A wolf makes its way across a road in Yellowstone National Park. (Jacob W. Frank/Courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service)
A new study published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice suggests that while states like Montana and Idaho have adopted more aggressive wolf hunting strategies, neither the states nor the federal government have good, reliable and accessible data about wolf kills, livestock losses and other “nontarget species” that are captured in traps.
The study, “A new era of wolf management demands better data and a more inclusive process,” said that few states weigh the benefits of wolves as apex predators, instead only taking into account the drawbacks.
The primary authors, Peter Kareiva and Samantha Attwood, point out that verified and reliable data is often lacking in the conversation about wolves, and that without reliable information, wolf management is impossible.
Kareiva is the president and chief executive of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, while Attwood is the founding member of the Relist Wolves campaign, based in Seattle. They said that key data is often only obtainable by public information requests from the federal government, and other information on wolf hunting is only available through a patchwork of state reports. Even the United States Department of Agriculture’s livestock losses report, which tracks how many kills are attributed to wolves, is reported only every five years.
In studies reported in 2015 and 2020, the USDA found that 3% of cattle and 10% of sheep were counted as “unwanted losses,” but the vast majority were due to “non-predator” causes like health problems, parasites, weather or birthing problems. The study points out that wolves only accounted for 0.21% for sheep and 0.05% for cattle.
“These minimal livestock losses attributed to wolves are even more noteworthy because they are likely overestimated,” the report said. “The USDA combines confirmed cases (kills) and ‘probable’ cases into one ‘loss’ figure, which will be biased upward unless every ‘probable’ kill is in fact caused by a wolf.”
The data also suggests that the USDA livestock loss estimates are based on mail surveys, but they are not confirmed by the department. Then, the numbers are extrapolated to get a statewide estimate.
The scientists looked at those reports compared to confirmed wolf kills by on-the-ground staff and noticed another important variance.
“This exercise revealed greater than a tenfold difference between livestock kills confirmed by state biologists and those extrapolated by the USDA from mailed surveys,” the article said.
The authors say that lack of good data, coupled with a historical vilification of wolves, may result in policies and laws that aren’t rooted in science.
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“Consider, for example, that in Idaho confirmed wolf kills have included livestock with no bite marks or injury under the assumption that ‘the cattle exert so much energy trying to escape wolves that they later die from the effort,’” the report said.
The scientists also question whether wolves are credited for killing animals that were instead killed by other predators. The report notes that USDA experts in New Mexico and Montana often credited livestock kills to wolves almost as a “rubber stamp.”
“A USDA Wildlife Services district supervisor in Montana reports similar corruption in Montana due to the influence of the ranching lobby, stating, ‘We were the hired gun of the livestock industry,’” the study said.
Kareiva said that too often, the discussion around wolves has never considered the benefits of having them, and that problem is often compounded by no accessible data.
“You can’t have a discussion without data that is well understood and described,” he told the Daily Montanan during an interview. “We can’t have honest negotiations until we can also describe the benefits. Is a wolf worth more alive or dead? A lot of the conversation is that there are no benefits of wolves, so there is no hesitation to kill them. But as an ecologist, I am here to tell you: They have benefits.”
One of the other key points of the survey turns to wolf behavior, noting that gray wolves “prefer wild prey over domesticated livestock, and when they do attack livestock, prefer animals that graze freely in small numbers as opposed to larger or fenced herds.”
“There is little evidence to support the hypothesis that lethal wolf control is effective at reducing livestock losses,” the report said.
The Daily Montanan reached out to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks about this report. While the department did not have a comment directly on it, it released the following response from a spokesman: “Montana has proven its ability to manage wolves across our diverse landscape and within a variety of competing interests including livestock producers, hunters and wolf advocates. Our management, reporting of data, and decisions on hunting and trapping regulations are extremely transparent, and in some cases, real-time. We publish an annual report on wolf management that includes a lot of great information on wolf management. We also maintain a dashboard where harvest totals are available in real time, and publish a summary of wolf hunting/trapping harvest statistics each year.
This is all available on the FWP website at: https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/wolf.”
Wrong animals found in traps
Wolf management, especially in states like Montana and Idaho, has also revamped wolf hunting and a look at the evidence shows that more often than not, other species are trapped.
“Data obtained by a FOIA request in Idaho reveal that in some years, the number of nontarget animals caught is similar to, or even exceeds the number of wolves trapped,” the report said. “During this period, traps set for wolves in Idaho caught game species such as deer, elk and moose, as well as mountain lions, domestic dogs and a smattering of rare species including lynx, eagle and wolverine.”
Scientists in the report also point out that while states and federal government track the negative impact of wolves, few take into account the positive roles they play as a predator. For example, a 2021 study showed that wolves can reduce deer-vehicle collisions by as much as 20% because they alter the behavior of the deer.
The study also points out that tourism around Yellowstone National Park pegs the economic benefit to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho at more than $80 million annually.
The importance of predators in ecosystems
The study also detailed several areas where having wolves as part of the ecosystem is beneficial to other wildlife management.
“Historically, wolves played a major ecological role in North America as a top carnivore: Their predation on elk, deer and buffalo held these and other herbivores at sufficiently low numbers such that overgrazing rarely occurs,” it said.
The authors suggest that the wolves often enhance the overall health of herd animals by targeting sick and weak individuals, cleansing prey populations.
“This hypothesis is currently being tested in response to the idea that wolves could be used ‘as first responders’ against (Chronic Wasting Disease),” the paper said.
Moreover, scientists pointed to the destabilizing effect that hunting wolves has on the pack hierarchy of wolves in the wild.
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“Lethal removal of wolves disrupts pack stability which results in pack dissolution, increased dispersal and could lead to more attacks on livestock by single pack-less wolves,” the authors suggest.
Other means to manage wolves?
The study also focused on other wolf management techniques that included input from a variety of groups.
“It is highly unlikely that these Yellowstone wolves represent a threat to livestock, since in the last three years there has been only one documented livestock kill attributed to wolves in the county that encompasses the hunting districts bordering Yellowstone National Park,” the study said. “Almost 5 million people visited YNP in 2021 – that is more than four times the size of the entire population of Montana.
“Montana ranchers certainly deserve a voice in wolf management, but so too do the many visitors who come to see YNP’s spectacular wildlife.”
Attwood was critical of wolf management, which has seemed to focus on lethal means of dealing with wolves instead of looking at ways to reduce the conflict. For example, basic management techniques like flags, fencing and cleaning up dead carcasses more quickly can help reduce the stress.
“Wolves are predators, and they make their living killing other animals,” Kareiva said. “We’re not against ranchers and their livelihood. We acknowledge there is a need for management, but is the only solution killing them?”
Attwood believes relisting wolves is an important step, but states and the federal government must do a better job of data collection so that science can direct the management conversation. It’s a conversation the authors said has a parallel to protecting salmon. The government struggled without a repository for data, so it developed the Columbia River DART, which stands for Data Access in Real Time.
“While it does not resolve conflicting objectives such as tribal harvest, salmon conservation, and irrigation, it does focus the debate around a standardized data set to which everyone has easy access,” the journal said.
For example, the authors suggest guard dogs are one of the means particularly effective at keeping wolves from attacking livestock. However, because of time and money – an estimated $6,000 per dog – they are less rarely used.
“However considerable public funds are also spent on lethal control measures. Idaho, for example, budgeted $1 million to kill wolves in 2022. This single-year $1 million fund could cover the lifetime costs (including purchase, food, training and veterinary care) of 168 fully-trained livestock guardian dogs.”
The authors suggest that nonlethal wolf management has rarely been explored, but its benefit would be not disrupting key ecosystems, including predators which have value to game animals and tourism.
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