|Ranchers Say Fear of Wolves Causes Weight Loss in Cattle, Sheep
(October 1, 2006) Since wolves returned to roaming the Northern Rockies more than a decade ago, ranchers say they’ve observed a disturbing trend: fear of the predators is causing sheep and cattle to be scared skinny.
The wolf jitters could mean skimpier lamb chops and porterhouse steaks that show more bone than beef on dinner tables across the country.
“When the cows are scared, they bunch together, they don’t spread out like they’re used to. They don’t eat and drink – you can just tell they’re losing weight,” says Lloyd Knight, the executive director of the Idaho Cattle Association.
Federal wildlife officials reintroduced endangered gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the central Idaho mountains in 1995. Though cattle ranchers and wool growers first fretted the wolves would kill cows and sheep, a decade later, they say their presence wreaks as much havoc as their bite.
Currently, calves fetch $1.45 per pound on the market. So if the howl and footsteps of wolves inspire just a few lost pounds on each head of cattle, that quickly mounts into large financial losses, says Knight.
“The loss of weight from the whole herd could cost far more than the depredation of a few calves,” says Knight. “It’s something we’ve been afraid of since the reintroduction program began.”
Efforts are being made to measure the extent of the problem. In Idaho, the Office of Species Conservation, an agency that compensates ranchers for wolf-related losses through an annual $100,000 appropriation from Congress, has agreed to pay any rancher who can demonstrate weight loss through record-keeping.
“I’ve heard the theory before and it makes sense,” said Jeff Allen, the office’s policy adviser.
Not everyone agrees wolf nerves are the problem. Proving that animal weight loss stems from wolf jitters and not some other factor such as rangeland health or migration patterns, is difficult if not impossible, said Curt Mack, a wildlife biologist with the Nez Perce Indian tribe that has a hand in Idaho’s wolf oversight.
The phenomenon likely exists, but its extent is “intangible and unquantifiable,” Mack says.
He also cast doubt on the idea that sheep and cattle live in a permanent state of panic, pointing to research that shows some wolf prey, like elk, exhibit heightened recognition when wolves are hunting and relax their guard when the predators are merely roaming.
But ranchers are certain. Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, says most of his members are reporting lamb weights between two- and eight-pounds below the prior three-year average.
“They’re just being dogged out there,” he says. “So there’s safety in numbers. A band of lambs will crowd together and just quit eating.”
Reprinted From the Associated Press