This summer, the Huckleberry wolf pack killed more than 30 sheep in northeastern Washington. Wildlife officials then authorized the killing of up to four wolves. A sharp shooter accidentally killed the pack’s alpha female.
The idea behind the kill order: taking out wolves with a habit of preying on livestock will protect cattle and sheep.
But a study out Wednesday from Washington State University says killing wolves that attack wildlife might not be the answer. It concludes that killing wolves actually increases future livestock attacks.
In the peer-reviewed study published in the science journal, PLOS ONE, researcher Rob Wielgus analyzed 25 years of data from Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. The researchers found that killing one wolf increases the odds of another sheep attack the next year by 4 percent. It increases the odds of another cattle attack by 5 to 6 percent.
“You get out there and you kill wolves, and there’s livestock depredations, and then you kill wolves the next year. You’re on this treadmill of trying to keep up,” Wielgus said.
That conclusion runs counter to the way ranchers regard these predators. To them, it’s important to have the option of killing wolves that attack to protect their sheep and cattle.
“It’s absolutely essential in regards to maintaining social tolerance of impacted stakeholders, such as livestock producers, when we talk about wolf recovery and wolf management,” said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.
In earlier research, Wielgus found similar results with cougar attacks on wildlife. That study helped change cougar hunting regulations in Washington to prevent overharvesting cougars.
Weilgus said a better way to prevent livestock depredation is to use non-lethal measures to control wolves, like guard dogs, lights, and sound systems.
Chase Gunnell, a spokesman for Conservation Northwest, said the advocacy group has worked with ranchers and range riders in Eastern Washington for three years to prevent wolf attacks. Gunnell said this study may change people’s assumptions about wolf management.
“It really underscores the need to prevent conflict between wolves and livestock in the first place,” Gunnell said.