An ongoing battle: ranchers vs. wolves


December 7, 2002


The Online Pioneer

Ontario, Canada

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Des Moines, Iowa (DTN) - When gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park during the mid-1990s, it started a heated debate between wildlife enthusiasts and ranchers that has never cooled down.

The ongoing clash of opinions recently hit the airwaves. Residents in Bozeman, Mont., are the first in the nation to hear anti-wolf radio messages paid for by the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

The messages, which will air for the next 60 days, were created to call urban attention to the economic impacts on ranchers caused by wolves, said Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.

Bozeman was targeted because the rangelands surrounding it are among the most severely affected by the growing wolf populations.

"Bozeman-area ranch families have taken heavy hits to their bottom line because wolves are killing and maiming their cattle," Pilcher said. "And the stress of having wolf packs in their backyards has caused dramatically lower birth rates and growth rates in their herds."

One of the radio messages appeals directly to urban dwellers. In it, a rancher says: "Ranches are losing their calves. Wolves are killing them. Montana's ranching economy bears an unfair portion of the costs. If America wants wolves back, why are we paying for it?"

The other message appeals to big game hunters, who, the group says, are also being affected by increasing wolf populations. A Montana hunter says: "Montana's big game populations will keep declining if we don't start managing wolves better. Our hunting heritage is at risk."

Pilcher said many people do not realize the extent of damage the reintroduced wolves have caused ranchers who live in the three-state area surrounding Yellowstone National Park.

"Most Montanans don't know that cattle are disappearing or returning home at night with their tails torn off in areas frequented by the state's new wolf packs," he said. "It's a gruesome reality."

The History

Although wolves once lived in every state in the nation, by the 1930s they were nearly extinct. Considered one of the main predators of grazing livestock, the government led the battle to eradicate the wolf from the Western landscape.

In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) introduced 31 gray wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park. By 2001, the pack had increased in size to about 216 wolves and had spread to private lands surrounding the park.

According to the USFWS's Website, Yellowstone was chosen for the wolf reintroduction site because federal officials believed there would be less wolf/livestock conflict in that area than anywhere else.

In an environmental impact statement written before the wolves were released, wildlife officials estimated they would kill about 19 cattle and 68 sheep each year, said Norman Bishop, International Wolf Center field representative for the Yellowstone region.

During the years 1995 to 2001, wolves from Yellowstone killed 41 cattle, 256 sheep, one foal, a donkey and 23 dogs. "This was far below the anticipated losses," Bishop said.

One leading argument of wildlife officials is that ranchers lose more livestock from natural causes, like weather and disease, than from predation by wolves.

According to Bishop's statistics, there are an average of 354,000 cattle raised each year in the greater Yellowstone area. Ranchers lose about 8,340 of those cattle each year to all causes of death. Of those losses, wolves are responsible for the deaths of 1 in every 1,400 cattle, Bishop said.

There are about 117,000 sheep raised near Yellowstone. Each year ranchers lose about 12,993 to death by all causes. Bishop said wolves cause 1 in every 355 sheep losses.

"Livestock lost to wolves is pretty minor," Bishop said. "Yes, those losses did create a working hardship for some ranchers, but what many people do not realize is that a wildlife group pays ranchers for every single animal lost to a wolf. They also give ranchers money for fencing and proofing against wolves."

Livestock Compensation

Since 1997, Defenders of Wildlife has compensated 210 ranches around the U.S. for livestock lost to wolves and has paid them more than $240,000, Bishop said. According to the organization's Website, it has paid for 288 cattle, 657 sheep and 32 other animals killed by wolves in the U.S. The average payment per animal is $247.79.

The wildlife group's goal is "to shift economic responsibility from wolf recovery away from the individual rancher and toward the millions of people who want to see wolf populations restored. When ranchers alone are forced to bear the cost of wolf recovery, it creates animosity and ill will toward the wolf. Such negative attitudes can result in illegal killing."

However, Pilcher with the Montana Stockgrowers Association said the Defenders of Wildlife program is well intended, but in reality it is quite difficult for ranchers to identify and document wolf kills.

"To be considered for compensation, the Defenders staff must confirm the kill was due to wolves," he said. "Often by the time the rancher finds a livestock loss, there's nothing left to prove what killed it. The wolves eat the evidence."

Pilcher estimated that for every wolf kill that is compensated, there might be four to seven kills not compensated because they could not be documented. He said the financial losses are taking a toll on many ranches.

"It's like me walking up to someone on the street and pulling $500 out of his wallet," he said. "That's what it's like for the ranchers each time an animal is killed."

According to Defenders of Wildlife, ranchers are also compensated for "probable" but unconfirmed livestock kills at about 50 percent of the animal's market value.

The problem with wolves in the West might go beyond money issues. Bishop said many ranchers have an ingrained hatred toward wolves and will not be satisfied until the wolves are gone.

"It's an attitude thing," he said. "It is very deeply ingrained in these people to hate wolves and it goes back to when humans first started grazing livestock. Wolves have always been the enemy."

Unlike many endangered species, ranchers have the right to destroy a wolf attacking livestock. As part of the reintroduction agreement, the gray wolves were designated as non-essential, experimental animals under the Endangered Species Act. This means federal and state agencies, as well as private citizens, can lawfully remove or kill any wolf caught in the act of preying on livestock on private lands, according to USFWS.

Although the law gives ranchers some protection against wolves, Pilcher and other agriculture officials are hoping to get more. If the gray wolf is de-listed as a threatened or endangered species, ranchers would be able to manage it like any other predator.

To be de-listed, there must be 30 breeding packs of wolves in the three-state area and the packs must be accounted for for three consecutive years. The three years will be up at the end of December 2002, Pilcher said.

Once the first rule is met, each of the three states must then adopt a wolf management plan to provide proper protection for the wolves. Montana and Idaho have adopted suitable plans, but Wyoming has not. Fish and game officials in Wyoming want to give the wolf two classifications. In most of the state, the wolf would be considered a predator and would not be protected, but in some areas it would be considered a trophy species and would therefore be protected, Pilcher said.

"The U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say Wyoming's plan is totally unacceptable," he said. "Until they approve a plan in each of the states, we'll never be able to de-list the wolf and put ranchers in a position to protect their property."

The Future

Bishop said he is confident, despite its opposition, that the gray wolf will make a comeback in the U.S. While agriculture once ruled policy making, more people are now concerned about protecting animals and are willing to pay for that protection, he said. So far the protection is paying off.

The gray wolves have helped the local economy by attracting more visitors to the area. Bishop said the total local income in the 19 counties surrounding Yellowstone is more important than the 3.5 percent related to livestock grazing.

"The way I look at it, in terms of the wolf issue, is that 3.5 percent has been wagging the whole dog in terms of the argument against wolves," he said. "The rest of the people are really benefiting from the $23 million in tourism the wolves bring to this economy."

Pilcher does not agree. He said ranchers should not have to bear the cost of the wolves.

"Our sole purpose is just to remind everyone that while we all have an opinion on wolves, ranchers are the ones that are dealing directly with the impact of their presence," he said. "We just want everybody to understand that there is a cost involved with the reintroduction of wolves."

Related Stories:

Yellowstone wolf found in Utah (Dec 4, 2002):

Wolf census may be underestimate (Dec 5, 2002):

Related Links:

The Total Yellowstone Page, Yellowstone Wolf Report Page:

Yellowstone National Park Official website:

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