Wolf-Safe Beef: An Idea Whose Time Has (Almost) Come
How ranches in Idaho, Montana, and beyond are protecting livestock from wolves, and wolves from humans.
Brian Bean remembers what it was like when wolves first attacked his livestock in 2002, just seven years after the once-exterminated predators were reintroduced to the United States. "It was pretty horrific," said Bean, the co-owner of Lava Lake Lamb in Hailey, Idaho. "We had incidents where we'd lose two dozen ewes and a couple of rams and a guard dog. Other animals were maimed."
Back then, only a few dozen wolves lived in Idaho. Today, that number has risen to about 770. Many of them live near the Beans' 800,000-acre ranching operation, located in central Idaho's Wood River Valley, but wolf attacks there are now almost completely a thing of the past. "Now we have wolf depredation on our sheep every two or three years," he said. "Those incidents might be one or two sheep."
Bean and his staff accomplished this dramatic reduction in wolf attacks in a fairly unusual manner. Instead of resorting to hunting—which many farms do to control predators, and a process that led to the original extermination of wolves in the lower 48 states—they turned to a combination of low-tech techniques that use lights, strips of nylon, dogs and human presence, all of which help to scare wolves away from their lambs and cattle. "It works for us," he told me.
It does more than work. It also contributes to Lava Lake's ability to sell its meat at a premium. "Consumers want the meat they eat to be sustainably raised," Bean said. For his customers, most of whom live on the coasts, that means grass-fed livestock that is grown humanely in a way that doesn't dramatically affect any other wildlife living nearby, wolves included.
Lava Lake proudly proclaims its operations are designed to coexist with carnivores. Most other ranches, on the other hand, do not. Many kill predators that show up on their land. Others turn to a federal agency called Wildlife Services (not to be confused with the US Fish and Wildlife Service), which is charged with resolving conflicts between wildlife and people. In 2014, Wildlife Services killed millions of animals, including 322 gray wolves in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and other cattle-rich states. It became legal to kill wolves in some states after the certain wolf populations were removed from the Endangered Species Act, and culling them is widely perceived as a way to stop future depredations. However, recent research does show that overreliance on bullets can actually disrupt pack dynamics and increase the number of wolf attacks.
The beef industry has been generally anti-wolf. In 2013, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association called wolf depredation levels "untenable." But, as the Lava Lake experiment shows, there are other options besides killing wolves. Can cattle and carnivores get along, not just in the wild but also in the marketplace? We already have organic meat, free-range meat, hormone-free meat, and even non-GMO verified meat. Could wolf-safe meat be far behind?
It turns out that people have been asking that question for nearly 25 years.
It all started in 1991, apparently, when a sheep farmer and a conservationist ran into each other in a Montana supermarket. The conversation quickly turned to ways farmers could let customers know that they were practicing "wildlife stewardship" and raising their livestock without killing nearby predators or other animals, especially so-called keystone species that serve important roles in the broader ecosystem.
The conversation resulted in a network of operators who banded together to market their goods under the Predator Friendly label. The first products bearing the label were actually woolen goods—hats and sweaters and the like. That lasted for about a decade, after which the label expanded to include beef and lamb meat, eggs, honey and a variety of additional products. During this time a New Mexico operation called Heritage Ranch also began marketing its products as "wolf-friendly" beef, a response to the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf to the area in 1998. A few other, small efforts also popped up along the way, but at this point details are scant and they don't appear to have been very rigorous.
None of these efforts got very far, though. Of them all, only Predator Friendly has persisted. A couple of years ago it joined the broader Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network (WFEN), a coalition of farms around the world that coexist with cheetahs, elephants and other species. Still, Predator Friendly remains small. Even after more than two decades, only a handful of small, regional ranches use the label.
The techniques Predator Friendly helped to perfect, on the other hand, have spread.
"It looks like a string of used-car-lot flags"
Going predator-friendly is "not an easy thing to take on," admitted Abigail Breuer, program director for WFEN. "There's very little published information about how these practices work, and it's not even the type of thing you can publish because it's all what people have figured out on a site-specific basis."
Each ranch that wants to scare off wolves and minimize depredation has different types of territory, different threat levels and different resources, so coming up with a solution requires "a lot of looking, a lot of thinking and a willingness to put yourself out there and say you're going to do everything that you can," Breuer said. The goal is to make killing wolves a last resort, although it's generally accepted that the occasional wolf may need to be killed if other techniques don't work.
Quite a few techniques have emerged, however. All of them seem remarkably simple. One of the most effective tools appears to be a fence of small strips of vinyl called fladry. "It looks like a string of used-car-lot flags," said Suzanne Asha Stone, senior northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife, who has been working in wolf restoration since 1998. "We don't know why it works, but we know that wolves don't like it and won't cross it." A video posted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2013 shows a wolf approaching a cow carcass that has been set inside a ring of fladry. The wolf returns 17 times but never crosses the perimeter.
Stone imported another tool, called a foxlight, to the US from Australia, where it is used to control dingoes. "It sends out a random strobe that looks like somebody searching around in the woods like a flashlight," she said.
Guard animals like dogs, donkeys, or (believe it or not) llamas can also be effective, although they have been attacked by wolves as well. Other techniques include boomboxes or other noisemakers; moving cattle during birthing times—afterbirths and dead calves can attract wolves—and just plain old human presence. Every expert I spoke with said multiple solutions must be in place in case one technique fails, in order to keep wolves guessing.
It all boils down to what Breuer calls "vigilant observation" of the land and its stocks. "It's people understanding where they are and working with the natural cycle," she said.
Or, as Eve DeMarco of Happy Hollow Farms in Marion, Montana, put it, "it's just common sense. That's all it is." She raises Scottish highland cattle on her ranch and says she hasn't experienced a depredation since starting to use Predator Friendly techniques. But not every tool works for her; she said the guard dogs she owns right now "just sleep through everything."
If we know how to stop wolves from killing cattle and other livestock, why don't we see more "wolf-safe" beef on the market?
One of the biggest challenges is that many cattle ranchers operate in a way that isn't easily adapted to predator-friendly techniques. "It isn't uncommon for folks in Northeast Oregon to turn their cattle loose on a grazing allotment in June and then come back to check on them in September," said Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild. Bean at Lava Lake acknowledges that predator-friendly techniques may be better suited for sheep because they have an instinct to band together, making them easy to herd. Cattle, for the most part, lack this instinct.
The perception that environmentalists or the federal government are "the enemy" has also created a lot of resistance.
"The debate over wolves has more to do with identity politics, changing public values and the future of the West than anything wolves actually do"
"There's peer pressure in the ranching community as well," said Amaroq Weiss, west coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity. "A number of ranchers who have conflict-deterrence methods don't tell their neighbors that they're doing it because it makes it look as though they are consorting with the enemy." Indeed, one ranch told me that they use Predator Friendly techniques but not the label. They asked to not be named out of fear that another nearby ranch would firebomb them.
"The debate over wolves has more to do with identity politics, changing public values and the future of the West than anything wolves actually do," Organ Wild's Pedery said.
He points to the Koch Brothers-funded "Wolves in our Midst" campaign, which depicted children waiting for the school bus inside wolf-safe cages as an example of the anti-government sentiment propaganda surrounding wolf reintroductions. Similarly, a group called Oregon Wolf Education has put up anti-wolf billboards in cattle country. Their Facebook page is full of violent, bloody photos of depredated cattle—all of which, it should be noted, were actually taken in Europe.
But perhaps the biggest reason we don't see more wolf-safe beef is the way the beef industry is structured. "The industry is vertically integrated," WFEN's Breuer told me. Ranches rarely sell their products under their own labels. Instead, they sell their young cattle to feedlots, which then send them on to slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants that consolidate everything under a handful of major brands or supermarket labels. Consumers rarely know the name of the ranch or under what conditions their beef was raised. That alone would make it very hard for the ranches that do embrace predator-friendly practices to advertise that fact on a national level.
None of these challenges are insurmountable, experts say. Several large, private- or university-funded research projects are currently examining predator-friendly techniques to scientifically prove their effectiveness. Stone, Defenders of Wildlife, and a coalition of private ranches are involved in the Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho, which is now in its eighth year. "We've only lost 29 sheep to wolves during that entire time," she told me.
Meanwhile, University of Washington professor John Marzluff is about to start a statewide poll of ranchers and the general public, to see if they would be interested in wolf-safe techniques and whether they would be willing to pay more for predator-friendly beef. "We're also working with some stores to test-market it," he said.
Some stores are already paying attention. Whitney Krebs, marketing coordinator for the high-end grocery chain New Seasons Market, said the chain's meat buyers have looked into the predator-free label. "It's on their radar and they'll continue to look into the possibility for the future," she said.
Marzluff doesn't expect wolf-safe beef to ever be a huge part of the industry. "It's not for everybody, but it might be right for a small market," he told me. He said ranches that sell at farmers markets and have their own brands may be one of the best avenues in the near future.
The beef industry as a whole, however, seems less likely to embrace the predator-free label and was reluctant to comment on the idea or even acknowledge the existence of the Predator Friendly label. "We support voluntary labeling that is industry-driven," said Chase Adams of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Kayli Hanley of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association said, "we generally support those types of opportunities and freedom of choice in the marketplace" if they will result in consumers paying more (and ranchers earning more) for the resulting products.
One thing that's for certain is that wolves are here and probably aren't going away again any time soon, so perhaps it's time for more cattle operators to take notice. "Our belief is that wolves have a place in this landscape," said Lava Lamb's Bean. "They were here before we were. They're here again now. Whether an operator likes it or not, we think they're here to stay."