Gray wolves were once common in most of the United States. They were hunted to near extinction and survived in a few scattered places. Slowly they have been returning to a number of western states. The return has not been smooth or without anger and controversy.
Wolves are predators and our domestic animals qualify as prey. This fact guarantees headaches for wildlife managers. Trying to balance competing interests is a challenge and wild animals don’t play by human rules.
Idaho game officials are wrestling with the fallout from a recent wolf-sheep encounter. Two Wolves took after a flock of sheep. The sheep were so terrified that they ran into a ravine and 143 were crushed or suffocated.
I’ts hard to imagine a starker example of why there is a battle between sheepherders and defenders of wolves. With wildlife management in the middle.
Historically, ranchers and sheep herders have held a kill on sight attitude toward wolves, finding them to be a predatory nuisance with no redeeming value. Over the last 50 or 60 years a strong and vocal opposition to that idea has formed. Many now see wolves as valuable parts of the ecosystem and claim that the numbers of livestock killed by wolves are inflated. They also point to beneficial changes to the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem since the reintroduction of wolves to the park in the 1990’s. Attitudes are slow to change and wolves roaming out of the park are frequently slaughtered.
It is hard to argue with 143 slain at one sitting however, and an understanding of the truth must lie somewhere in the middle.
Scientists say reintroduction has been good for the ecosystems involved. Wolf kills provide food for many smaller animals and scavengers. They also provide food for bears in difficult winters. Wolves have limited coyote populations, which may help smaller animals survive and thrive. Their impact on animals people hunt and on livestock has been debated but does not seem to be too large. Colorado State University notes, however, that although the total impact of wolves on livestock is low it is unevenly distributed. Some producers are hit seriously while others aren’t. The University also notes that wolves don’t always fully consume a kill, which rankles livestock owners.
Wolf defenders point to studies that show that normally wolf predation on livestock rates are low and that the cost of wolf kills is not very high. That argument holds that wolf kills are an absorbable cost. Once again 143 killed at a sitting will make for harsh argument in Idaho wildlife conferences. Cattlemen and ranchers say the losses are closer to 10 percent. They also say presence of wolves stresses livestock and leads to lower birth rates and health issues.
The reintroduction of wolves to American west began in the mid 1990’s. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and spilled out of its borders into surrounding states. Some migrated south from Canada. Idaho has perhaps 1,000 wolves. Oregon has under 200. Surrounding states including Washington, Oregon and California also have packs. Wolf killers however, poisoned an entire Oregon pack and wolves in California are not thriving.