Yes, wolves occasionally kill livestock—yet ranching continues in the Northern Rockies, where there are now about two thousand wolves and two million cattle, or about one wolf per thousand cattle. That level of coexistence is, in my opinion, a more interesting story than the conflict that does happen.
Livestock predation is highly localized: most ranches have little or no conflict with wolves, but it can be locally acute, particularly if a wolf pack begins to focus on livestock. Ranchers do love their animals and in ranching culture it is common to view predation losses as similar to theft, unlike losses to illness, poisonous plants, or lightning.
Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have programs to investigate livestock loss, and it turns out that confirmed predation by wolves affects just under 0.01% of cattle in counties where wolves are present. Even if we triple that number to estimate incidents never found, the number is still far smaller than one might imagine. On the other hand, in 2015, the last year for which the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported data across the Northern Rockies, 17% of wolf packs in the Northern Rockies were involved in at least one confirmed livestock predation.
Potential conflict in Colorado will depend on the number of wolves. Colorado has more elk than any of the Northern Rockies states but not as many as all of the states combined, and has about half a million cattle. Most estimates are fewer than a hundred conflicts per year. Like the Northern Rockies, most of the conflicts would probably be on public lands where wolves and livestock overlap during the summer grazing season.
Approaches to coexistence with potential predators can be categorized in several ways. Some approaches are proactive or preventative, while others are reactive. In general it is better to be proactive. However, pre-emptive lethal control could be considered proactive, but besides the obvious ethical problem, generally isn’t effective. Lethal control can be effective when it is targeted to the specific individuals involved in conflicts. Yet perhaps the least useful way to categorize approaches is lethal and non-lethal, in part because it suggests a false dichotomy; both will be needed.
The well-known tools are focused on the potential predator: all of the gadgets, whether fladry or light and noise devices, are attempts to alter the potential predator’s behavior, known as disruptive or aversive stimuli. All of these work in some situations, mostly smaller scales and shorter timeframes.
In contrast to the predator-focused tools, are livestock-focused tools and strategies. Domestic animals are easier by definition easier to manage than wild ones. And these approaches are mostly not tools but strategies: ways that ranchers can manage their herds to reduce vulnerability. Where tools are usually applied for a specific purpose in a conflict situation, strategies may prevent some of those conflicts.
The best “tools” aren’t really tools, but the ones with brains and the power to create and adapt: people and livestock guardian animals. Livestock guardian dogs are particularly effective against coyotes, because wolves and coyotes don’t get along and the dogs are analogous to a wolf pack. With actual wolves, livestock guardian dogs may need to be larger, more aggressive, and kept in greater numbers. Guardian animals are proactive, non-lethal, and probably better considered a strategy than a tool.
Where I ran cattle, I saw bears and coyotes often but never lost a calf to either. The cows, kept in a tight herd for planned grazing management, learned to mob up and fend off coyotes — or any other canine. That experience inspired me to work with ranches in the wolf and grizzly country of Montana and Wyoming, primarily through the nonprofit People and Carnivores. In one project in northwestern Wyoming, I worked with a couple of ranches that had been losing cattle to grizzlies and wolves on their National Forest grazing allotment; with a rotational grazing plan and training in low-stress livestock handling, the permittees went for three years with no confirmed predation losses. Approaches like these, especially combined with livestock guardian dogs, are very promising but do need further research and development.
We can lead the change. Here, that could mean a Colorado-led process with state control and management flexibility, rather than letting wolves remain fully protected under federal control for decades to come. It could mean that we study the lessons of coexistence already learned in the Northern Rockies and western Great Lakes—and then improve on them. It could mean that we reinvent compensation to pay ranchers for producing what Coloradans want—wolves—while incentivizing conflict prevention. And it could mean a wilder, more complete version of our western heritage.
Matt Barnes, a rangeland scientist and conservationist, is a research associate with the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, and owner of Shining Horizons Land Management, as well as a former ranch manager in western Colorado.