• Range Writing

Crying Wolf

To hear Colorado’s Matt Barnes tell it, we backwards folks in the Northern Rockies flat-out deserve to have wolves back under federal protection for eternity. That message was loud and clear in his recent opinion piece in the Missoula Current. Too bad this “rangeland scientist” and “former ranch manager” has strayed so far from the range that he can’t provide an honest assessment of the situation with wolves in the Northern Rockies.


Barnes claims new laws in Montana and Idaho are “a return to the failed predator policies of the early 20th Century.” Policies in those days called for eradication of wolves, and the new laws enacted in Montana and Idaho include safeguards to keep that from happening – but that wasn’t mentioned in his opinion piece.


Barnes said, “As a direct result of the new policies in Montana and Idaho, and similar policies in Wyoming, more than 400 scientists have called on the federal government for emergency re-listing of wolves in the Northern Rockies….”


I wrote about the wolf advocate letter signed by 400 scientists earlier, but notice how Wyoming gets thrown under the bus on this too? Wyoming doesn’t have a management plan or policy that would eradicate wolves, and anyone who asserts that we do is simply not telling the truth. Therein lies the general problem with the claims by wolf advocates. These are false claims – the very definition of crying wolf.


Wolves were released into the Northern Rockies as “nonessential experimental populations” – meaning they were not necessary to the continued existence of the species. This was a selling point to those opposed to the reintroduction, since greater management flexibility was to be granted for managing the animals while still under federal protection.


Fine. The recovery goal was at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves for three consecutive years in each of the three states (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming), about 300 wolves. It’s been almost 20 years since the three states first met and exceeded the federal recovery goals for wolves, and rather than the minimal population of 300 wolves needed, at the end of 2020 the three states were home to more than 2,800 wolves – nearly 10X the number of wolves needed for wolf delisting. And still, to Barnes and others who signed the “400 scientists” letter, it’s not enough.


Even though Montana and Idaho have enacted new laws, no additional wolves have been killed, yet the “400 scientists” call for an “emergency re-listing” of wolves under the Endangered Species Act, even before the state wildlife agencies finalize new wolf harvest plans.


Barnes made numerous inaccurate statements in his opinion piece that he asserts as fact, such as “Depredations generally peak during the summer when livestock are dispersed out on the range unmonitored.” According to Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (MFWP), the majority of confirmed depredations in Montana occur on private lands, and most depredations on cattle in that state occur in the spring and in the fall. Notice that Barnes says the livestock are dispersed out on the range “unmonitored.” You’d think that as a former ranch manager, Barnes would know bullshit when he’s shoveling it. Even the MFWP annual wolf report discusses the state’s range rider program, which is in addition to riders employed by individual ranches and grazing associations. The whole livestock-left-on-the-range-for-months-without-supervision is a frequent slander used by anti-grazing advocates and one that has been largely fictional in large carnivore country of the Northern Rockies for decades.


Barnes claimed that “the majority of wolves are not involved in depredations.” In Wyoming, 12 of the 22 wolf packs in Wyoming’s trophy zone were involved in confirmed livestock depredations in 2020, or 54% of the zone’s wolf packs. Even Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Canyon pack went on an adventure and killed 10 chickens.


Barnes uses a standardized wolf advocate tactic to discount livestock losses to wolves – noting that of the millions of cattle in Montana, “only” a small number of livestock were killed by wolves. Nevermind that it’s the western half of the state that has the majority of the wolf population impacting livestock production, or that the cattle, sheep, dogs, llamas, pigs, and goats killed by wolves meant something to someone else (though not Barnes). While losses to wolves may be small when compared to an entire industry in a state, the impacts to individual ranches may indeed be significant (speaking from experience). And we’ve learned from personal experience that the death loss is only a small portion of the cost of coexistence.


Most troubling for me was one line in the editorial: “On National Forest allotments, such losses can reasonably be considered a cost of running livestock on public lands.” That may not seem like a surprising statement from a wolf advocate, but it’s a callous view coming from a range consultant like Barnes. His editorial indicated little regard for livestock producers impacted by wolves, and instead he wants to shove unwarranted federal protection for wolves across three entire states (an area where he does not reside).


The opinion piece by Barnes is strikingly similar to another opinion piece published in the Idaho Statesman in mid-May by Andrea Zaccardi of the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that brags how it uses litigation to end livestock grazing on millions of acres of public land.


I suggest it’s time for Barnes and his co-signers to rethink their role in efforts promoting coexistence, if that is actually what they want to promote. Am I supposed to pretend that the coexistence ideas offered by the author of such an editorial should receive any consideration from me, when he demonstrates such disregard for me and my fellow livestock producers?


Rather than advancing coexistence, it’s editorials like the one authored by Barnes that make livestock producers like me fed up with trying to cooperate and find common ground. While Barnes cites “human fear” and “less tolerance” as the driver for wolf policies he doesn’t like, he should consider if the reduced tolerance from rural residents has more to do with the role of wolf advocates spouting misinformation or exaggerations to the general public than any so-called fear of wolves by ranchers.


I believe I can figure out how to handle the wolves on our place, because they are at least honest in their motivations. But when scientists use their credentials to peddle lies and half-truths, well, don’t bother to leave me a seat at that table because I won’t be attending. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much with wolves as it is with the wolf advocates continued crying wolf that hampers efforts at coexistence.




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