Getting aggressive early with livestock-killing wolves works better than gradually ratcheting up the response, according to research published last November by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Liz Bradley.
“Killing livestock is a learned behavior,” said Bradley, based at the Region 2 office in Missoula. “You might have a pack in an area for several years and not have a problem, and then, boom, you have a livestock kill, and then it happens again and again and again. There are many variables, but if you decide removing wolves is the best option, you’re better to take more earlier than picking away at them.”
Ten years of data looking at how wolf-pack size and distribution predict livestock attacks has helped wolf managers improve their tools for protecting cattle and sheep. Livestock deaths have shown a steady decline in the past several years.
“When wolves were just starting to come back – when they were still federally protected – the goal was get them recovered and off the endangered species list,” Bradley said. “Sometimes those removals were conservative – one here and one there, to see if that would work. What we found was those small removals weren’t effective.”
In a cursory view, Bradley’s results seem obvious: Remove a wolf pack, remove a livestock problem.
“What’s counterintuitive is you end up killing fewer wolves in the long run that way,” Bradley explained. “Maybe you have an incident and you kill a pack of six. That’s different than if you take three out every year, and the remainder have pups every year, and you end up taking 12 or 15 wolves over five or six years. If you removed that pack up front, you only take five or six, and give a chance for another (non-depredating) pack to move in.”
Rob Wielgus runs the Large Carnivore Lab at Washington State University. He worked on similar studies that showed killing wolves can lead to more livestock losses. But he said the difference depends on the size of landscape you look at.
“The results back up both of us,” Wielgus said. “If you have a depredating pack and wipe them out right away, you won’t get depredation elsewhere. But if you don’t kill them all, the remaining animals disperse to surrounding areas and pass on their depredation skills. And that’s where you get increased depredation. You have that whack-a-mole effect.”
You also risk new conflicts. States like Montana and Idaho must keep their wolf populations above certain thresholds or lose their local authority to the federal government. Places with new wolf populations, such as Washington, must show a measured response if they also want local control of what’s still a threatened or endangered species there.
Killing wolves that kill livestock defines reactionary management. Bradley, Wielgus and most other wolf researchers agree getting ahead of the problem is both cheaper and more effective. Wielgus said a two-year experiment with non-lethal wolf controls in Washington bears that out.
“We’ve been radio-monitoring hundreds of livestock and dozens of wolf packs,” Wielgus said. “So far, of those who’ve implemented the procedures, we’ve had zero depredations over two years. The results are astounding.”
The procedures include posting cowboys around cows and shepherds around sheep, removing carcasses promptly, placing fladry and portable fencing around pastures and related tactics. Washington has paid for the ranchers’ extra labor through grants funded by a license-plate fund and contributions from state and private agencies.
“We’re trying something different over here, and so far I’m real happy with the results,” Wielgus said. “A couple years ago, everyone was screaming and going crazy about wolves. Now it’s quiet. It’s good.”
Since gray wolves were reintroduced in the Rocky Mountains in 1995, and removed from federal Endangered Species Act protection in 2011, their relationship with human neighbors has evolved.
“It’s the same with any large mammal species out there,” said University of Montana Cooperative Wildlife Unit leader Mike Mitchell. “There are places where people tolerate them, places where they enjoy them and places where they get into trouble. We may be managing the wolf population so there are fewer conflicts with human interests now. State management offers some assurance we have possibility to control what’s going on. That’s a different place for people to be when thinking about wildlife.”
Mitchell and his team members have been refining ways to count wolves in the wild without the expensive assistance of a large radio-collar program. That’s essential because wolf population numbers form the measuring stick gauging how well management tools work.
The 2015 wolf census won’t be ready until March. The 2014 report pegged Montana’s wolf population at 554, down from 627 in 2013. That included 134 packs of two or more wolves, 34 of which qualified as breeding pairs.
In 2014, federal Wildlife Services officials reported 42 livestock losses to wolves, compared to 78 in 2013. Government hunters or private citizens killed 57 wolves in 2014 in response to livestock incidents. Hunters and trappers took 94 wolves during the 2013-14 season, and 119 during the 2014-15 season.
“It appears the population is leveling off,” Mitchell said. “That could be due to a hunting season that’s more liberal. Or it could also be due to wolves having reached carrying capacity. The truth is probably somewhere in between.”
It also may mean wolves are becoming a two-sided management challenge. There’s one bag of tools to work with wolves and livestock. A different bag may be necessary to work with wolves and wildlife.
Montana’s elk herds are over population objective in large parts of the state. But for years, FWP fielded complaints from hunters that wolves had eaten all the elk. Both statements appear to be true.
“One place that really stands out for being out of balance is Mineral County,” Bradley said. “It’s still a very hot-button issue there, with a high density of wolves in a difficult place to hunt and trap. They have a declining elk population, but they don’t have much of a livestock population like other places. It’s very much a big-game management challenge.”