Wolf impact on cattle researchedWritten by Saige Albert
Steele recently completed his thesis project at UW, titled Wolf Reintroduction: Direct and Indirect Effects for Western Wyoming Cattle Producers. Steele received his master’s degree from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resource’s Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in August 2012 after defending his thesis in July.
“When I started my graduate work, I began talking to Ben Rashford, my committee chair,” explains Steele. “I took work the committee had done a little farther and changed it slightly.”
Using Excel spreadsheets and economics programs, Steele was able to determine wolf impacts on cattle profit margins at varying levels of wolf stress.
“I set up a ranch budget and used data from Wyoming and Canada about wolf impacts,” says Steele. “I looked at five different wolf impacts on cattle.”
“There are both direct and indirect effects from wolves,” he continues. “Direct effects are when the wolf is physically harming cattle. I looked at death loss and missing cattle, as well as injured calves.”
Steele also notes that indirect effects include decreased weaning weights, decreased conception rates and stress-related sickness, all of which impact cattle production and producer’s ability to profit.
“I set up price variability for steer calves, heifer calves, bulls and cull cows,” explains Steele, noting that running a budget with 10,000 simulations including only price variability allowed him to set up a baseline budget. “I had five total budgets that I used.”
In each budget situation, he increased wolf impacts from the baseline, setting low wolf pressure, medium wolf pressure and severe wolf pressure. Steele also utilized a budget with stochastic, or random, wolf pressure.
“Each budget was linked to the same price distribution, so wolf effects were driving the profit differences,” he adds.
“I found, through my research, that wolves can really affect cattle,” Steele explains. “Profits decreased as wolf pressure increased.”
In utilizing variations based on the level of wolf activity, as shown in Table One, difference in profit levels were seen, as shown in Table Two.
Steele notes that average gross margin decreased with increasing wolf impacts, dropping below zero at maximum levels.
“Under severe effects, the gross margin is not expected to cover variable cost and would result in operating below shut-down point every other year,” says Steele. “Stochastic impacts are the most realistic because of random wolf activity.”
Steele also looked at compensation for wolf losses, saying, “The most interesting part of my research was the compensation ratios.”
“The current policy says that for every dead calf that is found, and can be proven a result of wolves, ranchers receive compensation for seven calves,” Steele explains. “An Idaho study found that for every dead calf, there are six more that are also dead but will never be found, meaning we see compensation at a seven to one ratio.”
He also notes that a governmental official, such as a Wildlife Services agent or Wyoming Game and Fish Department game warden, must confirm and document wolf kills.
“Current policy is based on depredation only,” Steele adds.
“With my low and moderate wolf pressure scenarios, I changed some of the weaning weights and wolf effects,” he explains. “Compensation ratios could be greater than 13 to one, on average.”
As a result of his compensation ratios research, Steele confirmed the seven to one ratio for depredation, or death loss, only. However, other wolf impacts could result in more severe ratios. For example, his research showed when taking into account conservative weaning weight and conception rates, impacts may be 13 to one.
Steele recognizes that his research is very new and there are future steps to be taken to confirm or support his conclusions. One step he mentions that should be done to increase the validity of his conclusions involves gathering more data wolf impacts.
Gathering hard data, however can be very difficult, and he adds that there are limitations to the research in his project.
“Limited data, short run models and wolf effects that are difficult to quantify limit the research,” Steele notes in his presentation. “Cattle prices drive the risk and returns of cattle production. Wolves add to the risk.”
He mentions that in data collected from Minnesota, landowners believed wolves threatened their livelihoods, but laws, government, diseases and extreme weather were perceived as greater threats.
Other further research options may include quantifying indirect effects further, identifying more accurate compensation policies and increasing producer’s wolf tolerance, among others.
“Right now, this is really new research, and there is a lot more research to be done,” says Steele. “I think the next step now is to find out how bad wolves actually affect cattle.”
Among his conclusions, Steele adds, “The long-run viability of ranching may be harmed by wolves, but wolf populations are likely to decrease leading to fewer cattle conflicts.”