Shooting Wolves
The Inevitable Result of Reintroduction


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently delisted the grey wolf from the Endangered Species Act. This generated outcries from many directions and it's no wonder; few western issues are as emotionally charged as wolf reintroduction, recovery, or regression (to the 1800s). One's choice of words speaks to his position on this controversial issue.

All can cheer the wolf's delisting—although from radically different perspectives. The Natural Resources Defense Council and 11 other groups formally oppose the action. I suggest, however, they celebrate the success in re-establishing viable populations. Ranchers can be relieved that now they can freely shoot marauding wolves.

I recently received this account of wolves in Beaverhead County, Montana. It's from Randy Piper, a reliable source with generations of ranch experience. Beaverhead has a large cattle population and is the prime wolf corridor between Yellowstone and Idaho's central wilderness.

Thanks to a fund generated by Defenders of Wildlife, ranchers are paid for confirmed wolf kills. However, ranchers suffer additional costs that are not covered when compensated for a specific kill. With the wolves return, ranchers must night-hawk their cows during the hectic calving months. Further, there is a Beaverhead wolf pack that regularly stampedes two herds, totaling about 250 elk, through private fences. Ranchers must repair damaged fence, often on a weekly basis.

Randy explained to me an impor-tant but often overlooked cost: "... beyond the uncompensated externalities of time and money is the erosion of trust. Because of these costly events, ranchers distrust government and environmentalists even more."

Ramona and I understand ranchers' plight. Although we quit running a half band of 500 ewes before the wolf's return, we had significant predator losses by bear and coyote attacks, in one week 17 ewes and lambs. Others died when stampeded into the Kleinschmidt Canal.

Compensation for financial loss does not make stockmen whole, not by a lot. There is a psychological cost in finding creatures under our care slain or maimed. Dead or tore up animals testify to one's failure to properly husband or shepherd these creatures. This does, and indeed should, hurt.

I recall riding out on a few summer mornings expecting to see healthy sheep grazing with lambs frolicking in dewy grass. Instead, I occasionally found terrified animals crowded in a corner with some smothered and a few dead or dying creatures scattered about the pasture. Did I think of money lost, of 110 pound lambs not loaded on a semi? Indeed not. Rather, I felt sorrow and frustration tinted with shame and rage. Beaverhead ranchers surely have similar reactions magnified by higher stakes.

Ranchers I've known for 40 years have loudly sputtered at me for defending the wolf's place in the West. And I've brought environmentalists to tears when explaining that problem wolves should be, and will be, killed.

In ecology as in economics, not all good things go together. I've written on conflicts with wolves for over twenty years. Here are thoughts from 1997: "The timber wolf is an icon of the changing West. It also offers a litmus test of the ability to think clearly. Emotional baggage is chained to the species like a 4 Victor, the trapper's tool of choice."

I ended with this: "Wolves have evolved as careful killers. That's why we want them returned to wild ecosystems. However, we want them to be discrim-inating in their predation. This requires that we permit stockmen to shoot wolves that kill livestock. As wolf numbers increase, so will this problem. It is irresponsible to pretend otherwise."

This conflict between predators and livestock effects more than ranchers and those who love the iconic wolf; it includes residents attracted to a key feature of our region, viable farms and ranches. While the gray wolf is no longer an endangered species, the family ranch may be.

Both are worth preserving. In our search for policies that do this, I suggest we include empathy for ranchers coping with wolves and a continued evolution of practices for dealing with the conflict inherent to the wolf's successful return. This problem is really a tribute to both the ranchers' sense of husbandry and environmentalists' devotion to an idealized nature.



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