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Hunting Wolves May Lead to MORE Livestock Deaths

Dec 03, 2014 04:47 PM EST
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The debate over wolf control and protection rages on the in the United States, even as recovering grey wolf populations continue to occasionally prey on farmers' livestock. Some have pressed for protections of the wolf to be cut, so that hunting and trapping can keep these predators away from farm animals. However, a new study suggests that doing this may actually lead to more livestock deaths.
(Photo : Pixabay)

The debate over wolf control and protection rages on the in the United States, even as recovering grey wolf populations continue to occasionally prey on farmers' livestock. Some have pressed for protections of the wolf to be cut so that hunting and trapping can keep these predators away from farm animals. However, a new study suggests that doing this may actually lead to more livestock deaths.

That may not make a lot of sense, but as described in the journal PLOS One, there are very understandable wolf behavior trends that can explain why this could happen.

According to the study, wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus and data analyst Kaylie Peebles from Washington State University, analyzed 25 years of lethal control data from US Fish and Wildlife Services Interagency Annual Wolf Reports to reach their conclusions. These reports focused around wolf and livestock populations in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, and revealed that even the death of a single wolf can lead to a 4 to 6 percent jump in the number of livestock deaths (sheep, cattle, etc.) the following year. If 20 wolves or more are killed, livestock deaths double.

Some may think that with the brutal but social nature of wolves, this shows a mechanic of "revenge killings," where a pack is waging war against farmers for the death of one of their own.

However, according to Wielgus, it's important to remember that wolves, while intelligent, don't think like you or I.

"I had no idea what the results were going to be, positive or negative," he said in a statement. "I said, 'Let's take a look at it and see what happened.' I was surprised that there was a big effect."

Instead of this being "revenge killing," the researcher suggests that this trend stems from the fact that a death in the pact can disrupt social patterns and control. More young males may set out and breed to make up for the loss, and with more pups to feeds, more wolves might turn to farms for food. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Golo)

The loss of an alpha male - which increases in chance with each wolf death - can also lead to less control, where older wiser wolves are not around to keep the young and reckless away from humans and their livestock.

Peebles and Wielgus found that this trend can continue until a mass hunt occurs, when 25 percent of wolves in an area or more are killed.

And while that may make killing wolves sound like a good idea, it's important to remember that many recovering packs simply cannot afford to lose a fourth of their numbers if they hope to ever become an unthreatened species.

"The only way you're going to completely eliminate livestock depredations is to get rid of all the wolves," Wielgus said, "and society has told us that that's not going to happen."

Instead, efforts should be aimed at improving non-lethal control strategies that target wolves specifically, he suggests.

What's more, the researcher points at data suggesting that wolves, in their still incredibly small and undispersed numbers, are responsible for a mere 0.1 to 0.6 percent of all unexpected livestock deaths in the US. Disease and other predators - namely the coyote, which can adapt specifically to live off human activity - deserve most of the blame.

Coyote hunting is, of course, perfectly legal in US states, where the animal is a species of "least concern" according to the ICUN Red List. And because they are not specialized pack hunters like the wolf, lethal control won't lead to the same disastrous consequences that Peebles and Wielgus describe.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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