Friday, August 18, 2006

Blaming wolves: Ranchers' claims need further proof

Salt Lake Tribune Editorial

Most ranchers and sheepherders don't like wolves. You might even say they are the predators' natural enemies. That, of course, is because wolves occasionally dine on a calf or lamb and sometimes even on an adult animal, and that means a financial loss to the rancher.

Advocates for the reintroduction of wolves in the West don't dispute that ranchers can prove some wolf depredation. But their claims that range animals are failing to gain weight because wolves are lurking seem implausible and in need of further study.

Ingrained and often overblown animosity toward wolves resulted in their eradication from the West by cattlemen, sheepmen and their hired guns, who trapped the animals, shot them and poisoned them until the last wolf was killed off in the early 20th century.

More than a decade ago, wolves were reintroduced to rebalance the ecosystems that were upset when the species at the top of the food chain was eliminated. Conservationists and biologists predicted that wolves would reorder natural, beneficial relationships among plants and animals. Studies have proven them right.

The reintroduced wolves have thrived and spread into Wyoming, Idaho, Montana. But their prosperity has fostered a renewed hostility among ranchers, despite private and federal programs to compensate them when they can verify livestock lost to wolf attacks.

The Idaho Office of Species Conservation has agreed to pay for financial losses from animals becoming so nervous they can't eat because they sense the presence of wolves. The nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife rightly says much more research is needed to confirm wolves are to blame since there are many other factors affecting livestock weights.

Biologists point out that sheep and cattle aren't apt to stop grazing when wolves are merely roaming. It makes more sense that livestock would react when a wolf pack is hunting them but revert to normal behavior when there is no threat.

Wolves are a natural component of a healthy West and rightly protected by law. Compensation is due ranchers only when they can prove wolves responsible for a financial loss.

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