Crying Wolf on Livestock Deaths

Gray wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Ranchers in wolf country call in USDA’s Wildlife Services whenever they find dead or injured livestock that they think might have been caused by a Mexican gray wolf. Wildlife Services’ agents go out to the site, collect evidence, look for signs of predators like pawprints and fur, measure any bite marks on the animal’s hide, and otherwise assess the scene to determine whether wolves or other predators are the culprit. If the investigators confirm that wolves are responsible, the livestock owner can take the investigation report to the livestock compensation board and be reimbursed with taxpayer dollars for their lost cattle or horses.

These investigation reports are also provided to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency tasked with recovering the endangered Mexican gray wolf in the southwest United States. The Fish and Wildlife Service uses these reports to determine where ongoing conflicts are occurring, and then “manages” the wolves through hazing, relocation, live captures and lethal removals. Western Watersheds Project disagrees with the premise that wolves should ever be removed for livestock predations on public lands, but it’s still critically important that the investigations used to tally wolf impacts are accurate, reliable and honest.

Right now, they aren’t. Over the past year, Western Watersheds Project has reviewed hundreds of these investigation reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, and the methods Wildlife Services uses to confirm wolf kills are questionable at best. The “evidence” contained in the reports is often sketchy, speculative and insufficient to support the conclusions. Sometimes there is literally nothing left but a scrap of hide or a few bones, or a few bite marks whose dimensions overlap with coyotes, mountain lions and feral dogs. Sometimes there are no canid tracks in the area, and sometimes the estimated time of death was months prior to the investigation. Sometimes the only supporting “evidence” is that wolves have been in the area around the same time. Occasionally, Wildlife Services is unable to be on site and instead adopts the word of the Catron County wolf investigator, as was the case during the government shutdown of 2019.

While it’s certainly true that wolves can and do kill livestock – which, to be fair, compete with and displace wolves’ native prey species – it’s not at all clear that Mexican gray wolves kill as frequently as the Wildlife Services’ investigation reports would lead us to believe.

It’s also unclear why there are so many more depredation events in New Mexico than there are in Arizona, given that the wolf population is almost evenly distributed across the states and livestock grazing occurs nearly everywhere the wolves currently roam. Is it that New Mexico’s ranchers are more negligent in putting their livestock at risk of wolf predation, or could it be that confirmation bias is prevalent among the wolf investigators in New Mexico? Is the anti-wolf Catron County wolf investigator influencing the outcome? Or all of the above?

About two-thirds of the reports we’ve reviewed contain sufficient inconsistencies, logical leaps and conflicting details to warrant independent investigation. These same reports have already resulted in the removal of wolves from the wild, the disruption of packs and destabilization of breeding pairs, and an outsized hostility toward the native predator trying to regain its rightful place on the landscape.

Agencies with an anti-wolf or anti-wildlife bias should be prohibited from participating in future investigations into livestock conflict. Compensation programs should require more than the appearance of wolf involvement but instead demand fact-based evidence. All of the people involved need to play fair with the facts, and the public needs a full investigation into the discrepancies we’ve documented and real answers to the questions we’ve asked. The future of the Mexican wolf recovery program depends on it.

This column first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

Cyndi Tuell is Arizona and New Mexico Director, Western Watersheds Project.