Science shows that killing wolves does more harm than good.


Last month the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife killed its first wolf from the Smackout pack after deciding that the animals were preying on too many cows in the state’s Colville National Forest. The state’s action came after its “Wolf Advisory Group” concluded that “lethal action” was the best way to manage the pack’s population following a string of attacks on livestock on grazing allotments in the forest, despite the fact that numerous scientific studies have proven that livestock predation actually increases when wolves and other large predator animals are killed.

Almost 5,000 miles away, across the continental United States and Atlantic Ocean, a similar situation is playing out in Denmark. There wolves have established a population for the first time in more than 200 years, thanks to reproductive success in nearby Germany. As in the western United States, the argument that wolves should be managed according to science is playing out against livestock-owner and hunting-industry desires to use lethal measures to stop the animals from preying on stock and game. It’s a contentious struggle — and one that has its origins in Europe itself.

“Wolves and other predator animals have been persecuted in Europe for hundreds of years by ranchers who want to protect their animals from attacks,” says Hans Peter Hansen, a social scientist studying wolf policy at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Because today there are more people and more livestock, there is less room for wolves. And this has made it necessary for governments to ‘manage’ wolves, or ranchers might just wipe them all out.”

When settlers came from Europe to North America, they brought their livestock with them. This new presence of Europeans and livestock led to the widespread and systematic persecution of predators in North America. By the early 16th century, chicken, cattle, horses, goats, sheep and pigs began populating farms in the American West, and colonists protected their livestock with guns. This, combined with hunters’ thirst for wolf pelts, led to a massive decline in wolf populations. In some areas wolves were completed wiped off the map.

Today ranchers in Europe and the United States are still dealing with wolves and other predators in much the same way as they did in the 16th century: They shoot them — or lobby government wildlife managers to shoot them — when the packs prey on livestock.

While killing wolves that attack livestock may give ranchers short-term peace of mind, it’s more likely to plague them with long-term aggravation, according to the latest science. Researchers have found that killing wolves upsets pack dynamics — especially when young wolves are involved, like those in the Smackout pack — which leads ultimately to yet more livestock deaths. In one study scientists found that for each additional wolf killed, the expected average number of preyed-on livestock increased by 5 percent to 6 percent per herd for cattle and 4 percent for sheep.

Fewer wolves also means more of the prey they used to hunt, which can create a whole new set of problems. In particular, hooved wildlife such as elk and deer can overpopulate in a given environment. When there are too many of these hooved animals, plant life becomes overgrazed and entire ecosystems begin to fray. Unsurprisingly, livestock also contribute to overgrazing.

Further compounding wolf-management quandaries are European and U.S. policies that allow for livestock grazing, with permits, on public lands — the same public lands where wolves live. Wildlife managers encourage ranchers not to kill wolves immediately, but instead try using livestock guardian dogs, fences and alarms, lights and nonlethal ammunition. The key to effective nonlethal predator control involves a variety of tactics to keep wolves on their toes; it also requires “thinking like a wolf,” according to a recent Defenders of Wildlife report on the subject.

While nonlethal forms of predator control can help keep wolves at bay, in many cases — including the Smackout Pack case — that isn’t enough to stop livestock predation, according to Brenda Peterson, author of the new book Wolf Nation: The Life, Death and Return of Wild American Wolves. “Despite whatever nonlethal measures may have been being employed to prevent conflicts between the wolves and livestock, it’s clear that with a sustained proximity like this, the cattle should be moved elsewhere,” says Peterson. “The land where the cattle are being grazed is public lands, and the livestock owner has a permit to graze there — it is a permit, not an absolute right. From the facts we know at this point, it appears that alternative grazing locations should have been identified and the cattle relocated.”

Instead of forcing grazing allotment moves, the Wolf Advisory Group has agreed to kill off some of the Smackout pack wolves, a situation similar to that which played out last year in Colville National Forest when Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife killed off seven of 11 of the wolves in the Profanity Peak pack, which had also been preying on livestock. Peterson says the park has lots of downed trees, allowing the cows to spread out and making them vulnerable to predation.

Denmark’s wildlife managers face a similar situation: Ranchers are complaining that nonlethal measures to keep wolves from the country’s new pack — of six wolves — away from livestock aren’t working. So they’re considering the same type of management that’s being used in the United States, with one significant difference: It will be based on science, says Hansen. “We would make biologists’ voices prominent during meetings,” he adds. “Such experts can provide rural communities that might be afraid of wolves with facts that can help people understand why it’s important to have wolves.”

In the American West, some wolf advocates criticize the Wolf Advisory Group, accusing it of ignoring the best science when it decided twice in the past year to slaughter wolves. One of these advocates is Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf advocate with the Center of Biological Diversity (which publishes The Revelator). Weiss is a biologist and former lawyer who assesses conservation-agency actions and policies to ensure they fall in line with state and federal laws and follow the best available science.

“Wolf advisory groups that are established by state agencies do not have as a goal enforcing the law or following the best available science,” says Weiss. “Their goal is to reach social compromise.”

I saw this conflict in action last summer when I backpacked for a few days across Gila National Forest to look for endangered Mexican gray wolves, which have a controversial history in the west. After long-term, cooperative efforts to bring these wolves back from the brink of extinction, federal wildlife officials are tasked with releasing captive-born wolves into states that don’t want them, namely Arizona and New Mexico. While entering and exiting Silver City, which leads to the forest, I encountered large billboards and road signs opposing wolves’ very existence. “No, no, no wolves,” one proclaimed.

I found plenty of deer, elk and cattle in the forest, but no wolves. Maybe that’s not surprising: Only 113 wolves currently live in the Arizona and New Mexico wilderness. In recent years western state agencies updated a draft recovery plan for the wolves that conservation groups criticize as insufficient because it defines “recovery” as establishing “adequate gene diversity” among the population — once 22 captive-bred wolves are released and reach breeding age in a given geographic area. But it doesn’t measure whether or not a wolf breeds once it reaches reproductive age, according to conservationists.

And, as illustrated by the situation in Denmark where all the new wolves are migrants or descendants of migrants, these canines can easily cross geographic lines. So limiting Mexican gray wolves — or any other wolf populations — to a specific area is virtually impossible. This complicates the politics of wolf management, which in the United States is largely delineated from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to states and community advisory groups. That legal structure pits the people who want to get rid of wolves against the people who want to save them, and sometimes ignores the best available science that should be used to guide wolf management.

Perhaps the West should look at Hansen’s goals for inspiration. “We live in this world of Trumpism — that all too often ignores the facts,” he says. “For past 15 years I have worked to create spaces to give all people a say on an equal level to deliberate with each other with all the facts on the table. And strange things happen. People who can be the most destructive voices in the public debate, who exercise distorted communication change and become responsible, grow with the task. It’s encouraging, something we need to explore much more.”

© 2017 Erica Cirino. All rights reserved.

Previously in The Revelator:

The Big Picture: Cyanide Killers

Erica Cirino

is a freelance science writer and artist based in Copenhagen. She travels the world to cover stories about wildlife and the environment, specializing in conservation, biology and policy. Lately she has been very focused on the issue of plastic pollution. Her work appears in Scientific American, VICE, Audubon and other popular science publications.