As the State of Colorado drafts its plan for the reintroduction of gray wolves to western Colorado, the livestock industry is already clamoring for “lethal control” of wolves that take to hunting cattle or sheep.
However, killing wolves in response to cattle or sheep predation does not prevent — or even reduce — future livestock losses. The myth that killing wolves in response to livestock losses protects cattle and sheep is also incompatible with sound wildlife management.
The science demonstrating the futility — or even counterproductive nature — of killing wolves after predation on livestock is quite clear. Multiple studies show that it simply doesn’t work. Twenty-five years of data from wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem and Idaho have been analyzed in three separate studies.
The first study found that killing wolves actually increased the numbers of livestock lost to predators. A second study argued that the original study used inappropriate statistics, and found a small benefit to killing wolves in terms of livestock losses.
But then a third team of researchers reanalyzed the same data, finding that the second study applied an ecologically inappropriate model, and in the final analysis wolf killings initially increase the numbers of cattle and sheep lost; cattle and sheep losses show no reductions for the first 25 years after wolf reintroduction, when wolf populations reach stable populations and population growth slows.
These findings are bolstered by results from a Michigan study, which found that while killing individual wolves responsible for livestock predation did decrease animal losses on the farm where the wolf killing occurred, the likelihood of livestock losses to wolves on neighboring farms within 3 miles of the wolf killing actually increased as a result.
On the other hand, rigorous scientific studies that purport to demonstrate that livestock losses to wolves can be significantly reduced by killing wolves are completely lacking.
In short, killing wolves serves no beneficial purpose for livestock-wolf conflict management. It is merely a sop to aggrieved ranchers, to assuage their feelings of loss and make them feel vindicated. Thus, the state should follow the science and exclude lethal methods from its wolf management plan, incentivizing coexistence with wolves by requiring nonlethal techniques that actually work.
This brings us to the second myth that the state should avoid in its wolf management planning: the fanciful notion that “social tolerance” for large carnivores can be created or enhanced by allowing some of the carnivores to be killed.
A study of human behavior in Wisconsin showed that when wolf hunting seasons were initiated after wolves were briefly delisted from the Endangered Species Act in that state, illegal poaching of wolves actually increased. Thus, the bloodlust of anti-wolf violators was stoked, rather than satiated, once recreational killing of wolves was officially allowed through a hunting season. Happily, Proposition 114, passed by Colorado voters in 2020, specified that wolves would be managed as a “non-game” species, making recreational killings illegal.
The recent scandal in New Mexico, where ranchers and government agents blamed wolves for livestock losses they didn’t cause, then collected compensation payments, led to management removals and killings of innocent Mexican wolves in retaliation. When wolf-killing is employed as a “tool in the toolbox,” fraudulent compensation claims by ranchers are used as evidence that leads to wolves being killed under false pretenses. Let’s take this broken tool out of the toolbox in Colorado.
“Lethal control” is a euphemism coined to sanitize the dirty business of killing native wildlife – for no legitimate reason. Wolves are territorial, and require no human management to keep their populations in check. Instead, wolf killings serve only to appease base human interests, and advance the agendas of those who would like to keep wolves extinct in Colorado despite losing the election.
Wolves naturally self-regulate. We don’t use “lethal control” when cattle and sheep violate expectations by overgrazing, or even when they illegally trespass on public lands where they’re not allowed. Colorado should apply the same standard of coexistence and tolerance for wolves as they return to their natural habitats in the Colorado mountains.
Erik Molvar, of Laramie, Wyo., is executive director of Western Watersheds Project. He is a wildlife biologist with scientific publications on the effects of wolf and grizzly bear predation risk on Alaskan moose.
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