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Of Wolves and Welfare Ranchers

We continuously hear the livestock industry talking about “problem” wolves—those animals that attack untended livestock. Yet the real issue is “problem ranchers” who externalize one of the costs of doing business—namely operating a livestock operation in a manner that reduces or eliminates predator opportunity.

To make an analogy think of how we used to let polluting industries use our rivers as open sewers, often resulting in fish kills and polluted waters that were unfit for swimming and domestic water use. Thankfully, we passed legislation that made many of these industries internalize the cost of production by making it illegal to dump pollutants in our waterways.

Thus far, however, we have not applied the same legal requirements upon ranchers who have successfully transferred one of the legitimate business costs of livestock production—namely animal husbandry practices that result in a reduction of predator opportunity—on to the public at large, and on to the backs of predators.

For several hundred years, livestock producers have enjoyed a largely predator-free landscape. Typically they had the public fund their war on predators. Starting with the Massachusetts Bay Colony that in 1630 put a bounty on wolves, livestock producers have succeeded in getting others to pay to exterminate predators. The eradication of wolves from the landscape continued with settlement of the West. In 1843 one of the very first political action by Oregon settlers was creation a tax on all citizens, not to pay for things like roads or schools, but rather a wolf bounty. Similarly, some 80,730 wolves were killed in Montana for taxpayer-funded bounty between 1883 and 1918.

The common assumption was that what was good for ranchers was good for society as a whole, much as the old saw suggested that what was good for General Motors was a benefit to the country as a whole. At least that is how the livestock industry has successfully sold the idea that taxpayers should subsidize their business operations.

When bounties did not completely eliminate predators like wolves, the livestock industry successfully lobbied to have the federal government (you know the hated feds) create the Biological Survey in 1914. At its height of predator control efforts, the Biological Survey had more than 200 agents hired whose chief duty was to track down and kill the last predators, including extirpation of wolves from national parks like Yellowstone.

Today ranchers continue to enjoy taxpayer funded federal predator control. This federal subsidy has allowed the West’s welfare ranchers to avoid one of the costs of production—namely practicing good animal husbandry practices that reduce predator opportunities and losses. Indeed, the livestock industry has externalized this cost on to the public at large and grown so used to federal predator control that they now consider a predator free environment a “right”.

Keeping in mind that most predators routinely avoid preying on livestock even when there are numerous opportunities to do so, it behooves ranchers to implement practices that can and do reduce livestock losses to predators. However nearly all these practices require some additional time and effort by livestock operators—thus translates into additional costs for ranchers. It is well established that predators like wolves often get their first taste of domestic livestock by feeding on a carcass. Thus rapid and proper deposal of dead animals greatly reduces the likelihood of future predation losses. A study in Europe found that failure to remove carcasses increased the chances for future depredation by 55 times.

Another study of wolf predation on domestic sheep in the French Alps found that confining and/or simply gathering sheep at night in the presence of 5 livestock-guarding dogs prevented most kills (94% and 79%, respectively) that would have occurred in similar conditions but with free-ranging sheep.

These are only a few of the practices that greatly reduce predator opportunity and thus the presumed “need” for predator control. It’s clear that it’s possible to run livestock with fewer predator losses if proper animal husbandry practices are implemented.

However, since ranchers have convinced the public, including far too many environmental organizations, that they have a “right” to a predator free existence, the livestock industry has no incentive to change its ways. Instead livestock are routinely placed out in distance pastures with little or no oversight and supervision for months at a time, providing predators an easy meal. When ranchers treat their animals with such a caviler attitude who can blame a predator for being tempted by a beef or lamb dinner?

Payment for livestock losses as was done until recently by Defenders of Wildlife while it may mollify some rancher opposition, only legitimizes the idea that ranchers have a right to be compensated for losses that result from their own poor animal husbandry practices. This is not much different than the government practice of providing “disaster relief” to people who unwisely build homes in a flood plain of a river, then demand the government assist them after a flood destroys their home. Such “disasters” are easily avoided, just as most predator losses are avoidable if ranchers were forced to utilize proper animal husbandry practices.

However, animal husbandry is not the only way that livestock producers are to blame for many of their own problems. Ironically, predator control, as well as sport hunting as advocated by state wildlife agencies, often leads to greater livestock losses by disrupting predator social ecology of predators.

A study by Hayes and Harestad found evidence that packs experiencing control and/or hunting had higher mortality rates as a direct consequence of reductions, thus pack sizes are smaller, home ranges were less stable and occupied at variable times, and more young are produced in the population. Wolf populations dominated by younger animals with less stable territories are far more likely to attack domestic livestock.

Younger animals may breed earlier, and in exploited populations produce more young. Young growing pups consume more biomass (meat) than adults, creating a greater need to obtain food. Typically in exploited populations, pack size is smaller, with only the breeding adults to raise pups, putting greater pressure on adults to obtain easily available meat. Plus young pups reduce the mobility of the pack, limiting the area where adults can seek prey. Thus predator control and indiscriminate hunting puts increased pressure on the few adults to obtain meat, often by attacking livestock.

The effects of lethal control and/or hunting on pack stability can lead to social disruptions and loss of territory. A study, which pooled data on 148 breeding wolf packs, showed that the loss of adult breeders (from any causes including natural mortality) often leads to the dissolution of the pack and loss of pack territory, and/or limited breeding in the following season. For instance, in 47 of 123 cases (38.2%), groups dissolved and abandoned their territories after breeder loss. Of dissolved groups, territorial wolves became reestablished in 25 cases (53.2%), and in an additional 10 cases (21.3%) neighboring wolves’ usurped vacant territories.

Thus any increases in mortality caused by human hunting and/or lethal control may disrupt social interactions between packs, and lead to the loss of social/cultural knowledge including knowledge of prey habitat use, migration routes, and so forth that long time residency by family lineages may provide. Again this increases the chances that wolves will turn to livestock as a food source.

While almost no one would begrudge the occasional and surgical elimination of a chronic livestock killer, the indiscriminate killing of predators as part of a systematic predator control program and/or as a consequence of sport hunting, only exacerbates conflicts between livestock producers and predators.

Finally, there are the indirect effects upon wolf prey created by the mere presence of domestic livestock. There is no free lunch. When the bulk of forage in any given area is allotted to domestic livestock, there is less plant production to support elk, deer, and other wolf prey. On many public lands, the vast majority of all forage is consumed by domestic livestock, leaving far less of the forage pie for wild herbivores like elk, deer, and pronghorn. Even in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which harbors the greatest concentration of wild ungulates (deer, elk, etc.) in the United States, the majority of all forage on public lands is allotted to domestic animals.

Many studies have demonstrated that wild animals tend to avoid domestic livestock. Thus when cattle and sheep are moved on to public rangelands, the wild ungulates move elsewhere. If, for instance, there were a wolf pack denned in that area, the wolves are left with little to eat in the immediate area of the den other than domestic livestock—again creating a conflict that would not occur in the absence of domestic livestock.

Ironically while hunters and state wildlife agencies lobby to kill more wolves, they totally ignore that fact that domestic livestock grazing in effect “gets” more elk and deer by displacing them from favorable terrain and/or eating forage that would otherwise support far larger ungulate populations than are ever killed by predators.

In the end, the best way to reduce human conflicts with predators as well as realize the ecological benefits associated with having top predators widely distributed across the landscape is to require better animal husbandry practices from livestock producers, and to eliminate the predator control and/or sport hunting that disrupts predator social ecology. It’s time that livestock producers are forced to internalize one of their real production costs which in turn would mean slightly higher costs for consumers who ultimately should bear any additional costs of producing livestock without placing the burden upon predators and/or a landscape denied the positive influences of large predators.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is editor of Wildfire: a Century of Failed Forest Policy.  He divides his time between Montana, Oregon and Vermont.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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