Sunday, June 4, 2017

We Have More to Fear from Livestock than from Wolves

photo by Rick Lamplugh
I often wonder why the drive to delist wolves, the pressure to make them targets, never ceases. One constant source of that pressure is the livestock industry. Their anti-wolf argument is simple: Wolves kill livestock and threaten the livelihoods of ranchers. Wolves should never have been allowed to return. But now that they are back, the heartless predators should be shot, trapped, and removed from ranching country.

After five years of reading and writing about the pros and cons of wolves, I believe that this argument used by livestock producers, their associations, and their lobbyists is not only wrong, it’s a smoke screen that hides the real problem: The livestock production that ranchers profit from is killing the ecosystem that sustains the rest of us.

The production of livestock is the largest driver of worldwide habitat loss, according to a study in the journal Science for the Total Environment. The study finds that increasing livestock production in developing tropical countries harms our planet’s biodiversity, because those countries are where most biodiversity resides.

The article’s authors, Brian Machovina, Kenneth J. Feeley, and William J. Ripple, conclude that livestock production is a leading cause of climate change, soil loss, water and nutrient pollution, and the decline in apex predators and wild herbivores.

Wolves don’t have such harmful impact. Instead, research shows that these essential predators improve the ecosystems in which they are allowed to live. From giant aspen to tiny beetles, a life-improving benefit trickles down where wolves survive.

Disregarding how wolves benefit our world, the livestock industry promotes ways to deal with their fabricated wolf problem. Convince authorities to strip away wolves’ protections. Allow wolves to be hunted. Keep fines low or non-existent for poaching. One bullet at a time, the wolf problem will disappear.

But what can the rest of us do about the real—and much bigger—problem: the trampling of habitat and biodiversity under the hooves of livestock? The study’s authors suggest several solutions. Here are two. 

1. Reduce the demand for animal-based food products and increase the demand for plant-based foods. 

2. Replace cattle, sheep, and goats with more efficient protein sources such as poultry and pigs.

Livestock producers, their lobbyists, and their political allies know that solutions such as these will be costly and cause more grief than wolves ever will. Reducing the demand for cattle, sheep, and goats will drive some ranchers out of business. Some survivors will have to struggle to raise livestock in a more ecosystem-friendly way. Some will have to finance the costly move to producing poultry or pigs. So the livestock industry keeps beating the Big Bad Wolf drum.

But the rest of us must acknowledge the real problem: We have far more to fear from livestock than we do from wolves. We cannot sacrifice our country’s life-sustaining habitat and its irreplaceable biodiversity—which includes wolves—for the benefit of a good steak and the ranchers who produce it.

To read the journal article 

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing his new book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.

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