Friday, August 18, 2006

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Western cattle scared skinny


BOISE, Idaho -- Since wolves returned to roaming the Northern Rockies more than a decade ago, ranchers say they've observed a trend: Fear of the predators is causing sheep and cattle to be scared skinny. The wolf jitters could mean skimpier lamb chops and porterhouse steaks that show more bone than beef on dinner tables across the country.

''When the cows are scared, they bunch together, they don't spread out like they're used to. They don't eat and drink -- you can just tell they're losing weight,'' said Lloyd Knight, head of the Idaho Cattle Association.

Wildlife officials reintroduced endangered gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the central Idaho mountains in 1995. Though cattle ranchers and wool growers first fretted that the wolves would kill cows and sheep, a decade later, they say their presence wreaks as much havoc as their bite.

Calves fetch $1.45 a pound on the market. So if the howl of wolves inspires just a few lost pounds on each head of cattle, that quickly mounts into large financial losses, Knight said.

Efforts are being made to measure the extent of the problem. In Idaho, the Office of Species Conservation, an agency that compensates ranchers for wolf-related losses, has agreed to pay any rancher who can demonstrate weight loss through record-keeping.

Not everyone agrees. Proving that animal weight loss stems from wolf jitters, and not some other factor such as rangeland health or migration patterns, is difficult if not impossible, said Curt Mack, a biologist with the Nez Perce Indian tribe that has a hand in Idaho's wolf oversight.


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