Q: The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has been one of the most well documented accounts of the positive impact that wolves have on an ecosystem. Has this had any impact on the viewpoints of both pro and anti wolf groups?
A: Pro wolf groups always had a vision of the positive affects wolves would bring to the landscape in Yellowstone. Wolves were perceived to be one of the top predators that would cull and shape ungulate (deer, elk, bison) herds into healthier populations by removing the sick, weak and aged elements of the herds, providing carrion for scavengers, redistributing herds over the landscape to diminish overgrazing and reduce unnaturally abundant numbers of deer, elk and bison. Tourists have had the added rewards of seeing wolves interacting with other wild species within the park and watching predator/prey relationships play out before their very eyes. The park has enjoyed millions of dollars in economic benefits by having wolves back. Anti-wolf groups have an innate fear of wolves as a danger to human welfare and as a competitor that will take away hunting opportunities for people who enjoy the surplus elk that seasonally migrated outside of the park to be shot during late season hunts. Wolf abundance in and around Yellowstone is perceived to be an economic hardship on guides, outfitters, hunters and livestock producers who occasionally lose livestock to wolves. Pro and anti wolf groups maintain their viewpoints but spend considerably more time trying to influence politicians to support their positions.
Q: To protect the interests of ranchers, “the government spends millions of dollars a year killing coyotes anyway because it’s what’s always been done. It’s still true today.” If the government did away with this, what would be the impact?
A: Since early settlement of the United States, government regulated predator control has been an integral component of the pioneer culture. Wild, native predators have been inclined to prey on domestic livestock especially when wild ungulate herds were exploited by commercial and unregulated hunting and reduced to such low numbers that domestic livestock were all that remained. The war on predators in the United States has persisted over the last one hundred years or more. The problem is that domestic livestock numbers, both sheep and cattle, have been in steady decline in recent decades due to a number of economic and management issues. Coyotes are the primary predator of domestic sheep and sometime will kill a few calves. Even though tens of thousands of coyotes have been killed annually to protect livestock, coyotes have spread over the entire lower 48 states. The results of killing coyotes to save livestock has been less than gratifying over the last century but none-the-less the taxpayers are expected to keep funding the effort in the face of declining livestock numbers, especially sheep.
Rather than attempting to kill coyotes through preventative measures using aerial hunting, traps, snares and toxicants, a more effective predator control program of dealing with specific, case by case, confirmed livestock losses to predators would be money better spent. Coyote control could be privatized, allowing for the free enterprise system to function, while species of special interest like black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions and wolves could be managed by the individual states through regulated harvests and specific removals in the event of predation on domestic livestock.
Q: What is your view on the effectiveness of compensation given to ranchers for lost assets as a result of wolves? What is your view on the potential effectiveness of wolf-viewing areas?
A: Compensation payments for wolf predation on livestock began in 1987 in Montana by the Defenders of Wildlife to reduce the economic hardship on farmers and ranchers with confirmed losses due to wolves. The concept was good in that one portion of society who advocated for wolves would share the economic burden of loss with people who owned the livestock that were lost. The problem, in my opinion, is that compensation bought a degree of tolerance from some producers and not others. Eventually compensation was regarded with less enthusiasm by livestock producers as the wolf population grew and spread over the Northern Rockies, especially after reintroduction of wolves from Canada.
Eventually Defenders of Livestock reduced their involvement in compensation as the federal government started providing compensation dollars instead. Federal compensation for dead livestock has expanded to cover not only documented livestock kills by wolves but missing livestock which I think is a poor practice. Compensation should be paid only for documented losses and only for missing livestock where wolves are clearly shown to be the likely cause for the missing livestock. I see the tendency for fraud when compensation dollars are provided with little or no oversight and accountability.
If livestock losses result in heavy handed, government wolf killing programs, I’m not certain of what benefit compensation payments serve, especially in the case of missing livestock that could have been the result of theft, vandalism, poison plants, accidents, birthing problems, old age and other non-predator causes.
In principle, wolf viewing areas could be promoted in states with a viable wolf population. Wolf viewing has been very popular and an economic boon in Yellowstone National Park. I strongly suspect that wolf viewing will not be promoted by the states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming except as an incidental opportunity for residents and tourists who know where to look for wolves. Once wolves are delisted in the individual western states, wolf hunting will be a guarantee during the fall and winter months. As one Idaho fish and game official told me, “during and after wolf hunting season, people can view wolves all they want.”
Q: There is a lot of will to protect endangered wildlife, particularly the wolf, but sometimes people are lost as to what exactly is the best course of action they can take. For those indirectly involved, what do you think is the best way to protect not just the wolf, but wildlife in general?
A: Wildlife can be protected in many ways. People can join wildlife advocacy groups that represent their views on wildlife management, protection, and political position. While some wildlife advocates do not support hunting or trapping, others do by joining groups like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever or the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to encourage habitat acquisition and protection for the species they enjoy hunting or watching. Indirect ways of protecting wildlife are to reduce the opportunities for conflict with humans, like better methods of protecting livestock, wildlife corridors, and avoiding the habituation of animals to human inhabitation and dwellings by providing food and other incentives to hang around and cause problems.
Political activism is getting to be a major method of protecting wildlife. That means getting informed and educated about issues affecting wildlife and getting actively involved. Too many people send money to organizations that promote wildlife conservation but fail to write letters and show up at state and federal planning meetings that affect the short and long term management of many species. More and more, science is taking a back seat to political decisions that are driven by special interest groups that impact wildlife, often in detrimental ways. If you don’t like what is going on concerning wildlife management decisions in the United States today, get involved.
Thank you Carter for taking the time for this interview. Please read his book, “Wolfer", which recounts his amazing personal experiences while at the same time educating you on so many levels.