By Bob Ferris
There are some clever television commercials circulating of late that feature prankster cows taking steps to convince folks they should eat more chicken. The inferred hope of these often belligerent bovines is that they will not be eaten, if people would just eat more fowl. Setting aside the fact that the featured cows are dairy cows and not beef cattle, the ads remind me—more darkly—of the western livestock industry and their allies’ efforts to sink wolf recovery by directing public attention away from their own myriad sins by creating myths and legends about the impact of wolves. In essence they are manufacturing wolf hatred.
The arguments raised by the livestock industry and their allies like Jim Beers and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are generally of three types:
1) Wolves cause economic damage;
2) Wolves impact wildlife populations; and
3) Wolves pose a threat to humans.
The interesting thing about these three claims is that all three of them could also be made about cattle and the livestock industry. More importantly—the level of all three of these impacts for livestock are orders of magnitude above those posed by wolves. So why do folks not grasp this? And why is there only limited public outcry?
Perhaps it is John Wayne’s fault because cowboy movies and the ranchers themselves have created a myth of rugged independence and self-made wealth that conveniently forgets about the Louisiana Purchase, the wars waged against Native Americans (and the subsequent cost of the Reservation system), the generosity of the Homestead Act, the obscene incentives given the railroads, the campaign against the wolf waged by the Biological Survey (precursor to the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and a whole host of other taxpayer financed programs that have materially made their “independence” and the current situation possible.
Setting all of this past economic, biological and human insult aside, we are still left with considerable ongoing impacts in all of these arenas and it is disingenuous of the anti-wolf forces to suggest otherwise.
Take the economics (please). Cattlemen, particularly public lands grazers, cannot honestly make an argument about the cost to them of wolves without also looking at the approximately $120 million annual loss to the US Treasury that is associated with the public lands grazing programs in the West. And that number does not take into account the difference between what they are paying and what they should pay for the public lands they treat as personal kingdoms or the considerable ecological costs associated with chronically overgrazed lands as well as the direct services provided them by USDA Wildlife Services in their jihad on predators.
The best and freshest instance of the above is that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently spent $77,000 to kill the Wedge Pack in northeastern Washington State. They flew those helicopters and shot that complete pack to protect a single, recalcitrant public lands rancher who pays around $1000 a year to graze his cattle on a federal forest allotment. On what planet is this considered justifiable or reasonable? Thinking the best defense is a good offense, the rancher in question also has an attitude.
And then there are the wildlife impacts… Here I think the cattle industry should take a moment and remember the bison and wolves that flourished before influential ranchers cried for their virtual extermination in North America. How dare they follow that history with pointing an accusatory finger at wolves on behalf of wildlife? And then there are our current circumstances.
Idaho seems home to a lot of hysteria and on a lot of fronts. Of particular relevance is wolf hysteria. Wolves ate all our elk. Wolves ate all our deer and elk. Wolves ate our homework. The last one was hyperbole but it is in scale when you think that Idaho has roughly 600 wolves, 100,000 elk and 2.2 million cattle and yet folks claim vehemently that wolves are driving the system. I would suggest that their attention is misdirected by rhetoric coming from the very industry that would rather you look at wolves than cattle and sheep. Cattle compete directly with deer and elk, particularly during the season when deer and elk need to gain weight to get themselves through the winter. Add to all this to the damage done to fishable waters by the big and indiscriminant hooves of millions of milling and thirsty cattle and you have some serious wildlife consequences.
In fact, a few decades ago the National Wildlife Federation published a study called Grazing to Extinction. In that work they made the defensible claim that roughly 25% of endangered species in the US at that time owed at least part of their endangerment to grazing—one in four imperiled species. On their worse day wolves are not doing anything remotely approaching this.
And then there is the issue of human health and safety. Anti-wolf forces claim that wolves will hide in trees near bus stops and prey on your children. This rhetoric seems almost surreal given the actual numbers on the scoreboard. During a 4 year period last decade, livestock killed 108 people in 4 states and this does not include people killed by vehicle and cattle interactions. During this same time period, wild wolves in the lower 48 states killed no one.
And perennial fibber and flabbergaster Jim Beers is making the rounds of livestock meetings and shovel brigade love fests hammering the “wolves carry disease” mantra never stopping once to look at the nearly complete overlap between many of these diseases such as brucellosis and Mad Cow Disease and their original vectors—livestock from Europe.
In his nearly clinically paranoid fashion Mr. Beers catalogs a number of diseases (28) that potentially infect wolves along with a recounting of transmission mechanisms. All these have a basis in fact, where he jumps off the sanity rails and employs the “Chick-fil-A” strategy is when he attempts to push disease transmission risk from wolves to the forefront of concerns. This is specious on two counts.
The first is simply one of scale, wolves are pinnacle predators and as such there will always be way fewer wolves than prey species. And at this particularly point in time and for the foreseeable future the numbers of cattle, sheep, elk and deer vectors and disease reservoirs are at least three orders of magnitude greater than wolf populations will ever be. More ungulates (cloven footed critters) mean more disease risk from those sectors. For example, in Idaho right now there are 600 or so wolves, 100,000 elk and 2.2 million cattle—all potentially disease vectors or reservoirs. How other than in the most illogical mind could the smallest by far group pose the most risk?
Mr. Beers second mistake is likely an artifact of his age and the age of his educational grounding. He became a wildlife biologist before population ecology, genetics, and biochemistry were regularly taught or required. Had he been exposed to these sub-disciplines, he would realize that wolves carry diseases such as chronic wasting disease generally when they have consumed an animal infected with the disease. In short they are a selective force against the disease. For instance, if a wolf eats ten infected animals a year the end result is one infected wolf, but a total reduction of nine infected animals from the landscape. This positive impact of wolves is supported by experience and modeling with mule deer and chronic wasting disease.
Of further note here is that the prevalence of these diseases correlates nicely with the overall density of these ungulates and with artificial density created by programs such as supplemental feeding endorsed by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Keeping deer and elk populations high and chronic overstocking of livestock leads to disease transmission.
I am not a psychologist but it strikes me as edging towards some bizarre form of transference when someone like Mr. Beers continually channels their unfounded anger relating to being forced out of the US Fish and Wildlife Service more than a decade ago towards a species he has never worked with and knows relatively little about. If he is really so angry at the federal government and wants nothing to do with his former agency, he could always refuse his government retirement checks. (Question to the organizers of these gatherings—is this un-credentialed and discredited angry old man really the best you can do?)
Normally I would find this rhetoric and the clowns peddling it amusing on some level but my sense of humor evaporates and my tolerance for this ends abruptly when this translates into dead wolves and a trampling of logic and science. When someone takes up a rifle, sets traps or considers poisoning wildlife because selfish, ignorant and politically driven yahoos gin up hatred, people of principle need to act and put an end to this foolishness.
Action in my mind includes three logical courses:
1) Continued and enhanced protection for wolves in the lower 48 states. This could be done under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) but would probably be more effective under free-standing legislation that dealt with permanently protecting the species and the ecological function they perform and requiring professional management where proven needs have been scientifically demonstrated (sign our petition here).
2) Public lands grazing reform. We cannot for economic, ecological or climate threat prevention reasons continue to offer ecologically damaging, below cost grazing on our public lands.
3) Wolf education. Provisions under the ESA or some free-standing wolf legislation need to be created to deal with the wolf myths and fears (i.e., intellectual environment) purposely promulgated by anti-wolf forces.
We hope that members of our Cascadia community and beyond support us and will work with us to pursue these goals and others. We simply cannot allow this type of rhetoric and unbridled hatred for wolves forwarded without response and action.