Killing Wolf Pups & Manufacturing Outrage
Much ado has been made that agents of the USDA Wildlife Services, working at the behest of wildlife officials in Idaho, killed 8 wolf pups in that state earlier this year. The outrage was predictable, as wolf advocates yelled the action was shocking and barbaric, as well as “unscientific and inhumane.”
But the kicker that made this international news is that wolf advocates were able to point to a local high school that had adopted the wolf pack as its mascot, and claimed that the action had devastated the children.
It’s too bad that the school and the wolf advocates didn’t use this as an educational moment to have an honest discussion about wolf-livestock conflicts and the difficulties involved in animal damage control. Instead, it was far easier to issue a press release declaring “It is painfully obvious that Wildlife Services has fully embraced the cruel and self-serving demands of ranchers in Idaho. Americans should be outraged.”
An Honest Discussion
An honest discussion of the issue would begin with the fact that Idaho now harbors about 10-times the wolf population agreed to in the state wolf plan. The state is required to maintain a minimum population of about 150 wolves, and with a current population of about 1,500 wolves, the state has exceeded federal biological recovery goals for wolves for two decades.
The discussion could have focused on how the environmental documents used to assess the proposed wolf reintroduction program to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho noted that wolves and livestock would be involved in increasing conflicts as wolves expanded their ranges into areas traditionally used by livestock, and how livestock producers were assured that problem wolves would be handled.
An honest discussion would involve explaining to these young adults how “confirmed” livestock losses to wolves are such a small fragment of the actual losses, and what measures livestock producers use to try to deter wolf attacks on their livestock. And how each and every non-lethal measure fails at some point.
That discussion would involve an honest look at what it is like for the livestock to be attacked by wolves, and both the economical and emotional impact of those losses to the livestock owner.
These young adult children could learn that wolf depredations on livestock can increase because of the increased food requirements caused by the need to feed pups, and that removal of the pups will often stop depredation – even when the adult wolves are left in place.
But such an honest discussion won’t happen. It doesn’t fit the agenda of the groups trying to use conflicts with wolves to get livestock pushed off public lands.
The USDA’s Office of the Secretary responded to the letter of complaint by the organization determined to rid public lands of livestock, Western Watersheds Project, by noting:
“Since the beginning of 2021, Wildlife Services’ depredation investigations found that wolves killed 108 livestock. When nonlethal methods proved ineffective, WS removed eight juvenile wolves— four from Boise County and four from Idaho County. This work was conducted in chronic livestock depredation areas and in consultation with Idaho Department of Fish & Game. In both instances, WS determined that removing juvenile wolves would encourage adult wolves to relocate, thereby reducing the total number of wolves requiring removal. Since these control actions, there have been no further livestock depredations in those locations.”
The letter was dated October 1, 2021.
While lethal removal of pups is never a desired outcome, it is a practice used infrequently in chronic damage situations. It is never an attempt to eradicate all wolves from an area, but to stop depredations associated with a problem wolf pack, and change the wolf pack’s behavior by reducing the pack’s food needs.
Although the Center for Biological Diversity sent out a similar press release in August (in response to a similar action undertaken by state wildlife officials in Oregon), without the wolf-as-school-mascot connection, the attempt at manufacturing outrage didn’t gain much traction.
The Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) posts regular updates on its livestock depredation investigations, but what often makes the news are lethal control actions against wolves, rather than the attacks on livestock that led to the control actions.
The agency’s Wolves and Livestock Updates webpage provides information about each depredation investigation, the actions taken by livestock producers to deter attacks by wolves, and the reasoning behind each lethal control action.
Lookout Mountain Pack
For example, Oregon’s Lookout Mountain wolf pack had spent the last two years in the area with little conflict, but its behavior changed this year to that of a chronically depredating wolf pack. The pack killed four adult cattle (and injured another) in a 14-day period in July. A ODFW spokesperson told the Baker City Herald in August that the state wildlife agency killed two 3 1/2-month old pups as a way to stop chronic attacks on livestock “by reducing the pack’s food needs and disrupting the pack’s behavior so they don’t associate livestock with an easy meal.”
The spokesperson continued: “Killing pups is not something we want to be doing. But in this case, despite nonlethal measures, chronic depredation continues which we have a responsibility to address. We hope to avoid killing the breeding male and female, so that the pack persists and the remaining pups still have two experienced hunters to provision them. Killing the breeding male or female increases the chance that the pack will break up.”
The agency later reported: “The initial lethal control authorized by ODFW on July 29 was successful in slowing livestock depredations by the Lookout Mountain pack. Depredations stopped for 18 days after two juvenile wolves were killed by ODFW on Aug. 1.”
Livestock producers and agency personnel in the area continued their vigorous program of nonlethal measures to deter the wolves, hazed wolves, removed injured cattle, and moved cattle to different pastures. But the wolf pack persisted and ODFW authorized the lethal removal of another two wolves from the pack in mid-September.
According to ODFW: “This pack has made a shift in their behavior. Instead of the occasional opportunistic killing of a vulnerable calf, now they are targeting livestock despite the high numbers of elk and deer in the area where the depredations have occurred and extensive human presence to haze wolves.”
The agency continued: “Previously we avoided removing an adult to keep the pack intact and give the breeding adults a chance to raise the remaining juveniles and to change their depredation behavior”, continued Brown. “We know it’s hard for some to accept any killing of wolves let alone the juveniles, but we structured it this way to try keep the pack intact. Unfortunately, this did not have the desired effect and we are now out of options for this pack to stop depredating on livestock.”
ODFW killed an adult breeding male, a yearling male, and a 5-month old juvenile wolf from the Lookout Mountain pack in mid-September. But the livestock killing continued. On October 20, ODFW reported that the pack had been involved in 12 livestock depressions since July, and another three wolves were killed (one yearling and two 6-month old juveniles). Although 8 wolves were removed from this pack, there are 3 wolves remaining, including the adult breeding female and two juvenile wolves.
“We've seen good results from incremental removal in the past, when removing a few members of the pack reduced or even stopped further depredations," said Roblyn Brown, ODFW Wolf Coordinator. "It's disappointing that was not the case this time.”