There is remarkable agreement among environmentalists and ranchers that working together to help reintroduce wild wolves to Washington state while reducing the impact on livestock is good public policy.
As the state’s wolf population increases, ranchers are understandably concerned that threats to their livestock will increase.
Working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, ranchers and members of the environmental community reached an agreement that allows the wolf population to grow while reducing conflicts with ranchers.
Where conflicts occurred with a wolf pack, members of the problem pack would be killed — a two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach.
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This collaborative approach offers benefits and risks to both sides. It is now an agreement that some critics are trying to unravel.
Last year, when wolves in the Profanity Peak pack killed livestock, the state killed some of the pack members. To their credit, many of the environmental members who helped craft the agreement stood by the decision.
Others, however, opposed the consensus decision.
One biologist at Washington State University has attempted to undermine the agreement, by opposing any wolf kills at all.
Dr. Robert Wielgus, a biologist at WSU, attacked the decision to kill the wolves at Profanity Peak.
He cites his own research claiming that when wolves are killed, the number of livestock killed the following year actually increases.
He hypothesizes that killing wolves destabilizes the pack, leading to more aggressive behavior and more livestock deaths. If true, killing predatory wolves would make the problem worse.
There are several flaws, however, with Dr. Wielgus’ study. With our training in statistics and environmental public policy, we took a close look at his data and found numerous problems.
First, Dr. Wielgus makes a basic statistical error by failing to account for the increasing numbers of wolves. In his data set, the wolf population increases every year as does the number of cattle and sheep killed. This is common sense — more wolves mean more dead livestock.
Wielgus, however, looks only at the year after wolves are killed, noting that depredations increase.
He ignores, however, that there are also more wolves every year, which leads to an increase in the number of livestock killed. He ignores the likely cause of increased depredation, focusing only on the data he wants.
Further, his hypothesis — that removing wolves “could result in fracture of pack structure and increased breeding pairs” — is undermined by his own data, which include the number of breeding pairs.
We can actually test his claim. The data, in fact, show the opposite, that the number of breeding pairs decline following wolf control. His own data contradict his hypothesis.
It is telling that Wielgus did not use his own data to test his claim. Either it’s inexcusably shoddy work, or an intentional obfuscation of the truth. Either way, the result is poor science but powerful politics — and perhaps that was the point.
Despite these problems, some critics continue to cite Wielgus’ research to undermine the wolf-management consensus.
Without the agreement, however, the fate of wild wolves would be more uncertain, encouraging ranchers to take matters into their own hands with a secretive “shoot, shovel, and shut up” approach. This would be the worst of all approaches, putting ranchers at risk legally and increasing danger to wolves.
Rather than allowing bad science to drive policy, Washington should stick to the current consensus.
Across the Northwest, cooperative solutions are proving to be the best approach to returning wolves to the wild.
The most dramatic example is the American Prairie Reserve in Montana. Participating ranchers receive payments for each bear, cougar or other large animal seen on their land. Ranchers see the animals as profit, not predators.
You can buy Wild Sky Beef from cattle raised on the American Prairie Reserve at stores in Spokane, Ellensburg, Seattle and other Washington cities.
We can ensure the landscape is big enough for wolves and ranchers, honoring the wildlife we share the state with, while protecting the economic benefits of our natural resources. Success, however, will only come if we choose a cooperative solution based in sound science.
Todd Myers is the Environmental Director at Washington Policy Center and worked previously at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Stefan Sharkansky is a writer and business owner in Bellevue. He has a Ph.D. in Statistics from the University of Washington.