Rewilding and Rehunting: US Attempts Again to Manage Gray Wolves

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The U.S. Congress adjourns again for the holiday break leaving open a decision that affects the welfare of gray wolves in 48 states. In mid-November, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Manage our Wolves Act to remove gray wolves’ designation as an endangered species. If the protection is lifted, citizens would have the right to kill gray wolves that they perceive as a threat to cattle, sheep, humans, and their pets.

The bill is the latest in the long-lasting battle between wolves and those states with a vocal livestock industry, which have sought to remove protections for gray wolves since their designation as a protected species in 1974. The decision, and the history of human interference in managing the gray wolf population, raise important ethical questions regarding active management of wildlife, the consideration of wild animal lives individually and as a species, and the rationales underlying these policy decisions.

The issue is complex. On the one hand, continued protection for gray wolves pits the species against the welfare of animals raised for human consumption by ranchers and herders, who seek to delay the loss of farmed animal life by wolf predation. The conflict between gray wolves and livestock farmers sparked organized eradication efforts in the lower 48 states from the early 19th Century onward. Farmers and cattle ranchers protected their livestock through the “sport” of killing any gray wolves in their remote vicinity. They planted poison-laced animal carcasses in sites like Yellowstone National Park, and trapped, shot, and hunted gray wolves with domestic dogs.

These efforts were supported and sanctioned by the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey, an agency that quickly became devoted to the livestock lobby’s goal of eliminating gray wolves from their ever-expanding cattle grazing operations. The program continued until the mid-20th century, ending only through virtual eradication of the species from their former roaming grounds in the western United States, leaving only a small number of wolves in the remote northern Minnesota region. Since designation as an endangered species, and the active reintroduction of gray wolves transported from the wilderness of Canada, the species has rebounded in some areas. Their growth has permitted the former conflict with the agricultural industry to resurface in new forms, like in the Manage our Wolves Act, which would reopen the doors to killing wolves once again.

Allowing this Act to be passed is rife with concerns worth considering. Protection of ranching and cattle grazing necessarily means indirectly supporting the killing of domesticated animals for food or clothing. Is death by predation an even harsher sentence, psychologically and physically, than their inevitable and industrialized death after protected grazing? It is possibly a premature and worse death than that faced by slaughter for food consumption.

Even if the benefit for protecting livestock—or managing against painful death by predation—outweighs the harm incurred in culling wolves, another concern is the availability of data, both on the cost of gray wolf predation to the livestock industry and the efficacy of lethal removal in preventing future harm. With the data we do have, the loss of livestock life due to wolf predation is proportionally insignificant. Though the loss of individual animal lives should always be considered, “the overall impact of wolves on the livestock industry [is] small relative to other factors, such as disease, coyote depredation, birthing problems, weather, and accidents.” Preventable deaths likely attributable to improper husbandry, from respiratory disease to lameness or injury, account for a far greater percentage of cattle deaths than wolf predation.

Permitting lethal measures to respond to the small incidence of wolf predation is also ineffective. In Michigan, when lethal measures were used to address gray wolf attacks on agricultural animals, recurrence of attacks dropped only a small degree. Lethal measures, in fact, artificially heightened the perceived cost of wolf predation as the remaining gray wolves’ migrate away from their perceived harm from one site to alternative sites, which resulted in the public’s perception that predation was spreading. This in turn increased the demands for further lethal intervention despite its ineffectiveness on deterrence.

The wolves’ continued endangered standing also implicates the welfare of animals that will become the burgeoning population’s prey, so that continued protection for the wolves places their individual welfare against that of other wild animals and plant life. Reintroduction of gray wolves in areas such as Yellowstone National Park has resulted in the increased deaths of the park’s elk, a different loss of animal life, though not intrinsically less valued.

It is difficult to discern when “management” of one species is the ethical approach to protecting the welfare of others. A simple approach may be to favor not individual species of animals but former trajectories of wildlife growth that would have prospered without human interference. Killing wolves changed the ecosystem to the detriment not only of the gray wolf species but the flora and fauna dependent on it.  Animals and plants have succeeded in the new ecosystem that the gray wolves’ increasing dominance has allowed to flourish, for instance by allowing wild animals to scavenge carcasses left by wolf packs. As more elk are killed as prey, the balance of the ecosystem in Yellowstone has started to return to its former shape, which had been altered by the growth of the elk population and the demise of the gray wolf species.

Human intervention must be considered when weighing future decisions to sanction removing gray wolves from protected status. What is the ethical implication of killing animals after taking affirmative measures to allow their growth? Gray wolves were added to the Endangered Species List in 1974, reintroduced to parts of the United States after relocation from foreign wilderness, and asked to flourish. They did. But they were also reintroduced in a different wilderness than they previously knew, one already transformed through human activities that bred the possibility of new, but familiar, conflict.

If measures to effectively protect cattle and sheep are not introduced, cattle operators and ranchers may adopt alternatives such as confined grazing that allows monitoring of the herds. Such measures may reduce the welfare of the individual animals, lead to overgrazing and its associated environmental impacts and increasing the incidence of disease if aggregation is highly concentrated.

It may be best to push for reasonable alternatives instead. Non-lethal measures such as fencing, fladry, and herding reduce livestock predation and may prevent the conflict that threatens the gray wolf population. Though it may indirectly sanction the continued role of raising domestic animals for food, it also avoids penalizing gray wolves for achieving recovery.

Gray wolves have been returned to a habitat that has experienced the expanse of farming and ranching operations over former wild lands, while wolf prey (deer, elk and antelope) have suffered a sharp decrease in population density due to unregulated hunting and westward expansion. Even without a decision by Congress, recent lethal action taken by states repopulated by gray wolves warrants a timely reevaluation of the duty owed to wildlife whose conflict with industry are products of human misuse of animal lives. Permitting lethal measures against reintroduced gray wolves may accordingly be little more than a reassignment of penalties for government missteps.




Caitlin Foley