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Wolf Restoration: Success by What Definition?

Published 09/15/01
By George Wuerthner
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 32 Number 3, Fall 2001

Many wish to see the wolf restored to provide for recovery of an endangered species. Certainly that is what is legally driving the wolf recovery efforts across the country since the animal was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. But I hasten to add that we should also be advocating for wolf recovery because wolves are an essential evolutionary factor that has shaped wild ungulate populations and influenced many other species like competing carnivores, such as coyotes, throughout time. By definition, biodiversity preservation means we preserve the elements that create and shape biodiversity evolution. The wolf, as top predator throughout most of North America, is analogous to fire in its interaction with vegetative communities. We can not accept the idea of restoring a few token wolf packs in a few select areas. We need to restore wolves across the landscape to restore a major evolutionary force — the wolf. Biologically there is no reason why this can’t be achieved.

Anything but a Success

Right now many hail wolf restoration efforts in the Rockies, Southwest, and Southeast as a “success.” Success by what definition? Yes, we have wolves reproducing in the wild. They are hunting in the wild. They are dispersing and exploring new areas. In a limited way one can call this restoration effort a success. But in my mind, the effort to restore wolves will never be a real success until we find a way to restore the wolf across much of the landscape it formally inhabited.

Under that kind of definition, the wolf restoration efforts have been anything but a success. The only places where wolves in the Rockies and Southwest are not experiencing excessive mortality due to human control efforts is in designated wilderness or park areas. Yes, wolves are doing well inside the boundaries of Yellowstone Park. They are surviving in Central Idaho’s Frank Church No Return Wilderness. But outside of these few protected zones, wolf recovery is not proceeding as desired.

Indeed, in the tri-state area of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, 79% of all known wolf mortalities are due to humans, primarily “legal” control by “Wildlife Services” at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Indeed, control efforts may jeopardize any wolf recovery and delisting, and certainly has significantly slowed wolf recovery in the region.

To delist wolves in the northern Rockies-Northwest Montana (includes Glacier National Park), Greater Yellowstone, and Central Idaho, a population of 10 breeding pairs of wolves in all three recovery areas for three consequent years must be achieved. Though there is substantial output of pups, recovery goals are not being achieved due to excessive control efforts to appease livestock interests in the region.

For example, in northwest Montana, where wolves originally recolonized on their own from Canada and where wolf recovery has been going on for more than 15 years, there were only five known breeding packs in 1999. That was partly the result of the killing of 27 wolves (more than a third of the known population at the time) by Wildlife Services in one year due to conflicts with a few livestock producers. These control efforts were done illegally since the Northwest Montana wolves are considered “endangered” under the ESA and technically protected. But no voice was raised in objection to this kind of killing. This killing was done on top of a major prey die-off due to high winter mortality of deer. Is this how we “recover” an endangered species?

We continually hear about “problem” wolves. Even wolf supporters have bought into this pejorative use of the term. There are no “problem” wolves. The problem exists with how we humans define restoration. In nearly all instances, the reason wolves are killed is due to predation by wolves upon domestic livestock. Yet research and experience have demonstrated that proper animal husbandry practices that include swift removal of carcasses, the use of herders and guard dogs, and penning of animals at night are far less vulnerable to predator losses. Yet no one, not the FWS or even most other pro-wolf organizations, demands that such practices be implemented in order to minimize conflicts.

Irresponsible Ranchers

It is irresponsible ranchers, not wolves, that are causing problems and livestock “conflicts.” Caring properly for livestock is and should be one of the costs of doing business. Right now ranchers have successfully “externalized” one of their costs — proper livestock husbandry — onto the public and upon the backs of wolves and other predators. And wolf supporters, by refusing to challenge this fundamental assumption, are as culpable for the deaths of wolves as the ranchers themselves.

Indeed, the entire focus of research and support appears to be toward changing the behavior of wolves. Research on the use of sound devices, shock collars, taste avoidance, and other manipulation raises real questions about whether we are going to recover “wild” wolves or merely have token animals that look, but don’t act, like wolves running around the landscape.

I’m very impressed with the intelligence of wolves. I still feel that the average rancher is slightly more intelligent than the wolf, yet it is the wolf, not the rancher, that is being asked to change its behavior.

“Experimental and Non-Essential”

Worse yet, and more dangerous, is the status of the other wolf recovery areas in the Rockies. Wolves in central Idaho and Greater Yellowstone are considered “experimental and non-essential.” This status allows for even greater manipulation and control of the animals. Wolf supporters in other regions such as the Northeast should be wary of accepting wolf restoration under these terms. Apparently, once an experimental wolf, always an experimental wolf — even for your descendants.

When a wolf from Idaho dispersed into Oregon last March, she was captured and relocated to Idaho because she was a “descendant” of a wolf pack that was part of the experimental non-essential population. Ordinarily, a wolf dispersing into Oregon would have full protection under the ESA and would not be removed or manipulated. “Experimental non-essential population status” allowed the FWS to yank this wolf out of the wild, even though she had not had any conflicts with irresponsible ranchers.

Under experimental and non-essential status, the FWS is able to avoid advocating any changes in federal land management or even practice livestock practices. As a result, lethal control has also taken its toll on wolves in the other recovery areas as well. In the past year, for instance, three wolf packs in a 150-mile swath of central Idaho were destroyed — again due to livestock conflicts.

A number of wolf packs in the Greater Yellowstone area also experienced lethal control to the detriment of the pack organization. For example, the Sheep Mountain pack whose territory extended just north of Yellowstone National Park experienced the loss of six members this past year due to lethal control.

Giving in to Opportunities

The Sheep Mountain losses exemplify what is wrong with our entire approach to wolf restoration. These wolves had established a den site and later a rendezvous site on an elk winter range and calving ground on Forest Service (FS) land that also happened to be used as a summer livestock grazing allotment. Even though the wolves were still actively using the area, the FS and FWS allowed the rancher to place his cattle on the allotment. As is the case with many slob ranchers in the West, this livestock operator left dead animals on the allotment, and was not required to herd or otherwise protect his animals. About a week before the rancher was supposed to pull his cows off the public lands, the wolves found and fed upon a dead cow carcass. A few days later, they attacked a calf and killed it. The FWS immediately flew in and killed four wolves. This was an entirely avoidable situation. Yet no one, not the FWS, not the FS, and even most environmental organizations, questioned the policy of allowing livestock and wolves to overlap.

Lethal control of the Mexican wolf in the Southwest to appease ranchers is also inhibiting restoration of that animal as well.

Indeed, there is not one wolf pack that I am aware of in the West that has the majority of its territory overlapping with livestock that hasn’t wound up preying upon livestock at some point in time. Maybe not every generation, maybe not every wolf, but sooner or later, wolves give in to the opportunities presented by sloppy livestock operations, and consequently suffer some kind of response — whether removal or lethal control.

Questioning Lethal Control

Ironically, few wolf supporters have questioned this use of lethal control with regard to wolves, yet this is highly unusual in our approach to endangered species recovery. Yes, the killing of a cow causes an economic loss to the rancher, but such losses can be compensated or, more importantly, avoided if proper husbandry practices were mandatory. Moreover, we don’t allow logging companies to shoot spotted owls because they remove trees from the timber base available for cutting, despite a far greater economic impact upon timber companies and communities. Yet far too many accept the notion that ranchers have a right to kill wolves for livestock depredation.

Even if we could win some concessions from livestock operators to minimize predator opportunity through herders and night-time penning and other measures, it’s important to recognize that the presence of livestock still creates conflicts. Many prey species like elk avoid areas actively being grazed by domestic livestock, and are displaced. When wolves are tied down with pups they can not follow displaced prey easily, creating a hardship upon wolves attempting to feed their young — and indirectly creating a situation that may lead to livestock depredation. Thus even so-called “predator friendly” livestock operations pose a problem for predators like wolves even if the predators are not directly killed.

Without changing livestock operations, I have serious doubts that substantive wolf recovery across the landscape can or will occur. Unless livestock are removed from a large part of the land base (such as eliminating them from all public lands — see “Cash Cows”) or at a minimum demanding a change in the way livestock operations are conducted, I find it difficult to imagine a future where wolves are commonplace across the country. Currently livestock producers are externalizing one of the real costs of their operations — preventing predator opportunity. This cost is being borne by the rest of us who want wolves, and more importantly, upon the land that needs and requires that we restore wolf predation as a major evolutionary force.

Rethinking Wolf Restoration

We may need to rethink wolf restoration. The wolf is a highly adaptive animal. The assumption that wolves require wilderness is false. They have been relegated to these areas because humans have refused to change their behavior to allow for wolf coexistence. Indeed, wolves survive fairly well in close proximity to humans in Europe and elsewhere. Give them some protection from persecution. As long as there is sufficient prey, they can live among us.

Indeed, I think wolf recovery might be more successful if we focused more on bringing wolves back to the edges of our cities rather than putting them among rural communities. After all, there is far more support for wolves — hence tolerance — among urban dwellers than among rural residents. I’m not suggesting that wolves be placed in Central Park, but within a reasonable distance of our major urban areas there is an abundance of prey, and enough woodlands and forest to provide some habitat — fragmented though it may be. I believe wolves might prosper better in western Massachusetts than in northern Maine. Right now in Massachusetts, there are few farms, and deer are so plentiful that hunters can kill a dozen or more a year.

Similar situations exist in many other parts of the country. They may well do better in southern New York than in the Adirondacks. Maybe they should be restored to the national forest lands outside Portland and Denver rather than in the “wilder” parts of these states like Oregon’s Blue Mountains or Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. The real factor that seems to determine wolf success is not roads per square mile, but ranchers/cows per square mile. With few farms and ranches, and fewer ranchers, maybe wolves will experience a higher survival rate in our more urbanized regions than they do now in rural areas. Give wolves half a chance, and we can restore them as a major evolutionary force — but only if we are willing to challenge the assumptions and attitudes that jeopardize wolf recovery today. If we are going to recover the wolf, we need to learn how to live with the wolf, not merely relegate it to a few “reservations” we call national parks.

George Wuerthner is a wildlife ecologist, botanist, photographer, and writer whose work on wildlife issues has been widely respected for decades.

Reprinted from Predator Defense Institute’s Predator Press, Vol. 7, Issue 1, Fall 2000

Cash Cows

According to “Cash Cows: The Giveaway of the West” (San Jose Mercury News, November 7, 1999):

  • In the 11 western states, about 26,300 livestock operators lease 254 million acres of federal public land from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to graze 3.5 million cattle and sheep.
  • These ranchers receive direct subsidies to the tune of $100 million in below-cost grazing fees, plus millions more for programs such as predator control, fencing, and water programs.
  • Despite all the subsidies and all the millions of acres of land sacrificed for ranching, only 3% of the nation's beef supply comes from western public lands.
  • The top 10% of BLM grazing permit holders control 65% of all livestock grazed on BLM land. The bottom 50% of BLM grazing permit holders control just 7% of all livestock grazed on BLM land.
  • The top 10% of Forest Service grazing permit holders control 49% of all livestock grazed on our national forests. The bottom 50% of Forest Service grazing permit holders control just 3% of the livestock grazed on national forests.
  • In 1998, the Forest Service and the BLM lost more than twice as much money on grazing programs as they spent to restore endangered species. Together, the agencies spent $116 million to prop up grazing on public lands, and took in just $22 million in fees, a loss of $94 million, and that just covers direct subsidies.
  • The fee ranchers pay to graze livestock on federal lands is lower today than at any time since 1975: only $1.35 per cow (or per five sheep) per month. Because so much land is needed to provide the forage for these animals, the actual fee is just pennies per acre. Half of the grazing fee paid by ranchers is returned to them to pay for fences, water tanks, and other equipment.

The Environmental Price of Agriculture

By George Wuerthner

“What remains of our native fauna and flora, remains only because agriculture has not got around to destroying it.”
—Aldo Leopold

Anyone flying over the middle of the United States and looking down on the miles upon miles of corn and wheat fields can see for themselves the enormous geographic footprint of agriculture. Yet it’s surprising how few people really grasp the magnitude of agriculture’s effect upon biodiversity.

Livestock production and farming are together the most destructive human activities in North America, affecting up to 75% of the U.S. land area, excluding Alaska. Agriculture is responsible for a phenomenal 70% of all species listed under the Endangered Species Act. This, however, underestimates agriculture’s impact since it doesn’t include the water developments necessary for irrigated agriculture in the arid West. Reservoirs fragment watersheds and withdrawals from streams reduce flows and change water quality which contribute significantly to the decline of aquatic species.

Agriculture has essentially eradicated the entire tallgrass prairie and most of the mid-grass prairie. Again, this underestimates its impact on biodiversity since the presence of farming and ranching amid otherwise undeveloped land can fragment the remaining habitat to the point where its suitability for wildlife is greatly reduced. Indeed, the presence of undeveloped land in the midst of farmland is often a mortality sink where ground nesting birds and other wildlife become easy prey for predators.

Although the amount of land converted to urbanization is accelerating, the total amount of land devoted to urbanized uses is still less than 3% of the total U.S. land area. That is about the amount of land devoted to one crop, feeder corn. Yet a common message portrayed in the media and even many environmental organizations is that sprawl is the major threat to wildlife. As important as fighting the next subdivision might be, we would gain far more land for restoration, and do far more for native biodiversity, by reducing the amount of agricultural land than any other single factor.

Furthermore, we expend a huge amount on agricultural subsidies to maintain overproduction and the continuing degradation of our landscape. Some estimate that total U.S. agriculture subsidies are nearly $70 billion each year. To put this in perspective, the entire budget to operate all 520 national wildlife refuges in the nation is just $280 million and we spend less than $30 million yearly on our entire endangered species program.

Landscape scale ecological restoration could be funded by shifting just a fraction of these agricultural subsidies to land acquisition. It has been estimated that what has been spent on direct farm pay-merits in the Great Plains since 1933 is enough to have bought every single acre of cropland and rangeland in the region with $42 billion left over. Most of these lands are simply not suitable for sustained agricultural activity. They are too arid and too erosion prone to be grazed or farmed. Without government subsidies, most of this land would have been abandoned and returned to the public domain decades ago. A slight shift in diet from meat to greater consumption of vegetables and grains could easily make up for any reduction of crop land needed to restore our western public lands as well as a majority of the Great Plains.

The reduction in the amount of land used for crop production would significantly reduce soil erosion, pesticide use, fertilizer use, air and water pollution and the spread of exotic weeds. Reducing meat production would also reduce the heavy use of antibiotics and other drugs in livestock that are producing drug tolerant viruses and bacteria. Finally, the reduction in meat consumption would significantly reduce meat-induced health problems including colon cancer and heart disease that cost all of us billions of dollars each year. The best way to restore wildlands across the continent begins with a forkful of food.

Reprinted from Green Roots (The Newsletter of Forest Guardians) No. 8, Fall 2000

Wildlife Services

The Wildlife Services program (formerly Animal Damage Control) is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). One of Wildlife Services (WS)’s most controversial activities is killing wolves and other animals, primarily to protect western livestock interests. Each year more than $10 million in federal funds is spent for this purpose, and more than 50% of this budget is spent on western livestock protection.

In 1999, WS killed 601 badgers, 349 bears, 2,435 bobcats, 85,938 coyotes, 6,182 foxes, 359 cougars, and 173 wolves, using trapping, shooting, poisoning, and denning (the killing of pups in their dens with poison gas and/or clubbing).

Evidence indicates that the predator control program is unsafe, biologically and ecologically unsound, unethical, and an enormous waste of public funds. Other nonlethal means of predator management and animal husbandry techniques have been found to be more effective in reducing livestock losses.

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