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Livestock statistics don't justify wolf cull

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By Stephen Hume
The Vancouver Sun

Both Canadian and American research into livestock mortality has found predator deaths are a tiny fraction of the total, with better than 80 per cent resulting from disease, nutrition or severe weather.

As controversy over a call from the B.C. Cattlemen's Association for a wolf cull ramps up, the Kamloops Daily News reports that the province's predator control program killed 60 problem wolves in 2011, 35 per cent of them in the rangelands of the Thompson region.

Wolves were among 146 wild predators - a category including coyotes, cougars, black and grizzly bears - specifically targeted to protect livestock.

This wolf kill was in addition to those killed by hunters and trappers.

Statistics on the annual wolf harvest are notoriously unreliable. Trappers don't report poor quality pelts they can't sell (marketable pelts bring only an average price of $82), so the fur harvest is usually understated, although trappers probably average between 100 and 200. Local hunters don't report their bag, either. Non-resident hunters, however, kill a verified average of 60 wolves a year.

So with predator control, trapping and hunting, at a conservative estimate, we're likely already killing around five per cent of the wolf population every year, presently estimated at about 8,500.

This runs counter to the B.C. Cattlemen's Association's assertion that wolves are out of control and require a large-scale cull to further reduce their population.

Wolves undeniably kill livestock each year. But do those losses warrant a major cull of wolf packs? How many cattle do wolves kill? What's the actual cost to the cattle industry?

The ranchers estimate predatory wolves cost them about $15 million a year.

Kevin Boon, the association's general manager, told me this figure was extrapolated from a privately commissioned economic impact analysis and from a federal survey of problem wildlife across Canada.

But there seem to be problems with this number from the get-go.

For example, if the average weight of a yearling steer is about 227 kilograms, at prices quoted in Williams Lake last week it would be worth about $760.

For wolves to destroy $15 million worth of livestock using yearling steers as the yardstick, they'd have to kill 19,736 animals. But Statistics Canada's 2011 inventory for steers aged one year and over in B.C. totals 21,000 head. So wolves would have to wipe out the entire provincial herd of yearling steers - every year.

Consider it another way. Wolves primarily seek undersized, weak or immature prey. Their preferred targets aren't mature bulls but calves.

Let's work through the loss estimate using calves as a yardstick. If the average calf at birth weighs about 25 kilograms and is valued at about $70, then wolves must kill more than 215,000 calves every year to achieve the estimated $15 million loss. But the entire inventory of beef calves for B.C. was reported at 153,000 for 2011. So the wolves must kill 62,000 more calves than there actually are to achieve the loss total.

Now let's move on to what else we know about livestock losses to wild predators. The B.C. government investigates reported livestock kills. Ranchers are compensated for 70 per cent of the value of domestic livestock killed by wild predators.

This year, 107 wild predator kills have been verified so far. Last year, government verified 133 kills and paid out $63,800. In the previous reporting year, compensation was $32,931 for 78 verified kills. And the year before that it was $38,292 on 93 verified kills.

Extrapolating from the ranchers' figures, the losses should have totalled $45 million and they should be due $31.5 million in compensation for the loss of either almost 60,000 steers or more than 700,000 calves or some combination of these.

I'm not saying the ranchers are wrong about their concerns, or that some management of the wolf population might not be necessary but the differential between extrapolated estimates and verified actuals is so vast that profound caution is warranted.

For one thing, not all the verified livestock kills are a result of wolf predation. In fact, the 2011 statistics for control of problem predators indicate almost 60 per cent were species other than wolves.

Grizzly bears, black bears, cougars and coyotes have all taken their share of livestock over the last 10 years - often accounting for 30 or 40 per cent of the kills. And could an apparent increase in verified wolf predation actually be the result of better assessment and verification practices?

Furthermore, many animals die of other causes. They may become prey in an advanced state of weakness or be mutilated by scavengers at the time of death. In 2011, for example, federal statistics show 32,400 cattle were removed from B.C.'s livestock inventory due to natural deaths or condemnation.

Both Canadian and American research into livestock mortality has found predator deaths are a tiny fraction of the total, with better than 80 per cent resulting from disease, nutrition or severe weather.

Finally, the jury remains out among wildlife biologists about whether killing problem predators and broad culling of wolf populations actually works over the long term. Some argue that simply targeting the leader of a pack preying on livestock is more effective.

So everybody should take a deep breath, cattlemen and wolf enthusiasts alike. We don't need overheated rhetoric and inflated claims; we need accurate, believable data upon which to found appropriate and workable policy. We don't need knee-jerk reactions to emotive anecdotes and a blanket cull of a wolf population only now recovering to its historic level after being driven almost to extinction 50 years ago.

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