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Commentary: Wolves are not an economic or ecologic advantage for the region

By Jean Mallory, president of Wallowa County Stockgrowers

Amaroq Weiss, Defenders of Wildlife (DW), in the December 14 edition of The Wallowa County Chieftain, trots out yet another in a long line of misleading articles regarding wolves in Oregon. Continually repeating that wolves are a certain economic and ecologic boon does not make it so. It's misleading. Ranchers, especially those of us in Wallowa County, believe that the public should have the whole picture.


Citing a Montana study that reports millions of dollars spent by tourists at Yellowstone National Park in hope of seeing a wolf, Weiss asserts that wolves will provide "tremendous economic benefit" through a "huge tourist draw" in Oregon. Comparing wolves in Yellowstone National Park to free roaming wolves in Oregon is, at best, comparing apples to oranges. It is not clear from the article how the surveys were done, or data compiled, to support the claim. Wolves or no wolves - eco-tourism is a booming industry. Do these figures take into account that tourists were probably going to Yellowstone anyway to experience its other natural wonders?

In addition, the "wolves will increase tourism revenue" argument is based on the concept of "watchable" wildlife. The terrain in Wallowa County is much different from Yellowstone National Park. It is highly unlikely that visitors are going to see any wolves while driving along our public roads (increasing, by the way, traffic on roads that federal agencies do not have funds to maintain). Will disappointed tourists continue to provide economic benefit?

And, there is the economic cost of wolves. Several Wisconsin university professors compiled "The Negative Impacts to Livestock Producers Caused by Gray Wolf Harassment of Livestock. Compensation programs grossly underpay ranchers for lost animals - only one in eight cattle killed by wolves are ever found. Also reported as major costs are those associated with efforts to mitigate predation, including night confinement, improved fencing, early weaning, increased feeding costs from a loss of grazing areas, increased disease due to confinement, and reduced value to the meat.

One of the largest of these costs is the cost of reduced gain due to the livestock being harassed by the wolf. Faced with predators, nervous cattle tend to congregate and move more. They eat less and expend more energy. This translates into reduced average daily gain (ADG) at an estimated half pound per day. In Wallowa County alone, that would equal a $1,012,500 per year loss, just due to calf ADG reduction. This does not include unbred cows due to lack of bull coverage, reduced cow condition, death loss, or injured animals.

The economic question we should be asking ourselves is: will this promised economic benefit from wolves provide a significant increase in revenue to the State of Oregon, given the decrease in revenue it will certainly cause to the cattle industry, which provides $619 million to the state economy annually?


Weiss leans heavily on a research report, done by the OSU Department of Forestry, on changes in aspen and cottonwood growth in Yellowstone, to show that "tremendous ecological benefits" occur with the presence of wolves. That study contains only vegetation data and lacks wolf/elk interactions data. They only think that the vegetation change is related to the return of wolves. Much more work is needed before this is can be more than someone's opinion.

In personal communication with those in Idaho dealing with wolves, just the opposite is occurring. When wolves are in an area, the cattle and elk are found concentrated in the riparian areas and increased utilization is seen. This brings the Yellowstone data further into question.

What has been the cost to wildlife? Since wolves were introduced in 1996, elk numbers have been reduced from a high of 17,000 head to about 9,500 animals in the Yellowstone herd. The herd is also notably older, 50 percent of the population is nine or more years old. Average ages in other Montana elk populations are generally in the range of four to five years. An aging herd increases the likelihood of further collapse of the numbers. We add to this the high number of elk calves taken by predators - only 12 to 14 calves per 100 cow elk survive to one year. Recruitment of about 30 calves per 100 cows is needed to maintain a herd.

Wolf advocates are fond of saying that wolves only prey on sick and weak animals, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports indicate that wolves may have an affinity for bull elk. In one 30-day period, three packs were recorded to have killed 20 bulls and 11 cows or calves.

All this has negatively impacted the opportunity of hunters. Antlerless elk permits for the Yellowstone herd have been reduced from 2,880 in the year 2000 to 100 in 2006.

Wolf numbers are quadruple what federal officials said was necessary for biological recovery, but removal of federal protections has been delayed by political and legal squabbles. Idaho governor Butch Otter, stated on Jan. 11, 2007, that he was going to push for killing all but 100 wolves in Idaho when USFWS turns wolf management over to the state, and that he will be in line to apply for the first license to shoot one.

What went wrong?

Timm Kaminski, a biologist with the Mountain Livestock Cooperative, played a key role in writing the first Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Plan for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1986. He also worked as the Idaho Wolf Project Leader for the Nez Perce Tribe and spent nine years on the Wolf Recovery Team in the state.

Kaminski states that during the wolf reintroduction planning process in the late '80s, officials made some erroneous assumptions about wolf behavior around cattle and sheep. For instance, they believed that most wolf packs would remain deep in the backcountry of wilderness areas in regions like Greater Yellowstone and central Idaho. In reality, most packs moved out to the boundary areas where there is grazing.

Early planners also thought that wolves wouldn't eat livestock as long as they lived near an abundance of natural prey. "Wrong, wrong, wrong," Kaminski said. Wolf predations on livestock have increased dramatically since 2003, despite early predictions and control efforts. In the Greater Yellowstone Area, 20 of 27 packs that overlapped grazing lands killed livestock in 2004. Wolf control officials killed seven packs that year. By 2005, 32 packs killed livestock and officials had to kill 10 packs. In 2005, government officials killed 152 wolves, according to Ed Bangs, who runs the wolf recovery program for USFWS.

That's about 12 percent of the wolf population. Officials traditionally have removed about 7 percent of the population for preying on livestock, but the ratio has grown as the wolf population has expanded.

"We've got a lot more wolves than we thought we'd have," Bangs said. "They're spilling out into livestock country."

But even removing the wolves, either by killing the animals or relocating them, rarely solves the problem. Relocated packs will most likely return to the site or find new livestock to hunt. On the other hand, killing a pack often leaves survivors that infiltrate or start other packs. Eventually, the packs that absorb these survivors usually start to kill livestock as well. Biologists have learned that a wolf that develops a taste for beef or lamb keeps coming back. Many of these packs hunt livestock consistently.

"If you are a producer, you don't get much rest," Kaminski continued. "Calving season, for example, is difficult. So is winter."

Human safety

People are not allowed to shoot wolves nor harm them in any way. The wolf learns quickly that humans are not a threat and they gain no respect for them. The D.W. stated for a long time that there had been no human attacks in the North American continent. They now state that, it is "a very rare event" caused only by wolves with rabies, wolves acting in self-defense or were wolves interacting with domestic dogs.

The bottom line is that wolves are killers that have been imposed on us by the USFWS in cooperation with groups like D.W. Wolves threaten the cattle industry and the cattleman's way of life. Will our livelihood go the way of the loggers, who say they lost their livelihood under the talons of the spotted owl?

The D.W. talks of the value of presence. It also needs to discuss the loss of freedom by those that live in the areas where wolves are present - along with the ability to work, hike, camp, fish and recreate in the wilds without the fear of attack. This will be lost to all.

In Wallowa County, the wilderness and the canyon lands are probably looked at as prime places for wolves. Today, the Eagle Cap Wilderness is nearly devoid of many kinds of wildlife for much of the year. In the winter, the snow is too deep, and in the summer, the cougars have driven most of the elk and deer much closer to people. As for the canyons, predators have driven most of the wildlife out of them in winter. Where are they? They are on the Zumwalt Prairie, which is 100 percent private land, and the surrounding areas, not far from people. This seasonal use of these remote areas is a major problem with wolves. As they migrate to these populated areas, the wolf/human and the wolf/ livestock interaction will be highly concentrated. If Wallowa County is to be an example, then these concentrations need to be taken into account.

Many groups have supported local ranchers in their effort to put reason in Oregon wolf management. Wallowa County passed an ordinance making it illegal for wolves to be here and holding USFWS responsible for their removal. Union County, The Oregon Association of Counties and the National Association of Counties passed similar resolutions.

Wallowa County hosted the biggest town hall meeting in the state concerning the wolf plan in Enterprise. Of the 280 or so attendees, there was only one person who testified in favor of a planning process for wolves.

Apparently, the tactic of the environmental community is to continue to spout propaganda long enough and loud enough that eventually a misinformed public will believe it for truth.


Jean Mallory is the president of Wallowa County Stockgrowers.


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