Ranchers, Livestock, and Wolves: Why We Should Coexist

Mexican wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Coexistence is the right policy for humanity and nature in the western United States. In a civilized society, we do not kill others, vandalize homes, or otherwise infringe unnecessarily upon the liberty of others. The same set of values should apply to our treatment of wolves, a species that does not require human management, harassment, or interference.

Domestic livestock are an ecological catastrophe in the West, destroying wildlife habitats, damaging native ecosystems, and contributing to climate disruption by both emitting methane directly and decimating soil and ecosystem carbon reserves. Cattle and sheep are the main cause of riparian habitat degradation and adverse impacts to trout streams in much of the West, and overgrazing by livestock is the principal cause of cheatgrass expansion. Cattle and sheep grazing has so reduced natural forage that native wildlife populations are a mere shadow of their natural populations: Elk populations are one-tenth of their original extent, bison populations perhaps one percent their original size, sage grouse populations less than one percent of their original numbers. These ecological problems are so widespread that even Westerners see cow-burnt and sheep-desertified landscapes as the norm in the West. Despite this, I do not recommend lethal control of domestic livestock (at least those legally authorized to be there), even on public lands.

There are certainly problem ranchers. There are ranchers who set fire to public lands to increase forage for their cattle. There are ranchers who trespass their livestock on lands closed to livestock. There are ranchers who trespass their livestock by putting them out before the permitted livestock grazing season begins, or after the grazing season ends, accidentally-on-purpose. There is one rancher who has left his cattle out on public lands that were closed to protect endangered desert tortoises for thirty years, without paying a penny in grazing fees. There have even ranchers who have staged armed insurrections, engaged in acts of domestic terrorism, allied themselves with extremist militias to take over public lands or station snipers to threaten law enforcement officers with death. That doesn’t mean that all ranchers do these things, or that they are necessary for ranching. The public has a right to demand better.

Livestock spread their deadly diseases to native wildlife. There are ranchers who herd their sheep into known occupied bighorn sheep habitats, in full knowledge that their domestic sheep are carriers of Mycoplasma ovinpeumoniae and Mannheimia haemolycta, two deadly livestock pathogens that can wipe out entire populations of bighorn sheep. There are cattle ranchers whose herds are infected with Mycoplasma bovis, and whose herds have infected pronghorn antelope and contributed to the great die-off of pronghorn in parts of western Wyoming where the wild herds were already stressed by severe winter conditions.

There are ranchers who want to kill native wildlife, of all kinds, even demanding wildlife-killing as a “tool in the toolbox.” There are ranchers who want to kill wolves, and who shoot them, trap them, call in Wildlife Services to aerial gun them. They commonly kill wolves and then waste the meat, rendering them guilty of surplus-killing. Some will kill them just for the perverse joy of killing, and flout the law in places where wolves are protected, bragging about “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

Ranchers commonly kill prairie dogs with all kinds of toxic concoctions, including lacing food with lethal compounds and sprinkling it at the doorstep of prairie dog towns. Some of them participate in coyote-killing contests, competing for who can kill the most, the biggest, even sometimes the youngest. Ranchers commonly advocate for the roundup, removal, and incarceration of wild horses by the use of inhumane helicopter roundups. They even seek to eliminate elk who dare to forage on their native habitats, competing for grass with their precious cows.

And it is these selfsame ranchers—typically those engaging in the most egregious crimes against nature—who criticize wolves for “surplus-killing” (which is a rare, rather than common, event).

Ranchers who willingly coexist with the natural world are the exception, not the rule. They do exist, but often are bullied into silence by their environmentally-hostile industry leaders.  Yet despite the clear and obvious antienvironmental and anti-wildlife tendencies of many ranchers, I do not advocate targeting their cattle or sheep for lethal control.

We should not kill off livestock, because that would violate state and federal laws, but more importantly because that would be dangerous and destabilizing behavior that would violate the social contract the allows a civil society to avoid internal bloodbaths.

For all the same reasons, ranchers should not be allowed to kill wolves.

Inside Yellowstone National Park, killing of wolves is expressly prohibited, and this is the landscape where wolves and humans coexist with the fewest problems, and where social tolerance for wolves by people (including ranchers) is greater than anywhere else.

But of course, Yellowstone has no livestock to cause conflicts with native wildlife, so perhaps that’s not the perfect example.

In California, state law prohibits the killing of wolves, not just by ranchers, trophy hunters, and trappers, but also by federal agencies and state wildlife managers. It is illegal to kill wolves even when they take the occasional cow or sheep. There are compensation funds available to ranchers to make them whole in the unlikely event of wolf-caused livestock loss. Of tens of millions of livestock in California, there have been only a handful confirmed to be killed by wolves. It’s early days in the California wolf recovery, of course, but the same infinitesimally small percentage of wolf-caused livestock losses has been shown in Montana and Idaho, where wolves and livestock have lived side by side for almost 30 years.

Conversely, the killing and abuse of wolves is completely unregulated across most of Wyoming where the state classifies wolves as a “predatory animal.” And while the State of Wyoming’s attorneys have argued in federal court that the killing of large carnivores is necessary to achieve a level of social tolerance, when a Wyoming resident recently engaged in the heinous act of running over a juvenile wolf with a snowmobile, duct-taping its mouth shut, hauling it into a local bar to brag about his exploits, and then took the wolf out back and killed it, a shocked world saw what kind of “social tolerance” results from allowing wolf-killing.

While the more extreme elements of the livestock industry insist that killing wolves in response to livestock is necessary, the biological reality is that doing so is a pointless act of revenge that does little to protect livestock or prevent future losses.

Instead, all of us, including the wolf-haters, should be legally required to coexist with wolves, in a non-lethal way. Just as wolf supporters are already legally constrained to coexist non-lethally with commercial livestock, even on public lands. By cultivating a mutually tolerant relationship with nature, instead of treating nature as an adversary to be conquered, destroyed, or displaced, we can lead happier and more abundant lives in a West restored to its original richness in wildlife.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.