Are wolf/livestock depredations soaring?

The dangers of wolf managers crying "wolf."


Here is a story from the Associated Press Yellowstone wolf count reaches 218 with the too typical out of context, shallow analysis. A version of this even made it onto CNN headline news today which said that biologists were warning Yellowstone area ranchers to expect increasing problems with wolves as wolves move out of Yellowstone Park.

The AP story above said "Bangs is now expecting more problems to arise as wolves disperse and move into sheep and cattle country, and he expects that federal and state officials will have to kill more problem animals." 'As the numbers increase they have to find their own territory,' he said."

None of these news stories look at depredations comparatively between the 3 recovery zones, nor do they look at them over time (except the previous year). None, except Scott McMillion's recent story in the Bozeman Chronicle compares sheep losses to wolves compared to the other ways sheep die.

Here are some date from the USFWS 2001 report on wolves. I have modified the structure of their table.

Here are the yearly totals of livestock and dog kills in the entire Northern Rockies wolf recovery area. The table includes the non-reintroduced wolves in NW Montana.

  1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 Total
cattle 3 13 22 22 33 32 40 188
sheep 0 37 126 12 89 80 138 494
dog 3 1 4 4 13 11 6 43

Notice there is inconsistent, but upward trend toward more livestock deaths. Now look at the number of wolves and my simple calculation of the number of cattle and sheep killed per wolf.

  1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
number of wolves 101 152 213 275 322 433 563
cattle per wolf  .03  .09  .10  .08  .10  .07  .07
sheep per wolf   -  .24  .59  .04  .28  .18  .25

Random fluctuation plays a large role in small populations. This is a well known statistical generalization. Nevertheless, there are some easy generalizations.

1. The average number of cattle killed per wolf has not risen over time, despite wolves dispersal from the safer core areas. From 1996 through 2002 from .07 to .10 cattle (almost all calves) were killed per wolf with the lowest figures in 2000 and 2001!

2. The total number of sheep killed and the average number per wolf varies widely from year to year, but there is no trend toward more sheep per wolf. Almost all of the fluctuation is due to lone wolves that got into sheep or the occasional sheep-killing pack such as the Gravelly Pack in 2000 and its remnants in 2001.

If we look at the figure from Idaho below, we see an absolute decline in wolf depredation during the last 2 years.

Idaho Only 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 Total
cattle   0   4   1   10   16   15   10 56
sheep   0   24   29    5   57   39   16 170
dog   0   0   8    0    5     0     1 10

So where is this increase in wolf depredation? The Service's own figures don't bear it out. Perhaps it is speculation as to what the large number of Druid Pack wolves will do when they leave the Park, as a number surely will. But has the number of wolves on Yellowstone's northern range increased in recent years, not much. The Druid's expansion has directly or indirectly resulted in members of other northern range pack wolves to migrate out of the Park.

Perhaps the statements from the Service "to watch out" are a form of "lowballing" expectations -- "things are going to be bad, very bad." When they turn out not to be, credit can be taken.

That might be a good tactic in some policy situation, but not with wolves. Rumor quickly becomes fact. People get places and number mixed up. Folks don't remember history very long. For example, I heard ranchers say "why I hear there are 37 wolves in one big pack up in Copper Basin (Idaho)." It would seem the famed Druids somehow got transported in his mind to Idaho.

Some newspapers take these statements and write editorials almost devoid of fact. Take the recent editorial in the Billings Gazette. Opinion: Wild idea threatens wolves. April 12, 2002.

Let's analyze this editorial. My comments are in blue.

Opinion: Wild idea threatens wolves
Gazette Editorial

The Druid Peak wolf pack is a herd. Twenty-seven adults or yearlings and 11 pups born last spring. On a cold, cloudy day, a group of dedicated wolf watchers huddles against the wind on a steep hill overlooking Yellowstone Park's Lamar Valley. From their vantage point, they survey dozens of wolves with spotting scopes and radio tracking devices. Visitors passing by at the right time can hear the Druid Peak wolves howling and yipping. They swarm over the snow, groups of wolves running at each other and running back again. Predators at play. They aren't hunting; they don't have to wonder where the next meal is coming from. Elk graze within eyesight.

Among the 3 million people who will visit Yellowstone this year, many will be drawn by the desire to see wolves or, at least, see wolf country.

Outgrowing the park
But outside the park in Montana, wolves have moved into Paradise Valley and south of Red Lodge. Roaming wolves have killed sheep, llamas and calves. Not a good neighbor policy.

The Gazette is unaware that wolves moved south of Red Lodge the first month after the 1995 reintroduction. Famous wolf 10M was shot there by Chad McKittrick. The first depredation by a Park wolf was in Paradise Valley in early 1996. Wolf 4M was shot there by WS for killing sheep. As many as three wolf packs have inhabited Paradise Valley off and on since 1997. The Gazette seems to have missed this long and varied history entirely. When they say "roaming wolves have killed sheep, llamas, and calves," shouldn't some information be supplied?

Furthermore, when an endangered species member develops a taste for domestic animals, the solution is drawn out and expensive. Last week, federal authorities hazed a pack of 10 central Idaho wolves with lights, sirens and helicopters, trying to shoo them away from cattle. Undeterred, the wolves ate beef again. Then wildlife managers shot them.

We all seem to know more about the Whitehawk Pack situation than the Gazette. The pack, over time, did kill more livestock than the Service in Idaho would allow, but the number of domestic animals was far outweighed by the deer and elk the pack killed, much of the time with the slower, easier livestock in plain sight, smell or hearing distance.

Seeing wolves in Yellowstone is awesome, but the population (216 at year's end) is outgrowing the park. It's time to move on to the next chapter of the wolf saga: taking the wolf off the endangered species list and managing to maintain a wolf population in federal wildlands while protecting the property and peace of mind of area ranchers.

The Gazette seems unaware that the 216 wolves are not in Yellowstone Park, about 130 of them are in the Park. There is a difference between the Park and Yellowstone Recovery Area. In the second sentence to the paragraph the Gazette is unclear whether wolves are to be restricted to the Park or to wildlands, which are not the same thing.

That's why state wildlife managers from Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico wrote a letter last week to the head of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They proposed "a regional approach" to wolf recovery, instead of a "national rule."

"It is clear recovery targets will soon be met in the northern Rockies," the state managers wrote. "Devising a strategy that leads to delisting in this region should be our highest priority because it will both reward success and provide us with a framework for moving forward in other parts of the country."

Although I think the Service believes 30 breeding pairs for three years is as good as done, it wouldn't take much illegal poisoning, depredation control, and bad luck, such as disease (maybe a second bad parvo year to the 2002 pups) to reduce the current (2001) 34 breeding pairs to 29 or 28. It may well be the 3 state wolf population has nearly reached its peak, although nothing in the population growth table indicates this. The estimate for 2001 is 563 wolves. If at the end of 2002 it is 575 wolves instead of 680 wolves, the conclusions about the future are very different.

Conservation supporters
Leading wolf conservationists agreed that the northern Rockies should be kept separate from the rest of the West. "One lesson we've learned is that the bigger the target, the harder it is to achieve what you intended," Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation told a Gazette reporter.

Mike Phillips of the Turner Endangered Species Fund has said that considering the southern and northern Rockies wolf recovery separately is "defensible and strongly supported by relevant biological and legal standards ..."

France and Phillips are fine conservationists. I have the most respect, but can the opinion of 2 carry the Gazette's editorial point.

There are many difficult disputes ahead in managing 21st century wolves. But first, we must make certain that the rules reflect regional differences. All too often, federal edicts are a one-size-must-fit-all approach. In wolf management, there's a great need and opportunity to tailor policy to our region. The national rule is a bad idea that must be discarded.

Everyone should re-read the rules for the experimental reintroduction of wolves to the Northern Rockies. It has been on my web page for a long time, but in case anyone missed the link, here it is again.

Establishment of a Nonessential Experimental Population of Gray Wolves is Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Central Idaho and Southwestern Montana; Final Rules. Nov. 1994.

-end editorial-

In sum, crying "wolf" and then having that mixed with a little bit of knowledge plus plenty of wrong or vague ideas, can result in editorials like that above in otherwise serious publications like the Billings Gazette, and worse in the coffee shops and barrooms of the rural West.

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Copyright 2002 Ralph Maughan
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