Wildlife Services Challenged

Wildlife Services Challenged

In early June environmental groups filed a law suit against the euphemistically named “Wildlife Services” WS (formerly Animal Damage Control) to halt its killing of wolves in Idaho.

Last year the federal agency killed 72 Idaho wolves at the behest of ranchers, and sometimes hunters as well.  In the past decade, WS has killed over 650 wolves in the Gem State.  Much of this killing occurred while they were supposedly “protected” under the Endangered Species Act.

Even more galling is some of the wolves killed from planes and helicopters were in the Lolo Pass region, an area that is largely roadless. This was done to appease elk hunters who claim wolves are harming their hunting opportunities, even though  the IDFG acknowledges that changing habitat conditions are largely the reason for declining elk numbers (regrowth after large wildfires is replacing shrubs with trees).

Some of these wolf-killing methods included very inhumane procedures including strangulation with neck snares, leg hold traps with animals left to suffer for days before they were ultimately killed, and wounded animals that are left to die a slow death.

The groups, Western Watersheds Project, Predator Defense, WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biodiversity and Friends of the Clearwater, contend that the USDA’s Wildlife Services has not done an adequate job of evaluating the need for, or the impact of its killing program on wolves and other wildlife. They demand the agency halt its slaughter until it updates its management through an Environmental Impact Statement that incorporates new science.

Let’s review many of the justifications for wolf control given by Wildlife Services as well as state agencies.

The first problem is the idea that there is a problem in need of solving by killing wolves.  Livestock losses due to wolves are a very minor component of the annual sources of livestock mortality.  For instance, in 2014 43 cattle and 103 sheep deaths in Idaho were attributed to wolf predation.  But context is needed.  According to the Idaho Department of Agriculture, in 2015 Idaho was home to 2,300,000 cattle and calves, 579,000 dairy cows, and 260,000 sheep and lambs.

The losses attributed to lobos are not even worth noting given how few livestock are actually killed by wolves.  Why are we spending any money protecting private livestock from wolf losses? There are certainly much bigger problems facing the livestock industry than wolves—including poison plants, disease, weather, even domestic dogs kill more livestock than wolves.

If we can beyond this notion that wolves are a threat to the Idaho livestock industry, one can easily question why we are spending tax dollars at all to kill wolves. The money spent trying to kill wolves is likely greater than the value of the livestock losses.  Not to mention that ranchers are compensated already for any livestock losses due to wolves.

Beyond this issue of solving a problem that does not exist, there is new science that suggests that killing wolves can actually increase livestock depredation. The reason is simple. Wolves are social animals. They work cooperatively in packs to bring down large mammals. If you kill some pack members, you reduce the efficiency of that pack in capturing prey.  A pack in disarray is far more likely to kill livestock. Indeed, one study in Wisconsin demonstrated that smaller packs were more likely to kill livestock than larger packs.

Killing wolves (or any predator) skews the population towards younger animals. Younger animals are less skillful at hunting and often less wary. Both of which can contribute to greater human conflicts.

Another argument given for killing wolves is hunter appeasement. The idea is that if you kill wolves—as Wildlife Services is doing in the Lolo Pass area—you will garner more tolerance for wolves among hunters.

Yet research, again in Wisconsin, calls into question that assertion. There, once wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species Act and the state initiated a hunting season, acceptance of wolves among hunters actually declined.  Another recent study also showed that poaching of wolves actually increased after hunting was initiated.

A third argument given for wolf killings is that without legal control wolves will decimate wild prey populations. The evidence does not substantiate this claim.  In Montana in 1992, there were 89,000 elk in the state, and in 2016 their numbers had risen to 167,000 despite the presence of 500-600 wolves.  Idaho has seen similar outcomes. In 2014 hunters killed 12,000 more deer than any time since 1992 and more elk since 2005. What this suggests is that hunting opportunity is certainly not hurting due to the presence of wolves.

The justifications for lethal wolf control simply do not exist. And why US taxpayers should be spending our tax dollars to kill an animal that only recently was taken off the Endangered Species list begs answers.

Hopefully the law suit will force Wildlife Services to evaluate its underlying assumptions and conclude its war on predators is no longer valid. If it merely rehashes its same old justifications, than this is one agency that taxpayers should no longer support with our hard earned dollars.


  1. rork Avatar

    The third argument actually is that removing wolves can increase ungulate numbers locally. What I’ll agree to is that since the ungulates are not endangered, WS has little business helping Idaho with what is the state’s game management – that’s their problem. I’m not sure WS does help with that though, so I’m not sure this third argument even matters to the lawsuit. Teach me better.

    “there is new science that suggests that killing wolves can actually increase livestock depredation”, but is it any good? I hypothesize that if you choose the right wolves to kill, it’ll decrease depredation.

  2. Brett Haverstick Avatar

    This is an important lawsuit, indeed, particularly coming off the heels of the federal ruling in Washington and the lawsuit recently filed in Oregon. The Idaho WS is also releasing a new EA soon for their wildlife killing program in Idaho. It will be interesting to see if that document is deemed adequate and legally defensible.

  3. Rich Avatar


    And that of course is the problem. “Right Wolves” are much more difficult to identify than “Right Whales”. The WS solution is to just kill ‘em all. That was the approach early in the last century and we did manage to pretty much extirpate them from the lower 48. The record shows that humans did a pretty good number on the whales as well in around the same time frame. Clearly humans can have significant impact on other species but one would hope that it would be in a positive direction, especially when taxpayers are footing the bill.

    1. rork Avatar

      “The WS solution is to just kill ‘em all. That was the approach early in the last century”
      First part is not factual, and second part is irrelevant.

      1. Rich Avatar

        “I hypothesize that if you choose the right wolves to kill, it’ll decrease depredation.”

        Perhaps you can explain how “you choose the right wolves to kill” so innocent wolves are no longer killed. Currently wolves are routinely destroyed in many areas of Idaho and Montana by WS regardless of culpability and at significant taxpayer expense. What is irrelevant about that? Where are your facts? And what is the relevance of your naive statement quoted above?

        1. rork Avatar

          “Early in the last century” is what I claimed was irrelevant. Get it now?
          The relevance is obvious: George is claiming removing wolves causes increased depredations based on very weak evidence, and not conditioned on the methods employed – there’s more than one way to do things. Examples. If we kill a hell of allot of wolves, depredations will go down just cause there would be many fewer wolves. If we remove entire packs that are predating sheep, depredation might decrease as well. Just shooting offending alphas (supply a different word if you like) may be a bad strategy though. Calling my statement naive but forgetting to say why is interesting.

          1. Rich Avatar


            “Examples. If we kill a hell of allot of wolves, depredations will go down just cause there would be many fewer wolves. If we remove entire packs that are predating sheep, depredation might decrease as well.”

            Perhaps you should reread George’s essay and your comments that triggered my response. You said “I hypothesize that if you choose the right wolves to kill, it’ll decrease depredation.”.

            But now you are saying that “If we kill a hell of allot of wolves, depredations will go down just cause there would be many fewer wolves. If we remove entire packs that are predating sheep, depredation might decrease as well.”

            So which is it? Do we kill “a hell of allot of wolves” or the “right” wolf? Actually there have been several studies on the adverse impact of randomly killing wolves and cougars and the consequences from a depredation standpoint. There are many reasons for this and I’ll leave that up to you to do the research. In my own case when the resident bears that had been peacefully living on and around my property were unnecessarily trapped and killed, they were quickly replaced by bears that did considerable (several thousand $’s worth) damage on my farm. The reason that happened is that bears, as well as other predators, tend to be territorial and if you remove the good actors you risk creating problems. As a taxpayer and a farmer I don’t enjoy paying taxes to create problems What is your experience that would justify spending our taxes on tilting at windmills?

            The reason your statement “if you choose the right wolves to kill, it’ll decrease depredation.“ is naive is simple. It is equivalent to saying “if you choose the right lottery numbers you can win millions of $’s”. Now do you get it?

            1. Immer Treue Avatar
              Immer Treue

              Please allow me to enter the fray. The Weilgus study, which rork and I both feel need some more support from elsewhere, pretty much supports rorks point. Killing a few wolves may serve to increase depredations, killing more than 25% over long periods of time will cause depredations to decrease. Removing entire packs…


              1. Rich Avatar


                Unfortunately killing 25% of the wolves involves a lot of killing at taxpayer expense and may not kill the “right” wolf. It certainly does not address the major cause of livestock losses such as disease, domestic dogs, poor husbandry and weather. If we need to find something to spend our tax dollars on, wouldn’t it be more effective to address those issues to get at the real root of livestock losses?

                I think the point George makes in his essay and the environmental groups are attempting to make with their lawsuit is that this is the 21st Century and we must find more creative and less costly solutions to managing and living with our native wildlife and preserving a functioning ecosystem.

                1. Immer Treue Avatar

                  I’m not disagreeing with you, but am siting a source, premature as it May be, that supports your point.

                  The costs of removal more
                  Often than not exceeds the value of lost livestock

            2. rork Avatar

              It is equivalent to saying something something something my eye. You don’t seem to know what hypothesize means. I know what you are saying about random killing – I’m not nearly saying do it randomly, I’m saying quite the opposite. My first example is just an example to prove that how you do it does matter. My second example, which you seemed to conveniently ignore, was for real. But I surely admit that our knowledge about exactly what’s best is very limited, just as our knowledge about how bad doing it badly is very limited (my original point).
              I think you just like being combative.

              1. rork Avatar

                I guess my first example is not just to make a point. You can use a mixture of strategies depending on where. Take WY, WI, MN: keep wolves scarcer where there’s lots of livestock.

  4. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    What I would like to see in these pieces:
    1. Maps: livestock losses in wolf zones (included all mortality causes) compared to livestock losses (all mortality causes), with supporting statistics.

    2. Maps or charts comparing elk population increases, decreases, and stabile populations in wolf zones and non-wolf zones, again with supporting statistics.

    3. Sources in regard to new science suggesting… Is it just one study, or is it supported by others?

    Local wolf impact cannot be compared to the entire state, just as wolves cannot be scapegoated for all that befalls elk and livestock.

  5. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Local wolf impact cannot be compared to the entire state, just as wolves cannot be scapegoated for all that befalls elk and livestock.

    The eternal question.

  6. MAD Avatar

    This is all you need to know about Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG), wolves and elk:

    In the Summer of 2014, 2 wildlife Biologists (not employed by IDFG) submitted a proposal to IDFG regarding elk. The Biologists proposed to combine the more than two dozen datasets of info that IDFG possessed that were stressors (impacts) on elk in Idaho into a comprehensive GIS model. This would synthesize everything a model that would actually have been an adaptive neural network, capable of projecting movements and population densities of elk throughout the state, based upon data previously collected.

    Initially, the 2 biologists recommended a 2 year program – 6 to 9 months to build the computer model and the remaining time to assess the operation of the program compared to continually collected data. IDFG said they were not willing to fund a multi-year project and requested a 1 year proposal instead of a 2 year. The proposal was rewritten with a one year time frame and submitted.

    IDFG responded with yet another request – instead of one year, they would only fund 6 months of work, with a GIS model being built with only one stressor or impact (of the more than 2 dozen) on elk. That stressor/impact was wolves.

    The offer by IDFG was summarily rejected by the lead biologist for 2 reasons:
    1) any model with only one stressor was inherently invalid and therefore “bad science”; especially if this was to be used to influence/inform State policy
    2) since a model based on such limited data would be useless and invalid, the reputation of the 2 biologists would be impugned and damaged within the scientific community.

    Needless to say, IDFG did not commission the comprehensive GIS model and have never had any intention to seriously look at the issues relating to elk population densities throughout the state.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      This is worse than one could have thought. 🙁


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner