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Wolves do kill cattle. The real question is "why don't they kill more of them?"

August 27, 2001, additions Aug. 31


We all know that wolves sometimes kill cattle, especially calves, but they don't kill very many.

Since the wolf restoration began in central Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in 1995, 65 cattle were confirmed to have been killed by wolves (as of the end of 2000). An additional 83 cattle were confirmed killed in the NW Montana recovery between 1987 and the end of 2000). 

It is known that there are also unconfirmed losses, which we can generously say "one additional lost for every one confirmed." This number is trivial. If this number of cattle were lost over a 6 year period to some other cause (unless it was mad cow disease), it wouldn't be a story in any news media.

Nevertheless, in the last 6 years there was been numerous headlines, "Wolf attacks on cattle increase," or "Wolves are growing fond of beef."

It is my view that wolves don't kill many cows because they rarely see cattle as prey, and they don't know how to kill them. If the did see cattle as prey, there would tens of thousands of cattle dead by now, not a couple hundred.

I spend most of every summer exploring the backcountry, in my truck and afoot. Unless I am in an unusual place like Yellowstone Park, by far the most easily found large animal is a cow. I assume that wolves are better at finding other animals than I am. If they wanted to kill cattle, their search time would be short indeed.

In the last couple weeks there have been a couple minor wolf "depredations" of cattle which I haven't bothered to report. The Wildhorse Pack killed a calf near Copper Basin, Idaho (near Fox Creek, which upon inspection should be renamed "Cow Pie Creek"). Photos of Fox Creek this August, just after the cattle left.

The Absaroka Pack killed 2 calves in the Absaroka Mountains, NW of Cody. I have heard, but not confirmed, that the Gros Ventre Pack in Wyoming killed a calf.

Copper Basin, Idaho, is a perfect example of the validity of my hypothesis. Copper Basin is a large mountain valley very similar to Lamar Valley in geology, elevation, and habitat type. The difference is the Lamar has no cattle. Copper Basin has been grazed hard for a hundred years. You can't go anywhere in Copper Basin in summer (and generally in the surrounding Pioneer and White Knob Mountains) without encountering cows, and quickly so.

Many folks know that my spouse Jackie and I are authors of Hiking Idaho. We will have 103 hikes in the new edition, and a number of hikes in the Pioneers Mountains, but not in the cattle country part. Cows range from Copper Basin to the treeline, and then beyond to the rock line. Cattle graze the moss on the rocky shores of Goat Lake, the highest in Idaho. These cow trashed areas are not worth being in a hiking guide, despite the high, stunning peaks.

My point is there are cows, and cows, everywhere. There is also a wolf pack -- the Wildhorse Pack. The pack has killed one calf in the two years of its existence from among the thousands of cattle that come to the area and stay, and stay. Thus, it is obvious the wolves don't regard cattle as much of an opportunity for a meal.

Dr. Doug Smith, head of the Yellowstone wolf project, told me his hypothesis why so few cattle are killed -- cows don't act like prey.

If a large grazing animal, such as an elk, stands its ground against wolves, the chances of a successful attack are low. If the wolves don't already have experience killing that animal, they tend to ignore it, especially if it shows no reaction to their presence.

Cows don't act like prey. Cows usually react to wolves with the same indifference they react to your rig as it comes upon them on a backcountry road. The cows stand and look at you, and grudgingly move as your bumper brushes by them. Early in season, however, the calves run a bit, and if you are in an enclosed space (such as a narrow road with steep side slopes) the cows will run down the road in front of your vehicle.

Wolves naturally are interested in animals that run from them. Wolves try to set elk running, for example, to look for those individuals that look vulnerable. Cattle usually don't run from wolves any more than they run when you drive up to them on a backcountry road.

Smith told me of watching the Chief Joseph Pack going through cattle in Tom Miner Basin, one of the pack's favorite locations outside Yellowstone Park, and where they have clearly been more interested in killing guard dogs than livestock. Smith said the wolves would trot up to a cow, and the cow did nothing but stare at them. I call it that blank, indifferent bovine stare. The wolves would then just trot on.

I suspect the few losses that do take place are skittish calves that get separated from the herd, and which do run, sometimes attracting the wolves' interest and pursuit.

Secondly, Smith said that wolves have a hard time figuring out where to grab a cow because cows  are so fat. Unlike elk, the legs and the neck are too thick. The few times an adult cow is killed, the wolves attack the "webbing" where the cow's legs attach to the abdomen. The wolves often bite and chew here until the cow goes down. This method is both inefficient and bloody, and it occurs to me that  happily for that class of ranchers who want to make an issue out it, it provides an occasional  wonderful photo of gore to distribute to the media. When the wolves are through chewing the cow down, it may look almost like hamburger. I guess there is some irony there.

Additions 8-31-2001. Seems like folks were stimulated by this article, and I have received email. So,  a couple additions and corrections . . . 

First, I have learned that USFWS can confirm the death of just one adult cow to wolves! 4 or 5 yearlings have been, however, and these weighed 400-600 pounds.

Mike Jimenez, who manages Wyoming wolves outside Yellowstone Park,  said he thought the wolves did pay attention to injuries in cattle, especially calves that develop a limp or have a sore from injury on a fence, etc., and that condition may predispose them to attack. He indicated that the Sunlight Basin Pack and Absaroka Pack live among the cattle east of the Park. He sees the packs sleeping among the cattle, and cattle tracks over the den site, and yet this summer there was but one depredation event -- 2 calves killed by the Absaroka Pack.

The fact that wolves and cattle mostly coexist well, shows what a terrible thing it would be if ranchers got authority to shoot wolves they saw near their cattle. Many ranchers believe that if a wolf is in the cattle, it has but one thing in mind. They are clearly wrong, but they have much more political power in the West than the average citizen and could get what they want under the Bush Administration.


Secondly, I said that if wolves "did see cattle as prey, there would tens of thousands of cattle dead by now, not a couple hundred." Due to the larger size of cows than elk, I should probably say "thousands," not "tens of thousands."

Finally it was suggested that wolves may not see cows as prey because they smell artificial --  shot full of antibiotics and other chemicals. With all the debate over conditioned taste aversion, there is some low probability that smell, and perhaps taste aversion, takes place informally. 


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