On January 12th, 1995, the first truck loaded with grey wolves from Canada arrived in Yellowstone National Park. Livestock producers, outfitters and other people who live near the park waited to see what would happen. But one of those groups that hasn’t been too happy about the reintroduction: livestock producers.
When Meeteetse rancher Joe Thomas found out that there was an effort to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park, he was skeptical.
“First thought, why? Why do we need them? Why does it help? Basically, how is it going to affect our ranching life?”
Thomas had those questions and concerns right up to the point when he saw a wolf on his ranch two years later.
“I found one calf that had been totally shredded. So in all the conversations on how we were going to deal with these, I was taught, you know, cover them with a tarp, make sure everything stays in place,” said Thomas.
This was the problem livestock owners were worried about. When wolves aren’t able to find wild prey, they would kill domesticated animals. An environmental group Defenders of Wildlife was providing compensation to ranchers who lose livestock to wolves. But Thomas said it was a limited amount.
“When you have a substantial loss, and I think our biggest one was maybe nine to 10 hit, in your 300 head outfit, and you only have this many calves to sell to meet your expenses, when you’ve come up a few of those short, which we had some neighbors that came in with quite a few short, that’s a big hit to your operating budget that the compensation doesn’t take full account for,” said Thomas.
Most livestock producers agree, the compensation program, which is now run by the Wyoming Game and Fish, kept their operations in existence.
“We knew there’d be a certain amount of cattle and sheep killed because wolves will not stay in national parks,” said Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator during the wolf reintroduction.
“We were pretty upfront about that. But the bottom line was it really it wasn’t, you know, the end of life as we know it. And it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, now we got heaven on Earth’,” said Bangs.
Wolves were on the Endangered Species List so the federal government managed the wolves for quite a while.
“We did manage the heck out of wolves. When they cause problems, we would kill them. And so the people that really, really, really loved wolves did not like us for removing wolves. And the people that really, really didn’t like wolves didn’t like us because we brought them back and had them in a lot of places,” said Bangs.
Bangs said what really turned the wheel in the right direction was when states took over management. When that happened, wolf hunting seasons eventually started, and local managers could deal with the problem directly, like with Game and Fish Cody Regional Large Carnivore Director Luke Ellsbury. He said this was clearly seen when a judge ordered Wyoming wolves back on the Endangered Species List in 2014.
“We saw an increase in wolves and therefore an increase with conflicts. As we regained management, we started seeing that dip back down, where I think last year was the lowest we’ve had in almost 10 years,” said Ellsbury.
Ultimately, in the past 25 years livestock producers have learned how to cope with wolves on the landscape. But producers like Jim Magagna, the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said there are other side effects that weren’t necessarily predicted and are harder to put a dollar value on it.
“Wolves cause animals to become frightened. They cause them to bunch together more, particularly with cattle that are normally more scattered out,” said Magagna. “And the result of that is smaller rate gains on the animals, and from some experiences we’ve seen across the state, lower pregnancy rate.”
Magagna said it’s not possible to say with full certainty if wolves are the cause of these other side effects that are also hurting the business, but he is extremely worried about the proposal in Colorado.
“The recent efforts to introduce wolves in Colorado…giving our perspective to the ranching industry in Colorado, they ought to certainly strongly oppose that,” he said. “But there is some concern on our part to that if wolves were successfully reintroduced into northern Colorado that that would enhance problem in the southern tier of Wyoming.”
Just this week a new bill was introduced by Wyoming politicians that would compensate livestock depredation in the predator area, which is essentially all of Wyoming outside of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.