The Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission has been claiming that wolves killed a record number of livestock last year. But that’s misleading, because Wildlife Services, the secretive federal agency in charge of killing wolves in Idaho, is using a new method to verify wolf kills that is inaccurate and overbroad.
Specifically, Idaho Wildlife Services now maintains that it can confirm a wolf kill even where there is no evidence of predation, injury, or struggle. Last fall, Wildlife Services began claiming that cattle killed by wolves “often show no signs of a wolf attack,” and encouraged ranchers to report all livestock deaths in an effort to confirm more wolf depredations. The agency now asserts that livestock can die from “myopathy”—a form of muscle weakness caused by overexertion or stress—hours or even days after an encounter with wolves.
Naturally, the number of confirmed wolf kills has risen. But there is absolutely no basis in science or policy for the agency’s new overbroad criteria. In fact, the new criteria directly contradict Wildlife Services’ own investigation protocols, which require direct evidence of predation such as “bite marks,” “tissue damage,” or signs of a struggle.
The number of livestock deaths from wolf predation remains far lower than deaths from other causes, such as disease, starvation, and vehicle impacts. Idaho Wildlife Services, moreover, has a documented history of misidentifying wolf depredations. With these dubious and untested new methods, Wildlife Services is likely misidentifying even more non-predator mortalities as wolf kills.
Wildlife Services also refuses to make its investigation data public. Western Watersheds Project, a Hailey-based conservation group, requested Wildlife Services’ livestock mortality investigation data in January, but after months of follow-up requests—during which the agency remained completely unresponsive—Western Watersheds was forced to file suit last week under the Freedom of Information Act to recover the data. The lawsuit is currently proceeding in the Federal District Court for the District of Idaho.
Meanwhile, new studies—alongside with Wildlife Services’ public statements—suggest that the agency cares more about killing wolves than protecting livestock. In November, for instance, Wildlife Services claimed it needed “additional data” to take to the State of Idaho “to ease the restrictions it faces on wolf removal.” In other words, the agency wanted to kill more wolves and went fishing for data to justify a decision it had already made. Wildlife Services’ single-minded focus on killing more wolves means that it continues to ignore the abundant evidence favoring non-lethal predator control methods over the agency’s antiquated killing programs.
Scientists now agree that non-lethal methods are equally effective—and in some cases more effective—than lethal control. Peer-reviewed studies conducted in Idaho’s Wood River Valley, for example, found that non-lethal methods significantly reduced livestock losses compared to lethal control. In some cases, lethal control may even increase the number of livestock depredations in an area by disrupting social structures within a wolf pack and forcing the animals to change their customary hunting practices, which usually target wild, native prey.
Lethal control is also also expensive, with taxpayers and sportsmen shouldering most of the financial burden. In Idaho, for instance, Wildlife Services spends about $8,000 per wolf killed, and the State spends $400,000 annually on the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board. Wildlife Services’ unsubstantiated claims about myopathy—which are now being adopted and spread by the livestock industry and the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission—could mean that costs to Idaho taxpayers will increase significantly.
All of this flies in the face of responsible wildlife management. Wildlife Services’ uninformed and irresponsible rhetoric will only encourage conflict between wildlife advocates and ranchers, and keep Idaho’s wildlife policy mired in frontier-era myths about predators and livestock. Simply put, Wildlife Services and its supporters in State government seem to care more about stoking fear of wolves, and finding new justifications for killing them, than they do about preventing actual livestock losses.
If Wildlife Services really cared about saving livestock, it would promote non-lethal control as a more effective and affordable alternative to the current program. And if the livestock industry was—as it always claims to be—a good steward of the State’s natural resources, it would stop spreading unsubstantiated propaganda that only hinders science-based efforts to protect and coexist with Idaho’s native wildlife.
Scott Lake is the Idaho Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife and watersheds on western public lands.