Coping with wolves in Wisconsin: Part 1

Coping with wolves in Wisconsin: Part 1

The impact that wolves may have on some farms can far beyond the depredation event, specifically when it comes to herd management.

When I visited the 400-acre farm of Eric and Sue Koens last summer, Eric remarked that, had he known in 1978 what he knows now, he would have purchased farmland in Missouri. What he didn’t know in 1978 when he purchased a former dairy farm in Rusk County, Wisconsin, was that wolves would become a major problem in a few years. 

When wolves were placed under federal protection in the 1970s, the wolf population in the state expanded, aided by migration of wolves from Minnesota. Beginning in 1980, the Koens began raising Polled Herefords as seedstock producers. Eric currently has about 50 Hereford brood cows and his cattle enterprise is his full-time job, which enables him to monitor wolf activity. Although Eric has not had any wolf depredation on his farm, he is unique in that respect. Most cattle producers in Wisconsin raise small numbers and the owners often have outside employment.

However, that doesn’t mean he isn’t affected by wolves. He knows when wolves have been in his pasture when he looks out in the morning and sees his herd clustered near a fence and behaving nervously. Although it has not happened on his farm, Eric says that there have been instances of wolves entering calf pens and farm buildings to attack calves.

Coping with wolf-caused stress on livestock is not unique to Wisconsin; BEEF has carried articles documenting the results of stress experienced by western ranchers. Disease and weight loss are two of the most visible results. In addition, wolves host Neosporosis which infects cattle and causes abortions.  Fortunately, the disease is not contagious among the herd (which is small consolation). 

Eric is a strong believer in keeping all canines out of pastures since Neosporosis is spread by canine feces. The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture recommends that cattle producers and dairy farmers work with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) to develop a plan to reduce the density of wild canines in the immediate area of their herds. However, while that’s possible with coyotes because they are not protected, reducing the density of wolves is currently a challenge due to the relisting of wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.

Wolf impact

Other cattle operations in the state have been seriously impacted by wolves. In 2013, verified wolf damage on a farm in central Wisconsin resulted in cattle stampeding into a cranberry marsh, causing $50,000 in damages to the cranberry grower. 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.

The Science Daily website (1/22/14) reported on a study conducted by the University of Montana. In summary, Science Daily states, “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 Professor John Williams, in commenting on this study, said, “We are finding that cattle temperament changes drastically when they have to live with wolves.”

Eric brings much personal experience to the management of wolves. When wolves were initially placed under federal protection, the WDNR and other stakeholders wanted a management population goal of 500 wolves. Eric and other cattle producers lobbied for a lower number, resulting in the goal being set at 350. However, even with trapping and wolf hunting seasons in 2012, 2013, and 2014, the 2015 minimum wolf count by the WDNR is over 700. Hunting and trapping of wolves in the state is now on hold due to a federal judge’s decision in 2015 that returned wolves to protected status.

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Eric sits on the WDNR’s wolf advisory committee. This committee is charged with recommending quotas for wolf seasons. This committee is currently in limbo due to the federal relisting judicial order.  Some members of the committee want the minimum management goal to be raised to 500 and some wolf proponents argue for the number to be set even higher at 750. 

A hunting and trapping quota of 150 wolves (157 were harvested) was recommended by the committee for the 2014-15 season and was accepted by the WDNR. This was a lower quota than either of the two previous seasons and resulted in a 13% increase in the wolf population.

The WDNR reports that the minimum wolf population exceeds 700 and that number does not include litters born in 2015. 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. Not surprisingly, these numbers declined in both 2013 and 2014 after the first and second hunting/trapping seasons but increased again in 2015 when no wolf season was held. 

Additional information regarding the effects of wolves on Wisconsin cattle comes from Gregory C. Palmquist, DVM. In a report written in 2002, he notes that he has been the herd veterinarian for T & T Ranch for 17 years. The T & T Ranch is near Danbury, Wis., about 50 miles south of Duluth/Superior.  Palmquist states in his report that the owners of T & T practice good husbandry and that their cattle herd is well managed. During 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. 

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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.”

Next week, we’ll look at problem wolves and whether or not non-lethal control methods are successful in decreasing wolf depredation on livestock.

Earl Stahl and his wife live in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley region, which covers an area from Oshkosh to Green Bay. Earl holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University and retired as a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 1994. He is an avid hunter and angler, pursuing those interests in the lower 48 states as well as Alaska and Canada. His interest in wolves and their impact on livestock, big game, and people began with his appointment to Wolf Education International, an organization devoted to telling the truth about wolves. He has authored articles in Range magazine, Western Ag Reporter and Tri-State Livestock News.

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