Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Of Wolves and Livestock

Wolves have been on my mind recently.  Earlier this year, we received confirmation that a breeding pair of wolves had taken residency in Siskiyou County (in Northern California).  We saw photographs that indicated they were a successful breeding pair (at least 5 pups were in the photographs).  Over the weekend, the Sacramento Bee included a report of the first probable instance of a calf (and possibly a cow) killed by wolves (click here for the article).  And this week, the Bee's editorial page included yet another opinion piece authored by staffer from the Center for Biological Diversity (click here for this article).

First a note of discouragement about the Sacramento Bee's coverage of this issue.  The link to the op/ed piece by Amroq Weiss of CBD is shown as "news" - when it's clearly opinion.  Over the last 12 months, the newspaper's coverage of the topic, at least on its editorial pages, has been entirely one-sided - even though the paper has received at least two submissions that offer a different perspective on wolves.  Given the Bee's lack of balance on this issue, I guess I'll continue to offer my own viewpoints on wolves and livestock here on my Foothill Agrarian blog.
A screenshot from www.sacbee.org - this "article" was written by the
Center for Biological Diversity.
I do think it's possible to have a reasonable conversation about wolves in California, contrary to what Ms. Weiss would have us believe.  Over the weekend, I posted a link to the first article on my twitter feed (I posted just the link - with no comment about the article).  Over the course of several hours, several of us engaged in a useful discussion about how ranchers can cope with wolf predation.  I think this conversation needs to expand.

Nonprofit organizations in other western states have developed funding sources that can reimburse ranchers for direct losses to wolves.  In my opinion, these programs help, but they don't address the entire picture.  Emerging research clearly demonstrates a link between the presence of wolves and stress-related production losses in livestock.  These losses include reduced reproductive success (that is, fewer calves or lambs per breeding female) and lower weaning weights (due to greater energy requirements for predator evasion/defense as well as increased stress).  For more information, click on this study).

Most of us who are in the business of raising livestock on rangelands have invested significant time, energy and capital in developing the genetics of our flocks or herds to match our resource base.  For example, we keep ewes in our flock that do well on the type of vegetation that our foothill rangelands and irrigated pastures will produce.  We select rams that compliment the genetic make-up of our ewes.  Our ewes teach their lambs how to thrive on our forage.  In other words, the success of our current flock is a direct result of the breeding and ewe-retention decisions we made 4-5 generations back.  While we might be reimbursed for the death of a particular ewe or ram, the market price we would receive doesn't reflect the genetic value of that individual within our flock.  I cannot simply replace a dead ewe with one I purchase from the auction yard in Escalon.

Furthermore, in my own sheep operation, I worry about another indirect cost should the wolves' territory expand further south.  We are committed to co-existing with the predators in our environment (mainly coyotes and mountain lions).  Electric fences and livestock guardian dogs have allowed us to raise sheep in our part of the Sierra foothills without having to kill these predators.  But we also ranch in areas where there are many people.  Our livestock guardian dogs have to be aggressive enough to deter the coyotes and cougars, but docile enough not to scare the neighbor kids.  Based on the experiences of ranching colleagues with more wolf interaction, we'd need to get bigger and more aggressive dogs to protect our flock from wolves.  I'm not sure how the neighbors would feel about this.

Rural communities often bear the brunt of living day-to-day with well-intentioned but at times ill-conceived environmental laws and regulations.  While this doesn't mean that some of these laws and regulations are unjustified, I do feel that rural communities and businesses that depend on our natural resources are sometimes not considered when these laws and regulations are adopted.  The daily opportunity to see and interact with wildlife is one of the more rewarding aspects of my livelihood; at the same time, worrying about protecting my sheep from predators is stressful.  Dealing with the aftermath of a predator attack is unpleasant and frustrating.  I have chosen sheep ranching as a profession because I love working with nature and I love caring for livestock.  Wolves (and other large predators) are a concept to somebody living and working in Sacramento or San Francisco; those of us who live with these predators have a much more complex relationship with them.  I wish the Sacramento Bee would acknowledge this!


  1. What a well written and important commentary on this complex topic!

  2. http://www.albertafarmexpress.ca/2015/12/07/wolves-filling-up-on-cattle-in-southwestern-alberta/

  3. I second Billy's comment. Thanks for a great post!

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