Wolves, cowboys and the truth

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

View original article here. 


23 responses to “Wolves, cowboys and the truth

  1. robert molina

    I live in New Mexico where they have recently released Mexican Wolves–beautiful animals. Anyways, don’t pay any heed to all the wolf haters, ranchers and know it alls about wolf devastations to their lively hoods. I personally could survive with out a hamburger or steak, there are other alternatives, LOL! People just complaing about anything and everthing there is. They do the same about the wild horses; not one of them stands a chance for survival if we were to let them have their way. The ranchers here in Catron County think the world revolves around them. They have the same issues about wolves.

    They need to wake up and join the modern world. The past is the past. The wolf and wild horse are here to stay no matter how much they coplain. If they like their cattle so much, they should give up ranching and go work at McDees where they’ll be close to hamburger meat, LOL! Anyways, just to let you know, Live on wolf lovers, cause I do and I will. Can’t wait to see wolves again in the wild, doing what they all do for a living.

  2. I’m not too happy about a wolf pack dumpster-diving in the Colorado ski town I live in, along with the bears and the foxes, but I don’t see any way to stop it. It’s just a matter of time until this very effective predator expands south from Yellowstone to here. I accept that a majority of the urban population like the idea of wolves in Yellowstone and the West, and so it *will* happen whether I like it or not. Because the economy of the American West is so heavily subsidized by the Federal government, and the population of the West is so small, a lot of the political control of the West lies with the Federal government, for better or for worse. If society decides that there will be wolves in the West, then there will be wolves in the West. But when a wolf pack arrives in the part of rural Colorado that I live in, I believe I’ll start carrying a rifle and pistol, and I hope that I won’t have to use them, but I *will* be ready. Just in Case.

    [Editor’s Note: Mike, I hope you’ll take the opportunity between now and the time wolves arrive to learn more about what wolves really are, and the risks they pose. I believe that you’ll be very surprised to find that wolves are both critical to our wild places and that they pose a very minimal risk to human safety (compared to the risk of getting killed in a collision with a cow, for example).]

  3. As a resident of Wyoming, I am proud of our leaders for standing up to “political environmentalist” (who made false research and predictions about the wolf to get them here). The leaders are actually listening to us. We are the people who have to live with this insane “reintroduction of the wolf.” The wolf is really just a platform for special intrest groups to collect misled sympathizers money. Visit a Wyoming Ranch in the North West and get the real truth about wolves.
    Hopefully we can get the wolf put on the predator list where it can be shot on site (except in the park). Let us defend our livelihood and mind your own business!

  4. Can’t wait to get a wolf license in Idaho!

  5. No, it isn’t selfishness. It’s mankind recognizing our mistakes of the past and doing something to prevent the same mistakes being made again; it’s preserving wildlife and wilderness for us all.

  6. One thing I think we can all agree on is that every single one of us live where wildlife once roamed. Now if we are going to start taking awy folks homes to accomodate certain species, why stop in Wyoming, Montana, etc? Let’s make it universal, or could it be that city folks want to chase out residents of these states so they have a subsidized place to play and be entertained by wolves? Is that selfishness?

  7. When I grew up in the 1950’s, we had a well fenced farm near a national forest out on the west coast. We also had predators from the forest, i.e. coyotes, weasels, badgers, bobcats, black bears and puma. We lost sheep, goats, chickens and geese to these predators. We never had any compensation from the government, but we had our rule that is any invader in our farm will be shot. However, we did not go out to the forest to seek and kill these predators. If any of our animals escaped, it was just our bad luck. Notably, our animals did not graze on the public land. Frankly, those who do graze on public land must accept the risk which comes with the (public) benefits. What’s there to whine about? Eradicating wolves was a mistake, and re-introduction on the public land is a good measure.

  8. Ok let’s think here for a minute….humans did NOT create wolves. They were already here when we invaded THEIR territory. So can someone here tell me what the problem is….yes it’s US acting like we own the whole planet and anything that we don’t like let’s just get rid of. Who cares what it does to our ecosystem, who cares if animals and plants go extinct we don’t need them, we’re humans we don’t need anything. We only NEED what we WANT. What most of you above sound like is ignorant. You people act like wolves are these massive creatures with red glowing eyes that come out of the darkness to eat your children. How do you think your precious cattle feel, yeah maybe you don’t hunt them but you still massacre them and eat them to survive.

    Money, that’s what everyone is after.

  9. I just read the description of cattle losses in the article above. It is staggering. I don’t know what philosopher once said “the true meaning of stupid is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”. With the great thinking evidenced by centuries of cattlemen they should continue to do the following: Scream, rant and rave about the few cattle lost to predators. Continue to fight “against” the environment. Ignore other problems such as health factors and weather and don’t worry about forage. Continue to overgraze–it’s your right! Finally, continue to fight politically and morally against what the American people clearly want. The cattleman’s wants and needs (and profit) come first. These solutions should ensure successful cattle raising.

  10. One of the tricky things about providing numbers for wolf kills is the neat little word “confirmed”. Since newborns and baby animals are easily preyed up ona are virtually untraceable, the rancher loses his replacement stock and is NOT compensated. During the summer if it takes a couple of days to find an animal, the defining evidense of a wolf kill is gone. That is trauma, extreme trauma in fact. If there is not enough eveidense to convince an inspector, the rancher carries the burden. Ed Bangs estiamtes that probably 9 animals are killed by wolves for every one that is compnsated, so you can multiply your numbers by 10 and pat yourselves on the back that individual families are paying 90% of the cost of your entertainment.
    And yes, wolves were all over the country. The wolves trucked into the Yellowstone area were not native either, they were flown down form Canada, and are larger than the original wolves.
    Moose permits are still fine in areas of the state where wolves have not managed to take over yet. The big hit on moose has been in the Teton area where they have been halved.

  11. A good overview of cattle deaths and rescue efforts stemming from the recent flooding in the Pacific Northwest can be found here http://www.oregonlive.com/search/index.ssf?/base/news/116313272216460.xml?oregonian?lcfp&coll=7
    Note the dollar figures.

  12. Editor: Curious. Please let me know your sources for one in ten thousand cattle. Also do you have the info for other domestics as well?
    Thanks, Bud

  13. Wendy Keefover-Ring

    Hello Bud,

    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your concerns.

    I will respond to one part: the economics of predator control and will allow someone else who is learned in the moose and wolf literature respond to your claims about predator-prey relationships. (That said, I concur with the literature, which of late, has concluded that predator-prey relationships are not simplistic models as there are a host of complications such as habitat loss, weather (i.e. drought or extraordinarily deep snowfalls), overexploitation of ungulates by human hunters, competition with livestock, and weeds which supplant native fauna, etc.)

    Back to my economic argument:

    Kim Murray Berger published an interesting paper in Conservation Biology this year (cite below) concerning sheep losses and the influence of coyotes. She analyzed 60 years of data, and compared the East (before coyotes began colonizing) with the West (where coyotes had not been extirpated.) She concluded that despite the huge amount of resources expended on coyote-killing campaigns in the West that sheep ranchers in both regions fared poorly at the same time. The cause: hay prices (which fluctuate widely because of weather) and labor prices (which fluctuate widely because of economic conditions).

    So let’s get past blaming the carnivores for ranchers’ woes. The data simply don’t support this simplistic notion–even the government’s own data show that predator control is unnecessary when one analyzes what causes unintended deaths for cattle and sheep.

    Where Marion, Dave, you, and I can agree: we need to start saving habitat from roads, oil and gas, ski industry expansions, logging, and development if we want to be stewards of our western heritage. Whether you are a creationist or a evolutionist, I think we can agree that things look bad for our planet if we continue down the path of rapid consumption.


    Berger, Kim Murray. 2006. Carnivore-Livestock Conflicts: Effects of Subsidized Predator Control and Economic Correlates on the Sheep Industry. 20 Conservation Biology 3:751-761.

  14. Hi Wendy,
    Your data argument has a severe flaw; your cattle death numbers are for the entire US. Wolves only occupy a very small portion of the entire US. Try giving the data based on areas that have sustained wolf populations.
    I have heard from several people that moose populations have been decimated in areas that hold even small populations of wolves. Visitors to Yellowstone are now more likely to see a wolf in the wild than a moose. I have also heard that Wyoming has been forced to stop issuing hunting licenses for moose because of the dramatic population decline.
    I believe that habitat is the most important ingredient for a healthy natural ecosystem. People have taken over the habitat that wolves once roamed and in order to obtain the balanced ecosystem desired, habitat must be restored. There are very few wild places left in the contiguous US today. Reintroduction efforts will only work if the efforts include habitat restoration. I suggest Idaho, Oregon, Montana and Wyoming all be restored to the pristine wild of yesterday and all those people that took wolf habitat can move to boulder. Taxes, laws or good intentions are of no avail, habitat is the only ingredient for you to succeed.
    [EDITOR’S NOTE: Actually, if you look only at the area where wolves and livestock share common ground, the number of cattle taken by wolves is less than one in ten-thousand head; many, many more cattle are killed by weather in those same areas every year.]

  15. Hi Marion,

    Like a sage grouse on its lek on a spring morning I am panting. ( Panting as a result of the celebratory dancing this morning.)

    Seriously, I’m sure one important thing we can agree on is the importance of the system of checks and balances that keeps government functioning within the bounds of reason.


  16. Wendy Keefover-Ring

    The U.S.D.A. Wildlife Services’ 2004 budget was $101,490,740. (They were supposed to release their FY2005 data in June, but are holding back until December because of bureaucratic inefficiencies.) When compared to the costs of annual predator-killing programs, the wolf restoration budget is a drop in the bucket.

    Furthermore, with regards to the sage grouse issue the problem is not predation but changes in landuse. The loss of habitat from fires, grazing, weed invasion, and other factors is largely responsible for declining sage grouse populations. Grazing is known to degrade sage grouse habitat by eliminating grassy understory, destroying riparian and wet meadow areas, causing weed invasion. If there is not sufficient food for hens, the egg quality will be reduced. Moreover, weather—i.e. lack of precipitation can affect egg quality as well.

    Information comes from: Declaration of Dr. Clait Braun in Committee for Idaho’s High Desert et al. vs. Mark Collinge et al. (April 2002). Braun’s declaration available at http://www.westernwatersheds.org/facts_photos/egghunt/egghunt.htm.

  17. First of all, I would divert 100% of the cost of “reintroductions” of predators to other things. Please remember the wolf problem was purposely imposed on folks with tax dollars to entertain those who enjoy watching them kill.
    A great deal of the predator control money in this state comes from funds that are a tax of sort on ranchers.
    I would imagine that you do realize that predators are not only responsible for killing livestock, but also many other species, including sage grouse, which environmentalists are just panting to list so they can prevent grazing even on private ground.

  18. Marion,

    Since we all agree that when you’re working for a living you can’t afford to waste a dime, would you be willing to participate in an effort to get USDA to divert 50% of the funding currently devoted to predator control into an expanded research program in the area of livestock respiratory diseases? The paypack to livestock producers could be quite significant. If the USDA could knock down mortality from respiratory ailments by only 33%, that would be about double the number of animals supposedly lost to predation.

    I don’t mind paying taxes, I just hate to see the money I pay being utterly wasted. What do you think? Are you game?


  19. I think that was the theory fo those who stole stuff and presented so many false vouchers. It already cost so much what they did was insignificant.
    Believe me when you are working for a living every dime counts…even on a ranch.

  20. Wendy, thank you so much for the information you posted! I completely agree with your sensible response. Thank you for backing your allegations up with facts! I’d like to comment on the wolf being “necessary to the health of America”. To clarify, the wolf is essential to the health of natural western American ecosystems. As an apex predator, they are successful in motivating elk to spend less time grazing or browsing in any one area, and they have contributed greatly to the recovery of smaller species of fauna, and flora. By contrast, millions of domestic cattle have done enormous damage to natural western landscapes. Marion, I would LOVE to have wolves in every city in the USA! Unfortunately, they are not native to every area of the country. Gray wolves are native to the American northwest and northeast, Mexican wolves are native to the American southwest and red wolves are native to parts of the southeast.

  21. Wendy Keefover-Ring

    Marion, since I pay for predator extermination campaigns with my tax dollars, I have every right to complain about them even if I don’t live in a rural area.

    In 2005, wolves killed 4,000 cattle in the U.S. Considering the numbers below, wouldn’t your time be better spent complaining about the weather? Or cattle rustlers? The facts are, predators kill few livestock–so it’s time we got rid of state-, county-, and federally-funded predator controls.

    Unintended Cattle Deaths:
    Respiratory Problems: 1,110,000
    Digestive Problems: 648,000
    Calving Problems: 572,000
    Unknown: 474,000
    Weather: 275,000
    Other: 271,000
    Disease: 174,000
    Lameness/Injury: 132,000
    Metabolic Problems: 78,000
    Mastitis: 67,000
    Poison: 39,000
    Theft: 21,000

    Total Non-predator Cattle Loss: 3,861,000
    Total Predator Cattle Loss: 190,000

    Source: USDA, NASS, “Cattle Death Loss” (2006) & USDA, NASS “Cattle” (2005)

  22. Obviously the significance of damage by predators is directly corelated to what it costs the one doing the evaluating. It is of no significance to someone sitting in an office telling others how to live. It is very significant to the rancher that pays what amounts to a tax on his operation of thousands for livestock that predators eat.
    As for the wolf being necessary to the health of America, I’d like to hear a little more about that. If it is so healthy, then they need to be in every city in the country, not jsut on western ranches that folks want to control without paying for them.
    The government is only paying for destroying problem wolves that they paid to haul in. Smart, real smart.

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