Rethinking Wolves

[A talk to the Agricultural Service Boards of Alberta, January 26, 2017
by: Kevin Van Tighem]

I’m here to argue that how we manage carnivores should be based on biology, should be humane, and should advance the public interest. I’m going to focus mostly on wolves. In my view what we’re currently doing doesn’t meet any of those tests. I’ll come back to biology and humaneness but I thought I would start with some thoughts about the public interest. 

This is 2017. Alberta is very different from back when I was in diapers. 

Back then, in the early 1950s, Alberta was a predominantly rural province and agriculture was the heart of its economy. The oil giant was just starting to awaken. Our provincial government was Social Credit, a party whose roots were prairie agrarian. The Provincial Cabinet contained farmers. 

By the time, I became a young adult in the early 1970s, the urbanization of Alberta was well underway. The economy was on crack cocaine with booming oil prices. Resource industries were fast outstripping agriculture in importance. The political face of the province changed accordingly – we elected a government of mostly urban lawyers and oilmen. 

Now as I enter old age, the trend lines have taken us to yet another place. Alberta is overwhelmingly urban, the clock is ticking on the oil economy, agricultural families feel forgotten and our new government represents the socially-diverse, politically-progressive urban centers far more than the agrarian hinterland. With electoral boundary review, we’re going to see that shift to urban power accentuated. If you’re rural, that can feel more than worrisome. But Alberta is not just you, or me; it’s everyone, and most of us are urban animals now. 

So, how might carnivore management serve the public interest today? 

It’s in the public interest to keep people from being injured or killed by potentially dangerous animals. That part of the discussion goes mostly to bears, which I’ll return to briefly towards the end but today I’m focused mostly on wolves. It’s in the public interest, certainly, to ensure that wild predators don’t kill our livestock. But just last month, my MLA tabled a petition signed by over 10,000 Albertans asking for more humane and biologically-sound treatment of wolves. So, it’s also in the public interest, in 2017, to maintain healthy wild populations of those predators across their natural ranges. The petition reflected how much of our province’s population values the role predators play in nature and is concerned about wildlife ethics. There will be those who want to dismiss the petitioners as naïve, misinformed urban idealists. Some are. So, what? They are still Albertans. They are entitled to have their views respected as much as you or me. And anyway, many aren’t. My signature is on that petition and so are several southern Alberta rancher and farmer friends. 

There is another piece of the public interest that I think applies here. We hear a lot about social license in discussions about our bitumen, oil and gas industries. You can’t secure and protect markets for your goods, and permissions to operate on the landscape, if you don’t have social license to operate. Basically, people need to think what you are doing is legitimate and, if not necessary to them, at least acceptable for them to tolerate. 

Social license is an ongoing issue in agriculture too. We see it in challenges to GMOs, the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in meat production, factory-farming and so on. Those are all social license issues. When I was a toddler in the 1950s farming and ranching had no substantial social license problems; it was how Albertans saw Alberta. It isn’t like that now. 

I recently attended a meeting of the Porcupine Hills Coalition, a group of people who have pulled together to make sure the Alberta government gets its sub-regional land use plans for the Porcupine Hills and upper Oldman right (for a change.) I looked around the table and saw several cattle ranchers, some acreage owners, land trust representatives, biologists, and representatives of the major Alberta environmental groups. It struck me that I was seeing the product of a remarkable kind of social license building. 

Thirty years ago, those ranchers would not have been in the same room as those environmentalists. Thirty years ago, as one of those environmentalists, I was publishing essays like “The Curse of the Cow” calling for cattle to be pulled out of Alberta public lands and forest reserves. We were adversaries. Now we’re allies. Environmental groups, in case you haven’t been paying attention lately, are increasingly lined up in support of public lands ranching in the Alberta foothills. That’s a man-bites-dog story in the Alberta I used to know and it came about, I believe, largely because of Cows and Fish. 

Cows and Fish happened because of bold people in the ranching community and bold people in the conservation community who decided to get out of their echo chambers and into each other’s lives. The ranchers stopped making excuses and acknowledged that their cattle can do a lot of damage to creek bottoms if left to their own devices. The conservationists stopped pointing fingers and acknowledged that ranchers care about stewardship and know a thing or two about livestock. 

Most of you know the story. Where Cows and Fish projects came together, streams got healthier, riparian areas recovered, and forage production and herd health improved too. And adversaries became friends. And ranching strengthened its social license with a growing sector of society that had spent much of the late twentieth century antagonistic to it. 

I would argue it’s in Alberta’s public interest to manage carnivores not only to reduce conflicts with and costs to agriculture, but also in ways that contribute to the social license for agriculture. Agriculture is important socially, economically and, in the case of range livestock production, ecologically. But there are other ways to use rural land and if agriculture loses social license, those other land uses could take over in a changing Alberta. Already, Brad Stelfox’s analysis of economic and land use trends says that rural residential subdivision is the biggest threat to near-urban and foothills agriculture. But, at least in Cows and Fish country, the ranchers aren’t defending the land from subdivision on their own any more. 

So, I think the public interest in carnivores revolves around keeping their populations viable and visible, keeping them from depredating on domestic livestock, and strengthening the social license for rural agriculture in an increasingly-urbanized world that judges failure harshly. 

So, let’s hold that thought and move on to biology and ethics and, again, I’m going to focus mostly on wolves here because they have always been controversial and challenging, and because I’ve spent most of my adult life among and around them. 

Wolves are like us in some ways, except that none are vegan. They are strongly family-oriented, they are social and territorial animals, they learn by trial and error and apply that learning to improving their life skills, they are capable of affection and grief, and they are often very difficult to get along with. 
So: like us. 

Somewhere in deep history, that similarity led us to bond with wolf ancestors to the extent that we adopted dogs as favoured companions. But just as we are often conflicted in our human relationships, so it is with canids. We may see the dog as man’s best friend, but many of us see the wolf as our worst enemy. Many do; others sentimentalize the wolf as a wild spirit – sort of like dog-elves. 

Wolves are just wolves, but most of us simply can’t see them that way. Nonetheless, as with everything else on this planet, we have assumed responsibility for managing them. 

The smart way to manage wild animals is to be very clear on what you are managing them for, and then to work with their biology to get the results you want. 

In my view, then, Alberta is a shining example of profoundly mis-managing wolves. We have it almost completely wrong. We aren’t clear on what we are managing for, and the things we then do in the name of management have the perverse effect of turning their biology back on us and compounding the problems one might assume we are trying to solve. 

In terms of management objectives, we say we are trying to prevent wolf problems. In reality, we are trying to keep wolf numbers down. Those are not the same thing, but muddled thinking makes us equate one with the other. The wolf problems we are concerned with here, I would argue, are the killing and displacement of domestic livestock. Others might say human safety or depredation of game herds are also wolf problems. Human safety is not, although I can’t understand why. We’d be so easy to catch, it seems strange wolves almost never try. I would argue that in Alberta depredation of game herds is not an issue either, with the complicated exception of some badly-impaired caribou ranges. We have deer, elk, bighorn sheep and moose coming out of our ears compared to when I was young; where’s the problem? 

So, that leaves livestock depredation, and wolves can certainly cause problems in cattle and sheep country. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. They get killed regardless. That’s a problem. 

In the 1990s I worked in Waterton Lakes National Park as a conservation biologist. During my time, there, three young female wolves, all radio-collared, dispersed into the area from Montana (the fools: they were protected there!) and became the founding alpha females of three separate wolf packs. We called them the Belly, Beauvais and Carbondale packs based on their den locations. I tell the story in more depth in my book, but suffice it to say that soon I was working with Alberta Fish and Wildlife and the Blood Tribe on a wolf-monitoring initiative. We kept track of the collared wolf packs and also tracked livestock losses. A lot of the producers in the area figured disaster was about to befall the cattle industry as a result of those wolves. 

Alberta’s wide-open wolf-killing policies combined with a lot of local paranoia resulted in a blitz of wolf-killing. Over the next sixteen months 54 wolves were killed in the area. That included all the Belly, Beauvais and Carbondale wolves. Ironic, because those wolves were never associated with a single livestock loss, other than a possible kill of one calf in the Carbondale. Meantime, a small group of uncollared wolves – apparently four in total – killed or maimed over thirty head of cattle just north of our area in the Breeding Valley area. The last three of those wolves finally succumbed to poison because without radio collars the problem wildlife officers couldn’t locate them. They caused all the problems, but were the last to die. 

A few years later a friend of mine took over management of a large grazing coop north of the Breeding Valley area. He soon learned that he had a pack of 8 wolves in his area and that they had seven pups. As he learned his way around the landscape and its wildlife over the next couple years, he started to have some losses to wolf predation. In 2003 things got ugly; he lost 28 head that year to wolves. It didn’t help that an old grizzly was following the pack around and expropriating their kills, forcing them to kill again sooner than they would have otherwise. 

There were radio collars in that pack too, as a result of a different study. The collars enabled Joe, his neighbours and Fish and Wildlife to whittle the pack down to just four or five animals by 2005. The pack produced pups again that year. Joe knew his way around by then, so he made it a habit, which he continues to this day, to check his herds every day or two, always at a different time of day, so that the wolves are discouraged from spending time near them. He has essentially trained those wolves to avoid his cattle and it has worked. He has had only one or two losses to wolves since 2005. But he now lives in fear of losing wolves, because he knows that if that pack vanishes he will have to deal with new wolves he doesn’t know. 

Last winter one of his neighbours snared several of the pack. He is waiting to see if the survivors keep the behaviours they had before. If he doesn’t lose cattle, it will be because some of the wolves survived. If he does lose cattle, ironically, it may well be because wolves were killed. 

What Joe has learned is that wolf biology can be our friend when it comes to reducing risk to livestock. There is no wolf manager as effective at keeping wandering young wolves out of trouble as an existing wolf pack. The established pack will either chase away or kill any wanderers or, sometimes, incorporate them into the pack in which case they become part of its established behaviours. 
Wolves are good wolf managers. 
We aren’t. 

When we manage wolves by simply killing them, we can actually get some pretty perverse outcomes. 

Rob Wielgus and Kaylie Peebles, in an exhaustively-peer-reviewed analysis of kill records for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, found a result that, on first glance, seems to defy logic. They found that killing wolves results in more, not fewer, livestock depredations the following year. They had very detailed data on wolf populations, wolf pack numbers, lethal wolf removals and livestock losses. They found that for each wolf killed in a given year, there was a 4% increase in sheep and a 5 to 6% increase in cattle killed by wolves the following year, at a regional scale. 

This is similar to what John Gunson and Jon Bjorge found in Alberta in the early 1980s. Reducing a local wolf population from 40 down to only 2 reduced cattle depredations for two years – and was then followed by a significant increase as other wolves dispersed into the area. They evidently didn’t have cattle producers who rode their herds as regularly as my friend Joe does or they might have had a different tale to tell. 

Wielgus figures that what is happening is that breaking up wolf packs increases pup survival rates, can lead to new packs forming, and reduces predation efficiency. All those factors increase the risk of livestock losses. Young wolves aren’t skilled; left to their own devices they are likely to kill the easiest prey they can find. Small wolf hunting units can’t defend their kills from bears and other scavengers, so they have to kill more often than larger, established packs to get the same amount of food. Wielgus and Peebles found that wolf killing only led to reduced livestock losses in cases where more than 25% of the wolves in the area were killed in a given year, because that overwhelmed the reproductive rate and actually led to a population reduction. But, they pointed out, it’s awfully hard to sustain that level of wolf killing and neither is it socially acceptable. Wolf Armageddon is not the best way to strengthen the social license of agriculture, especially public land cattle grazing. 

In Alberta, the prevalent wolf management paradigm is that all wolves are potential livestock killers and therefore we need to keep wolf numbers down. If your objectives are to keep wolf numbers down, then you need to kill an awful lot of wolves because they breed prolifically and disperse constantly. But they’re hard to kill, so you need to use the most lethal tactics you can, regardless of whether those tactics are humane or not, and you need to get lots of people involved in the business of killing wolves. 

So in Alberta it is legal to kill wolves year-round on private property and most of the year on public property. Baiting is allowed as late as mid June in northern Alberta to improve the odds. That virtually guarantees that every year nursing pups are left to starve in their dens. Snares are not only allowed but encouraged, even though the heavy musculature and strong gag reflex in wolves means that many take hours or days to die. Snares are considered killing devices and, as such, trappers aren’t required to check them frequently. Year-rounding shooting, baiting and snaring still aren’t enough, though, so the controls on use of poisons are also pretty loose. The poison of choice in Alberta is strychnine, which causes excruciating pain and often results in secondary poisoning of other animals. It’s banned in the U.S. but not here. And just to up the ante, unaccountable third parties are allowed to offer bounty payments to encourage more people to kill wolves. I don’t need to tell you that; some of your own Municipal Districts are in the bounty business, using ratepayer’s taxes, ironically, to increase the risk of livestock losses. 

For some reason, we find it easy to absolve ourselves of humane considerations where wolves are concerned. It goes back to the intense ambivalence we feel about wolves, I suspect, but some of it simply goes to our human ability to close our minds to things that are inconvenient to think about. We think we need to kill lots of wolves, so we choose not to think about the suffering our killing techniques cause, not just to the victims but to the survivors. Because, remember, wolves are like dogs and humans in the intensity of their emotional bonds and their ability to experience grief. What an inconvenient thought – it’s way easier to think of them as dumb robots, isn’t it? But they aren’t. 

And here’s the sick irony: killing lots of wolves does not reduce wolf numbers. What it does is to increase wolf problems. Because we are maintaining a state of social anarchy out there in wolf country. Packs no sooner form and start to function than they are broken up. Young wolves lose their teachers and also lose the social discipline that kept them from breeding. We end up with more packs, younger packs, smaller packs or lone dispersers – and much greater risk that those inefficient hunting units will turn to easy prey. When they do, we have no way of figuring out which wolves were involved, because there is no pattern to things. 

That’s what we saw in the Breeding Valley area during my Waterton years – while established packs in the Waterton area lived on wild game and kept other wolves away. That’s what Joe Engelhart and his neighbours worked so hard to overcome in the early years of this century and now try to maintain: a stable, intact wolf pack they know. 

So we are not using biology to manage wolves; just the opposite. We are not managing them humanely; just the opposite. And we are not reducing livestock depredation problems; just the opposite. And yet there are many who say we need to keep on doing what we have always done to prevent the problems we are actually perpetuating. 

What might a biologically-based, humane and actually logical approach to wolf management look like then? 

It would be based not on killing wolves, but on keeping wolf packs intact so that wolves are managing wolf numbers, not us. It would put far more emphasis on prevention techniques that have been shown to work – not perfectly, but well. Those include things like actually tending one’s livestock herds (which helps not only with discouraging predators but with reducing stream damage, improving range health and getting better distribution and use of forage.) Things like the use of electric fencing and fladry for calving areas. Livestock guard dogs. Combinations of these and other techniques – using our thinking abilities rather than our instinctive reactions. 

In addition to using old and new technologies and simple brain power to reduce the risk of livestock depredations, it would be worth considering the cost benefits of maintaining a radio-collared sample in the wolf population. Not only could radio-collared wolves be useful in helping livestock producers when the wolves are in the neighborhood and might benefit from some encouragement to keep moving on, but when depredations happen it would greatly increase the ability to determine if wolves were responsible, which ones, and where to find them. Because sometimes in spite of all your best efforts, wolves will get into trouble. When that happens, it makes more sense to kill those specific wolves than to throw up your hands and declare war on all wolves again. Having radio collared “Judas wolves” makes it easier to find the right pack in a timely manner and humanely shoot them instead of having to try and get lucky with poisons, snares or other pitch-and-hope techniques that are both untargeted and inhumane. It worked for many years in northern Montana after all. 

One thing I hear sometimes in discussing these sorts of things with livestock producers is a sort of exasperation. Why should they be required to have to go to all this extra work and inconvenience for an animal they don’t own and don’t even want around? How is that fair? 

Well, wolves aren’t going away. We’ve proven that – in spite of decades of inhumane, aggressive killing, we are estimated now to have more wolves than at any time in the past half century. As long as we keep getting mild winters, there are going to be lots of elk, deer, moose and sheep and that’s ultimately what controls wolf numbers. So we’re going to be living with wolves – just as we live with poisonous plants, lightning strikes, April blizzards, rustlers and bad genetics. If you want to take live animals to market, you need to put some work into keeping them alive. Discouraging wolves and bears is part of that. Yes it might be frustrating, but it should also be a source of pride. In Alberta we live in the real world; in a whole place. 

And there is that social license issue. I don’t know many livestock producers who want other people making their decisions for them. The pressure continually builds in a changing Alberta for better wildlife management and more humane treatment of animals – all animals. A lot of Alberta livestock production depends on access to public land. The future of agriculture depends on the much larger majority of Albertans who aren’t in agriculture continuing to see it as a legitimate land use in a changing world. Investing in more progressive approaches to predator management not only makes sense in terms of being more likely to reduce depredation losses, it’s an investment in social license. 

It’s ethically right, it’s logically sensible, and it’s strategically smart. 

But I have another message for another audience too – for the people not in this room. Livestock producers don’t just produce beef or mutton or other products. They protect habitat that supports much of Alberta’s biodiversity, including many of our species at risk. Well managed public land grazing leases in western Alberta are vital source water areas in a water-scarce province. And when ranchers and farmers go that extra mile to keep wolves and bears out of trouble, especially since its their good land management that supports the elk and deer herds that attract predators in the first place, they are keeping Alberta wild and healthy. Those are all ecological goods and services for which producers get paid nothing. Most do it because that’s who they are; it’s all part of their stewardship ethic. But I think the rest of society needs to start recognizing the value of those ecological goods and services and transferring some of society’s wealth to the people who produce them. A more reliable and generous compensation program for livestock losses to predators would be a good start. Where individual producers take on extra costs for herding, electric fencing or other measures, I’m not sure those costs should come out of their pockets. Agriculture needs more than social license; it needs to be socially valued. Good land stewards should be able to generate profits from all the goods and services they produce, not just the agricultural products. We’ve seen what Cows and Fish did in changing the social landscape around livestock production and making allies out of former adversaries. Maybe it’s time for producers, Agriculture Service Boards, environmental groups and others to start looking into what a Cows and Predators program might accomplish.

Or we can just keep digging, and wondering why the hole we’re in gets deeper. 

Some useful references

Niemeyer, Carter. 2012. 

Wolfer: A Memoir  Bottlefly Press, ISBN 978-0984811304 338 pages 

Proulx, Gilbert, Dwight Rodtka, Morley Barrett, Marc Cattet, Dick Dekker, Erin Moffatt and Roger Powell. 2015. 

Humaneness and Selectivity of Killing Neck Snares Used to Capture Canids in Canada: A Review  Canadian Wildlife Biology and Management 4(1): 55-65. 

Van Tighem, Kevin. 2013. 

The Homeward Wolf  RMB | Rocky Mountain Books, ISBN 978-1-927330-83-8 144 pp. 

Waterton Biosphere Reserve. 2016. 

Large Carnivore Attractant Management Projects in Southwestern Alberta 2013-2014. Waterton Biosphere Reserve, Alberta, Canada. (

Wielgus, Robert B. and Kaylie A. Peebles. 2014 

Effects of Wolf Mortality on Livestock Depredations