Hey Wildlife Services, killing predators isn't the only option
Posted September 23, 2011 in Saving Wildlife and WIld Places
Joe Engelhart, Alberta, Canada
If you’ve ever heard anything about wolves in the Rockies, you’ve probably heard that ranchers can’t stand ‘em. That’s why we exterminated wolves in the early 1900s, after all. And that’s a big part of why, since wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies nearly a century later, a federal agency called Wildlife Services still kills hundreds of wolves each year in the name of protecting livestock. But there’s another way, as I learned from some ranchers in Montana and Alberta, Canada last week.
Wildlife Services – which could win an award for the most euphemistically named federal agency – is the agency that deals with “problem wildlife,” which means they kill over a hundred thousand mammals and several million birds each year. While some of their work focuses on things like reducing rabies risk and controlling birds near airports, much of what they do is directed at protecting the livestock industry. If you think a wolf attacked one of your calves, you call the guys at Wildlife Services to come remove the offending wolf – or sometimes even an entire pack of wolves – at the taxpayers’ expense.
But not all ranchers fit this anti-wolf stereotype, and the times are slowly a-changin’ here in the West. More and more ranchers are learning how they can coexist with wildlife, using non-lethal methods to prevent conflicts between predators and livestock. Not only does it work, they say, but a few of them will admit that they think it’s actually kind of neat to be sharing the landscape with America’s top predators.
Part of why it’s neat is that allowing predators to remain on the landscape brings benefits for the entire ecosystem through a process known as a “trophic cascade.” This means that the positive impact of carnivores like wolves ripples through the food chain: elk become more wary and seek cover in the forest, rather than lazing around by rivers and over-browsing streamside vegetation, which in turn creates habitat for songbirds, beavers, and native trout. These incredible effects have been well documented since the return of wolves in Greater Yellowstone, and similar effects occur wherever top predators are present.
Last week I got to see all of this first-hand when I traveled around Montana and Alberta with NRDC’s film crew, working on a documentary about Wildlife Services and how people are finding other ways to prevent wildlife conflicts. We interviewed ranchers both young and old, traversing hundreds of miles of dirt roads to meet people on their own turf, and what we heard was both fascinating and inspiring.
Take Andrew, for example. Born and raised in rural Montana, he married a former Yellowstone Park employee and the couple now runs the cattle operations on a ranch in Montana’s Centennial Mountains, where they try to manage their herd to mimic the way bison once used the land. By riding with their cows once or twice every day, they keep the herd bunched up and keep calves with their mothers, which means wolves have a harder time picking them off. Mimicking a bison herd this way not only helps prevent depredations, the couple said, but also allows them to manage grazing carefully, keeping the range in good condition.
Andrew and Hillary Anderson, Montana, USA
Or take Joe. A longtime rancher from Alberta, he looks like he just stepped off the set of an old Western, but he’s more forward-thinking than he appears. He and his wife are part of a coalition of 40 ranchers that are working together to protect their cattle from wolves and minimize the need to kill the predators reactively. This means, again, that they ride their cattle at least once a day – a vast improvement over the traditional method of turning cows out to graze unattended for days or weeks at a time – because in addition to keeping the herd together, Joe explained, human presence itself deters wolves.
The collaboration of 40 ranches helps make this intensive presence possible in Alberta’s vast landscape, as the ranchers share their manpower and take turns riding one another’s cattle. The ranchers also share information on the locations of wolf sightings or known wolf dens, which helps ranchers make better decisions about when and where to graze their cattle. Born of the patient work of Timm Kaminski, this collaboration was years in the making, but the ranchers say it is working. In an area where six separate wolf packs roam the hills, the participating ranchers have had not lost any cattle to wolves since the program started.
And success is hard to argue with. Warren, an old-timer who recently joined the program, told us that as a younger man he never thought it was possible for a rancher to coexist with wolves. But he now believes it is possible to manage cattle in a way that minimizes conflicts with predators – again stressing the importance of riding your cattle often and keeping them bunched together – and he was proud to report that he had not lost any cattle to predation during his first year of participation with the coalition.
His words are a testament to great potential of conflict prevention methods when combined with the power of an open mind. Through this film, we hope to continue the process of sharing information on what works to keep both livestock and carnivores safe. By telling the stories of Warren and others like him, we hope to highlight the success of non-lethal conflict prevention as an alternative to calling Wildlife Services.
If a seventy-year-old cowboy can change his mind, I can’t help thinking, it’s only a matter of time before others are willing to rise to the challenge.
Warren and Lorna Laycraft, Alberta, Canada
All photos courtesy of Lisa Whiteman, NRDC