Sarpy Sam, a Montana rancher I've come to admire through his blog Thoughts from the Middle of Nowhere, is thinking about wolves. Wolves are an emotionally charged issue in the northern Rockies at the epicenter of deep running fault lines where state and federal government policy and regulations, private property and federal lands, and the competing interests of those make their living working the land and those who make their living working to conserve it intersect.
Sam does not have gray wolves on his ranch yet and would not welcome them there, but neither does he take every protestation of the threats they pose to his and the livelihoods of other ranchers at face value. There is plenty of hyperbole on both sides of the issue of wolf reintroduction in the West. Today, Sam comments on an article in yesterday's Billings Gazette concerning what some in the ranching community suspect may be a link between an increased predator population and a reduction in weight gain and market value in cattle herds that have experienced predation.
"Now I've never heard of this concern before with wolves returning to livestock areas. I am not an expert on these things so I won't even begin to say for sure. Are the ranchers just blowing smoke or is there something to it? It would be interesting to know more information on this. I'm assuming that this is just like any other story a person hears, there is a partial truth to it. There might be an affect on livestock weight gain but the article overstates it. With the ranching business every dollar lost hurts so I can see why the ranchers are complaining. I mean really, the opening paragraph is a little overstated since not all meat comes from the area where wolves presently are, I know they keep moving further out, so not all critters are affected at this time so I don't know how a consumer will notice "skimpier lamb chops and porterhouse steaks." A little overstated. More information would be of interest."
Sam lets you know where he stands - he's not a fan of wolves and sees them as a threat. As a rancher whose economic survival depends on his ability to anticipate threats and minimize risk, he has to be cautious. The USDA estimates that the annual loss of livestock to direct predation in the United States amounts to at least $71 million, predominantly from coyotes. But the question of whether there would be significant economic losses to ranchers like Sam caused not by direct predation but from the stress it may cause cattle and with it an associated weight loss peaks his curiosity, and also mine.
Ecologists recognize the predator's role of improving the overall fitness of prey species in natural systems by weeding out the sick, weak and elderly and thereby promoting the survival of the fittest individuals. Wild herd animals have developed strategies to contend with predators, including group flight reducing the likelihood of any single individual being selected as a target (think of a buffalo stampede), or a defensive huddle with the young and weaker individuals sheltered by larger animals with heads lowered and potentially dangerous at bay. Horns, after all, evolved to contend with predators as well as to defend territory and compete for the right to mate. Buffalo have them. So do wild cattle, but nearly all commercial varieties are shorn today because of the damage their horns can do to themselves and others, especially while in transit.
Animal behavior theory, like those of economists, assigns opportunity costs to individual behaviors. An animal will move a certain distance and expend a certain amount of energy to find food based on the costs it incurs in calories. There may even be -all things being equal - an optimal cost/distance ratio for some species. Presumably, agricultural science has progressed to the point that there is an ideal grazing and feeding regime to produce animals with the best meat. Natural systems seldom attain that kind of equilibrium, however.
In times of stress - drought, perhaps, - wild herd animals may cluster around available resources or range further, at greater cost, to get the resources they need. Wildebeest migrations in Eastern Africa and the historic movements of bison are examples of the latter phenomenon on a grand scale. Nomadic pastoralists move their herds to make use of unequally distributed resources in non-equilibrium environments. Individual animals may lose condition along the way, but given time and fresh resources the herds return to vigor.
What Richard Dawkins famously calls The Selfish Gene, which among other things offers a way to explain why a parent would sacrifice itself for its offspring rather than preserve its own life, may also be at work in how animals respond to increased predation. I have watched an ostrich in the Kalahari mimic broken wings to lead me away from its tiny brood. Think how deeply ingrained in the genetic memory of that flightless bird this behavior must be!
The question raised in the Billings Gazette and echoed by Sarpy Sam is how predation affects herd animals that are not, strictly speaking, part of a natural system and for whom there are other success measures than mere genetic survival that apply. How do range cattle deal with wolves and how do predators influence the movements of cattle? Do they huddle together, defending their young despite the lack of horns, and therefore mimic conditions of over-utilization when resources are scarce and migration is the more costly option? Do they continue to graze but more furtively, consuming less and burning more calories? What research exists, in the Rocky Mountain West or in comparable environments where predators co-occur with livestock?
I do not know the answers to these questions. Nor did I find much additional evidence during a brief on-line search to either support or refute the contentions about animal weight loss and predation made in the article, although the USDA appears to have been seeking proposals to research some of these impacts last year. As I understand it, for ranching operations with a base herd (as opposed to stocker/yearling operations where animals are purchased and grazed after weaning) , the greater the percentage of calf crop weaned - where calf crop is the ratio of calves over the total number of cows in the herd - and the higher the weaning weight, the more revenue for the producer. An experiment designed to test the predator hypothesis might compare the percentage of calf-crop weaned and weaning weight in areas with different predator levels against control areas without wolves or coyotes. All other factors affecting calf crop and weaning weight e.g. the quality and quantity of available resources would need to be controlled for in the experiment to isolate any impacts from the presence of wolves.
Inquiry-based statistical evidence is one thing. How ranchers feel about predators, the potential threat they pose to their livelihoods and the impacts of government regulation and conservation measures, has far greater standing in the areas where predation is a concern than the best research evidence to the contrary. The roots of the conflict go much deeper than these recently reintroduced wolves. The bottom line is that people who live off the land and depend on its resources for their livelihoods are unlikely to support predator conservation when they are asked to absorb known and unrecognized costs and bear all the burden without deriving significant tangible benefits. This lesson has been shown time and again in international conservation efforts and written about by my friend Lars in his frequent postings on this topic at Conservation Finance.
I do not for one minute hold that every restriction placed on me as an individual property holder in America constitutes a government taking. The history of private property rights in this country recognizes the common good as often as it defends the individual's right to property. An excellent book on this topic is Eric Freyfogle's The Land We Share, which demonstrates that American property law has frequently embodied community interests. Nonetheless, if we as a society value wolves and we value ranchers, we need to find ways to accommodate the needs of both. If that means giving those who live closest to the resource a greater stake in its conservation and management, then that may well mean either compensating ranchers for the full impacts of predators on their livelihoods, or better yet treating wolves as another ranch product for which there is a market of public interest and with real economic value to the producer. The Safe Harbor program of the USFWS is a partial step in that direction, proving incentives for landowners who voluntarily conserve rare species on their lands without the risk of further encumbrance of their activities under the federal Endangered Species Act. Further assigning a real market value for reproducing wolf populations on private land and a maximum stocking limit after which they, like any other expanding wildlife species, would be subject to management, might be a greater conservation incentive.
Still, I'll wait and see what Sam and his neighbors think of this idea. They're an independent bunch and not overly fond of government hand outs or charity and it's their livelihoods at risk, not mine. The danger of inadequate solutions conceived by those such as me living outside the context of the problem is an old one with a sad history of repetition. Clearly, though, the status quo is serving neither the interest of the ranchers, nor of the wolves.