CALGARY, Alberta -- For generations, ranchers have believed that the only good wolf is a dead wolf.
But a new study finds that bringing out the traps and shotguns soon after cattle and sheep have become dinner for hungry wolves isn't the most effective way to protect livestock.
"People and government agencies kill wolves as a reaction," said study lead author Marco Musiani, a professor at the University of Calgary's faculty of environmental design. "This reaction is a corrective, punitive reaction, which doesn't contribute to decreasing the number of wolf attacks in a region."
Jim Pissot, executive director of Defenders of Wildlife Canada, said his group has noticed that wolf culls don't work and is trying to raise money to help ranchers cover the costs of protecting livestock.
"Using lethal methods to reduce depredation may be a little like imprisoning shoplifters as the only method to address shoplifting _ if you add the additional condition that prospective shoplifters (even those not yet born) don't hear about the penalty," he said.
The research, published in a recent issue of the Wildlife Society Bulletin and presented this week at the North American Wolf Conference, examined livestock deaths due to wolves in Alberta 1982-96 as well as in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming from 1987 to 2003.
In Alberta, there were 1,021 wolf attacks on domestic animals that left them injured or dead during the study period. At the same time, at least 795 wolves were killed. (Canada does not require reporting of wolf deaths, so the number could be higher.) The three U.S. states had 253 wolf attacks and 861 domestic animals killed. During the study period, 120 wolves were killed.
The monetary loss to the agriculture industry _ in things such as meat, wool, milk, labor and surveillance _ is more difficult to quantify.
But the data showed that wolf attacks came seasonally, such as during calving time, as cattle are grazing and when wolf pups are born. At the same time, short-term wolf culls _ generally aimed at "problem individuals" _ did little to disrupt the patterns.
"Even if entire wolf packs are extirpated through control actions, neighboring or dispersing individuals may readily fill home range vacancies," the report concludes.
Culls are no longer a primary management tool, but the practice hasn't disappeared _ nor has the controversy.
Right now, the Alberta government is killing wolves, which are not endangered species, in a bid to protect some threatened woodland caribou, dubbed the Little Smoky herd, near Hinton, not far from Jasper National Park.
The province says the caribou in that area are at "immediate risk" of vanishing. There were between 250 and 300 caribou in the area 15 years ago. Now the herd is down to 100. About 150 wolves from several packs overlap the caribou range.
"The wolves are the primary cause of mortality in the caribou," said Dave Ealey, a spokesman with Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, who also cites weather and human development as contributing factors. A cull is currently under way aimed at reducing the number of wolves in that area by 50 to 70 per cent. (Scientists have found that to cut depredation effectively, 30 to 50 per cent of a region's wolf herd must be killed periodically over a span of several years.)
The Alberta Wilderness Association describes the wolf cull as a "misguided and short-sighted" attempt to protect the caribou. David Samson, a conservation specialist with the association, said the province is failing to protect the caribou habitat from industrial encroachment. Oil and gas leases are still being handed out. Roads and seismic line cuts remove protection.
"The long-term problem with the predators comes because it's easier for the predators to be there," Samson said.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)