From payment to prevention


Restoring wolves to their native habitat in the West hasn’t been easy. Some were opposed to the idea from the start, including ranchers who already viewed wild predators as a threat to their livelihoods. That’s why compensating ranchers for losses to wolves was an integral part of promoting tolerance, even before wolves were reintroduced.

 Wolves have always gotten more than their fair share of attention for preying on livestock. When bad weather devastates a flock of sheep, or dogs kill a calf, it rarely makes the press. But when a wolf kills a sheep or two, it often makes front-page headlines. However, based on National Agriculture Statistics Service and wolf management reports, wolf depredations account for less than one percent of livestock losses in the Northern Rockies, including unconfirmed losses. Far more livestock are killed by disease, bad weather, birthing problems and other predators – even stray dogs – than by wolves.

 Yet there’s no denying wolves do sometimes kill livestock, and when they do, there are financial and emotional costs to the livestock producers. That is why the compensation program run by Defenders of Wildlife was important, a recognition by those who wanted wolves back on the landscape that livestock producers should not have to bear the costs alone. Since 1987, ranchers have been paid more than $1.4 million by Defenders of Wildlife for verified losses of cattle, sheep, guard dogs and other domesticated animals. These payments represented a tangible investment in the wolves’ future from Defenders of Wildlife to protect both livestock and wolves.

After 23 years of Defenders of Wildlife managing a wolf compensation fund, the states are now developing compensation programs of their own. Last year, Congress enacted legislation introduced by Senators Jon Tester of Montana and John Barrasso of Wyoming to provide $1 million to help states initiate their own compensation programs for livestock lost to wolves. Awarded funds are to be used both to compensate ranchers for verified livestock losses to wolves and to implement nonlethal tools for preventing conflicts. At the same time, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have recently established the Mexican Wolf Interdiction Fund that will compensate ranchers in New Mexico and Arizona for livestock lost to wolves and help fund wolf deterrence projects.

These new programs are major milestones on the road to wolf recovery. Many states have already received their funding for this fiscal year and have or will soon set up programs to administer the money. But while states take on the important task of compensating ranchers, there are other costs associated with wolves on the landscape. Helping ranchers prevent conflicts before they happen is the next important step, and this is where Defenders is now focusing its resources. This is the best way to ensure a future where wolves, livestock and people can all coexist.

Today, projects on the ground are showing that it is possible to significantly reduce livestock losses to wolves, using both time-honored and innovative techniques. From Montana to Arizona, wildlife experts, ranchers, and conservationists are working together to protect livestock and save wolves. And fewer conflicts mean fewer wolves killed in the wild. (Check out this video of some of the techniques ranchers are using to coexist with wolves.)

In eastern Oregon, for example, a range rider keeps a close eye on cattle as they graze open pastures on national forest lands to make sure wolves don’t come too close. In central Idaho, a pack of Great Pyrenees guard dogs alert sheep herders to the presence of predators, and a team of field technicians keep watch over the flocks at night. And in Arizona, ranchers are using electrified fencing and fladry—brightly colored flags strung across a rope—to deter wolves from eating cattle.

These solutions require time, money and collaboration, but they are preferable to losing livestock to wolves.  Many ranchers have been willing to implement preventive measures as a way to protect their investments rather than taking their chances with wild predators. As more ranchers adopt these measures, conflicts should become even more manageable. (Check out this guide for livestock producers on how to implement preventive measures.)

Not everyone is going to love wolves, but with a little extra effort, coexistence is possible. There are workable solutions for ranchers who are willing to give them a try and for conservationists who recognize that the West needs ranchers and wolves to be complete.

Mike Leahy is director of conservation programs in the Rocky Mountain region for Defenders of Wildlife in Bozeman, Montana.