The anti-wolf argument of livestock producers across this country is simple: Wolves kill livestock and threaten the economic existence 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 three 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 used to hide the real problem: The livestock production that ranchers make a living off of is killing the ecosystem that sustains the rest of us.
The production of livestock is the single largest driver of worldwide habitat loss, according to a study in the journal Science for the Total Environment. The study also finds that increasing livestock production in developing tropical countries harms our planet's biodiversity since those countries are where most biodiversity resides.
And that's not all. 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, though anti-wolf groups paint them as villains. Instead, research shows that these essential predators actually improve the ecosystems in which they are allowed to live. From multiple scavengers, to 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 as happened in Oregon. Allow wolves to be hunted as they are in Idaho and Montana. Keep fines low or non-existent for poaching as happened in Washington. 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 disappearance of habitat and biodiversity under the hooves of livestock? The study's authors suggest several solutions, and here are two. Reduce the demand for animal-based food products and increase the demand for plant-based foods. 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-and that includes wolves-for the benefit of a good steak and the ranchers who produce it.
Rick Lamplugh lives near Yellowstone's north gate and is the author of the Amazon Bestseller In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.
Wolf photo by Eric Kilby via CC BY-SA 2.0