HFW's Response to the news of the USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services budget extension request

October 21, 2017
Maureen Hackett, MD


On October 18, Minnesota Senators Klobuchar and Franken, and US Representatives Peterson, Walz, Nolan, and Emmer signed a letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund an 11-week extension of the USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services to bait and kill wolves in areas where livestock have been killed by predation. The killing is done by baiting and trapping in the area in response to a livestock loss by a wolf, as confirmed by the agency. Minnesota’s lawmakers cited an increased need for more wolf killing as due to a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wolf estimate that alleges a 25% increase in the states’ wolf population.

The Wildlife Services branch of the USDA-APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Services) in Grand Rapids, MN has run out of operational funds 11 weeks before the end of the year, citing an increased number of wolves killed, up from 179 per year on average to 197 wolves this year. Note that it is the wolves that are being killed in increasing numbers. In fact, we now know that the actual complaints are down by 27% over last year. This agency has been known to spend its annual budget by the late fall because the peak season for problems with livestock and wolves is between May and September. The connection between a "surging" wolf population and Wildlife Services running out of money is completely misleading. Complaints are actually down, and wolf estimates are still lower than they were 10 years ago.

USDA-APHIS kills wolves in response to confirmed livestock losses by baiting all the wolves in an area. There is no information obtained as to whether the baited wolves are “offending” wolves. Wildlife Services now kills 2-3 wolves per confirmed predation on livestock instead of 1-2 wolves killed per complaint 10 years ago. The fact that the Grand Rapids based Wildlife Services has used their budget because they are killing more wolves can be due to many factors including the fact that they are killing more wolves in response to each individual confirmed predation on livestock. In essence—they are a lethal first model instead of a lethal last model. Killing wolves leads can lead to more livestock killing. A program that seeks to reduce conflicts with livestock solely by killing wolves is counter-productive and risks repeating the mistakes of the 1800’s. Research has demonstrated that lethal responses to wolf predation on livestock is associated with more livestock lost the following year. This occurs up until so many wolves are killed (about 25% of the population) that ethey are no longer able to reproduce enough to show this effect. This is thought due to the destabilization of packs to such a point that they cannot hunt effectively or never have the opportunity to learn, resulting in a reliance on livestock as a food source. In essence, killing wolves kills livestock. Minnesota's own data back to 1988, as reported by the USDA's Wildlife Services supports this finding. Most years showing increased predation on livestock follows years where higher numbers of wolves were killed in Minnesota.

Ironically, this request for increased funds for lethal methods comes just days after the announcement from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture of a Wolf-Livestock Conflict Prevention Grant which provides reimbursement for farmers and livestock producers who implement nonlethal methods to reduce and prevent wolf-livestock encounters. In Minnesota, farmers who are willing to attempt to avoid problems with wolves and by extension stabilize the wolf population now have funding for nonlethal prevention methods. Ultimately this has been shown to be less expensive and to reduce conflicts and thus unnecessary wolf killing. Lethal methods must be the last resort because baiting wolves to the area where the conflicts occurred, is the exact opposite of what nonlethal deterrence does. Nonlethal methods are meant to keep the wolf away by setting up a boundary using various scare methods and even guard animals. It is the goal of nonlethal to stop or at least slow the wolf and livestock killing cycle by letting the packs stabilize and learn to avoid these areas.

The lawmakers’ request for more funding to bait and trap wolves refers to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) headline that the wolf population has increased by 25%. It is ludicrous to claim that an increased population of the gray wolf has led to an apocalypse scenario for Minnesota's livestock. The DNR’s estimate of wolf numbers is not a “count.”  It is a statistical method that has never been confirmed to actually reflect the real numbers of wolves in MN.

The “bipartisan” support for continued and increased funds for lethal methods was announced by citing the need to protect people and pets due to the "increased" wolf numbers. This appears to be these politicians' supporting our farmers. We agree that farmers in Minnesota should be supported in their tolerance for the wolf. We especially appreciate the nonlethal funding that was passed into law this past spring by our state lawmakers. Now we hope that the lethal methods will be reduced and used as a last resort while we attempt to engage more interest in using nonlethal prevention methods. This all comes at a time when the federal endangered species protection of the wolf is in jeopardy. The Minnesota federal lawmakers who are co-sponsoring bills to remove the federal protection of the wolf are those who are also advocating for the increased funding for lethal methods. We hope to engage these particular lawmakers into further understanding that wolf killing can make matters worse for farmers which is why we are supporting a "nonlethal first" policy.