One of the unquestioned and unspoken assumptions heard across the West is that ranchers have a right to a predator free environment. Even environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife more or less legitimize this perspective by supporting unqualified compensation for livestock losses to bears and wolves. And many state agency wolf management plans specifically call for compensation to livestock producers—but without any requirements that livestock husbandry practices be in place to reduce or eliminate predation opportunity.
In a sense, ranchers have externalized one of their costs of business, namely practicing animal husbandry that eliminates or significantly reduces predator losses. Most of these proven techniques involve more time and expense than ranchers have traditionally had to pay, in part, because they have been successful in making the rest of us believe it was a public responsibility to eliminate predators and not a private business cost.
This is not unlike how power companies have successfully transferred one of their costs of doing business—namely reducing air pollution from burning coal—on to the public at large and the environment. Ranchers have been doing the same transfer of costs in the West for decades. And it is not limited just to predator control. When livestock trample riparian areas, destroy soil crusts, pollute waters, eat forage that would otherwise support native herbivores, spread disease that harms wildlife (as with bighorn sheep), and spread weeds, the environment, and ultimately the taxpayers and citizens of this country are absorbing the costs, while the ranchers gets the profits.
And so it is with predators. Killing predators to appease the livestock industry is nothing more than another subsidy to an industry that is already living off the public largess, in part, because most predator losses are completely avoidable with proper animal husbandry techniques.
For instance, prompt removal of dead animals from fields, and burial of the remains can significantly reduce attracting predators. One recent study in Oregon showed a very strong association between wolf packs and bone piles—places where ranchers dump dead cattle. Obviously one-way to avoid attracting wolves to ranches is to bury all dead animals. Predators are attracted to places where they have previously obtained food. One study found that farms that had a predation event were 55 times more likely to have second predation!
In Chile, where the killing of cougars is outlawed, many sheep producers utilize lambing sheds and nighttime corralling in pens to protect flocks.
In Europe where many countries ban the killing of predators like wolves, livestock producers have adopted other measures to reduce predator losses. The use of guard dogs with shepherds is particularly effective, again significantly reducing predation losses. One study found that the combined use of these techniques could reduce predation losses by better than 90%. When you are talking about only several hundred wolf attributed livestock losses a year in each of the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, a 90% reduction would bring these losses down to a negligible figure—and one that would remove nearly all demand for any predator control.
In Minnesota where there are nearly double the number of wolves that are found in the entire northern Rockies states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana combined, farmers there are encouraged to adopt measures that reduce predator opportunity in order to qualify for state livestock compensation. After a depredation, a state official visits the farm, and discusses any measures that could be adopted to reduce future livestock losses. The farmer must sign an agreement to implement any changes in order to qualify for any future compensation payments.
These are only a few of the proven mechanisms that collectively could sharply reduce predator losses, indeed, perhaps to the point where wolves, cougars, and other predators are no longer a significant issue.
Of course, because the ranching community believes it has a right to kill predators, and in fact, believes that society should help them kill predators; there is not much incentive for changing policies.
Ironically one of the best ways to reduce predation losses may be to stop killing predators. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests killing wolves; cougars, coyotes, and bears actually increase social chaos leading to greater predation losses. The reasons include the fact that hunted predator populations tend to be skewed towards younger animals that are less skillful hunters, thus more likely to attack livestock. And in more stable predator populations, older mature animals, and larger stable packs can maintain territories that can keep young and unskilled animals away from livestock operations. Thus predator control often leads to more livestock depredation, and more calls for predator control.
There is good evidence to suggest that if states minimized predator control to surgical removal of proven chronic livestock killers, as well as mandated proper animal husbandry practices, nearly all of the conflicts over predator management could be avoided, including the unnecessary killing of predators.
But until the public and in particular environmental groups start challenging the assumption that ranchers deserve an environment free of predator losses, we can expect no changes in behavior and only the on-going and unnecessary killing of predators.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former Montana hunting guide.