Farming on the frontline against large and potentially dangerous animals which can make a serious dent in livestock numbers is not for the faint-of-heart. But this is the struggle many American producers face daily. John Wilkes reports from the USA.
Loss to predators is the second most significant net loss of sheep in the USA and about 250,000 sheep out of a national flock of some 5.5 million are lost every year to predation.
The scale of the problem is highlighted by Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry (ASI).
He says: “Often the only time the true extent is fully known is when animals are loaded onto trucks at the end of the grazing season.”
Dustin Van Liew, an executive director with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), based in Washington, DC, explains the problem is just as apparent in the cattle sector.
He says: “Predation has a serious impact on our members’ bottom line. Regarding wolves, the beef industry is not opposed to them but would like to see them managed, so those causing problems are taken care of.”
The United States Department of Agriculture’s figures for cattle losses are substantial. In 2010, 220,000 head, amounting to £66m, or 5.5 per cent of all losses, were due to predation. This was despite £125m being spent on non-lethal prevention activities.
Alongside physical loss, research from the University of Montana found when wolves were present on a ranch and killing cattle, calf-weaning weights dropped by 10kg/head. Across a trial ranch, this equated to £4,452 across 264 calves.
A new study by Oregon State University, published in the Journal of Animal Science, also illustrated mind games at work. Cows attacked by wolves experience a bovine version of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Cow PTSD is remembered and symptoms are triggered by the mere presence of wolves nearby. It also causes cow weight loss, reduced conception rates, increased management expense and general health issues, giving potential losses of £140 per cow.
Behind all the facts and figures lie fundamental, complex and very divisive issues. The intention of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), passed by Congress in 1973 and enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), was not to recreate some rural historical past but to prevent extinction of species.
The ESA means wolves, bears and mountain lions are all protected. However, due to their increasing numbers, the continuing presence of wolves and bears on this list is currently under review. Golden and Bald Eagles remain fully protected, with no shift in their status foreseen.
Most ranches were free of significant ground predators prior to ESA. Farmers were able to control predation problems pretty much at will.
However, the game changed when the ESA came in, fostering deep resentment in many of the USA’s rural communities.
Mike Jimenez from the FWS, a noted wolf expert of more than 30 years, explains how FWS has dealt with testing and tricky situations regarding wolves in his area of the Northern Rocky Mountains.
He says: “When wildlife kill natural things, it is called predation, but when it kills domesticated animals, it is referred to as depredation.
“We took depredation seriously and tried to minimise conflict, but also protected wolves under the ESA. This allowed populations to grow, but not at the expense of livestock producers.
“It is all about balance, allowing wolf populations to grow in suitable areas. But with people now dominating the landscape in the lower 48 states, it is getting more difficult to find the right places. When populations reached our recovery goals in 2002, any wolves causing conflict, we would get rid of.”
In Utah, Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska, wolves have already been taken off the endangered species list. Accordingly, their fate now lies with these individual states, and not the US Government, via the FWS.
The possible delisting of the wolf across all 48 states has become a highly charged, emotive and political issue, attracting vociferous condemnation from the media-oriented and politically-influential pro-wildlife groups.
The ASI and NCBA welcome this move. To safeguard their members’ interests, both organisations rely heavily on, and work closely with, the highly controversial Wildlife Services (WS) – an arm of the USDA, funded by taxpayers and local farmer co-operatives.
WS is the enforcer which protects agricultural interests against depredation. As it works to remove problem animals for farmers and ranchers, WS is quite literally the ‘hired gun’.
Wolves, bears, coyotes and mountain lions all fall under the WS’ remit. Consequently, WS carries the most scorn from conservation bodies. Nevertheless, it aids farmers in some states by verifying cases of depredation, thereby allowing access to reimbursement funds introduced to help compensate producers suffering undue hardship through their losses.
Despite compensation, many ruggedly independent ranchers who own their own land find it hard to accept the 80 per cent of American wildlife they host on their land is deemed to belong to the whole of America.
A producer directly affected by substantial loss is Phil Soulen of The Soulen Livestock Company, Weiser, Idaho. His family has run sheep on Government land in the Payette National Forest, central western Idaho, since the 1920s. Their ewe flock currently numbers 6,000 head.
From the town of McCall, Idaho, his allocated range runs in a straight line for 30 miles. However, grazing follows an arduous, annual 150-mile meandering migration up to high ground (2,290m or 7,500ft) for the summer. But, by October 15, it is back down to low ground (1,220m or 4,000ft) for the autumn.
Mr Soulen explains this is high, hard country which is lightly forested and rising up to lofty granite peaks. Sheep can find a good living up here in summer months. But these days they have company.
Some three or four wolf packs now hold sway over this acreage with the largest having up to 13 members. Mr Soulen says sitting around in their night camps, experienced herders can tell how many animals are in each pack by the howling, as each wolf has a different voice.
Reflecting on his biggest single loss of 71 animals to the pack, Mr Solen says: “They had to attack twice more before a WS helicopter would come to kill some of the pack. Within this timeframe, another 30 sheep had died. It was literally three strikes before the wolves were out.”
Relating back to another attack earlier on in the wolf re-introduction process, Mr Soulen says: “The wolves really got into the sheep. We did not know a pack was up on the mountain.
“We would let the sheep go higher up to bed down for the night. The pack killed 16 – the dead sheep were strung out in a straight line, lying on their sides just like they had gone to sleep. The wolves had not eaten much. It was a pair of wolves which had pups and we think they had killed to train them.”
On the other hand, Mr Soulen’s herders have not had much trouble with predatory bears for the last two years. They used to shoot about 16 bears per year, but recently, there has been no need to eliminate any.
Mr Soulen feels this comes as a direct result of the wolf pack’s dominance in removing their competition – bear cubs and cougar kits.
However, it is the coyote which is livestock’s greatest threat. They account for half of all losses in the sheep and cattle sectors, particularly at calving time.
They also have a propensity for domestic cats and dogs, as coyotes range into suburbia, bringing depredation into residential America.
Given this, it is not surprising culling coyotes is not subject to any regulatory limitations or much objection from the public.
If the problem of livestock depredation could simply be fixed by the use of guarding dogs, it would do much to pacify those deeply committed to stopping the killing of animals which cause the agricultural industry such hardship. However, experiments into this are ongoing.
But with feelings running deep on both sides, it is just as hard to predict the outcome in this primal battle for survival as it would be when a Turkish Kangal dog squares up to its foes.