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Wolf Restoration A Success?
by George Wuerthner
(Reprinted by permission of the author)
This page was last updated on January 06, 2009 .

This past week three wolves were killed on the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana after depredating on domestic livestock. Another wolf was killed in Idaho near the Sawtooth Mountains-same crime-eating cows. In Arizona, a pack of the extremely rare Mexican wolf is being captured and placed back in a pen for its livestock depredations. A week or so ago, an entire pack was removed from the Bass Creek area in the Bitterroot Mountains south of Missoula after it killed some cows.

In fact, along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana, one of the best potential wolf habitats in the state, not one of at least eight packs that have established here in the past decade or so has survived more than a year or so. All of these packs were removed either mysteriously-most likely from "lead poisoning"--or were killed or trapped by "Wildlife Services" after they preyed upon livestock. Wolves continue to show up on the Front because it many characteristics that are ideal for successful wolf recolonization. There is sufficient prey. The Front has almost no subdivisions. Few roads. Virtually no people. Yet despite all these factors, no wolf packs persist here. What's the problem here? The answer is easy to surmise. Cows.

There's a pattern here. No wolf pack whose primary range overlaps that of domestic livestock survive in the wild for more than a few years without at least some of its members being removed or killed. What is not admitted by those claiming wolf restoration a resounding success is that a bovine curtain confines wolf packs to Yellowstone and a few larger wilderness areas. It is an illusion or perhaps better termed a delusion to believe we can restore wolves to the West and continue to graze domestic livestock without significant changes in animal husbandry or the complete elimination of livestock from a large percentage of the landscape.

The fact that a few wolf packs exist in Yellowstone Park or in the middle of the Central Idaho Wilderness complex is not what I would call a success. Don't get me wrong. I'm excited that there are wolves anyplace at all. But if this is as far as it goes than wolf restoration will never be a success to me.

My goal is to restore not only a few wolves to the West, but the ecological process of wolf predation. Predation is a major evolutionary influence upon the West's native wildlife, and as such, needs to be restored over much of the landscape. I'm not suggesting that we need to have wolves preying on poodles in the suburbs of Denver, but there is no biological reason why we can't have wolves roaming most of the non-developed West. Just as a few perfunctory wildfires in a national park isn't the same as restoring fire as an ecological force to the West's forest and grasslands, a few wolf packs in Yellowstone Park or Central Idaho isn't restoring wolf predation across the West.

I don't believe it's possible to realize my goals without a significant reduction in livestock production, and a corresponding change in the way the remaining livestock are raised.

The current conflict is at least partially the result of geography. In case it needs to be repeated again, the West is an arid place. Productivity of the land is largely a factor of moisture. As a generalization the more arid the land, the less productive per acre it is. It takes 250 acres to raise a cow in Nevada or Arizona that can be grown on a single acre in Georgia or Missouri. Aridity has its costs. To get enough to eat, cows must wander widely across the landscape. This automatically exposes them to greater predator opportunity than cows raised in say Georgia or Missouri where the cows can feed on the back forty acres and be housed in a barn at night.

For decades the western livestock industry has externalized one of their real costs-preventing predator opportunity-by simply removing predators-typically at government expense. Nevertheless, the lack of herders, guard dogs, and unwillingness or inability to provide shelter to herds at night contributes to much greater predator losses than would be necessary if ranchers had to utilize non-lethal means of reducing predator losses.

But even if non-lethal predator avoidance were adopted-so called "predator friendly" livestock-the mere presence of livestock can still negatively affect predator restoration. There is no free lunch. Every cow and domestic sheep consuming forage in the West reduces the amount of forage that could support native herbivores from beaver to elk. And when you consider that the majority of above ground forage in the West is typically allotted to domestic livestock, the presence of cows or sheep is significantly reducing the potential forage available to support the prey base for wolves and other predators. This means wolves must travel farther to find prey-and makes them more likely to have a conflict with humans-whether that means getting hit by a car or shot by a poacher.

Livestock can also affect prey distribution and thus predators in yet another way. Elk, for example, simply don't like being around cows. When cows move into the neighborhood, elk move out. This social displacement has several effects upon wolves. The wolves may have to travel further to find something to eat-if nothing else using up energy and time that could be better spent with their pups. Also social displacement also may drive prey species like elk to less suitable habitat-where forage quality may be reduced, or other factors contribute to lower individual fitness. For example, poor summer nutrient can result in calves being born the following spring that are underweight and thus more likely to die. Thus summer grazing by cattle or sheep may negatively affect the prey base for predators-indirectly affecting wolf recovery even if a wolf is never killed.

There appears to be two key periods of time when wolf predation seems to occur. In the late winter when wolves keyed in upon wintering wildlife are drawn into the valleys where domestic animals are abundant. When the wild prey begins to move out with the coming of spring, wolves sometimes begin to take domestic animals. The other major time for conflict is late summer. This is when native prey are widely dispersed, and in prime condition. In other words, it's hard for wolves to find and kill prey. At the same time, this is when wolves with young have the greatest demand for food. The young eat a lot of meat, yet are not particularly mobile. This makes predation upon livestock particularly inviting to wolves.

If we are serious about restoring wolves to the West, we need to reevaluate some assumptions. First, at the very least, we should do everything we can to keep wolves and domestic livestock apart. This might mean closing public allotments or transferring livestock to different allotment when wolves are present. It might even mean that government agencies consider purchasing some key ranches and maintaining them as permanently protected ungulate habitat. The removal of a few ranches and their livestock could do much for wolf restoration across the West.

Second, we should demand that any rancher grazing on public lands accept any and all predator losses. It should be a matter of public policy that native wildlife has a greater right to public lands and resources than a private individual earning a profit at public expense.

Third, even if a wolf or other predator isn't killed on public lands, all those cattle and sheep are nothing more than walking picnic baskets. If predators learn to eat livestock, even if they are not immediately killed, the conditioning to human food sources may still put them in conflict with humans should they stray off of public lands. Therefore all ranchers grazing on public lands should be required to take minimal changes in husbandry to reduce predator opportunity including the use of herders, guard dogs, and providing housing for their animals during calving and lambing seasons.

Fourth, we need to reduce the number of domestic animals grazing public forage. Their consumption of forage and use of public lands significantly impacts prey populations in much of the West.

If we don't implement these kinds of changes, I predict we will never see wolves widely established across the West. Without wolves widely distributed and free to roam across the West, wolf restoration can not and should not be termed a success.

Date: 7/19/99 8:39 PM

George Wuerthner
Box 1526
Livingston, Montana 59047