As you read this, our own Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agency tasked with managing wildlife held in the public trust, has the Old Profanity Territory pack wolves under the gun for preying on livestock on our public lands. For the fourth year in a row, in the same location in the Colville National Forest, for the same rancher, gray wolves are being killed for behaving as we should expect them to. For this rancher, 20 wolves have been killed since 2012. Right now, four adults and four pups are in the crosshairs, the collared breeding male already killed on July 13.
It is easy to hold the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department in contempt for their actions, killing wolves for killing livestock. But why are livestock and wolves coming into contact in the first place? The root of the problem is the U.S. Forest Service’s grazing policy. It may come as a surprise to some that federal and state land management agencies issue permits and allow our public lands to be used by private industry for grazing livestock.
This year, ranchers are paying $1.35 per month per cow/calf pair to graze federal public lands. The fee is always paltry, but the Trump administration reduced it to the minimum allowed under federal law. For reference, a bale of hay costs about $6, and a cow consumes about one-third of a bale each day. So a public-lands permittee pays less than the cost of a day’s feed for his cow/calf to graze for a month, or about the equivalent of a can of dog food. Pretty good deal. The negative impacts to the landscape and waterways are well documented and costly. Now grazing is impacting the existence of wildlife on public land.
We know the costs of public lands grazing surpasses the revenue brought in by the $1.35 per month. So who really pays the price?
A 2015 study, “Costs and Consequences: The Real Price of Livestock Grazing on America’s Public Lands,” found the cost to U.S. taxpayers was more than $1 billion from 2005-2015. Appropriations for the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service’s grazing programs have exceeded grazing receipts by at least $120 million annually since 2002, according to the study.
This federal subsidy goes beyond the direct costs and fees. There are vast indirect costs to grazing on public lands, including the government killing of native carnivores.
Wolves have been killed in Washington for preying on livestock since 2012, when seven Wedge Pack wolves were removed, incidentally for the same livestock producer. Since 2012, also for the same livestock producer, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has killed seven wolves of the Profanity Peak Pack, two Sherman Pack wolves in 2017, two Old Profanity Territory wolves and one Togo Pack wolf in 2018, and so far one Old Profanity Territory wolf in 2019, for preying on livestock on public land. The Old Profanity Territory Pack is evidence that killing wolves does not solve the problem. If it is good wolf habitat, new wolves move in.
When a problem repeats itself, the factors involved must be analyzed. The main factors in question here are the terrain of the grazing allotments in the Colville National Forest and the permitted livestock producer. Both of these factors are under the control, not of the state WDFW, but of the Forest Service.
The Colville National Forest is finalizing its Revised Land Management Plan. The plan reviewing officer, in his “Objection Response Letter,” encouraged Colville National Forest staff to “use the existing flexibility in adjusting livestock grazing to reduce conflict with wolves.” In other words, it is time to try something different. When there is conflict, move the grazing animals.
This is not a call to end all public lands grazing. However, we should reconsider permitting grazing in areas of chronic predation. Let’s protect wolves and livestock. Cattle being killed by wolves is unfortunate. No one wants livestock lost or livelihoods threatened. The problem isn’t the wolf, it’s the policy that puts livestock into wolf habitat.
We haven’t, and likely won’t, change wolf behavior, so it is time to change ours.