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Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles looking at the impact of reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago.
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — March marked the 25th anniversary of wolf reintroduction. After a quarter-century, there are factual answers to lingering concerns, questions and fears.
So far, this series has addressed questions and concerns regarding the decision to reintroduce wolves, whether managers introduced the "wrong wolf" and what effects wolves have had on Greater Yellowstone’s ecosystem. But how have wolves affected ranchers, hunters and others who share the landscape with these long-absent predators?
Wolves and livestock
Understanding the relationship between wolves and livestock requires a little history. In the early days, state and federal governments invoked sovereign immunity. This meant that though wildlife are lawfully considered property of the state or the federal government, neither would be lawfully responsible for damage caused by wildlife. With this backdrop, livestock producers saw great opportunity during western expansion and demanded the federal government make the west "secure ... for pasturage," according to PBS. Wildlife viewed as competitors like bison or predators like wolves were eliminated to provide the desired conditions for raising livestock.
The bad blood between ranchers and predators worsened in the early 1900s after human predation had all but eliminated elk, deer, and other wild prey throughout most of their historic range. At that time, predators began preying more heavily on livestock, an article in Outside pointed out. Consequently, predator elimination programs went into overdrive. By the 1940s, grizzly bears were reduced and isolated to regions near Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. Mountain lions were largely eliminated, and wolves were all but extinct in the contiguous United States. Coyotes, however, thrived, despite elimination programs.
Records of livestock predation prior to the 1970s are scarce and largely anecdotal, but following predator recovery in the west, we have a renewed opportunity to assess the factual effects of wolves on livestock. For answers, we turn to the Department of Agriculture livestock loss and inventory reports, as well as state predator loss boards and councils; however, it’s important to note that both records have limitations.
State loss boards only pay for confirmed or probable losses by some animals. Wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions are all covered in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana with some conditionality. Some losses either aren’t reported to state loss boards or the loss has not been or cannot be confirmed. USDA reports include all the confirmed or probable losses in reports, but the remainder of the figures are compiled via survey and are largely unverified. This raises the possibility that some figures are not accurately reported. For example, if a predator scavenges a carcass, it is assumed to be the cause of death.
According to records provided by George Edwards, a rancher and the executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions were deemed responsible for the loss of 372 domestic animals in Montana during the 2019 calendar year. Wolves were blamed for 20% of those losses, grizzly bears accounted for roughly 47% and mountain lions around 33%.
USDA figures for Montana blame wolves for 0.9% of total sheep losses in 2019, equaling 300 sheep. Those numbers are also representative of average sheep losses over the past 5-6 years. Edwards points out that wolves don’t inhabit the whole state and depredation is not equally distributed statewide.
Confirmed wolf depredation in Wyoming is similarly low.
USDA figures for Idaho blame wolves for killing 800 sheep statewide, the equivalent of one sheep per 275 head or 3% of total losses. An examination of livestock depredation in Minnesota, where wolves were not eliminated, found that depredation of livestock by wolves accounted for 0.22 cattle per 1,000 head, and 1.81 sheep per 1,000 head.
Frequently penned and lacking the physical flight capability of their wild counterparts, domestic animals are more vulnerable to mass predation by wolves and other predators. Perhaps the most infamous example occurred in 2013 when two wolves caused the death of 176 sheep in a single night near Victor, Idaho. Ten sheep received bites during the attack; the remaining 166 were either suffocated or were trampled by the herd as the sheep fled. With only a handful of such incidents, evidence suggests the Victor attack was an aberration, or according to Todd Grimm of USDA Wildlife Services, a "freak incident."
There are, however, secondary costs to livestock producers beyond mortality rates. One study concluded calf weight decreases by an average of 22 pounds if a fatal predation occurs within the herd. Animals that are injured during an attack also decrease in value. Optional preventative measures like range riders, fladry and guard dogs also increase expenses.
Lost livestock reimbursement programs, largely begun and funded by wolf advocacy groups at the time of reintroduction, have since been adopted or expanded by states and funded via federal grants, state funds and private contributions. Compensation rates and qualifications vary from state to state. Montana only recently added grizzly bear and mountain lion losses in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The process of applying for reimbursement, at least in Montana, is "extremely smooth," according to Edwards, who also expressed great faith in USDA specialists who investigate predations. But these programs are still disjointed from state to state, and concerns about procuring adequate funds or mismanagement persist. Nor do loss programs address the overwhelming majority of predator losses.
Loss due to eagles, loose/feral dogs or coyotes are not covered. In Idaho alone, wolves claim more livestock than cougars and bears combined; however, coyotes kill as many as five animals for every animal killed by all other predators combined. Coyote populations have dropped in wolf reintroduction zones by as much as 39% and some argue wolves may be key to mitigating losses by coyotes. But for many ranchers, that’s an extremely hard sell.
According to Edwards, acceptance of wolves by ranchers isn’t anywhere on the horizon but points out that there is evidence of adaptation.
"Ranchers have learned if you have a pack of wolves on your place and they're not killing livestock, you don’t want those wolves shot," he said, adding that nonlivestock-killing wolves created an indirect barrier to other wolves that might prey on livestock.
"It’s kind of ironic — loss prevention being wolves themselves," he added.
After generations of estrangement, livestock producers and wolves have now spent a couple of decades in each other’s company. Predator loss programs enjoy broad support across the affected states, but they are still in their relative infancy and seeking to quantify the full influence of wolves and other predators on livestock.
As a final note, wolves were granted endangered status as "experimental/nonessential," but ranchers have been permitted to shoot wolves that threaten or attack their livestock since reintroduction. In 2011, wolves were dropped from the endangered list in the states of Idaho and Montana, and in 2017, Wyoming. Doug Smith, chief biologist for Yellowstone National Park, acknowledges that livestock depredation occurs, but says wolf depredation is "extremely low."
He added: "livestock-killing wolves are always killed. That’s not tolerated."