was then a research biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, built and tested a series of statistical models to explain the declining number of sheep being bred in the United States. She found that variables including the price of hay, wage rates and the price of lamb explained most of the decline, and that the amount of money spent on predator control had little effect.
Other research indicates that even if predation is one factor in ranchers’ economic losses, lethal control is not the best way to reduce it.
One 2016 analysis reviewed studies that compared lethal and nonlethal strategies for controlling livestock predation. Lethal methods ranged from civilian hunts to government culls. Nonlethal methods included fladry, guard animals, chemical repellents and livestock protection collars. The review found that nonlethal methods generally reduced livestock predation more effectively, and that predation actually temporarily increased after use of some lethal methods.
Why would predation increase after predators are killed? When pack animals such as coyotes, dingoes and wolves are killed, the social structure of their packs breaks down. Female coyotes become more likely to breed and their pups are more likely to survive, so their numbers may actually increase. Packs generally protect territories, so breaking up a pack allows new animals to come in, raising the population. In addition, some new arrivals may opportunistically prey on livestock, which can increase predation rates.
These findings extend beyond the United States. A three-year study in South Africa found that using nonlethal methods to protect livestock from jackals, caracals and leopards cost ranchers less than lethal methods, both because less predation occurred and because the nonlethal methods cost less.
In Australia dingoes occupy a similar ecological niche to coyotes and are similarly targeted. In a recent case study at a cattle station, researchers found that ceasing all lethal and nonlethal predator control reduced predation of cattle by dingoes as the social structure of the resident dingoes stabilized.
Even research by USDA supports this pattern. In a recent study, researchers from several universities, USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center and the nonprofit advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife analyzed wolf predation rates for sheep producers on public grazing lands in Idaho. Predation was 3.5 times higher in zones where lethal control was used than in adjacent areas where nonlethal methods were used.
A high-stakes placebo
Overuse of subsidized predator control is comparable to primary care doctors overprescribing antibiotics to human patients. Patients often demand antibiotics for common colds, although doctors understand that these infections are caused mainly by viruses, so antibiotics will be ineffective. But receiving a prescription makes patients feel that their concerns are being addressed. Lethal control is a high-stakes placebo for the problems that ail ranchers, and misusing it can increase problems for ranchers and the ecosystems around them.
Human-wildlife conflict is a complex issue. Often, as some colleagues and I showed in our recent book, “Human-Wildlife Conflict,” the real problem is confrontations between humans about how to deal with wildlife.
This means that we need to choose prevention and mitigation methods carefully. If cultural values and prevailing community attitudes are not taken into account, attempts to change ranching practices could increase hostility toward predators and make it harder for conservation groups to work with ranchers.
Federal employees at Wildlife Services are under tremendous pressure from the agricultural industry. And farmers and ranchers often act based on deeply rooted traditions and cultural attitudes. It rests with wildlife professionals to use current and well-grounded science to address human concerns without harming the environment.
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.
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?
Hunter Hired by Washington State Kills 1 Wolf
One wolf has been killed by a hunter hired by Washington, a state where the animals have been regaining a foothold in recent years after being hunted to extinction in the early 1900s.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife said hunters were back out Monday, targeting three more wolves in the Huckleberry Pack to protect sheep in rural southern Stevens County.
Wolves from the Huckleberry Pack this month have killed 22 sheep and injured three more, despite preventive measures, the agency said.
Environmental groups oppose the hunt.
Wolves began moving back into the state in the early 2000s from Idaho and Canada, and they are protected under state and federal law. The state exterminated an entire pack of wolves to protect a herd of cattle in mountainous Stevens County in 2012.
The most recent hunt is designed to protect a herd of 1,800 sheep owned by Dave Dashiell of the town of Hunters, located about 50 miles northwest of Spokane.
“Unfortunately, lethal action is clearly warranted in this case,” said Nate Pamplin, the agency’s wildlife program director, on Monday. “Before we considered reducing the size of the pack, our staff and Mr. Dashiell used a wide range of preventive measures to keep the wolves from preying on the pack.”
Non-lethal activities are continuing, he said.
Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity said the hunt proves the state prefers to kill the wolves.
“The department has never been interested in making sure sufficient non-lethal conflict measures are in place,” Weiss said. “They have wanted to gun for these wolves from the start.”
The state could have used rubber bullets or paintball rounds to harass the wolves, but instead resorted immediately to airborne snipers, she said.
On Saturday, crews found five dead and three injured sheep that were attacked Friday night or early Saturday morning, the agency said. Investigators confirmed that wolves were responsible for all of the attacks.
On Saturday evening, a marksman contracted by the Department of Fish and Wildlife killed one member of the pack from a helicopter. The agency has authorized killing three more wolves from the pack, which contains about a dozen wolves.
Wolves were driven to extinction in Washington in the early 1900s by a government-sponsored eradication program on behalf of the livestock industry. Their population has grown to at least 52 wolves today.
Some ranchers and hunters vehemently oppose the return of the wolves, saying the animals prey on livestock and deer populations.
[Deer populations? Excuse me, but yes, wolves do prey on deer–always have–long before humans started claiming them all as a “game” species. Hunters claim to be keeping the deer from overpopulating and starving, but at the same time they get upset if a natural predator returns to its historic place and does part of the job for them.]
The current situation in Stevens County meets all of the agency’s conditions for lethal removal, Pamplin said. That includes repeated wolf kills; the failure of non-lethal methods to stop the predation; the attacks are likely to continue; and the livestock owner has not done anything to attract the wolves.
[It seems to me, 1,800 sheep in one place should be considered doing something to attract wolves (not to mention cougars and coyotes). The obvious non-lethal answer: phase out the sheep.]