FOR decades, whenever wolves preyed on livestock, the routine response among many ranchers and wildlife managers across the West has been brutally simple: kill the wolves.
More dead wolves equal fewer dead cows and sheep, the reasoning went.
And in many cases the reasoning is likely dead wrong, according to research published recently by a leading Washington state wolf scientist.
Confounding widely held beliefs, the new study indicates lethal responses to livestock predation by wolves often lead to an increase in attacks, or depredations.
It’s a message that may not be heard in Washington, where state wildlife managers responded to livestock depredations by eradicating the Wedge pack in 2012 and killing the alpha female of the Huckleberry pack last summer. Recently, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife announced it will swiftly move to lethal tactics if the Huckleberry pack kills any livestock next spring and, in statements to conservation groups, has said it is considering “pre-emptive” killing of wolves. Both of these policies flout the state wolf plan, which emphasizes conflict-deterrence as opposed to simply killing wolves.
Killing of wolves by the state compounds illegal wolf-killing by those few who take things into their own hands.
Reports last month that the alpha female of the trouble-free Teanaway pack was fatally shot come on the heels of a Whitman County farmer chasing a wolf for miles before killing it, and Stevens County commissioners exhorting county residents to kill wolves. Earlier this year, a wolf from the Smackout pack was found illegally killed in Stevens County and another wolf was discovered gunned down in Ferry County.
The groundbreaking research by Washington State University wolf scientist Rob Wielgus, published in the Dec. 3 issue of the scientific journal PLOS One, suggests killing wolves can have unexpected results, dissolving previously well-behaved packs and leaving small groups or lone wolves more inclined to kill livestock.
Wielgus said many states are aggressively managing wolves based on the largely untested perception that lethal control reduces depredations. His findings reflect research by other scientists showing increased black bear and cougar mortality results in more depredations.
Examining annual reports from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture over 25 years, Wielgus’ analysis found that each wolf killed increased the chance of livestock depredation the following year by 5 percent. Not until the mortality rate of wolves exceeds 25 percent would livestock depredations decrease.
His study opens the door to further study and debate about whether we’re doing enough to recover wolves. A recent study I co-authored analyzing the additional good wolf habitat across the United States found that more than 25,000 square miles of suitable habitat remains unoccupied in Washington — more than five times the area currently occupied.
In all, the study identified more than 350,000 square miles of additional habitat for gray wolves in 19 states, offering the potential to nearly double the wolf population in the Lower 48 states to around 10,000 by expanding recovery into suitable areas of the West Coast, Northeast, southern Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon area where the first gray wolf in the region in more than 70 years was just confirmed.
But, as we consider expanding wolf recovery to levels that leading scientists deem more sustainable, we must first expand our approach to wolf management.
And, as our knowledge of how human activities impact wildlife continues to evolve, Washington’s wolf-management policies must evolve toward serving not just hunters and ranchers opposed to wolves but the interests of a broader range of taxpaying constituents, who demand that wildlife be managed not as a problem but as a treasured public trust.
Amaroq Weiss is a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity where her work focuses on recovering wolves across the Northwest, Rockies and California.