Wolves and Livestock: How big of a problem are wolves for the ranching community?

Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary/Georgina De Caigny. via https://www.yamnuskawolfdogsanctuary.com/

Our relationship with wolves is more complicated than any other species. It is built upon years of conflict, fear, and misunderstanding. To get a better understanding, we need to look at where this conflict began: livestock depredation.

Prior to our domestication of animals as a food source, early societies looked at wolves with great respect. We learned from their hunting strategies, eventually domesticating them and welcoming them into our homes.

It was only after our societal shift from hunter gatherer to agricultural that we began to see wolves as a competitor. This is when wolves became a threat. They ate our food, which meant we might starve.

In modern society, starvation may not be a pressing concern. But from the perspective of the rancher, losing livestock is still a very real issue.

In an industry known for high risk and small margins, every cow counts. To the rancher just getting by, wolves could be the thing that puts them out of business.

Causes of Livestock Deaths

Every year millions of cattle and sheep die from unwanted causes including illness, weather, birthing, theft, respiratory issues, and predators. This comes directly out of the pockets of the ranching community.

But out of all the problems that ranchers face on a daily basis, wolves seem to receive the most attention. Why?

According to a 2014 study on livestock deaths, of the 112,233,000 cattle inventoried in the United States that year, there were 3,599,430 unwanted deaths. Of those deaths, only 280,570 were due to natural predators, only 10,165 of which were attributed to wolves.

That was a lot of numbers, so let’s look at a couple graphs to put them in into perspective.

Breaking down the unwanted deaths, the top five causes of death include respiratory, maladies, lambing/calving, digestive issues, and weather. Even among the natural predators, wolves were not at the top. Similar results were recorded with sheep.

Although the small number of wolf predations is concentrated in the specific regions of the country were wolves are present, these statistics remain very consistent across all states with wolf populations.

Within those regions, wolf activity is often focused on certain ranches while others are left alone, leading to a disproportionate impact on certain individuals.

Another common argument is that direct predation is not the biggest issue caused by wolves. Wolf presence can also have a negative effect on the surviving livestock, causing stress and leading to decreased weight and birth rates.

The negative effect of wolves on some ranching operations cannot be minimized. They can cause significant damage and hurt their business.

But even factoring in the indirect effects, they are still a minor statistic compared to the other problems that ranchers have to deal with.

So, why do wolves receive so much more attention and hatred compared to the other more significant causes of livestock deaths?

This question is especially interesting because wolves may help reduce deaths from other sources

  • Coyotes are one of the largest threats to livestock. Wolves are known to decrease coyote activity – they reduce their population numbers and scare them away from their territory.
  • Elk can spread diseases to the cattle compete for the same grazing areas, reducing the cattle’s food source. Wolves reduce the elk activity in areas where they are present by reducing their population and changing their behavior to make them avoid open areas like cattle grazing sites.  

These are both significantly larger causes of unwanted livestock deaths.

So, even though wolves will inevitably take a small amount of livestock, having them around may actually be beneficial in the end.

Conflict Resolution

Let’s focus on that small amount of livestock being taken by the wolves because that’s still a problem for the rancher.

There are a lot of ways to keep wolves away without killing them.

  • Fladry
  • Light and noise machines
  • Guardian dogs
  • Human presence/range riders
U.S. Department of AgriculturePamela Manns/Public Affairs Specialist/USDA photo by Pamela Manns, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are also some things that ranchers can do differently to do minimize the chances that wolves will come onto their land in the first place.

  • Removing dead carcasses
  • Keeping calves in pens until they are strong enough
  • Moving herds away from known wolf dens

Practices like these take a little extra thought and work but it allows ranchers and wolves to coexistence and even benefit from each other’s presence.

For those unlucky ranchers who do face wolf predation, there are compensation programs in place to reimburse them for the market value of the livestock they lost. These programs are usually funded by a combination of governmental and nonprofit organizations seeking to reduce wolf-human conflict.

📌 The truth is that ranching is a business, and like all businesses there are risks and challenges associated with it. It is the responsibility of the business owner to do everything they can to mitigate those risks.

This is especially true when the business is being conducted on public lands. Ranchers are given huge discounts for use of lands like national forests that are owned by the federal government.

With this support comes the expectation that the business will make an effort to coexist with the wildlife that live there.

Lethal Control

Studies show that livestock depredation actually increases after a wolf is killed. This is because healthy packs don’t go after livestock.

They prefer to be far away from people, chasing their natural prey, primarily elk. They only go after livestock when they are desperate and need an easy meal.

Many people don’t realize that wolf packs are families. They consist of the alpha male and female – the parents – and their generations of children. When one wolf is killed, it has a very strong impact on the rest of the pack, weakening them and increasing the chances that will need an easy meal.

Doug Smith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A study done by Washington State University found that “for every wolf killed in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming over the past 25 years, there was a 5 percent increase in the sheep and cattle killed the next year”

So, it is understandable that ranchers want to kill wolves who threaten their livelihood. But there are better ways to address the issue and bigger issues to focus on.










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