The dark shape stood watching us. Outlined against the golden stubble of the hayfield, he was the largest dog we had ever seen. He shifted his attention to our sheep. Studying him through the binoculars, we realized we were watching a wolf. The wolf was watching dinner.
When the wolf crossed an invisible barrier, our two Akbash guardian dogs exploded into action. The male placed himself between the wolf and the flock. The female ran in barking pursuit. Although the female was much smaller than the wolf, the wild canine turned and trotted off. None of our cattle-ranching neighbors had guardian dogs. Their calves were easier prey than our protected sheep.
Wolves are an essential part of the ecosystem. A research collaboration among 22 scientific and educational institutions in six countries “shows how the decline in large predators affects everything from habitat loss to pollution, deforestation, carbon sequestration, climate, the spread of disease, and more.”
Reporting on the research on his Supermarket Guru site, Phil Lempert cites two other examples of the impact of the loss of predators at the top of the food chain: “One case details how industrial whaling may have shifted the diet of killer whales, leading to the dramatic decline of sea lions, seals and sea otters. Another details how the loss of lions in Africa has led to a population explosion in olive baboons, which bring intestinal parasites to humans living nearby.”
BC Responding to Fears, Not Statistics
There is nothing pretty about finding the remains of a cow or sheep attacked by wolves. British Columbia livestock breeders are understandably concerned when their already slim margins are narrowed by predation. Ranchers say attacks are increasing. So do First Nations hunters, who say moose and caribou are falling prey to wolves. In Cariboo, the province’s primary cattle country, those groups welcome the decision to allow open season on wolves that stray too near livestock.
However, B.C. Ministry of Agriculture statistics provided to the Vancouver Sun point to an emotional decision not based on statistics. In 2010, “there were 78 verified livestock losses to predators on Crown land across the province last year – the lowest in four years – for which the government paid out $32,931 in compensation.” To put that in perspective, those 78 deaths represent a tiny fraction, .052 percent, of the estimated 150,000 grazing on Crown Land.
Stephen Hume estimates 55 of the 78 deaths could be attributed to wolves. With approximately 525,000 cattle on B.C. farms and ranches (not just those on Crown Land), wolf-caused losses represent slightly over 0.01 percent, about half the number that die on the way to the slaughterhouse or are injured and have to be euthanized. Hume also cites a Canadian study of mortality in beef cattle that put disease as the top livestock killer, statistics similar to those found in the U.S.
He continues, “Meanwhile, a rancher from the Williams Lake area was charged following an SPCA investigation which found 40 of his cattle had starved to death and 130 were severely emaciated – that’s about 0.03 per cent of B.C.’s cattle herd.
“Unfair to blame all ranchers for the behaviour of one individual, ranchers reasonably argue. Exactly. And it’s equally unfair to blame wolves for livestock mortalities on the basis of unverified claims, anecdotal evidence and generalizations which arise from old prejudices.”
Wolves and the Ecosystem
Having seen what wolves can do to livestock, I understand the ranchers’ fears. Few city dwellers have had their bank accounts raided quite so graphically. White-collar greed is more ruthless but less bloody. So the issue of wolf kills deepens the urban/rural divide, with both sides accusing the other of ignorance.
However, the small numbers of cattle taken down by wolves are questionable justification for the province’s removing all hunting restrictions in Cariboo. We humans make a habit of condemning whatever inconveniences us. Rather than viewing the planet as one interconnected, living organism, we kill off the parts that have no immediate value to us.
The result is more than mass extinctions, environmental degradation and climate change. As we squander the gifts our planet offers so freely, we fail to see we are only one small part of the ecosystem and that our future depends on accepting our role as stewards rather than destroyers.
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