of the federal wolf reintroduction program in the Northern Rockies may be visible on the
dinner table soon, in the form of skimpier lamb chops and porterhouse steaks that expose
more bone than beef.
For years, cattle ranchers and wool growers have fretted over wolves that kill dozens of
cows and sheep each year. But the steepest price may be the declining weight of livestock
terrified by the howls and footsteps of the stalking predators.
"In most instances, it (livestock weight loss) is far more significant economically
than animals that are killed," said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the
Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
Currently, calves fetch $1.45 per pound on the market. So if wolves cause just a few lost
pounds on each head of cattle, that quickly mounts into big losses, said Lloyd Knight, the
executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association.
cows are scared, they bunch together, they don't spread out like they're used to. They
don't eat and drink -- you can just tell they're losing weight," he said. "The
loss of weight from the whole herd could cost far more than the depredation of a few
calves. It's something we've been afraid of since the reintroduction program began."
Federal wildlife officials reintroduced endangered gray wolves into Yellowstone National
Park and the central Idaho mountains in 1995, and the predators have thrived. And a decade
later, ranchers argue, wolf packs are roaming further afield, their presence wreaking as
much havoc as their bite.
The Idaho Office of Species Conservation, an agency that compensates ranchers for
wolf-related losses through an annual $100,000 appropriation from Congress, has agreed to
pay any rancher who can demonstrate weight loss through record-keeping.
"I've heard the theory before and it makes sense," said Jeff Allen, the office's
policy adviser. "It's something this office has agreed to fund."
No such program exists in Wyoming. Magagna said the Idaho program started because of the
$100,000 appropriation arranged by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. He'd like to see a similar
program in Wyoming but doubts it will happen.
First of all, as a member of the Interior Appropriations Committee, Craig has particular
influence, Magagna said. And because of Wyoming's standoff with the federal government
over the state's wolf management plan, "perhaps there's more of a reluctance to do
the same thing for Wyoming."
The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife also has spent hundreds of thousands of
dollars to cushion the fiscal impact since reintroduction began, offering to compensate
ranchers in Wyoming and other states for the confirmed depredation, or killing, of
But Amaroq Weiss, a Defenders wolf specialist in Ashland, Ore., said careful scientific
research is needed to determine the extent and validity of ranchers' weight loss claims.
Until then, the wildlife group could not reimburse ranchers for lanky animals.
"We're not inclined to compensate people for perceived weight loss, until there is
research to show it is occurring, or if it's even probable that it's occurring,"
Weiss said. "We certainly welcome the research."
Proving that animal weight loss stems from wolf jitters and not some other factor in the
vast matrix of variables that includes rangeland health, migration patterns and forage
production, is difficult if not impossible, said Curt Mack, a wildlife biologist with the
Nez Perce Indian tribe, which also has a hand in Idaho's wolf oversight.
The phenomenon likely exists, but its extent is "intangible and unquantifiable,"
He also cast doubt on the idea that sheep and cattle live in a permanent state of panic,
pointing to research that shows some prey animals, such as elk and cattle, exhibit
heightened recognition when wolves are hunting and relax their guard when the predators
are merely roaming.
Although accounts remain anecdotal, nobody is more qualified to assess the physiology of
their animals than the ranchers themselves, said Todd Grimm, the acting director of the
Idaho branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Division, which
traps and shoots wolves known to prey on livestock.
"Most of these guys have had grazing allotments for so long, they have a real long
history of what a calf should weigh when it comes off the mountain," Grimm said.
"And, they've got a lot of facts and figures to go along with that."
In Wyoming, Magagna estimated at least 25 to 30 livestock producers have seen significant
economic losses due to livestock weight loss.
Because there's no program in Wyoming to compensate for livestock weight loss due to
wolves, Magagna said he doesn't know any ranchers who have tried to calculate financial
losses. But he said there's no doubt it's happening.
"I've talked with a number of ranchers who say something like, 'I lost five calves to
wolves last year ... and can probably survive that, but what I can't survive is the extent
they're harassing my cattle,'" he said. "I've heard people say their calves are
10 to 15 pounds lighter with resource conditions about the same. Even after the wolves
quit bothering them, the cattle just won't settle down."
Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said most of his
members are reporting lamb weights between 2 and 8 pounds below the prior three-year
Nerves are to blame, he said.
"They're just being dogged out there," he said. "So there's safety in
numbers. A band of lambs will crowd together and just quit eating."