At the recent gathering of Wild Life Services’ friends and enemies in Pocatello, one of the few friends present, a sheep rancher, spoke up for those who avail themselves of the agency’s help in killing predators. He said that he grazed his sheep in the St. Anthony area and had adopted one of the non-lethal methods of protecting his flock: guard dogs. But wolves killed his guard dogs and, presumably, some of his sheep.
The sheep rancher’s remarks did not, I suspect, affect everyone in the audience in the same way. That’s because a portion of the audience, perhaps the majority, were there primarily to protest the incompetent way in which Wildlife Services has used a nasty, lethal device called an M-44, or “cyanide bomb.” Those people were focused largely upon the dangers to humans and pets that that use entailed. All they wanted, essentially, was that M-44s be banned in Idaho.
Others in the audience, including myself, were there to protest against a fundamental aim of Wildlife Services: to kill all predators that prey upon two domestic species that are totally alien to Idaho’s natural environment: cattle and sheep. These protesters wish to stop the agency from killing native predators by any method that they currently employ: M-44s, poisons, snares, traps and gunfire from airplanes. For us, the sheep rancher’s tale must be taken seriously, because if we have our way, it may be inevitable that cattle and sheep will be killed by those predators.
That does not mean that we think there are, in fact, no effective non-lethal methods of protecting herds. Neither does it mean that we accept the statistics offered by Wildlife Services as to how much depredation by predators actually occurs; those statistics are gathered by Wildlife Services and it has an interest in exaggerating the extent of predation. Nor do we accept its reports on how many “non-target” animals are killed with M-44s, because it is also in its interest to minimize the number of pet dogs, cougars, birds of prey, etc., that it is known to have killed.
Nonetheless, we who take the position that all predators should be protected, must be able to confront that sheep rancher and explain why we think that the lives of native predators are more valuable that those of his sheep.
To begin with, we focus primarily on policies regarding the use of public lands, largely because the citizenry has a role in determining those policies. As is well known, in Idaho, cattle and sheep are allowed to graze on much of that public land. We also emphasize that all predators are worthy of protection, among them: birds of prey, cougars, bears, wolverines, foxes, wolves and coyotes. Yes, coyotes.
With respect to coyotes, Erik Molvar, reporting on the public meeting in an ISJ column, quoted the sister of the boy who was injured by the M-44 as asking Wildlife Services, “Was killing my dog and endangering my brother worth it to kill 53 coyotes?” The implication of this question was that killing 53 coyotes had positive value, but wasn’t equal to the harm done to the boy and dog. Molvar’s only comment was that the director of Idaho Wildlife Services had no answer. I doubt that, as a wildlife biologist, he shared that opinion regarding coyotes, but it is true that, while wolves have their enthusiastic partisans, coyotes seem to have virtually no friends.
Our claim is that predators of all kinds, including coyotes, are essential members of healthy ecosystems. We are all aware that Americans decided some decades ago that it is worthwhile, at least in certain parts of the country, to restore natural ecosystems to some semblance of balance by ensuring that predators exist in them. We believe that the same principle should be applied to most public lands.
The reintroduction of wolves, first in Yellowstone, then in wilderness areas within Idaho, represents a recognition that top predators play a crucial role in regulating the population of prey species, and that the overall health of the ecosystem, and its degree of diversity, are enhanced by their presence. In Yellowstone, the restoration of wolf populations has had wide-ranging positive effects, many of which were not even anticipated. Not only has the overpopulation of elk been corrected, but there have been positive changes in streamside vegetation and fish habitat, and an increase in bird populations, apparently because of behavioral changes in deer and elk caused by the threat of wolf predation.
The cattle industry has gone to great lengths to convince us that the tradition of grazing on public lands is one that should be perpetuated. But every tradition must justify itself, and there is overwhelming evidence that continual grazing on public lands, under present regulations, does widespread damage. Those who graze livestock are not unlike industrial polluters. They pay next to nothing for the raw materials that they consume and escape paying for what are called the “negative externalities” of their production process, i.e. the harm done to the land — the public land — that they exploit.
We believe that it is time for that use of public lands to end. Prohibiting commercial grazing is the simplest way to repair those lands and the ecosystem they support, as well as protect the predators that are integral to that ecosystem’s functioning. The economic effect of doing so, given the minuscule contribution of livestock grazing to the state economy and the relatively small proportion of cattle and sheep forage that public lands provide, would be minimal.
On private lands, which predators, of course, cannot readily distinguish from public lands, every effort should be made to protect cattle and sheep by utilizing non-lethal defenses against predation. The government should help to defray the expenses of employing those measures, as well as compensate herders for depredation that does occur. Perhaps that would help reconcile the sheep rancher at that meeting to the loss of a tradition — a tradition that is now incompatible with responsible stewardship of the land.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.