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Great Lakes versus Western wolf success illustrates the ill effects of Western ranching (opinion)

July 5, 2006


"Externalization of costs" or "negative externalities" is a well known economic concept. Negative externalities represent unintended costs of economic activities which are not borne by those involved in the economic activity, but borne instead by "by-standers."

Pollution is common example. The polluter does not like the pollution that comes from the production of his/her product, but failure to control it allows production at a lower market cost because some of the costs are passed on to others and the environment by not controlling the pollution.

Many economic activities produce externalities (sometimes even positive externalities), but the Western range livestock industry has long been pointed to as an example of producing negative externalities and passing them on to others, especially wildlife. It is argued they use their political power and cultural hegemony to be allowed to do this and to prevent public acknowledgement of the process.

Below ecologist Geoge Wuerthner uses wolf population in the West versus that of the Great Lakes, which has many more people per square mile, as another example of negative externalities from the Western range livestock industry. RM

Many of you have heard me say all this before, but it doesn't hurt to restate the fact. Western ranching externalizes many of its costs to the land and the public at large. One example revolves around wolves.

I often hear from those opposed to wolf restoration that we can't have wolves in Oregon because there are "too many people." Yet it is interesting that in Michigan (see article below) with one of the largest populations of any state, there are more wolves (434 wolves) almost double that found in Montana (235 wolves), a wide open western state. And Michigan wolves are doing far better there than in NM and AZ where there now are only 35 Mexican wolves left in the Wild.

How curious?--I don't want to jump to rash generalizations but since nearly all the deaths associated with western wolves is retaliation for livestock depredation, I have to look for an answer. In Michigan and Minnesota (where there are more than 3000 wolves) nearly all livestock is grazed on small tracts of productive lands with nearly continuous monitoring. Carcasses can be removed quickly. Animals can be monitored for unusual behavior in response to predators. And the nearly constant human activity very likely reduces overall predator opportunity.

In the arid West cows must spread out to find enough to eat and ranchers ignore their animals out for days or weeks unattended, leaving them open to predator opportunity. Instead of holding ranchers responsible for their own losses, we subsidize their businesses by allowing them to continue to act irresponsibly. We kill wolves if they kill livestock--no matter how poorly they are cared for. This is no different than leaving a picnic basket out in Yellowstone--and then killing the bears because they found your food.

Fortunately in Yellowstone they fine you if you leave your food out--but with ranchers we kill the animal instead of fining them for sloppy
husbandry.

I think such statistics demonstrate quite clearly how livestock production in the arid West is inappropriate and is subsidized by the rest of us. The continued killing of wolves by the government to appease ranchers is just an externalization of business cost by the livestock industry which has successfully transferred one of its costs of doing business--reducing predator opportunity--on to the public by demanding a predator free environment or seeking to kill wolves that prey upon their livestock.

The article he refers to is Michigan: Department of Natural Resources says gray wolves on the rise. AP


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George Wuerthner Not to be reprinted, archived, redistributed, etc., without permission.
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