Animal Writes
7 October 2001 Issue
Livestock Are The Problem

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 landscape.

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.

George Wuerthner
Box 3156
Eugene, Oregon 97403

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