Monday, January 18, 2016

California wolf recovery plan needs to be based on facts

By Amaroq Weiss
Posted:   01/18/2016 
 
In the nearly two decades I've worked to recover gray wolves across the West, I've learned never to under-estimate the power of rumors, exaggerations and complete untruths tossed out by those opposed to sharing even our wildest landscapes with wolves.

So I was unsurprised when, even with only an estimated seven wolves living in California, reports released over the holidays of wolves' possible -- but unconfirmed -- role in the death of a calf and cow spurred ranchers to express broad concerns not only for their cattle but their own safety. The facts suggest the nearly hysterical level of those fears is unfounded.
 
 
First, wolves pose virtually no threat to humans, with only two instances of wolves killing humans in North America in 100 years — one in Alaska, one in Canada. By comparison, according to the Centers for Disease Control, in the U.S. about a dozen people are killed by livestock each year; 200 by car collisions with deer; 20 by dogs and countless others from venomous insect stings or snake bites.
 
 
Attacks on livestock by wolves, or any predators, account for a tiny fraction of livestock deaths. Instead, as self-reported by ranchers to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, more than 60 percent of sheep losses and 90 percent of cattle losses are caused by weather events, respiratory and digestive problems, birthing complications or ingestion of poisonous weeds.
 
 
And, as California works toward finalizing a state wolf conservation plan in the coming weeks, it's important to note that there are many time-proven methods of avoiding interaction between wolves and livestock. Those include range riders, livestock-guarding dogs and shepherds, and disposing of the carcasses of livestock to avoid attracting wolves and other predators.
 
Despite assertions from some ranchers that preventive methods don't work, they do. But they're only likely to be widely used if the state wolf plan requires it. A public comment period plan ends Feb. 15. 
 
Details on meeting locations and submitting written comments can be found at the address linked here online: https://cdfgnews.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/cdfw-releases-draft-gray-wolf-conservation-plan/
 
 
Clear evidence of the effectiveness of nonlethal methods comes from just across the border in Oregon, where, after a court order prevented lethal means of managing wolves, the number of wolf attacks on livestock decreased even as the wolf population increased.
If ranchers are allowed to simply ignore wolves and then kill them when they're suspected of killing livestock, wolves don't stand a chance of recovering to sustainable levels in a state that's home to more than 5 million cattle and sheep.
 
For all Californians to benefit from the power of wolves to restore the health of ecosystems, ranchers will have to alter how they do business. But evolving to meet the challenges of an ever-changing business landscape is part of any successful business.

Recovering wolves will require that ranchers spend more time checking herds, upgrading fencing, getting rid of attractants, staking flags and flashing lights on fencelines and perhaps using alarms that sound when radio-collared wolves are nearby.

And it will require that Californians rely on the facts when assessing the many benefits and challenges associated with recovering wolves.

The facts did not appear to be the foundation of the draft state wolf conservation and management plan released in recent weeks that calls for possibly eliminating state protections for wolves once the population reaches as few as 50, and the option to seek authority to kill wolves for livestock conflicts even before delisting.

These are strategies based on politics, not science. The truth is, we can recover wolves to sustainable levels without harming the livestock industry or wolves. But that requires that we rely on facts, not myths.

Amaroq Weiss is a California-based biologist and former attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. She wrote this for this newspaper.