This article appeared in the Watersheds Messenger     Summer 2003     (Vol. X, No. 2)     PDF ISSUE


Natural Selection: Wolves in, Grazing Permits Out
By Mark Salvo, George Wuerthner and Andy Kerr

The greatest and in most places the only impediment to wolf reintroduction in the American West is opposition from the livestock industry, including public lands grazing permittees.

Wolf restoration is favored by a majority of Americans and livestock predation by wolves is greatly exaggerated by ranchers (and often politicians and the media. Domestic dogs killed 20 times more cattle in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho than did wolves in 2001.)

Nevertheless, livestock interests almost universally oppose the federal wolf recovery program.

The opposition of livestock interests to the federal wolf program is pressuring the government to restrict the species reintroduction to a few national parks, national forests and wilderness preserves in the West. A trapper recently (and unintentionally) captured the first confirmed wolf to reside in Utah in 70 years. Instead of releasing it back into the wild, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned it to Yellowstone National Park.

A federal voluntary grazing permit buyout program could help to resolve wolf livestock conflicts quickly, efficiently and without litigation or further harm to wolves. Such a program would allow public lands ranchers to waive their grazing privileges back to the federal government in exchange for generous compensation. The permits would be cancelled, and the associated allotments would be permanently retired from domestic livestock grazing, creating new livestock-free zones where wolves and other predators could roam free from persecution.

Without forage competition from domestic livestock, elk and deer herds would likely increase, providing a greater prey base for wolves and potentially attracting wolves away from remaining public and private grazing lands. Increased elk and deer herds would also improve opportunities for sport hunting.

The proposed permit buyout program differs from other permit retirement projects sponsored by various conservation organizations in the past, including the National Wildlife Federation's recent agreements with permittees in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to compensate them to modify or end their public lands grazing. In one case, NWF paid a permittee not to end his grazing but to move his operation off public lands used by bison near Yellowstone National Park to other public lands in the area.

Like most third-party permit retirement projects, the NWF deal did not permanently retire the previous allotment from grazing use where the bison conflicts occurred. (Under current law, the Forest Service has the option to reopen the allotment to grazing in the future.) And, in this case, the permittee's livestock were merely relocated to other federal public lands where they will continue to cause harm to public resources.

In another deal, NWF and other organizations paid a permittee $250,000 to end her public lands grazing on 137 square miles of wolf and grizzly bear habitat near Grand Teton National Park. Again, while this deal demonstrates the utility of voluntary permit buyout, it is not permanent under current law and no conservation group can continually pay a quarter million dollars for each grazing permit "retired" in wolf country

Only the federal government has a budget large enough for this task.

The proposed federal buyout program is not one that would reimburse ranchers for individual livestock lost to wolf depredation. The conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife currently reimburses ranchers for livestock that are confirmed killed (and "probable kills") by wolves. Defenders has spent more than a quarter million dollars on this program since 1987.

Congress also recently developed a public wolf depredation compensation program for ranchers in Idaho, except that it is unusual because the $100,000 appropriated is intended to compensate ranchers who have lost livestock to unconfirmed wolf kills since 2000. With the Defenders and federal programs, ranchers in Idaho are now insured against livestock lost to confirmed, probable and unconfirmed wolf kills.

The money spent by conservation organizations on compensation for dead livestock or permit retirement is not purely private, as they are tax-exempt organizations and contributions they receive are tax-deductible to the giver. Consequently, whether compensation for lost livestock or permit buyout comes from a conservation organization or the federal government, the taxpayer still pays.

Meanwhile, the enormous subsidies that support public lands grazing justify the creation of a permit buyout program. The federal grazing program costs the federal taxpayers at least $500 million annually, but the federal treasury only receives $7 million annually in grazing fees.

Rather than continue to pay for dead livestock or impermanent permit retirement, it would be a better deal for the taxpayers to pay willing-seller federal grazing permittees to end their grazing and permanently retire their allotments from grazing use.

The need for a permit buyout program is becoming critical. Since reintroducing Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest, the FWS, to appease the livestock industry, agreed to limit the species' restoration within the designated recovery area. When wolves roam outside the boundaries, they are recaptured and hauled back. A Mexican wolf recovery program director recently called this concession "a mistake," but it is unlikely the FWS can rescind this policy without a relief program such as voluntary federal permit buyout being available to public lands ranchers.

Meanwhile, wolves are attempting to disperse to Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado. A permit buyout program would help dilute opposition to the wolves' return to those states.

There are already dozens of scientific reports on the many positive effects of reintroducing wolves to the intermountain West, and wolf related tourism is pumping $20 million per year into Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Permit buyout could help to reduce grazing conflicts associated with wolf restoration, and hasten the day when wolves will be restored as a major evolutionary agent in the West.

Mark Salvo ( is Grasslands and Deserts Advocate for American Lands Alliance ( George Wuerthner ( is Special Projects Director for Deep Ecology ( Andy Kerr ( operates The Larch Company ( All three authors are also staff for the National Public Lands Grazing Campaign.

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