A Controversial New Study Fuels the Wolf Management Debate

Photo: flickr

Recently, anti-wolf billboards have cropped up in eastern Washington State. The message is clear, with an elk, dogs and a little girl happily minding their own business, while 2 yellow eyes appear beside the text “The wolf… who’s next on their menu?”

Photo via WARAW
Photo via WARAW

The campaign, which clearly uses scare tactics to drive its point home, isn’t the first time wolves have faced the threat of culling. In fact, wolf management (a nice way of saying “culling” or “killing”) has been a huge debate for years, and was in fact responsible for putting the animals on the Endangered Species list int he first place.

And it seems that, having only been removed from the Endangered Species list in 2009, gray wolves are facing yet another threat for culling.

However, a new study has worked to counteract the anti-wolf campaigners call for culling.

The new study, that looked at 25 years of records across several states, was conducted by researchers from Washington State University. The study looked at traditional wolf management (killing wolves to reduce their impact on livestock such as sheep and chickens) and concluded that the strategy, in fact, doesn’t work.

The study suggested that killing wolves may in fact make things worse, as packs fight to adapt by moving around, increasing their reproduction rates and actually kill more livestock on years following their dwindled numbers.

Since the reintroduction by federal wildlife managers of 66 animals in Wyoming and Idaho in the mid-1990s, gray wolves have thrived to nearly 1,700 in 320 packs that are spread along the northern Rockies.

Photo via Dennis Matheson
Photo via Dennis Matheson

Jamie Henneman, the spokesperson for the group Washington Residents Against Wolves, said that the new study was “not clean science” because it seemed (according to her) to have a predetermined pro-wolf conclusion because the research was supported by the State Legislature, which has been behind a big increase in wolf populations in the past. “Frankly, it is a bit shameful,” said Ms. Henneman.

However, the study’s lead author, Rob Wielgus, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University, begged to differ and stated that he believed that the anti-wolf forces did not really want serious wolf management at all but that “they just want to get rid of wolves.”

“Livestock lobbyists are pretty much vehemently opposed to my research,” he added. “But in terms of hard science, it stood the test.”

The study, that was published in Plos One, by Professor Wielgus and co-author, Kaylie A. Peebles, evaluated the effects of wolf mortality in connection with the reduction of livestock attacks in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming between the years 1987 to 2012.

“The number of livestock depredated, livestock populations, wolf population estimates, number of breeding pairs, and wolves killed were calculated for the wolf-occupied area of each state for each year.”

The paper concluded that wolf pack stability is the crucial factor to controlling the impact of wolves on livestock. Wolf packs that are broken up by killings compensate by reorganizing themselves, which then leads to more breeding and more livestock killed in the year after a wolf reduction than before: “The odds of livestock depredations increased 4% for sheep and 5–6% for cattle with increased wolf control.” Livestock depredations only started to decrease when 25% of the local wolf population were killed – a measure that is not sustainable and would put wolves on the endangered species list once again.

The study finishes by stating:

“Lethal control of individual depredating wolves may sometimes be necessary to stop depredations in the near-term, but we recommend that non-lethal alternatives also be considered.”