John Wayne, the most iconic cowboy of our time, once said, “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.” Wise words, indeed.
When it comes to wolves, the cowboys running Wyoming’s government apparently believe the wisdom of yesterday is best gained by acting as if it still is yesterday – or, more precisely, that it is 1906, not 2006. Recently, Wyoming sued the federal government over the government’s rejection of Wyoming’s plan to allow unregulated killing of wolves outside of the state’s two national parks. Notably, the federal government still protects wolves as an endangered species, meaning that the territory outside of the national parks is integral to wolf recovery. Undeterred by such legal logic, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal clicked his spurs together and said of the decision to sue, “We’d been kicked around the barroom enough, and now it’s time to fight back.”
Unfortunately, Wyoming’s tantrum drags the taxpaying public into a frivolous and prohibitively expensive legal quagmire where nobody but the lawyers survive – and to what end? Well, Wyoming officials insist that their wolf management plan will protect wolves (granting them safe haven inside the national parks) while also protecting the state’s livestock industry, by allowing anyone with a gun to kill wolves that roam into other areas of the state. The state’s livestock lobby insists that anything less would allow wolves to eat them out of house and home. Moreover, they contend that coyotes, mountain lions and bears already threaten to drive ranchers out of business in the Cowboy State.
In the spirit of learning from yesterday, it’s worth looking at some of the evidence that supports (or refutes) the fear of wild carnivores that grips Wyoming’s cowboy caucus. Particularly useful is data gathered by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) regarding livestock killed by various wild carnivores. For cattle, data from 2005 indicate that wild carnivores and dogs killed 0.18 percent of the nation’s cows, while 4 percent were lost to other causes including disease, birthing problems, weather and theft. Notably, of the cattle lost to wild carnivores in 2005, wolves killed only 0.02 percent.
Wild carnivores and domestic dogs take a larger bite out of America’s sheep inventory, partly due to the profoundly defenseless nature of domestic sheep, and partly owing to lackadaisical husbandry practices including turning bands of unguarded sheep out on open range. The most recent NASS data (2004) indicate that wild carnivores and domestic dogs killed 3 percent of the nation’s sheep, while 5 percent were lost to other causes. Although sheep are more vulnerable than cattle to wild carnivores, the loss rate is far from alarming. Most industries suffer some loss during the course of production and shipping, yet few insist that they are entitled to government-funded protection from the sources of such losses.
In retaliation for the relatively minor damage that wild carnivores inflict upon the bottom line of the livestock industry, the federal government dumps tens of millions of dollars each year into killing tens of thousands of these wild meat-eaters, including endangered wolves. This multibillion-dollar war with no end wreaks an ecological toll of staggering proportions, and scientific evidence suggests this war may do little to actually reduce livestock losses.
Sadly, Wyoming’s leaders remain entrenched in a different century, deliberately blind to any evidence suggesting that wolves are not a significant threat to the livestock industry – and they steadfastly deny that wolves are critical to the health of wild America. Wolves, however, are vital to the balance of nature. In the absence of wolf packs chasing the West’s burgeoning herds of elk and deer, these animals are eating aspen trees and willows to extinction. In the wake of the resulting decline of aspen and other wetland plants follows the beaver, which needs these plants for food and building material. As goes the beaver, so goes the wetland.
This profound ecological decline all traces back to the eradication of wolves, and the insistence of one industry that wolves not be welcomed back to the hunting grounds of their ancestors.
Hopefully, our neighbors in Wyoming will learn from the past. If the past shows us anything, it is that keeping the wolves at bay is a terrible legacy to hand to future generations.
Rob Edward and Wendy Keefover-Ring are wildlife policy advocates for Sinapu, a carnivore conservation group based in Boulder.
Guest Commentary, The Denver Post
By Rob Edward and Wendy Keefover-Ring
October 28, 2006