Don't blame wolves

  Dear HCN,

"Wolves take a heavy toll in Montana," declared the headline (HCN, 9/15/97). At least 30 sheep killed by wolves over a six-week period in the Tobacco Valley of northwest Montana, according to the story. No doubt the loss of 30 head of sheep - -one of the worst wolf attacks on livestock in the West' - is aggravating for a rancher. But is it a heavy toll, especially when a conservation organization (Defenders of Wildlife) compensates ranchers for such a loss?

For perspective, I turned to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency. It reported that during a single 36-hour blizzard in April 1996, Montana livestock producers lost 24,285 cows and calves and 25,111 sheep and lambs. Now that seems like a heavy toll! For the record, more than 80,000 head of Montana livestock perished due to winter weather alone in 1996.

HCN noted that wolves killed 24 sheep and cattle in Montana in 1996 and a total of five in 1995. Steve Thompson's essay in the same issue stated that "Average annual livestock losses to wolves have been in the single digits since the mid-1980s' and that "For every 40,000 cattle and sheep lost in Montana prior to going to market, only one is killed by wolves." Again, that's a lot of dead livestock never making it to the slaughterhouse, but it's hardly due to wolves or other predators. Weather and disease are what really impact livestock numbers. Seems like there's been enough hyperbole about wolves and the economic devastation they'll wreak upon their native Northern Rockies ecosystem without adding fuel to the fire.

William Patric

Bozeman, Montana