Guest Opinion: The tip of the iceberg | TSLN.com

Guest Opinion: The tip of the iceberg

Earl Stahl
Neenah, Wisc.

This cow is believed to have been killed by a wolf in Rusk County, Wisconsin. Courtesy photo

In 1978 Eric and Sue Koens purchased a former dairy farm and moved from southern to northern Wisconsin. In 1980 they began raising registered Polled Hereford cattle on their 400 acre farm and have been seedstock producers for the past 35 years. Their herd is comprised of about 50 Hereford brood cows that are pastured in fields adjacent to their home and buildings. When I visited the Koens in July, Eric said that he has 16 bred heifers that will calve next February. He explained that he prefers the cows to calve in February rather than in late March or April because the early spring weather is typically very wet which adversely affects the calves. Calving occurs in individual sheltered pens and the cow and her new calf remain in the pen about two days. Once the calf is dried off and has nursed, the cow and calf are turned outside.

Eric and his neighbors have experienced verified wolf threats and depredations but he is quick to point out that depredation is only the tip of the iceberg regarding wolf damage. He said his cattle are infected by a disease called Neosporosis. The disease, which causes abortions, is not contagious within the herd; cows are infected by ingesting oocysts present in canine feces that are deposited in feed and water sources.

Eric believes that all canines, dogs included, must be kept out of cattle pastures and other areas where cattle are present. In particular, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture recommends that canines not come in contact with cows and heifers at calving time. The WDA also recommends that cattle producers and dairy farmers work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to develop a plan to reduce the density of wild canines that are in the immediate area of their herds. As will be seen later in this article, reducing the density of wild canines (primarily wolves since coyotes are not protected) is currently a challenge due to the relisting of wolves in the Midwest and in Wyoming.

Eric shared information concerning two other cattle operations in the state. In 2013 verified wolf damage on a farm in central Wisconsin resulted in cattle stampeding into a cranberry marsh. The cranberry owner is attempting to collect $50,000 from the cattle owner for damages. In 2014 a cattle producer in northern Wisconsin experienced weight loss in 160 steers due to wolf caused stress. The steers actually lost weight over a three month period whereas each should have gained 180 pounds. The net loss to this cattle producer as a result of the stress was $43,200. Science Daily in January of 2014 reported on a study conducted by the University of Montana. The story said: "University of Montana study found that wolf predation of cattle contributed to lower weight gain in calves on western Montana ranches. This leads to an economic loss at sale several times higher than the direct reimbursement ranchers receive for a cow killed by wolves."

In 2008 the Oregon Beef Council in conjunction with USDA funded a 10 year project to determine how wolf behavior affects cattle behavior. Oregon State University Extension's Professor John Williams, said, "We are finding that cattle temperament changes drastically when they have to live with wolves."

When wolves were initially placed under federal protection, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other stakeholders wanted a management population goal of 500 wolves.The 2015 minimum wolf count by the WDNR is over 700.

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Even after legally harvesting 157 wolves last year, the population increased by 13 percent. It is likely not a coincidence that WDNR and USDA/Wildlife Services data show number of cattle killed, number of cattle depredated, and number of missing cattle compensated peaked in the years from 2010 to 2012, prior to the first hunting and trapping season. These numbers declined in both 2013 and 2014 after the first and second hunting/trapping seasons and when site specific lethal control could be implemented on farms suffering depredations. At the present time, 32 county boards in the northern and central part of the state have voted in favor of a wolf population goal of 350 or less wolves. One county board has gone so far as to pass a resolution declaring that it does not want problem wolves relocated to its county. In one of central Wisconsin's counties, which currently has no wolves, the 350 wolf population limit passed unanimously and a board member commented in Wisconsin Outdoor News last July that the board wants to help farmers as much as it can.

In a report written in 2002, Dr. Gregory Palmquist, the herd veterinarian for T & T Ranch for 17 years, said that the owners of T & T practice good husbandry and that their cattle herd is well managed. During the years of 2000 to 2002, Palmquist documented cattle losses due to wolves. The ranch owners also reported having a cow attacked while she was delivering a calf. He concludes his report by stating, "…I feel this herd has been chased so severely on so many occasions that it is affecting the general health of the calves. They cannot withstand this type of treatment, especially during hot, humid weather. Preventing the wolves from hunting this herd would not only greatly reduce the death loss but would also reduce the stress in general and allow the cattle to perform better. This herd cannot continue to withstand the losses they have incurred and remain a profitable business. My recommendations to the owners are that this depredation needs to be stopped both for humane reasons and for the survival of their business."

The T & T Ranch is located near Danbury, Wisconsin, about 50 miles south of Duluth/Superior.

When wolves in the Midwest were delisted, the USDA/Wildife Services had the authority to remove problem wolves. When wolves were placed under federal protection in 1974, this resulted, beginning in 1977, with a 15 percent annual increase in wolf numbers in Wisconsin according to the Michigan DNR. In 2014, USFWS estimated that there were 4,400 wolves in the upper Midwest, well above population goals

David Ruid, USDA Assistant District Supervisor and Certified Wildlife Biologist, is involved in wolf management for the northern half of the state. The WDNR and the USDA cooperatively operate a wolf depredation program with a closely monitored hotline. Whenever a livestock owner reports wolf depredation, staff are quickly sent to the farm or ranch to document the report – often the same day as the report. If the suspected depredation has not been reported promptly, deterioration of the site makes it difficult to determine the cause and nature of the depredation. When it has been determined that livestock depredation was caused by wolves, the livestock owner is compensated full market value. Recently Minnesota exhausted its compensation fund for livestock losses and received funds from USFWS to continue its compensation program.

Ruid agrees with Koens that wolf depredation is minimal compared to other impacts that wolves have on cattle husbandry and herd management. While Wisconsin is considered a dairy state, Ruid says that depredation on dairy farms is much less frequent than on beef cattle farms and ranches because the majority of dairy cattle are not pastured. In fact, most dairy cattle spend most of their lives in dairy barns. As a cautionary note, Koens noted that there are a few instances where wolves have entered farm buildings to depredate calves.

Ruid said that less than 20 percent of the wolf packs in the state are involved in livestock depredation. Preventing those packs from preying on livestock is a challenge. Non-lethal methods have been employed by the WDNR and the USDA/Wildlife Services but those methods have inherent limitations. For example, Ruid and his staff have fitted trapped wolves with radio collars that trigger loud noises and lights from a Radio Activated Guard (RAG box) when the collared wolf approaches the farm. However, these devices have limitations. Wolves hunt in packs and likely only the collared animal will be negatively affected. Also, dense vegetation which is common in the Western Great Lakes Region limits the effective range of the device. Another non-lethal method has been the installation of fladry which is an electrified poly wire supporting red flags around pasture perimeters. The hot wire is attached to separate fence posts inside of the existing pasture fence. The red plastic strips are intended to ward off wolves and the hot wire prevents cows from damaging the red strips (the hot wire is installed too high to affect wolves). Fladry is a line of rope mounted along the top of a fence, from which are suspended strips of fabric or colored flags that will flap in a breeze, intended to deter wolves from crossing the fence line. It is effective only temporarily, as the novelty may soon wear off, usually between three to five months, and may be used to protect livestock in small pastures from wolves says the author of Wolf Depredation Trends and the Use of Fladry Barriers to Protect Livestock in Western North America. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife states, "It (fladry) may be applied to certain range situations but is best used as mobile protection on a short term basis…In general, fladry is not intended for use over long periods of time in the same location because wolves may become habituated and thereby reduce effectiveness. One of the limitations that Ruid noted is that calves are able to get under the hot wire but cows cannot, occasionally resulting in calf depredation by wolves.

The territory of a Wisconsin wolf pack is roughly 40 square miles and farms in the state may average between 200 and 300 acres which further complicates non-lethal efforts. Ruid and his staff may install non-lethal techniques on a farm that has experienced wolf problems only to have the pack show up at another farm miles away. Ruid also noted that the lack of long term research on the effectiveness of non-lethal efforts makes it difficult to determine the success or failure of those efforts. Under the current status of federal protection, the WDNR and the USDA cannot use lethal removal of problem wolves. Currently Ruid and his staff are limited to non-lethal abatement methods. Trapping problem wolves and relocating them is not a practical strategy and is not utilized in USFWS's Western Great Lakes District Population Segment (WGLDPS). The USDA/WS utilizes an integrated approach of techniques including both lethal and non-lethal. When wolves are under federal protection, lethal options are not allowed which makes resolving wolf depredations more difficult. Based on the 1992 Federal Recovery Plan for this region, wolves have surpassed their required recovery population levels.

At the time that this is being written, legislation is pending in Congress to allow Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wyoming to manage wolf populations without interference from the courts. This legislation was introduced by Republican Wisconsin Representative Reid Ribble and is said to have bipartisan support. Although passage of the legislation appears promising, it may not happen in time for Wisconsin to hold a wolf hunting and trapping season in 2015-16.

In the February 21, 2015 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the president of the Carlton County chapter of the Minnesota Farmers Union, Mark Thell, was quoted as saying, "We're stuck in limbo. You can't even protect your own animals. It's not a good situation." It goes without saying that Wisconsin cattle producers and farmers agree.

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