This article appeared in the Watersheds Messenger     Spring 2003     (Vol. X, No. 1)     PDF ISSUE


The Cry of the Wolf in the West
By George Wuerthner

The current wolf recovery program in the West demonstrates that we can restore these spectacular and essential wild creatures to the American landscape. In places such as Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, wolves are thriving.

Travel outside these few special areas, however, and you will discover another trend. Nearly all of the wolf packs whose territories significantly overlap areas with domestic livestock wind up dead or removed. The recent killings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Whitehawk pack in Idaho, the Dome Mountain, Gravelly Range and Nine Mile wolves in Montana, and wolves in northern Utah - all in the name of livestock protection - illustrate the problem in living, lurid color. To compound it, the FWS in March downlisted wolves to "threatened" from "endangered" in most of the lower 48 states.

While wolves are alive and well in essentially livestock-free zones such as Yellowstone, the primary goal of wolf reintroduction in the West - to restore the ecological and evolutionary influences of a large predator across the landscape - is not occurring. Token wolf populations in Yellowstone or central Idaho, wonderful as these isolated examples are, do not contribute substantially to the long-term biodiversity goal of restoring wolves as the top predator on public lands in the West.

Though domestic sheep and cattle losses to wolves are greatly exaggerated by the livestock industry - domestic dogs, for example, killed 10 times as many domestic animals in Montana last year as wolves - the restoration of wolves is almost universally opposed by livestock interests. And it is the presence of livestock that chiefly determines the destiny of wolf restoration in the West.

Western ranchers have successfully externalized one of their costs of production, namely, protecting their animals from predators simply by extirpating the predators on their own or with the help of state and federal agencies. Rather than spend money on animal husbandry practices that could reduce or eliminate most predator-livestock conflicts, livestock producers have simply removed the wolf from the landscape.

Animal husbandry assumes many practical, reasonable forms: guard animals, shepherds, lambing and calving sheds, penning of animals at night to reduce opportunities for predators, and rapid disposal of animal carcasses that might attract predators to the area.

The aridity that characterizes the West forces livestock to roam widely to find sufficient forage. Cattle and domestic sheep spread out over vast acreage, often with little supervision by ranchers. In the "Columbus" method of animal husbandry, ranchers turn out their cows on the range in the spring and return in the fall to "discover" how many are left alive. Such lax stewardship gives wolves and other predators many opportunities to snare a cow or sheep.

Even so-called "predator-friendly" livestock operations can have a negative effect on overall wolf recovery. For one, there is no free lunch. Currently, the majority of forage is allotted to livestock, leaving less to support native herbivores. In many areas, this significantly reduces the overall number of prey animals available to wolves.

Second, the mere presence of domestic livestock displaces many ungulate species, from mule deer to elk to antelope. Displacement can force native herbivores into less desirable habitat, making them more vulnerable to weather, poor forage and other impacts that reduce their populations.

Third, dead animals left on the land are attractants for wolves. Wolves often get their first taste of beef or lamb by consuming a dead cow or sheep before they prey on live animals. By creating conditions that can turn a wolf into a livestock predator, even a predator-friendly producer may contribute to the death of wolves if the animals wind up killing livestock elsewhere.

These issues loom large in wolf recovery efforts in the West because livestock are found nearly everywhere on the landscape, save for a few livestock-free parks and preserves. Nearly 90 percent of all Bureau of Land Management lands are leased for livestock production. The same goes for 69 percent of all U.S. Forest Service lands.

In sum, more than 300 million acres of the West, including state and federal lands, are leased for livestock production. That's an area larger than the entire eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida. There are few large tracts of public land outside of Yellowstone and the central Idaho wilderness that are free of livestock. Until this condition changes, livestock production will remain a critical barrier in the restoration of wolves in the West.

Removing livestock from public lands would significantly reduce conflicts with wolves (some conflicts on private lands would remain). Although the courts have recognized time and again that livestock grazing permits are a privilege and not a right, federal agencies seldom reduce livestock numbers, much less close an allotment, even when there is clear evidence of ecological abuse or conflicts with other public values such as wolf restoration.

A voluntary grazing permit retirement program such as the one proposed by the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign (see Article 7) would be especially useful in resolving livestock­wolf conflicts in the West. These conflicts often recur in the same places because they happen to be the best habitat for wolves.

If ranchers in these areas elected to terminate their grazing allotments, the major source of conflict would be removed, creating the potential for wolf recovery throughout the entire West. Such a program may be essential if we are ever to recover the Mexican wolf in the Southwest or re-establish wolves in areas of Oregon or Colorado where wolf habitat is abundant but livestock roam free.

George Wuerthner, co-editor with Mollie Matteson of "Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West," is an advisory board member of WWP. He lives in Richmond, Vt.

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