Imagine for a moment that you have a new job. You are to manage an alpha predator, known to be one of the most efficient and voracious hunters in the wild. This predator doesn’t just hunt for food, it teaches its young by practicing how first to isolate an animal, chase and wear it down and then grab it from behind and tear it apart while it’s still alive — altogether a horrific scene.
Now imagine that near your predators are farms and ranches, where families have raised cattle, sheep and other livestock for generations. They were making a living on those ranches long before your predators were allowed back into the region.
Yours is a thankless job. You know that most of your predators will stay away from livestock, but you also know that it is inevitable that some of the predators will hunt cattle, sheep and even llamas. You know that a cow, a calf, a ewe or any other animal has no chance against your predators.
Considering these facts, what is the first step you’d take in your new job? Cross your fingers and hope the predators find enough elk and other wildlife and stay away from livestock? Make excuses for the predators every time they tear a calf or a lamb into shreds? Pretend the attacks were by an “undetermined” animal?
This scenario and these questions have been played out across the West as state and federal wildlife managers try to figure out what they’re doing in managing wolves. In varying degrees, they have succeeded in losing the trust of the people who live in wolf country.
Ranchers are forced to stand by as tens of thousands of dollars of livestock are repeatedly killed, injured and traumatized by wolves. Then the ranchers are blamed for “not doing enough” to stop the attacks. It’s much the same argument as telling a crime victim that you “deserved” to be attacked and it was “your fault” because you were in the “wrong place.”
It got so bad last summer in Washington state that a researcher was treed by wolves — twice — while wildlife managers dawdled after she called for help on her satellite phone. A helicopter crew from another agency rescued her. If it weren’t for that state Department of Natural Resources crew, who knows what would have happened. The researcher probably would have been blamed, though.
Since the mid-1990s when the first 66 wolves were put in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, wildlife managers and some members of the public have laid all blame on ranchers and others. It continues today, as wolves from British Columbia arrive in Washington state and wolves from Idaho spread across Oregon and northern California.
In every instance, the onus is put on the ranchers to protect their livestock from the predators. This is backwards. It should be up to the wildlife managers to assure the wellbeing of livestock. The ranchers have done nothing wrong. In some areas they are not even told where wolves are so they can move their cattle. In other areas, the implication is that just by having cattle the ranchers are at fault.
Washington and Oregon are in various stages of rewriting their wolf plans. In Oregon, a group of conservationists and ranchers, working with a mediator, have developed a proposal to have wildlife managers work proactively with ranchers to protect livestock. While this may seem obvious to any neutral bystander, it marks a breakthrough in common sense, if nothing else.
Many ranchers have lost faith in wildlife managers. They don’t even report wolf attacks on their livestock. They don’t trust them. After so many years, it’s time wildlife managers worked to earn that trust.
The ranchers and their livestock need protection, not the wolves.