by George Wuerthner
source: Tom Beno - [email protected]
In a recent special issue of Wolf International Magazine
on the "Global Challenge of Living with Wolves" there are a host of
articles about livestock conflicts with wolves from around the world.
All of them demonstrate quite clearly how livestock production poses the
greatest threat to wolf recovery and restoration.
First there is the direct persecution of wolves by
livestock producers-many livestock producers or their government lackeys
kill or persecute wolves.
Not so obvious are the effects of livestock production
on prey. There is no such thing as a "predator friendly" livestock
operation just as there are no "salmon friendly" dams. Dams with fish
ladders still impact salmon by changes in water flow, changes in water
temperature, competition with exotic fish that are stocked in
reservoirs, and blockage of downstream migration of fish to just name a
few. No one who knows anything about the real effect of dams on salmon
would ever suggest that there are "salmon friendly" dams. Yet we have
many wolf supporters touting the benefits of "predator friendly" beef.
We even have groups like Defenders of Wildlife promoting it.
Even if ranchers don't shoot wolves, they still have
significantly impacted them. Livestock abscond with forage, water, and
space that might otherwise support prey species. There is no free lunch,
every blade of grass going into a cow or sheep is that much less to
support native prey of wolves. The resulting decline in prey biomass is
huge, and the carrying capacity of the West for predator has been
diminished to great extent by the presence of livestock - predator
friendly or otherwise.
Sometimes the effects are even more subtle. The mere
presence of livestock can socially displace some species. Elk, for
instance, have been shown to avoid places actively being grazed by
livestock. This can reduce the overall carrying capacity of the
landscape for elk and hence wolves. Especially when cattle are moved
onto a range after wolves have denned and are supporting pups, the
presence of livestock and the subsequent movement of elk and other prey
to livestock-free areas can force wolves to prey on livestock as they
seek to feed their hungry young.
Yet it's remarkable how few wolf advocacy groups are
willing to challenge the livestock hegemony that affects wolf recovery.
Even a group like Wolf International appears to have unconsciously
adopted the mind-set that wolves are the problem, not livestock. The
final comments to the issue from Walter Medwid, the Executive Director,
displays this pro-livestock bias." A common theme in many of the
articles is the reality of the negative impacts of wolves on livestock
around the world." I would have stated it the other way around-a common
theme of the articles is the negative impacts of livestock on wolves
around the world." Yet without apparently being aware of it, Mr. Medwid
makes ranchers and farmers appear to be the victims of wolves, rather
than stating the obvious-wolves are the victims of livestock operations.
Many of the articles in this issue discuss ways that
livestock producers can "cope" with wolves using "non-lethal" control
methods. Yet nowhere, except for a short article that I contributed,
does any one suggest that perhaps it is ranchers and other livestock
producers who must change their behavior, not the wolves.
Most of the problems of predation experienced by
livestock producers are self created by their own animal husbandry
customs. Practices like putting cattle out on ranges for weeks or months
at a time without any kind of monitoring only contributes to predator
attacks. Or the mere presence of livestock, especially if they are
brought to pastures near denning sites and subsequently driving away
prey species like elk making it more difficult for wolves to find prey,
again contributes to a greater likelihood that they will prey upon
livestock. Yet nowhere do we find wolf advocacy organizations fighting
to even get federal agencies to demand that producers move livestock to
non-wolf den sites to avoid potential conflicts. If anything, federal
agencies move the wolves, rather than moving the cattle.
I know of no examples of wolf packs that have co-existed
with livestock for long periods of time without conflict. Even though
predation events are rather uncommon, what one finds is that wolves
whose territories largely overlap viable livestock operations eventually
prey on livestock. Those claiming success for the Yellowstone and Idaho
wolf reintroductions conveniently ignore this fact.
We only get to claim "success" by lumping together the
many wolf packs in Yellowstone and Central Idaho that do not overlap
livestock at all with those packs on the fringes that almost invariably
suffer control actions.
These activities suggest that under the present
assumptions and scenarios wolves will never achieve full recovery in the
West. They will be ghettoized to a few national parks and wilderness
areas that are large enough to sustain some populations. While wolves
will not be extinct, their evolutionary pressures on herbivores will be.
We need to restore the wolf not only to a few token wilderness areas and
national parks, but west-wide so we can restore the effects of wolf
predation. This will never occur as long as livestock dominate the
Furthermore, the present course of trying to modify
wolves so that they can "live with livestock" advocated by many wolf
advocacy groups will ultimately lead to the demise of wild wolves. I
fear for wolves and other large predators. Advocating things like
"training wolves" to avoid livestock with shock collars, using collars
with sedatives to stop wolves from wandering from predetermined "safe"
areas, and so forth poses serious philosophical questions about just
what kind of wolves do we want. Some are even advocating sterilization
of wolves and coyotes to reduce predation problems through population
control with no attempt to understand how this may affect many other
things like the control of smaller rodents and meta predators by the
presence of theses larger predators.
Such a Brave New World of wildlife behavior modification
represents a fundamentally flawed view of wildlife. It seeks to take the
wild out of wildlife. I suspect that in the near future we may hear
support from such groups to genetically modify wolves so they become
vegetarian. That would greatly reduce predation problems-although I
suspect even this would not be enough to satisfy livestock interest who
would still demand some control of the vegetarian wolves who were
competing with livestock for forage-just as they now demand control of
prairie dogs, ground squirrels, elk, and other herbivores.
Ultimately if wolf supporters are serious about
restoring wolves to the West or anyplace else, they have to come to
grips with the notion that livestock operations place a serious obstacle
to full species restoration and recovery. The two are essentially
incompatible. I would argue that at least on the public lands of the
West we should at least consider the full removal of livestock. If
wolves can't roam freely on the public lands, then where? Elsewhere, I
believe wolf supporters should be demanding that ranchers modify and
change their animal husbandry practices to reduce predator opportunity
rather than demanding that wolves modify their behavior or use of the
landscape. This will obviously cost producers more money-but right now
consumers are not paying the full cost of a hamburger. They are getting
a free ride at the expense of our wildlife that suffers from the nearly
wholesale usurpation of the majority of the nation's land base that is
devoted to livestock production.
Eugene, Oregon 97403
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