One Ranch, Nine Dead Cows, and Six Very Strange Wolf Investigations

Wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Anyone who has been following my pieces on CounterPunch lately knows that I’ve been writing  a bit and a bit more  about Wildlife Services’ depredation reports that indict Mexican wolves for livestock deaths under suspicious circumstances, often with very scant or inconsistent evidence. It’s been a long, strange trip that started with our questions about potential causes of repeated depredations and grazing management on public lands, but has led into something that seems a bit more nefarious. There’s a pattern of hasty conclusions and sketchy data that seems indicative of something more than incompetence.

In the month of June, there was a run of livestock deaths at one ranch in New Mexico. I was paying close attention to the depredation tally because the Lava Pack was denning in the area on state trust lands and I was worried that this wolf family was getting into trouble. I specifically requested all of the depredation data from this ranch for the sake of better understanding what was happening up there and why.

I received that data earlier this week, and I’m stumped. There were seven confirmed wolf kills that month, plus two investigations that resulted in “unknown” causes. The very first confirmed kill definitely appears like lobos were involved: the carcass was consumed, there’s a wolf track, the muscles show compression-caused hemorrhages and there are multiple bite marks resulting in wounds. But the proof thins out after that.

In the same week, there were two more confirmed calf kills on the same ranch. The rancher took the first calf back to a barn so that there’d be something left to investigate on the carcass. But the discovery of the carcass and the investigation are only a day apart, and the carcass is pretty darned intact. The calf looks like it was dead for a while, all bloated up with stiff legs. If that is a wolf kill, the wolves walked away from their dinner. Seems unlikely, but that didn’t stop the agent from determining it was a lobo kill.

In the next report from the same day, another dead calf was found in the same pasture as the first one. This time, a wolf was seen hanging around, not wanting to part with its lunch. But the photos of the compression spreads are not particularly compelling, given the lack of hemorrhaging (which indicates that the animal was killed rather than scavenged), and the one photo of hemorrhaging from the calf’s belly doesn’t have any bite marks being measured. The calf hide was off the body when they measured canine spread, which isn’t reliable evidence given that the skin would be stretched around the muscle and the shape of the spread would be different in life than on a table. (And also, if they think those are necessarily wolf bite marks, I’ve got some hiking scars to show them. It’s rough country out there and scratches on some skin doesn’t convince me.) Nonetheless, this calf was also considered a confirmed wolf kill.

Two more calves confirmed killed the following week, same ranch. Again, one was brought to the barn to prevent additional scavenging, a method that takes the investigative context of a kill site off the table. (By the way, Minnesota recommends putting a weighted tarp over the dead livestock in the field to preserve the evidence rather than removing the carcass, since the kill site is so important to determinations.) The calf looks like it’s seen better days, but it hasn’t really been eaten. There isn’t a single picture that shows an injury or even blood, no close ups of the carcass that show the “apparent point of first feeding.” The measurement photos are unpersuasive and the wolf who supposedly killed this calf didn’t even break the skin? This doesn’t even seem like enough evidence to consider it a “probable” wolf kill, but that didn’t stop Wildlife Services from confirming.

Let’s look at calf 2 from the same day. Looks an awful lot (exactly, in fact) like the first calf on the barn floor.  I had to double-check that I hadn’t accidentally duplicated the file, but no, these are two separate reports that apparently use the same dead calf. There are differences in the narrative descriptions between the two. Maybe the investigator accidentally submitted the report twice? I’m willing to accept that people make mistakes, but I do hope someone looks into whether the rancher got paid twice.

Another nine days later, four more dead adult cattle, two of which (one bull and one cow) were considered dead of unknown causes and two of which were confirmed wolf kills. The site descriptions sound like all four livestock were in the same pasture, though it’s not clear from the report if that was the case. But there are other similarities: Two of the carcasses are bloated, three are apparently completely uneaten.

The photos of one bloated and uneaten cow that was confirmed as a wolf kill don’t show any injuries and the “canine spread” is apparently being attributed to a one-toothed wolf. There was no evidence of predator tracks at the site, and the cow had vomited before she died, but there is no discussion of potential weed poisoning as a potential cause. The investigators didn’t even chalk it up to a “probable” wolf kill, but went for the full confirmation.

The final confirmed wolf kill at this site on this day at least looks like something has been gnawing on it, but it’s unclear why they believed it was a lobo. The report admits there were both coyote and wolf tracks in the area, and I’m not seeing the compression spreads and hemorrhaging in the photos that the reports says are there. Might be my eyes, or it might be the photos. But it’s definitely not enough to “prove” that wolves killed this cow, and the presence of the Lava Pack nearby doesn’t mean they did it.

In this case, it’s lucky that they were never able to pin the “depredations” on specific wolves, or surely there would have been an outcry for a removal order for one or more members of the pack. And that’s the rub: These investigations are the official record of livestock kills, used not just for the ranchers to receive their compensation from the Livestock Loss Board, but for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine which wolves need to be removed and why.

And then there’s another rub too: When these conclusions get out to the public, it’s reported that there were seven confirmed wolf kills on one ranch in one month. That sounds like a lot for one family ranch to endure. It’s a lot of money, it’s stressful, and it’s time-consuming and I empathize with the people who are dealing with that. But consider if it was really only one wolf kill out of the seven they claimed? The ranchers and the public are being misled, either on purpose or through ignorance. It’s time that Wildlife Services gets their act together and starts using science and meaningful data to assess these livestock deaths.

P.S. I’m very open to additional observations in the comments. I’m not an expert on this, for sure, though I’m feeling like I’ve earned hazard pay looking at all these gory pics! I’ve been relying on this paper and online guides to better understand the signs of wolf kills, like this and this and this and this and this.

Greta Anderson is a plant nerd, a desert rat, and a fan of wildness. She is the Deputy Director of Western Watersheds Project.