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Wolf Crossings

A Rural Viewpoint On Wolf Reintroduction And Protection

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Updated 9-06



Wolves hit bottom line

Consequences 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.

"When the 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 livestock.

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," Mack said.

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 average.

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."