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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Shocking Wolves

Air Date: Week of

Wolf reintroduction programs have sometimes met with resistance from ranchers and in northwest Montana a pack of wolves is in trouble for killing cattle. The Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Turner Endangered Species Fund, is outfitting these wolves with shock collars in an effort to control their appetite for cows. Steve Curwood speaks with Mike Phillips, the executive director of the Turner Fund, about how the experiment is going to work.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Montana, there is a plan to use electric shock collars to train wild wolves to avoid cattle. The experiment is being run by Ted Turner's Endangered Species Fund, in cooperation with the government, with a pack of wolves that apparently prefers the taste of beef to wild game. The territory of the wolves, known as the Sheep Mountain pack, is just outside of the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The hope is they can be programmed to avoid cattle, and then be released back into the wild. Mike Phillips is the executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Mike, why has the Sheep Mountain pack, this one in particular, gotten into so much trouble?

PHILLIPS: Well, they actually occupy a territory that straddles public and private land on the outskirts of the northern entrance to Yellowstone Park. And these wolves have a veritable buffet of prey animals to choose from. Some of those items include domestic cattle. I can tell you that in the presence of abundant native prey, wolves tend not to select livestock. Now, this particular pack lives in an area where there are good numbers of native prey, and they have a history of depredating on livestock. So it just seemed to us that the Sheep Mountain pack was an appropriate candidate for inclusion in this program.

CURWOOD: So, as I understand it, you have a plan to catch these wolves and then put them in an enclosure and put on shock collars. Can you explain to me what's going to happen there?

PHILLIPS: By mid-June those animals will be transferred to the Flying D Ranch and placed in about a one-half-acre enclosure. And we will attach to each wolf a shock collar used by dog trainers, for example, and develop protocols for administering a negative stimulus, in this case it's an electronic shock, any time one of those wolves is in close proximity to a livestock calf.

CURWOOD: Tell me about the nature of this shock. Is it a little ping, or is it something that could, like, knock them to the ground?

PHILLIPS: Well, I don't think it's going to knock them to the ground, but it's not going to be a little ping. We have to make an impression on them, and we believe that the most effective way to do that is with a pretty pronounced shock. We're hoping to develop protocols that allow for the negative stimulus to be graduated as a function of the determination of the wolf. I think that given enough time, we can prompt some wolves to not depredate on livestock. I am also convinced that some wolves that we've run through the conditioning program won't be impressed by our efforts, and they'll go right back to their old ways.

CURWOOD: Now, how does this conditioning teach a wolf how to properly hunt? I mean, if it gets shocked any time it goes near a calf, wolves are hunters.

PHILLIPS: That's a very good question, and we are considering presenting live prey in the pens that the wolves will be permitted to kill. That might be in the form of rabbits. Now, we are the first to admit that wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains don't subsist on rabbits, but there are certain limitations to what we can accomplish with a captive setting. And we are aware that they may simply conclude all of this has to do with being held in captivity, and upon release to the wild they go back to their old ways. If that happened, then we would modify our protocols accordingly, trying to find the right mix of ingredients to have the desired effect.

CURWOOD: We have heard that if you want to prevent a wolf attack, you would put a donkey or a llama out in your herd of cattle. Is there anything to that?

PHILLIPS: You, you know, I'd hope to think there is. I'd like to think there is. There are lots of potential guard animals that we have not put in a field situation to see what effect they have on wolves. There are lots of aspects of wolf-livestock relationships that we've never explored, in large part because we haven't had wolves over a large Western landscape up until recently. We're now beginning to assess the utility of aversive conditioning. We're looking at techniques that might exploit the social ecology of gray wolves. Maybe in some areas that are great wolf habitat that are also public allotments on public land, perhaps there can be some innovative ways of retiring allotments or providing the rancher extra compensation to account for the fact that he's certain to incur some losses. The journey of coexistence is almost certainly going to be a long one, and if you believe that, then we might as well get started.

CURWOOD: The issues you're dealing with here make me wonder, what is a truly wild place now?

PHILLIPS: Oh, gee whiz. I don't know what a truly wild place is. I do believe, the only thing I can tell you for sure is, it's a human construct. Nature never defined it. A wolf doesn't define it. We define it. And I suppose that there are probably almost as many definitions of wildness as there are people. This is the best that we can offer for wolves in the year 2000, and I believe it's an acceptable compromise for ranchers, especially ranchers that are using public lands.

CURWOOD: Now, I'm just wondering if you and the Fish and Wildlife Service see this zapping program, this aversive treatment, as a long-term solution to the wolf-rancher conflict there on public lands.

PHILLIPS: No, certainly not. It may be a tool that's used over a long period of time, but there is no one long-term solution out there, except a willingness on the part of Americans to accommodate other important species that call this planet home.

CURWOOD: What was the alternative, if you didn't do this aversive shock treatment program for these wolves?

PHILLIPS: For these animals, they would have been killed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had pretty well run out of options, and in the absence of this aversive conditioning attempt they would have been shot.

CURWOOD: Mike Phillips is the executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. Thanks for speaking with us today.

PHILLIPS: You're welcome.



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