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The Challenge and Opportunity of Recovering Wolf Populations

Problems of Wolf Recovery


As wolves move into agricultural areas, conflicts with humans greatly increase. For example, when Minnesota wolves increased from 1988 through 1993 by an estimated 15%, the number of wolves killed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Damage Control Program increased from 59 to 139, or 223% (Paul 1994). In Spain estimated damage by wolves now exceeds $1 million per year (Vila et al. 1993).

With these conflicts come a distinct danger of public backlash. Not only will wolves in semi-agricultural areas take increasing numbers of livestock and incur the wrath of the livestock industry, which often has strong political support, but they will also kill pets. In Minnesota, wolves killing dogs has caused considerable public animosity (Fritts & Paul 1989). As the media begins publicizing such issues, the public gains an exaggerated impression of the problem. A strong backlash of antiwolf sentiment could result in management practices that would again restrict wolves to wilderness areas. Poland has experienced three such cycles of wolf protection and persecution (Okarma 1992). How can these problems be avoided and the wolf be restored to as many places as possible? Until some nonlethal method of controlling wolf populations is discovered, it appears that lethal control will remain the ultimate means of curbing wolf damage to livestock and pets.

Several nonlethal methods of preventing livestock losses to wolves have been tried and abandoned. In Italy and other European countries, for example, traditional husbandry techniques relied on guard dogs and shepherds tending small flocks of livestock; such techniques today are uneconomical. Use of guard dogs alone has been tried against wolves in Minnesota with only limited success (Fritts et al. 1992), although the method may be useful in specific cases. Wolves have also been translocated to other areas, but many either returned to where they were caught or became a problem elsewhere (Fritts et al. 1984, 1985). Aversive conditioning (Gustavson & Nicolaus 1987) has not yet proven effective with wild wolves (Fritts et al. 1992). Currently an electric fence in use in Sweden seems to hold some promise for protecting livestock from wolves, but it has not yet been subject to controlled testing (Eles 1986). Furthermore, such fences tested for coyotes have generally been expensive, high-maintenance, and better suited for smaller areas (Dorrance & Bourne 1980; Nass & Theade 1988).

Compensation for livestock losses is useful for minimizing public animosity toward wolves, especially when wolf populations are low and each wolf is important to the population. In Italy, compensation was important in changing public attitudes toward acceptance of wolves in agricultural areas. But as wolf populations proliferate, compensation payments must also increase, sometimes disproportionately. At some point compensation payments will become politically unpopular as the public learns it is subsidizing wolves via payments to farmers for their wolf-killed livestock. Thus many government agencies are wary of even initiating such payments.

An innovative alternative to public payment for livestock killed by wolves was instituted by the Defenders of Wildlife in the U.S. This private, nonprofit organization established a fund to reimburse ranchers in the western U.S. and even encouraged ranchers to allow wolves to raise pups on their private land via a payment of $5000 per den (Fischer et al. 1994). The public may well begin demanding that animal organizations assume these burdens from the government as the costs increase. In any case, without wolf population control, people would eventually object to payments or damages caused by wolves.


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