At the request of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, the USDA Wildlife Services bureau recently released statistics that show a huge increase in the number of livestock killed by all of Montana’s major predators, from coyotes to black bears to wolves.
But the report has drawn skeptics, including a former Wildlife Services supervisor who says the numbers are misleading and come at a pivotal time in wolf politics, with several bills circulating in Congress to remove the animal’s federal protections.
John Steuber, Montana’s Wildlife Services director, blames wolves for the across-the-board depredation increases. His bureau investigates, documents and tries to prevent livestock attacks in Montana. He said wolves have hamstrung his agency by requiring too many resources and limiting what kinds of deterrents – such as a certain pesticide – can be used due to federal protections.
The result, Steuber said, is that predators other than wolves now have more opportunities at livestock, which he said is reflected in the report.
The report compares livestock depredations in 2006 to 2010, divided into categories of coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, red foxes, ravens and eagles. Livestock animals are listed by type and quantity killed and injured. The findings are dramatic.
For example, the report states that coyotes killed 111 calves in 2006 and 1,348 in 2010, a 1,114 percent increase, based on the federal fiscal year between Oct. 1 and Sept. 30. Wolves killed 51 calves in 2006 and 454 this year, a 790 percent increase. Other figures, such as sheep kills by black bears and mountain lions, show similarly massive leaps.
But what’s not made clear is that only some of those are confirmed kills. Also included in the calculations are probable, possible and reported depredations. Carter Niemeyer, Montana’s western supervisor for Wildlife Services from 1975-1990, said presenting the information in this manner is misleading.
Niemeyer also served as Wildlife Services’ Montana wolf specialist for 10 years and later as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery coordinator in Idaho.
Niemeyer said that only probable and confirmed kills should be considered. And even listing a depredation as probable, Niemeyer said, means “it probably was a predator.” When Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks publishes its annual report, it lists only confirmed wolf kills.
“Probable is foggy, but possible is pretty much unknown and reported doesn’t really mean anything,” Niemeyer said. “It’s that confirmed one that’s really the one of interest, the one that counts.”
Most livestock deaths are due to natural causes, Niemeyer said. Once scavengers get a carcass, it becomes difficult to tell if the animal was killed by a predator first or died naturally first. Niemeyer doubted the 1,348 calf depredations by coyotes.
“I can’t even imagine that,” Niemeyer said. “My whole career with Wildlife Services it was pretty unusual to see calves killed by coyotes.”
Steuber argued that, on the other hand, “to say that wolves killed only what you can find is pretty misleading too.” Steuber said many depredations aren’t reported or found. A small lamb killed by a wolf doesn’t leave many remains behind, he said.
Steuber said he didn’t have the breakdown of confirmed, probable, possible and reported. Completing the report in the first place, he said, was an unusual move, done at the request of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association. The statistics for 2007-2009 weren’t available either, he said.
“If you look at it objectively, then yeah, with probable or confirmed we know they are wolf kills; the other ones we don’t know,” Steuber said. “But you can look at it both ways with all of those other ones that aren’t reported.”
In regards to calves killed by coyotes, Steuber said there are 3 million cows in Montana, which means “there’s a lot of calves that hit the ground in spring and they’re very susceptible to coyotes.” Furthermore, he trusts ranchers’ reports.
“I’m not going to question what the producers are telling us,” Steuber said. “I would tend to believe them.”
George Edwards, Montana’s livestock loss mitigation coordinator, also said the number of reported depredations is far less than the actual number. But when they are called in, Edwards believes Steuber’s bureau gets them right.
“I do believe those USDA numbers,” Edwards said.
After the Wildlife Services bureau conducts an investigation on a livestock death, a rancher can choose to file a claim with Edwards’ board. Edwards said the WS agents conduct thorough necropsies that take into account the size of fang, hemorrhaging and other details.
“I liken it to a CSI show,” Edwards said. “I have full faith in those guys.”
Kim Baker, president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, said the USDA report reflects what ranchers are seeing across the state. Baker requested the statistics from Steuber.
“A lot of our members are having a lot more issues with predators,” Baker said.
Baker acknowledged the impact that factors such as sprawling human development may have on predator behavior, but she echoed Steuber in calling wolves the primary culprit. Ranchers, she said, “can’t really trap anymore because of the wolves, since they’re on the endangered species list, and we can’t really snare them.”
“There hasn’t been a great rise in livestock, so there’s not just more livestock out there for them,” Baker said.
“And it’s not like ranchers,” she added, “have gotten lazier or less vigilant in watching over their livestock.”
Steuber’s agents set traps out in the field. But if there are wolves in the area, the traps must be checked daily, which he said limits how many can be set and hurts his agency’s effectiveness.
“You can imagine if you’re working on four or five or six different ranches, it’s pretty hard to check those traps every day,” Steuber said.
Defenders of Wildlife no longer provides compensation for livestock killed by wolves except in Oregon, according to Northern Rockies representative Suzanne Stone. Federal funds are available, but Oregon hasn’t received any yet, she said.
Edwards said the Montana Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Board used $145,000 of its allotted $150,000 in 2009. He said the board received $140,000 more in federal funds in July and has $89,000 left to last through next June. He’s unsure about future funding.
“Right now it’s a waiting game,” Edwards said. “We hope that there’s going to be some state funds available; in order to get federal funds I really have to have matching state funds.”
Stone, from Defenders of Wildlife, believes progress is being made across the West in reducing conflicts between ranchers and wolves. Recent reports coming out of Idaho and Wyoming indicate a decline in wolf predation on livestock this year. Like Niemeyer, Stone questioned the methods used in compiling and presenting the USDA report.
“When they’re done like that, those numbers are really unreliable,” Stone said.
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