For years, cattle ranchers and
wool growers have fretted over wolves that kill dozens of cows and sheep each year. But
the steepest price might be the declining weight of livestock terrified by the howls and
footsteps of the predators.
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
Federal wildlife officials reintroduced endangered gray wolves into Yellowstone National
Park and the central Idaho mountains in 1995, and the predators have thrived. A decade
later, ranchers argue, wolf packs are roaming farther 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 ranchers who can show weight loss through record-keeping.
The conservation group Defenders of Wildlife also has spent hundreds of thousands of
dollars to cushion the fiscal effect since reintroduction began, offering to compensate
ranchers for the confirmed depredation, or killing, of livestock.
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.
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.