Wolves in the West are collateral damage of human selfishness

Agricultural interests bend the language to blame wolves for things they didn’t do.

Whenever my life seems difficult, all I have to do is think about the challenges that predators face here in the American West and suddenly I don’t feel so bad anymore.

Thanks in part to what Idaho Fish and Game describes as the state’s “liberalized wolf hunting and trapping season,” Idaho is currently vying for the title of Most Barbaric when it comes to its treatment of wolves. The state has no bag limit or season for wolves on public land, which means that hunters can kill as many wolves as they want, provided they have tags for them. And what is the life of a wolf worth in the great state of Idaho? $13.50.

The situation is even worse on private lands, where “hunters” can use bait and shoot wolves with whatever gun they want (including automatic weapons and shotguns), whenever they want (night or day, January thru December), and use hounds as well as vehicles to pursue them. So much for fair chase, aye Idaho?

To be fair, Idaho is not alone in its race to the bottom. While Utah hides and waits and Colorado approaches the starting line, Montana is neck and neck with the Potato State. Washington and Oregon aren’t far behind. And Wyoming, where wolves can be killed on sight without a license in over 85% of the state, hit rock bottom long ago. Let’s face it, the American West is a hostile and terrible place for wolves and other predators.

Wolves in particular are imperiled far in excess of the challenges of everyday life. They live in a war zone, not as combatants, but as the collateral damage of human selfishness. But wars aren’t waged just with bullets. They are also fought with words or, more specifically, disinformation, a fact that I was again reminded of when reading news accounts of two wolves that allegedly “caused a sheep pile-up in a steep gully, killing 143 ewes and lambs” in the Boise River Wildlife Management area.

Tri-State Livestock News’ June 2 article “143 ewes, lambs killed by wolves near Shaw Mountain, Idaho,” may not have been the first news outlet to run the story, but it is emblematic of the skewed coverage to follow. The disinformation begins with the article’s lead, which becomes apparent after reading the first sentence of the article: “Two adult wolves trying to attack a band of sheep grazing on the backside of Shaw Mountain caused a sheep pile-up in a steep gully, killing 143 ewes and lambs, state and federal officials confirmed this week” (emphasis added).

Contrary to what the lead would have us believe, however, careful readers would likely conclude that the pile-up, and not the wolves, caused the sheep’s deaths. This reading is further supported when the article reports that the sheep “fell into the steep gully to their death,” and then again when Frank Shirts, the rancher, says that the “[wolves] didn’t consume anything. The sheep just suffocated in the pileup and died.”

Despite these apparent contradictions, this article and others like it remain steadfast in their portrayal of this unfortunate event as a wolf predation, which raises some important questions, including how we are ever going to solve our problems if we can’t agree on the meaning of predation.

Suppose we give Shirts and his supporters the benefit of the doubt and assume that their understanding of causation is correct, and that the wolves are necessarily responsible for the sheep’s deaths. What is stopping us from attributing the cause to an even more distant factor? That is, why stop at the wolves? Why not follow the causal chain back to 1995 and blame the people who “imported” the wolves to Idaho from Canada?

Or why not instead blame Shirts and other ranchers who, despite knowing the risks, run their sheep in wildlife — not livestock — management areas where, owing to their fragility, they stand a good chance of dying? See how quickly this line of thinking runs its course and brings us right back to where we started?

This is the problem of the impasse: The further away we get from the facts, in this case, of causation and how predation really works, what it really means, the less likely we will be to understand what is going on and, as importantly, act on what we know.

The agricultural community and its sympathizers’ penchant for distorting, omitting or ignoring information that doesn’t neatly comport with its worldview underscores the importance of responsible reporting, linguistic fealty, and incentivizing good-faith dialoguing. But that’s not going to happen as long as the press tries to convince reasonable people that words don’t mean what they mean and reality is something that it is not.

Maximilian Werner

Maximilian Werner

Maximilian Werner is an associate professor and lecturer of writing and rhetoric studies at the University of Utah.






  1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Another thing that could be said about wolves and sheep, or really just sheep alone, is that sheep are stupid animals that have a hard time staying alive under the best of circumstances.

    1. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
      Frank Krosnicki

      OK Ralph, glad you clarified that!

  2. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
    Frank Krosnicki

    Mr Werner, a well written article that is appreciated. I will never understand the hatred for the Wolf, or the apparent pleasure that some “people” get out of wanton killing of anything, coyotes included.

  3. Rosemary Lowe Avatar

    Professor Werner understands the horrible reality of what wolves, coyotes and other innocent wildlife face everyday, across this country –from California to Maine.
    It is disgusting that in the 21st Century, wolves & other so-called predators are still labeled with the “Big Bad Wolf” lie. The Predator Killing Machine is alive and well across this country. Here in New Mexico,& elsewhere, weapons of various kinds are used to kill animals, including AR’s.
    A few years ago a hunting article in a local newspaper stated… “and hunters, don’t forget those hunting rifles, etc., in your locked closet, along with that leg-hold trap, which you can use to get a coyote while waiting in your deer blind.”
    In southern NM, Mexican Wolves are not doing well, as the livestock industry down there uses whatever means to slaughter wolves, coyotes, etc. AR’s are also used regularly for killing prairie dogs.

    I’m sure that none of my comments are new to anyone reading these comments.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Rosemary, WordPress just told me that I should check out your blog, but it didn’t give its name or address. Could you post it for all of us to see? Thanks.

      1. Rosemary Lowe Avatar

        Previous post should have linked to http://www.foranimals.org

  4. Jerry Thiessen Avatar
    Jerry Thiessen

    I agree that domestic sheep are fragile and, it seems,just looking for a place to die. I also have an aversion to domestic livestock on public land no matter the place or type. But, I disagree with using the term “barbaric” to describe killing wolves. It might be unreasonable or misguided but it’s no more barbaric than killing millions of critters to satisfy our craving for meat or to pursue our interests in hunting or fishing. There is no such thing as a benevolent or kindly way to take the life of a wild critter.

    1. Max Werner, Sr. Avatar
      Max Werner, Sr.

      Or cows, horses, sheep, pigs, chickens, birds, et al. . .

  5. Michael J Higgins Avatar
    Michael J Higgins

    Good for you! Mr. Werner. .Pls. keep it up.


  6. Louise Kane Avatar

    To add to the list of woes wolves face alongside human arrogance and cruelty, you might mention dodging fires…

    The question is, how does this end?

    The cultural shift in acceptable politics (lie, cheat, deny and lie more) is reflected in the new predator hunting crowd that believe it is a god given right to kill, use automatic weapons and to terrorize, maim and destroy.

    There has been a shift and “traditional hunters” can not claim otherwise and pass a red face test. Until they are stopped and the good guys become adept, mobilize, collaborate and advertise the carnage to the right audiences nothing will change.

    It’s a war and while the wolves are losing, we are losing more. Humans become more and more appalling and barbaric even as the planet is dying and species populations plummet.

    It is awful to witness.

  7. max werner, Sr. Avatar
    max werner, Sr.

    The decimation of wolves, with total blindness to the value of this remarkable species on this planet confounds me. . .

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Yes, thank you.

    It’s just so incredibly disappointing and sad. Montana has been the biggest disappointment, while never great – at least there was a little hope for. Now their governor breaks the states own hunting laws by trapping wolves without a proper license!

    I did see two or three versions of this story about the sheep, and I had to ask myself “who was watching them?” I didn’t get beyond the headlines, because this sort of thing comes up every little while. But it also does seem that we read this sort of ‘character assassination’ type stores about wolves, but at least when it is done in human politics, people can defend themselves from it.

    It’s also sad that we cannot rely on either party to protect the country’s diminishing wildlife.

    When the nation is distracted by other issues, beware – that’s when the wolf haters sneak in with legislation!

  9. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine


    I had read ‘two wolves kill 143 sheep’ as the first headline and just rolled my eyes, and filed it away with the ‘Canadian wolves’ and the ‘200 member pack of superwolves in Russia’ type stories that come up every little while.

    Then the headline changed to two wolves chased 143 sheep into a ravine. But who was watching the sheep? That is the question.

    I live near a farm that had a llama who was a better range rider. I went to see them, one saw me and cried, they all herded together into one big group, and the llama ca a’runnin’.

    These people just want to sanitize the landscape so they won’t have to do much of anyting.

    1. Marla Swanson Avatar
      Marla Swanson

      These are simple people with simplistic reasoning. Oh! Woves (put in any predator) are causing me trouble! Get rid of them. No deeper thought than that. No ecological reasoning or thought behind their cruelty. Shallow and superficial. The article is excellent and speaks about the complexity of reining in the non-thinkers. Wild Horse and burro advocates are also struggling with other advocates that want to eradicate through sterilization, limiting the gene pool and seriously disrupting the herd politics. For those that advocate for sterilization one must follow the money from the drugs. Their cover-up is complicated but their thoughts are still simple.

  10. Maximilian Werner Avatar
    Maximilian Werner

    Thanks to all of you for your comments. I’m at the point in my life where nothing is more important than defending animals that, as Ida so poignantly pointed out, cannot defend themselves. If anyone knows of any organizations that would benefit from my particular skill set, please let me know. Maximilian Werner

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Have you looked at peer.org?

      1. Maximilian Werner Avatar
        Maximilian Werner

        Just now. Looks like they do good work, but they aren’t currently hiring. I’ll keep an eye out. Thank you for the tip. MW

  11. Beeline Avatar

    “All governments suffer a recurring problem. Power attracts pathological personalities.” Frank Herbert

    We look to government to fix bad environmental/ecological situations but is clear that only the well moneyed corporate folks have a seat at that table. And those people have defined living/life as an economic endeavor. Doing the “right thing” to them is to bring in dollars and promote opportunities for their cronies to do the same. NGO’s hang around them like hungry mosquitoes looking for a another blood meal.

    Our animal relatives are pawns in the game. As an example, the Department of Agriculture’s wildlife services has posted its information on how many animals they killed/euthanized in 2021. Here are a few of the results.

    Coyotes-63,965 beavers- 24,683 mourning doves-19,170 black-tailed prairie dogs-10,775 killdeer plovers-3,408 American crows-3.852 Canada geese-26,696 American robin-525…….. .

    The above agency took in 188,924,314 dollars in 2021, If one divides the total number of animals killed into this figure you get $107.50 each. That’s pretty pricey and it speaks of of total disrespect for living things. Is it any wonder that the U.S. is experiencing tragedy after tragedy because life is not respected.

    I have never been threatened by a plover or robin or even a coyote for that matter. It makes me wonder how low the people in positions of power will sink and how much degradation of life the populace will take before the ‘wholesale’ slaughter ends.

  12. Carter Niemeyer Avatar
    Carter Niemeyer

    Thank you Max for speaking out. I just want to add that I live in Boise and traveled to Shaw Mountain for a look see…. People need a few additional details that might be helpful.

    The event resulting in 143 dead sheep happened in around May 11 but the news was not shared with the public until Wildlife Services had three weeks to attempt killing any wolves in the area. Seems they were unable to find any by June 1 when their kill permit with IDFG was terminated.

    The shock and awe of this event was the news reporting that credited two wolves with 143 dead sheep that were never bitten or eaten. The sheep piled up and we’ll never truly know what the cause was but it was NOT a predation event when a direct attack on the sheep did not occur or could not be documented.

    I walked out the area and found no evidence of wolves from the past fall, winter and early spring. IF wolves lived in that area there would be ample sign of wolf scat and some old/new tracks. I found nothing. Lots of coyote sign though. And let’s remember this area where the sheep were grazing and died is within the Boise River Wildlife Management Area – an assortment of public lands set aside as prime mule deer winter range – a wildlife area, not a livestock priority other than the sheep apparently get to legally graze within the area on their way to Boise National Forest – more public land.

    In my opinion, the area where the sheep reportedly died is not wolf country (maybe wolves visit occasionally as they disperse through the area). Standing on Shaw Mountain a person is approximately 3.5 miles from the north end of Boise where the subdivisions stop (more going up all the time). Line of sight, looking down on the city of Boise, it is grassland/foothills with no trees and laced with hiking trails – I met hikers, bikers and vehicles on top of Shaw Mountain. Lots of human activity – not wolf country. Lots of chokecherry so I would assume good bear habitat seasonally.

    The bottomline in my opinion – why are non-native domestic sheep allowed in a wildlife management area only to be allowed to graze steep terrain, pileup or otherwise risk survival with a couple of sheep herders and a couple of guard dogs that RESULTS in native wolves being blamed for the attack and retaliation/retribution reactions by the state and federal agencies attempting to kill the wolves???? I will never understand how non-native livestock can be pushed into predominant wildlife habitat, yet native predators are killed for interacting with that livestock accidentally or purposely…… sheep attract predators but on our public lands we shouldn’t be killing the predators. It is a risk that livestock are exposed to over and over again – a century old practice in the US of killing predators in retaliation to conflicts with livestock.

    Domestic sheep on Boise National Forest result in many predator deaths each grazing season. Wolves have been hammered on Boise National Forest and many packs I was familiar with over the last couple of decades cease to exist. Last year Wildlife Service killed a half dozen wolf pups from the Timberline wolf pack in their den and rendezvous site due to domestic sheep…. Timberline High School student are angry and fed up that their mascot wolf pack has been decimated on national forest due to livestock grazing…….

    Thank you Max for pointing out the facts and keeping this issue in front of the public……… as some of the news reports on the 143 dead sheep suggest….. “the public needs to know.”

  13. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Thank you, Mr. Niemeyer.

    I wish there was a way to ask that any news outlet that printed this ridiculous story would retract it, they shouldn’t be able to get away with something as unethical as this. Letters to the editor, something.

  14. Rich Avatar

    Does anyone know whether the rancher was reimbursed for the loss of the sheep?

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      143 sheep and disappearing wolves? Sounds more and more like a ‘loup garou’, thé more i read about it. LOL
      (Humor is the best weapon against political fiction)

  15. Rosemary Lowe Avatar

    One of the most useful resources on the biotic destruction of natural resources on Western rangelands is Lynn Jacobs’ “Waste of the West: Public Lands Ranching.”
    His work on the total destructiveness of domestic sheep/cows on what once were pristine ecosystems was exhaustively researched by Lynn. I don’t think he really received the credit due him for his great efforts, and he quickly became an “enemy” of the ranching industry. But, he never waivered from his work to expose the horrendous environmental damage done very early on to western lands: “Domestic sheep…were especially harmful, when their numbers peaked in the early 1900s. For example, research biologist Don Ness states bluntly that “all of northern Arizona was marvelous antelope range. Then it was sheeped (sic) to hell.”
    In answer to Riche’s question on rancher reimbursement–It is most likely that reimbursements were made, given the history of this “welfare” to the grazing industry:

    Any search on “reimbursement to ranchers for alleged livestock losses” will bring up a plethora of info. The Public Lands Giveaway to the spoiled Livestock Industry is well documented in Jacobs’ work, as well as in “Waste of the West” by George Wuerthner & Mollie Matteson.
    And, it goes on today.

  16. Rich Avatar

    Looks like Rosemary’s assumption was correct. Since no wolves were found could the sheepherders have just been crying wolf to cover up their failure to tend the herd?


    “In the commission’s news release, Shirts said he intended to apply for compensation over the loss of his lambs and ewes in the largest depredation claim in Idaho’s wolf livestock loss program’s history.”

    “Shirts said wolves are “vicious” and never should have been reintroduced to Idaho.”

  17. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    Happened during the day too. You could probably pull the herd up on Maxxar (same tech they use to verify most stuff now) or another earth observation site. 143 of 2500 sheep falling off a cliff should be noticeable, unless it’s out of line of sight.

  18. Rich Avatar


    Great suggestion to use Maxar to attempt to determine the sequence of events. The website says: “High spatial resolution reveals smaller features such as vehicles, buildings and even people—details that impact critical decisions.” Also “Most commercial imagery falls between 2 and 5 meter resolution, with high-resolution sensors capturing at 70, 50 and 30 centimeter resolution.”

    Take a look at the imagery posted on their website showing an image from space using 30 cm resolution:


    So very likely a herd of sheep could be tracked as well as the herders if they were riding horses or ATV’s and perhaps reconstruct what happened in the middle of the day. Since the rancher and herders are contending wolves were the cause hopefully someone will take a look.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I hope so. Thanks to you both for the suggestion!

  19. Rich Avatar

    Dr. Werner,

    I don’t know what is involved in accessing MAXAR visual data but are you considering doing so as Mark suggested above? Seems like this might be a unique opportunity to try to establish whether wolves were at fault rather than just relying on hearsay.

    1. Maximilian S Werner Avatar
      Maximilian S Werner

      Hi Rich,

      I wrote MAXAR about a week ago. Still waiting to hear back. My guess, however, is that even if they have that capability they won’t offer it for free. We will see.

      M. Werner

  20. Mark L Avatar
    Mark L

    And speaking of wolves, a new article about red wolves in Louisiana:

    1. Mark L Avatar
      Mark L

      Wonder if they’d test in Beauregard and Vernon parishes (to the north) or towards Sabine National Willife refuge to west. Less populated and less traffic as roadkill seems to be an issue.


Maximilian Werner is Associate Professor (Lecturer) of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah. He is the author of six books. His seventh book, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Greenhorns — Death and Coexistence in the American West, was published in May. He can be reached at mswerner@gmail.com and @ProfMWerner.

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Maximilian Werner