Guest opinion: Give state’s wolf plan a chance
On Aug. 7, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife killed a wolf in the Wedge Pack in northeastern Stevens County. It had preyed on a calf owned by a Washington ranch on the Canadian border.
The rancher now says that wolves killed or maimed more of his cows, even though the ranch has a history of depredation by cougars and bears. And F&W, under pressure from the ranching lobby, has announced plans to kill as many as four more members of the wolf pack.
The rancher has refused financial compensation for his losses. He insists that the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan in Washington be rescinded or changed. Under the plan, ratified in 2011after nine public hearings across the state, ranchers may receive compensation for two grown beef cattle, in the case of a confirmed wolf kill, or for one calf in the case of a probable kill. That’s plenty generous by most norms.
But ranchers and F&W are also required to implement any nonlethal interventions available. That’s why the 2011 plan contains “conservation” in its title.
The recent season on wolves in nearby Idaho showed the keenness of people to partake in lethal management. A total of 375 wolves were killed, 252 by hunters, 123 by trappers. But good wildlife management has never come from the barrel of a gun. Biologist Aldo Leopold made that clear in his 1949 book “Sand County Almanac.” Good management requires the diligence of science.
One bit of science that might work is Conditioned Taste Aversion. Developed by biologist Lowell Nicolaus, this tool applies worming medicine to cow carcasses to sicken feeding wolves. Following classic Pavlovian conditioning, the wolves learn that eating cows will turn their stomachs. Nor may they unlearn the aversion, often passing it on to pups. Nicolaus has successfully adapted this technique to crows and raccoons in the wild, and to captive wolves.
The problem with the Wedge Pack, viewed from another perspective, is not so much the alleged predation as it is continued grazing on our federal estate. The rancher’s cows graze partly on public lands. That means American taxpayers pick up some of the tab for his herd. He built his ranch, yes, but not without some government largesse.
Taxpayers subsidize tens of thousands of U.S. cattle each year. Those cattle degrade the very habitats required by wolves’ native prey. Science shows that alien cattle displace deer, elk, moose and other prey species.
Ranchers pay about $1.35 per Animal Unit Month; the measure of a cow and calf pair feeding for four weeks on public lands. That meager fee covers a tiny fraction of the administrative costs for this program, according to a 2005 Government Accounting Office report.
Cattle wade in streams, erode the fragile banks, foul the water, and degrade ecological conditions when they graze. Running Angus and Herefords on marginal soil makes conditions ideal for alien plants like spotted knapweed. Cattle, like knapweed and dozens of other vegetative invaders, are exotic species ill-adapted to the arid West.
Money used to subsidize cattle grazing would be better spent on wolf recovery, we believe; on restoring ranges to the ways they were before public-lands ranching came into play. Ask almost any fan of outdoor recreation if he or she would rather watch wild species than cattle in wild areas, and you know what the answer would be.
Wolves and other large carnivores are keystone species in functioning ecosystems. A study conducted by Oregon State University researchers this year concluded that a dearth of carnivores, wolves especially, harms the land. Elk herds in Yellowstone pruned willows and shrubs far back until gray wolves were reintroduced. An absence of predators allows herbivores to disrupt natural balances.
Another scientific line would be to design an interstate, even international, conservation and management plan. Such a plan would consider wolf populations all over the West. Killing four more wolves in the Wedge Pack will do little but set a bad precedent and inspire bad science.
Wolves are in the West here to stay. They understand their role in ecosystems. They don’t, though, understand state and national boundaries. The Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, law of the land in Washington for now, is all the wolves have. Let’s give it a fighting chance.
Laura Ackerman is a Spokane farmer and environmental activist. Paul Lindholdt is a professor of English at Eastern Washington University. His book, “In Earshot of Water: Notes from the Columbia Plateau,” just received the Washington State Book Award for biography/memoir.