Energy & Environment

It’s time for the ag industry to end its war on native wildlife

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In Washington state, another family of wolves, the Smackout Pack, is now targeted for killing at the behest of the livestock industry. Even though wolves in Washington are so rare they are protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act, special loopholes allow the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to use aerial gunning to kill wolves when they prey on livestock.

This isn’t the first time wildlife-rancher conflict has reared its ugly head in Washington. Just last year, department officials killed seven members of the Profanity Peak Pack, including a pup, leaving only four alive. As it turned out, the rancher had turned loose his cattle near the known den site for the wolves, and placed salt blocks to attract cattle to within 200 yards of the den, causing the conflict.

{mosads}In both cases, the ranching operations were running private livestock on public lands. These lands are supposed to be managed for “multiple use,” defined by law to include wildlife and habitat, public recreation, healthy watersheds and other public values often degraded or eliminated by commercial livestock operations.


Neither cattle nor domestic sheep are native to the mountains and basins of the arid West. Their environmental impacts are severe — overgrazing that causes erosion and siltation that turns crystalline trout streams muddy and barren, increasing the spread of invasive weeds like cheatgrass that wipe out habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife through habitat degradation and unnatural range fires, and competing for habitat and forage with native herbivores like elk and deer.

Some 45 percent of Bureau of Land Management grazing lands measured in 2012 were not meeting Rangeland Health standards. While energy development and mining cause environmental train wrecks on a few thousand to a few million acres, livestock grazing is the chronic environmental disease that — like cancer — is slowly killing native ecosystems almost everywhere in the West.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is so entrenched in its desire to eliminate native wildlife that frightens ranchers that they have their own “rogue agency” dedicated to killing such wildlife. Operating under the Machiavellian name “Wildlife Services,” this agency has killed millions of birds and mammals since 2000, both predators targeted by the livestock industry as well as “non-target species” killed by indiscriminate traps, snares and poisons set out on the land to eliminate species that the ranching industry finds inconvenient to their operations.

This past March, a Wildlife Services M-44 cyanide bomb used to kill coyotes detonated in the face of a 14-year-old boy in Pocatello, Idaho. The boy was hospitalized, and his family dog — which was downwind when the M-44 went off — was killed. After imposing a moratorium on M-44s statewide in the wake of the incident, Wildlife Services this week is hosting a series of meetings across Idaho, apparently to promote the resumption of this deadly and indiscriminate practice in the state. 

Ranchers often tout their fourth or fifth-generation tenure, but the real native westerners — the humans, that is — lived side-by-side with wild carnivores for thousands of years, respecting and sometimes even revering them.

The wolves and other large carnivores (like grizzly bears and mountain lions) targeted for elimination by the ranching industry are also genuine western natives. If longevity in a place grants legitimacy, it’s high time for the newcomers to start respecting the original residents.

While a tiny and privileged selection of westerners make their profits by running cattle or sheep on public land or national forests, a vast majority of Americans (and indeed westerners) value the native fishes and wildlife that have inhabited the West since time immemorial. It’s high time for ranching operations to recognize that when they rent the grass for grazing on public lands, they don’t own the place. And the landowners — the American public — are growing increasingly intolerant of actions that kill off the native flora and fauna.

Wolves are more widespread today than they have been since the 1800s. They are returning to Washington and Oregon, a wolf has been spotted for the first time in Nevada, and even California now has a breeding population on the Lassen National Forest. That’s good news for healthy ecosystems. At the same time, livestock depredations by native carnivores are at an all-time low. As the Seattle Times reports, “Far more cattle are killed in Washington by lightning strikes, logging trucks, illness and accidents, put together, than by wolves.”

New non-lethal methods are emerging to further reduce livestock losses. We may never be able to prevent all livestock deaths. At the same time, a business model that sends out livestock with the wildness and intelligence bred out of them into America’s mountains and deserts should factor in the risk of loss as part of the cost of doing business.

Thanks in large measure to predator-killing programs, the ranching industry is losing its social license to operate on national forests and public lands. The wildlife killing must end. The time has come for ranchers to start proving they can get along with native wildlife — including wolves, bears and mountain lions — or move their livestock back onto their own private lands. 

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protest and restore western watersheds and wildlife. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Conservation Environment Erik Molvar
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