Wolves Still a Target, Even on Endangered List
A recent federal court ruling that returned Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves to the endangered species list means that hunters won’t be allowed to shoot at them this fall, but that doesn’t mean the wolves won’t have guns pointed their way. Wildlife management officials still have the authority to shoot wolves if they prey on livestock, and those incidents led to more wolf deaths last year than public hunts. Conservation advocates hope the judge’s ruling will turn more attention toward non-lethal methods of protecting livestock from wolf attacks.
“Livestock conflicts are the greatest cause of wolf mortality in the Northern Rockies,” says NRDC wildlife advocate Matt Skoglund. “If the wolf attacks livestock, [officials] usually go kill that wolf, and sometimes they kill the whole pack.” In Montana, where Skoglund is based, 72 wolves were killed in public hunts in 2009, but 145 -- twice as many -- were killed after clashes with livestock.
Focusing on non-lethal measures to keep wolves and livestock apart would be beneficial to everyone, Skoglund says, because “you’re not losing livestock, and you’re not losing wolves.”
Several non-lethal practices are already being tried across the Northern Rockies. Electric fences, guard dogs, and red flags around the perimeter of a grazing area can all deter wolves. Then there’s the old-fashioned approach: a rider on horseback, just like in the old days. Wolves tend to avoid humans, so a range rider who tends the herd and actively frightens away any wolves that come around can help fend off attacks.
But some of these methods can be expensive, Skoglund says, and so far there hasn’t been significant public funding to help ranchers adopt them, so they’ve had to shoulder any costs themselves.
Wolves aren’t born with a taste for livestock -- they tend to prefer ungulates like deer and elk. But as opportunistic feeders, if they discover that sheep or steer make for an easy meal, they’ll keep coming back. “Carnivores have an amazing capacity to learn,” says Carolyn Sime, the state wolf coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “They remember where their food sources are… It’s like a bear finding a bird feeder.”
The vast size of Montana’s grazing pastures means that putting up a fence around livestock is often impractical, Sime says. Range riders cost money ranchers often say they don’t have, and other methods don’t always prove effective. Once wolves make a habit of feeding on pastured animals, Sime says, it may be too late to ward them off peacefully.
“If we see targeted behavior where wolves are specifically hunting livestock, that’s a behavior that is not likely to be turned around by non-lethal tools,” Sime says. “Honestly,” she adds, “sometimes you have to kill the wolf.”
But it doesn’t need to be that way. In April, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife granted a total of $1 million to 10 states with wolf populations to help compensate livestock owners for losses and fund non-lethal prevention methods. But Montana’s $140,000 will go entirely to compensating ranchers for the value of their lost livestock -- the state paid out $145,000 last year and expects to pay at least as much this year. George Edwards, who manages the state’s livestock loss mitigation program, says Montana wants to fund non-lethal projects, too, but if it doesn’t pay back ranchers first, animosity toward wolves will only increase. With state money and private donations dried up, “We were just on the edge of having to send out ‘Sorry, we’re out of money, we’ll pay you when we can’ letters,” Edwards says -- so there’s nothing left for non-lethal projects.
Still, killing wolves that prey on livestock and compensating ranchers are only temporary solutions, according to biologist Timm Kaminski. Ranchers are displeased even if they’re paid, and another wolf can easily move into a dead wolf’s territory, creating a cycle.
“Management through the barrel of a gun… doesn’t solve the depradation issue,” Kaminski says. “It’s like being in the Iraq and Afghanistan War and just signing onto it for a lifetime.”
Kaminski believes solutions will come from a broader view of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem that wolves and livestock share. He founded the Mountain Livestock Coalition, which combines the knowledge of scientists and livestock owners to try to keep wolves and ranch animals out of each other’s way. Isolated non-lethal projects may not work well, Kamisnki says, because wolves will simply go wherever the pickings are easiest -- like the next ranch over. But paying careful attention to wolf and livestock behavior and getting multiple ranchers to cooperate can often avert conflict, he says.
For example, by studying animals in Yellowstone National Park, Kaminski and his colleagues found that wolves are less likely to prey on animals that stand their ground instead of running away. Young sheep and cattle -- the ones most often killed -- are prone to run, but they’re less likely to do so if they’re in a close group, as the animals are at feeding time. Kaminski worked with a group of ranchers in Alberta, Canada, who had been feeding their cattle in the morning and grazing them in the evening. That means that when the wolves came at nightfall, the livestock were spread out on the pasture, the skittish calves bolted, and the wolves attacked. When the ranchers all agreed to feed at night instead, the dynamic changed: wolves could hunt deer and elk in the pasture, the livestock stayed safe in a cluster on the feed line, and conflicts declined dramatically.
But that kind of change takes a lot of knowledge about carnivore and livestock behavior, and it takes cooperation between conservation interests and agricultural ones. That’s not always easy to achieve, Kaminski says. He is frustrated with the cultural clash between ranchers who care about the wilderness but need to make a living, and some environmentalists who vilify them for threatening wolves.
“It’s tearing urban and rural people apart, and all they do is fight,” Kaminski says. “It’s not healthy, for the people or the land, to continue to broker all this on the backs of working ranchers or the wolves that we spent 20 years [trying] to reintroduce. I think it’s time for us to look for a unifying approach.”