Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill


Commentary: On the Cost of a Wolf

Currently the Government of British Columbia manages the grey wolf as a though it is a pest or vermin. Wolves have clear, positive ecological benefits and, managed correctly, at least the potential for moderate to high economic value. So what's driving the government's agenda?


This commentary is intended as a companion piece to a previous essay I wrote entitled "On the Value of the Wolf" (view it here). Both essays were prompted by my discovery of killing neck snares targeted at wolves near my cabin in the East Kootenays of BC in February of 2013. The snares were set by employees of the Government of British Columbia, officially known as Conservation Officers (or CO's), on public land. At the time of my discovery I saw no signage or warning indicating the presence of them in the area. They were set to remove a pack of six wolves who, over a period spanning from spring to autumn of 2012, were claimed to have killed 14 cows and/or calves owned by a local rancher that were grazing on public land and/or land owned by The Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Science has shown that populations of wolves large enough to be ecologically functional impart many benefits to an ecosystem. Managed correctly they could also have a positive economic benefit to society. And to many they have powerful aesthetic or spiritual value. Yet the Government of British Columbia manages them in pretty much the same way they manage pests or vermin - with a policy that minimizes their population size or even results in their extirpation from a number of areas in the province.

So, if the BC Government has such an aggressive policy against the wolf, it must believe wolves have a cost to society. We know, of course, that the government's goal is to manage public lands and our jointly-owned wildlife in a manner that benefits all of its citizens, not just a handful of people in special interest groups. So...just what are the costs of a wolf to society? And, are how serious are those costs?

NOTE: This commentary is intended for public consumption. For this reason I have chosen to maximize readability by keeping it as short as possible and without peppering it with scientific references. Those requiring verification of the peer-reviewed studies that helped shape and support the viewpoints expressed below are referred to two sources:

1. The excellent "state of the union" report excellent report summarizing current scientific literature relevant to the issue of wolf management. It was produced by Wendy Keefover of WildEarth Guardians. For your convenience and reference, the entire report (complete with full references to just under 100 scientific studies) may be downloaded here:

Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves: A Public Policy Process Failure (PDF: 3.2 MB)

I would like to thank Ray Rafiti, Lori Colt, and Wendy Keefover for making me aware of this report, sending it to me, and giving me permission to re-distribute it.

2. A very recent article in the Wildlife News by Robert Maughan entitled "What real public information about wolves looks like." The article is available online here, and, because some web browsers seem to have trouble with the website in which the article is found, it is also available in PDF form here.

Many of the most recent studies shedding light on the "cost" of wolves have taken place just south of the international border - in populations of wolves (and prey species) that are connected to the Canadian populations that this commentary focuses on. There is no reason to believe the situation in BC differs dramatically from that in Montana, Idaho, or Washington. Nonetheless, I have attempted to, wherever possible, supplement the American studies with what we know about the Canadian situation. Darrell Ashworth, who has the title of "Provincial Predator Conflict Prevention and Response Coordinator" in the Conservation Officer Service kindly provided me with unpublished data for the province of BC. Thanks Darrell.

State of the Union: BC's Current Management Policy On Grey Wolves

Two "on-the-ground" manifestations of the government of BC's policy toward wolves found on public land include the hunting and trapping regulations that apply to the grey wolf and how the government treats what they consider "problem wolves". The "problem wolf" situation - and how the Government of BC deals with (which includes the use of killing neck snares) has been discussed thoroughly on my 2013 blog (entries beginning on February 11, 2013). The extremely aggressive hunting and trapping regulations for the province are readily available online - those interested in reading them for themselves can download the "Hunting and Trapping Synopsis 2012 to 2014" right here (PDF: 35.6 MB).

And for those who'd like a very brief summary of the regulations...

• Cost of a species-specific wolf tag? What wolf tag? No tag required. So no cost. What other "game" species can you hunt without a tag? None.
• Personal "Bag" limit? Mixed - but in recent years many management units have gone from 2 or 3 to NBL (No Bag Limit)
• Short season - right? Wrong. Varies a little with management unit but most are from August or September through June. In my region, no closed season below 1100 metres elevation.

What about the other side of the coin? What has the Government of BC done to encourage the return of the wolf to previously inhabited areas from which it has been extirpated? Nothing - el zippo.

The Cost of a Wolf

If you spend time examining the arguments that the anti-wolf/pro-wolf cull camp presents, you'll see they generally fall into 3 categories: the issue of human safety, the impact on big game hunting, and the threat to livestock. Let's quickly look at each of these in turn.

The Issue of Human Safety

This one is fast and easy to deal with: In all of recorded history there have been a total of two (2) claims of wolves killing a human in North America. In one of these cases it seems "likely" a human was killed by a wolf - in the other the actual cause of death is debatable. What about in BC? Not a single recorded death.

While this is a bit off the main thesis, because cattle are a big part of the whole "wolf management" story I'll mention it. In a four year span during the last decade (and in ONLY 4 US states) a total of 108 humans were killed by livestock. This number doesn't include deaths caused by vehicle-livestock collisions. I haven't been able to find Canadian data on this one, but it is safe to say that livestock are MUCH more likely to kill a human on public land in BC than are wolves. So...beware the raging cow. And, based on human-safety alone, it makes more sense to initiate a cattle-culling campaign than a wolf-culling campaign. I'm not saying it makes MUCH sense to do this, just MORE sense than wolf culls.

In autumn of 2012 the Government of BC released a plan entitled "Draft Management Plan for the Grey Wolf" and invited public input on it. For some reason the authors chose to mention - in 7 places - that one aspect of the plan was to manage wolves for "human safety". Now I would never accuse our elected officials or the bureaucrats who work for them to be guilty of trying to sway public opinion through introducing red herrings into an argument, but I am wondering when I'm going to see a plan for managing livestock for human safety (watch those raging cows!).

The Impact on Big Game Hunting

A very old argument in favor of limiting wolf populations is that if left unchecked, they will reduce the size of the ungulate populations (deer, elk, moose, etc.) that they prey upon to levels where there are very few left for humans to hunt. I witnessed this attitude in extreme form when, back in November 2012, I got into a heated discussion with another photographer who claimed that wolves are "natural born killers" (and humans aren't?) who will, once they move into an area, drive ALL prey populations to zero.

OK - before we even mention the science - let's step back and just think for a minute. If we go back even 200 years (in the time before European settlers were having a major impact on wolf populations) we have to assume there were elk, deer, bison, moose, bighorns, etc., around. No one was "controlling" the wolf populations, yet we know prey populations flourished. The simple fact is that wolves and their prey evolved together - and they have coexisted for many millennia just fine.

What does science tell us? If we look at the plethora of studies referenced in the two key summaries listed above the preponderance of the evidence is absolutely clear: Wolves kill things to eat. Those things include, among others, animals like deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep. BUT, because of their own intrinsic mechanisms that function to limit population size (density dependent factors such as pack territoriality and intraspecific aggression between wolves) wolf numbers don't keep increasing until they run out of prey. And, the impact that they have on their prey populations has invariably been very much less significant than the effects of human activities (like hunting) on the prey populations. In fact, the human impact on these prey (or "big-game") populations has been officially deemed "super-additive", which is a fancy way of saying "beyond all naturally occurring factors".

I want to acknowledge that the studies that examined the impact of wolf predation on big game populations are mostly US-based. So far I haven't been able to dig up any scientific studies performed in BC that are relevant to the question of the wolves on big game population sizes. BUT, I think the BC government is well aware of the fact that wolves don't excessively impact on big-game populations. Why? Even in the flawed Draft Management Plan for the Grey Wolf the authors clearly state that "Provincial policy does not support predator control to reduce wolf populations for the purpose of enhancing ungulate populations for hunting." Why? Likely because they know they wouldn't have a leg to stand on if they argued FOR wolf control to enhance ungulate populations (for hunting or any other purpose).

The Threat to Livestock

This one can get messy and emotional - fast. At the outset it's important to note that wolves WILL, on occasion, kill livestock. In my mind there are two key points to focus on here:

1. How much livestock do they actually take?

2. Even if they DO take privately-owned livestock that are grazing on public land, should BC taxpayers be footing the bill to remove the wolves?

First, how much livestock do they actually take? If we look first at the US data, we see depredation rates that are incredibly low. Take Montana as an example. About 2.6 million cattle are out on the range. In 2009 there were a total of 74 cattle killed by wolves. Do some number crunching and you'll find that's less than 0.003 percent.

"No fair" you say, "...what about BC - we have more wolves!" OK - fair enough. I couldn't find any published data on this. So, I asked the "source" - Darrell Ashworth - BC's official "Provincial Predator Conflict Prevention and Response Coordinator". He kindly gave me incredibly "fresh" data - from February 2012 to present (February 20, 2013). The number? A total of 162 verified kills of cattle by ALL predators (not just wolves). According to Darrell, the "vast majority" were from wolves - he estimated about 150.

How many cattle are out there on ranches? According to the Ministry of Agriculture's website the number is about 200,000. Crunch the numbers and you get a depredation rate of .075 percent. That's 7/100's of a single percent.

To be fair, this number is VERIFIED kills. The actual number could be significantly higher. But even if we go nuts and say UNVERIFIED kills are actually 10x higher than verified kills, we are STILL under 1% depredation.

And I want to be totally fair - it's important to acknowledge that I'm dealing with average depredation rate. Neither wolves nor ranches are even distributed over the province - the average rate probably has huge variation around it. Meaning, odds are, most cattle ranches are never touched by wolves, and a few (possibly a handful) are hit quite hard. I don't deny for an instant that a few ranchers may be hit pretty hard in the pocket book.

But let's step back again look at the bigger picture - all in the goal of deciding (or debating, if you will) if BC's wolf management plan is in the best interest of ALL British Columbians. Here's some facts and figures that bear on the discussion:

• Ranching occurs on 10 million hectares of land in BC (a hectare is 100 meter x 100 meter square, or 2.47 acres). Of this, 8.5 million hectares (85,000 square kilometers or 32,819 square miles) is crown (public) land (source: BC Ministry of Agriculture website).
• Domestic livestock grazing has been described as the most pervasive and destructive use of public lands - negative consequences include the removal and trampling of native vegetation, soil damage, the spreading of invasive weeds, spoiling of water, destruction of riparian zones, deprivation of forage and shelter for native wildlife, and even desertification. South of our border the former Secretary of State (Bruce Babbitt) has declared in writing that grazing "is the most damaging use of public land." (see Keefover for original source).
• The province of BC does have a compensation plan in place for ranchers who lose cattle to predators (assuming the kill is verified): If a calf under 4 months old is killed they receive 75% of $400 (typical government - not sure why they just can't say $300) and if cattle is more than four months old they receive 75% of market value of estimated stockyard weight (Darrell Ashworth, pers. comm.). It appears that location of the predation (public land vs. private land) is irrelevant to the awarding of the compensation.

Personally, I would support a slightly modified compensation system - one where ranches are compensated at 100% of market value for ANY livestock killed on private land. What about on public land? Hmmm...a certain phrase comes to mind, accountants call it the "cost of doing business". It could also be called "the cost of the privilege of damaging public land."

So...let's pull it all together: Wolves impart many benefits to an ecosystem. They do not harm humans. They don't significantly reduce big game populations, especially over the long term. Being wildlife they are owned by ALL British Columbians. Cattle, which can and do kill humans, are owned by private entrepreneurs and despite being highly destructive to the land and native species, they graze on and damage millions of hectares of publicly-owned lands. Wolves kill only a tiny percentage of the cattle available to them. Ranchers are compensated for their losses to predators. Yet, taxpayers foot the bill for Conservation Officers to bait and kill (often with inhumane neck snares) those ecologically valuable wolves - for the benefit of a handful of private entrepreneurs (it is real hard for me not to think of this as a subsidy). And the entire management plan for the grey wolf (both current and proposed) is designed to minimize numbers of grey wolves over the entire province.

OK - Is it just me? Doesn't this seem just a tad bizarre and completely illogical? How did we get to this state? I can see no way to twist this around and claim that either BC's wolves, or BC's public land, are being managed for the benefit of all British Columbians.

What's needed? Just a paradigm shift, that's all. To a more progressive view where, on public land, the welfare and conservation of native species, including the critical apex predators, takes clear priority over the welfare of domestic animals. Doing the wrong thing for a long time doesn't make it right (thanks for that one Paul!).

February 20, 2013.


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Other Commentaries

Reality in the Age of Digital PhotographyDigital Manipulation vs. Digital CorrectionNature Photography as a Resource Extraction Industry
My Top 3 Reasons for Shooting in the RAWOn the Value of a WolfOn the Cost of a Wolf
The Challenge of Being a Green Nature Photographer


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brad Hill and do not necessarily represent those of any other group, organization, or corporation.