Course:CONS200/2021/Rancher-Wolf Conflict in the United States: Current situation and potential solutions

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Introduction to the Conflict Between Ranchers and Wolves

Image of a gray wolf in the wild.[1]

The conflict between ranchers and wolves have always been an issue in the United States long before the attacks were documented. The earliest recorded wolf attack was 3rd of June, 1989. The two species are practically natural enemies, ranchers raise livestock while wolves feed on large and medium-sized animals such as deer, elk, moose, and caribou.[2] While those may be wolves' primary diet, animals such as cattle and sheep are commonly preyed upon because livestock are more vulnerable. As the American ranches' hatred for wolves began to increase, those who settled in the United States grew strong hatred and fear of wolves. Therefore, humans began to retaliate against wolves, including shooting and poisoning. Which led to the brink of extinction of wolves in 48 out of 50 states.[3] As the population of wolves declines, the species has now become an endangered animal. Organizations have been acting against the hostility of humans against wolves while the government disregards the extinction of wolves in the United States. Going as far as to take gray wolves off the list of endangered species creating many controversial discussions. There are many solutions to avoid the conflict between rancher-wolf as people began to study how the conflict began and what can be done to solve the conflict.

Historical Timeline of Management Decisions

Early 1900s: The issue surrounding the conflict between ranchers and wolves began

1945: The last native gray wolf in Colorado was killed. In states like Colorado, gray wolves are almost like a necessity because of the overpopulation of elks and deer which causes erosion from rivers and streams due to elks and deer's diet of vegetation.[4]

1967: There were less than 1,000 wolves found in small part of the Midwest of United States due to excessive hunting, trapping, and poisoning of gray wolves by humans for decades.

1973: The Endangered Species Act (ESA) law was passed

1978: The introduction of protecting gray wolves in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This was necessary to the species of gray wolves as they were near the point of extinction. With the Endangered Species Act protecting the gray wolf species, the population began to grow once more. Noticeably in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Montana, Michigan and Idaho, the gray wolf population has started to recover from its losses. While parts of the population began to seek new habitats to settle in, such as Washington, Oregon and California.[5] As the species of gray wolves recover from the brink of extinction.

2020: the United States government decided to remove the species of gray wolves from the list of endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).[6]

Causes of the Conflicts

The conflict cannot be blamed upon a specific side as both have their rights and wrongs. It just so happens that livestock animals provide food and other necessities for both the species; humans and gray wolves. Ranchers need to protect their livestock from being hunted by wolves as it is their job to raise and sell animals such as chickens, cows, and pigs.[7] If the efficiency of their ranches are slowed down or interrupted, the ranchers cannot provide for their families or put food on the table. While ranchers just wish to have their livestock healthy and alive, there may be better ways to keep them from being hunted by wolves than humans retaliating and hunting them back. On the other hand, wolves have amazing adaptability which helps them live in various climates and conditions. Their diet has a wide range, practically eating any kind of red meat, including livestock such as cattle and sheep. Wolves technically have no wrong in hunting livestock for food as it is part of their law of survival. The only fault for wolves is that their diet also consists of wild animals such as deer, elk, moose, and caribou.[2] But because livestock is much more vulnerable and easy to hunt, wolves hunt them for food over other animals. Just as ranchers wish to provide food for their families, wolves also wish the same.

Different Point of Views


Graph representing the percentage of sheep lost by each category.[8]

In ranchers' point of view, their livestock are at risk due to gray wolves. Losing even one animal may cost them a lot; earning less money means less money to spend on food and other necessities. For ranchers, their livestock is their everything, livestock to them means food on the table for themselves and their families. While wolves may be a threatening predator, USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service show that a report surrounding how livestock such as sleep is lost in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The statistics show that bad weather (22.6%), diseases (11%), and old age (5.8%) kill more livestock than most predators such as gray wolves (1%).[8]

Along with the fear of humans towards wolf attacks, media and the news had always made the situation look as bad as possible against wolves. It is rare for the media and the news to pinpoint mistakes made by humans when the reason they hunt down wolves is the "protect their livestock". The blame has always been put onto wolves because it is hard to understand from the gray wolves' point of view. It's not like humans can understand their language or hear what they have to say.


Though wolves hunt down livestock due to the hunt being easier, wolves primarily prefer animals such as elk. Wolf packs commonly have a hierarchy system with leaders or alphas leading the pack. When leaders and alphas are killed, leaving the lower ranks behind who lack leadership and experience, it becomes difficult for the pack to hunt bigger targets. Every wolf in the pack has their roles; finding a prey, leading the prey, and bringing down the prey. If those in specific roles are lost, it is hard to replace with other wolves as they were given other roles to learn. Additionally, those in each role must train and pass down the role to the next generations, if the knowledge is lost, it becomes hard for wolves to learn those roles with no guidance.[9]

The issue is when their wolf packs get broken up due humans hunting wolves to protect their ranches and livestock. Killing wolves break up wolf packs meaning smaller packs are forced to find prey like livestock that are much easier to kill because they have a more difficult time killing big targets.[9] In wolves' point of view, hunting for food may not always been all safe and sound. Hunting in the wild, like humans, can often be quite dangerous. As such, it is much safer for wolves to hunt animals that are easiest and safest to kill. The choice is simple for wolves; killing cattle, sheep, or other domestic animals is usually much easier than killing elk.

Current Human-Wildlife Mitigation Strategies

Ever since the species of gray wolves was included on the list of Endangered Species Act (ESA), the population has begun to grow at an increasing rate; increasing by an average of 26% per year since 2008. The current methods and strategies suggested by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) includes:

  • Non-electrified and electrified fladry (red flagging strung around a pasture)[10]
    • Fladry is putting colored strips or flags of fabric along the top of a fence or rope. Wolves fear fladry because they cannot distinguish the colors and they do not understand what the flags or strips mean. Because they do not know how dangerous the area may be, wolves tend to avoid areas surrounded by fladry fences.[11][12]
  • Radio-activated guard (RAG) boxes[10]
    • Radio-activated guard boxes are pest control devices meant to stop wolves from hunting livestock. Wolves that live around humans or ranches usually have collars on their necks with radio tracking. The RAG boxes release a loud annoying noise when wolves with the collars are near ranches.[13]
  • Fox lights (Fox lights International PTY LTD, Bexley North Australia)[10]
    • Fox lights are flashing lights used to stop predators only during the nighttime. Paced near the sleeping areas of livestock, the light-bulbs randomly flash and gives the illusion that there is human movement nearby patrolling or on the outlook.[14][15][16]
  • Livestock guard dogs and range riders[10]
    • Guard dogs and range riders are the most common method as they are the most cost efficient and works very well against gray wolves. Following the flock or herd of livestock, guard dogs and range riders usually guide where the flock or herd is going as well.[17]

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has also sent out a Damage Prevention Cooperative Agreement for livestock (DPCA-L) to ranchers. As of 2020, there are 33 livestock producers following the agreement in which reimbursement is given from WDFW for each rancher-wolf conflict avoided, up to $10,000. [18] The prevention was a success with the most common method being ranger riders, improved sanitation practices, daily livestock checks, and fencing. While $180,000 was allocated for the reimbursement in 2020, only $100,035 was used up.

In Idaho, the Wood River Wolf Project mentions additional strategies including:

  • Blank handgun
    • Blank handguns are used when wolves are detected through wolf howls or seen directly. A .22 starter pistol that is not loaded is used as a signal for wolves to back off by scaring them with the sound of a gunshot.[19]
  • Klaxon
    • A Klaxon is a loud air-horn, sometimes used along with blank handguns when there are wolves nearby.[19]
  • Increased human presence
    • Having specific people guard the ranch from dusk to dawn; usually when wolves are most active, using nonlethal tools to respond to nearby threats that may not be just wolves. Spotlights can also be used during the night as it is usually very hard to see.[19]

Even though preventive measures have already been suggested, there are still many ranches being attacked due to improperly protected ranches or open lands with no protection. In a study done by Hüseyin Ambarlı, it is mentioned that only 11 wolf attacks had properly protected barns with dogs and fences which is only 10% of total wolf attacks.[20]


The conflict between ranchers and wolves cannot be solved by simply eliminating all wolves or letting all livestock be hunted down. In fact, there may never be a solution that ends the conflict entirely. Both ranchers and wolves depend on livestock to survive in their own habitat. It is a constant cycle of ranchers and humans killing wolves thinning down their population to protect their livestock; their way of getting food on the table by having money from selling their livestock, and wolves being attacked, making their pack dysfunctional, forcing them to hunt only livestock as it is the safest and easiest way for them to put food on their table as well. When two different species are fighting over the same thing for survival, it becomes life and death for who gets to stay alive.

While solving the conflict may be very difficult, there are many solutions to minimize the damage caused by both humans and wolves. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) [21] may be a good start by putting gray wolves back onto the list. As soon as the gray wolf species lost their protection in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, nearly 3,500 wolves were killed just from those three states alone.[22] This shows how important the protection has been for the species of gray wolves as the hatred of them from humans has gone out of control.


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  1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (n.d.). Gray Wolf (canis lupus). Official Web page of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Newsome, T. M., Boitani, L., Chapron, G., Ciucci, P., Dickman, C. R., Dellinger, J. A., … Ripple, W. J. (2016). Food habits of the world's Grey Wolves. Mammal Review, 46(4), 255–269.
  3. Hayden, M. E. (2017). Conflict between wolves ranchers touches issues of conservatism and Native American rights. ABC News,
  4. Jacobo, J. (2020). What to know about the gray wolf, whose fate in Colorado could be decided by voters. ABC News.
  5. Trotter, L. (2020). Endangered species act protections stripped from gray wolves. Center for Biological Diversity.
  6. Frank, J. (n.d.). Gray Wolf. Defenders of Wildlife.
  7. Turcic, P. (2019). What does a rancher do? CareerExplorer.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Schowengerdt, S. (2020, July 31). Ranching solutions. Living with Wolves.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Schowengerdt, S. (2019). Killing wolves. Living with Wolves.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2020 Annual Report. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. (2021). 23.
  11. defenders of wildlife. (2013, February 22). Wolf Testing Fladry. Retrieved from
  12. People and Carnivores. (2018, January 24). Fladry fencing to prevent wolf/livestock conflict. Retrieved from
  13. Breck, S., Williamson, R., Niemeyer, C., & Shivik, J. (2002). Non-lethal Radio Activated Guard for Deterring Wolf Depredation in Idaho: Summary and Call for Research . University of Nebraska - Lincoln.
  14. Tilseth, R. (2016, July 12). Foxlights is a non lethal predator deterrent device that is saving lives around the world. Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from
  15. Stone, S. (2017). Assessing the efficacy of Foxlights in reducing wolf-livestock conflict. Animal Welfare Institute. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from
  16. Foxlights Predator Control. Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Limited. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2021, from
  17. Stuebner, S. (2021, July 13). Livestock guardian dogs have a job to do - please leave them in the field. Idaho Capital Sun. Retrieved November 8, 2021, from
  18. Washington Gray Wolf Conservation and Management 2020 Annual Report. Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. (2021). 24.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Stone, S., Breck, S., Timberlake, J., Haswell, P., Najera, F., Bean, B., & Thornhill, D. (2017). Adaptive use of nonlethal strategies for minimizing wolf–sheep conflict in Idaho. American Society of Mammologists.
  20. Ambarlı, H. (2019, October 1). Analysis of wolf–human conflicts: implications for damage mitigation measures. European Journal of Wildlife Research. 65, 5.
  21. Greenwald, N., Suckling, K. F., Hartl, B., & A Mehrhoff, L. (2019). Extinction and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. PeerJ.
  22. Levinson, J. (2019). Trump administration proposes removing gray wolves as an endangered species. ABC News.

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