What wolves do, and why

Written by Jayson Jacoby October 18, 2010 09:13 am

By RUSSELL VINEYARD
Baker City Herald

Wolves are opportunists.

They’ll kill what they can.

That was one of the points of emphasis made by Timmothy Kaminski, who works for the Mountain Livestock Cooperative in Jackson, Wyo., during a presentation in September at the Eltrym Theatre.

The Cooperative’s vision, according to its Web site (www.nrccooperative.org/), is to “develop a practical ‘working model’ to reduce large carnivore-livestock conflicts across foothill and mountain landscapes in Western North America.”

“My interest in doing this is to help folks understand some of the things that go into wildlife conservation,” Kaminski said during his presentation.

About 50 people attended the event.


In 1984, wolf introduction plans were created in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana (wolves were released in those states about a decade later).

At that time it was believed that wolves tended not to attack livestock when other prey, primarily elk and deer, was available.

“This is all nonsense,” Kaminski said.

What’s become clear in the past 15 years, he said, is that wolves look at livestock as another native prey species.

Seven of 10 wolf packs in the three-state region have home ranges that overlap livestock grazing allotments, Kaminski said.

Four of those seven wolf packs have repeatedly attacked livestock, he said.

Some of those wolves have been tracked by way of GPS collars. The animals exhibited a clear pattern, spending quite a bit of time in grazing areas and around places where ranchers dispose of dead cattle — often without burying the animals.

Wolves are quite capable of learning patterns, Kaminski said.

For instance, if a rancher consistently moves cattle between allotments at the same time each year, wolves will figure out the schedule.

“Wolves learn to associate livestock as prey,” Kaminski said.

What makes the livestock easy prey for wolves is how they behave when confronted.

Unlike elk, deer and bison, which form tight groups and fight back, cattle tend to be more widely dispersed and flee when wolves are present.

In Canada and in the northern Rocky Mountains, studies have shown that cattle in tighter groups are attacked by wolves less often than cattle that are widely dispersed.

“Deer that the wolves are hunting will get in the middle of dispersed cattle, and wolves end up depredating on the livestock,” Kaminski said.

Sheep are even easier prey for wolves.

Fleeing could be the killer. Wolves are better able to perform the killing blow if their prey is in motion. An animal standing its ground is less likely to see an attack versus one that is trying to get away.

Kaminski said wolves will test the response of animals, approaching them aggressively and then backing off, trying to spur the animals into fleeing.

This behavior would likely be happening days or weeks before ranchers find a kill.

“When you see cows group together, keeping the calves in the middle, it’s a good indicator they’ve been harassed,” he said.

Kaminski said a wolf that has preyed on livestock can teach other wolves in a pack to do the same.

In the northern Rocky Mountains, 83 percent of wolf depredation is on beef calves, he said.

Calves, when confronted by wolves, often flee the safety of the herd.

Kaminski said conflicts between ranchers and wolves have been going on for centuries.

“In Canada they shoot wolves on sight while interacting with cattle. The difference between there and here is they’ve been doing it for years and it isn’t working,” he said. “Wolves are still attacking.”

Kaminski recommends ranchers keep their animals in tight groups, especially at night, rather than allowing them to disperse.

He also said one of the most effective ways to reduce wolf depredation is to avoid falling into predictable patterns of grazing, and to keep cattle away from places where carcasses are buried or otherwise disposed of.

“Wolves will spend 50 percent of their time in boneyards used by ranchers,” Kaminski said.