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Study: Wolves Bring Fewer Car Wrecks, Save Money And Human Lives

New research paper raises tantalizing questions about value of wolves in Wisconsin, especially as western states plot their 21st century re-extermination

A wolf in Yellowstone. Each year, wolf watching attracts avid nature lovers from around the world and yields millions of dollars in traveler spending. But what's the real value of wolves, and bringing back a species, and its ecological importance in nature. A new study in Wisconsin says that wolves also possess a worth to people living in rural counties and they might save lives. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS
A wolf in Yellowstone. Each year, wolf watching attracts avid nature lovers from around the world and yields millions of dollars in traveler spending. But what's the real value of wolves, and bringing back a species, and its ecological importance in nature. A new study in Wisconsin says that wolves also possess a worth to people living in rural counties and they might save lives. Photo courtesy Jim Peaco/NPS

By Todd Wilkinson

Landscapes where gray wolves roam have fewer deer-human vehicle collisions on local highways. 

That’s the provocative finding of a new scientific analysis focusing on counties in northern Wisconsin but it could hold implications for other wolf-inhabited parts of the Lower 48, one of the study’s three authors tells Mountain Journal. 

In fact, this revelation is among several insights featured in the peer-reviewed scientific paper published May 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and  titled “Wolves make roadways safer, generating large economics returns to predator conservation.

The findings are timely, for they challenge many conventional negative portrayals of wolves used by states in 2021 to sanction a new era of mass wolf killings, often based upon claims that lobos represent only economic liabilities imposed on ranchers, farmers and hunters. 

After crunching numbers available in different data sets, researchers say higher wolf presence translates, on average, into a 24 percent reduction in deer-vehicle collisions in Wisconsin counties. Even more poignant: the economic savings realized in deer-vehicle accident reduction is 63 times greater than the costs of verified wolf predation on livestock.

In blunt terms, the economic value of wolf existence vastly outweighs the economic costs to farmers when wolves kill cattle, sheep or other domestic animals.

Moreover, in the same North Woods of the Upper Midwest where white-tailed deer numbers have exploded in recent years and caused crop damage in farmer’s fields, wolves help regulate deer overpopulation. And, in so doing, they may aid in controlling high deer numbers linked to spread of tick-spreading Lyme Disease and other epizootic maladies. 

The paper contains a lot to unpack, beginning with the correlation between wolves and deer-vehicle collisions. “Most of the reduction [in deer-vehicle collisions] is due to a behavior response of deer to wolves rather than through a deer population decline from wolf predation,” the paper’s three authors Jennifer L. Raynor and contributors Corbett A. Grainer and Dominic Parker write. 

“Our study suggests that systematic elimination of wolves from North America has also caused unintended damages,” the paper states.  In Wisconsin, wolf presence reduced deer-vehicle losses by an average of $375,000 per county per year and by $10.9 million annually in aggregate across the 29 wolf counties. 
In Wisconsin, wolf presence reduced deer-vehicle losses by an average of $375,000 per county per year and by $10.9 million annually in aggregate across the 29 wolf counties.  
“As a point of comparison, the state paid $3.1 million in compensation to individuals for verified deaths or injuries caused by wolves of livestock, hunting dogs, and pets between 1985 and 2019 or an average of $174,000 per year over the last five years. The economic benefit of reduced deer-vehicle collisions exceeds the economic costs of verified wolf predation by a ratio of 63:1. This ratio is relevant because economics matters for listing, delisting, and management decisions for endangered species, is only as implicit considerations.” 

Of note is that reduction in collisions happens primarily in rural areas where livestock predation occurs. “This finding may help dampen political polarization around wolf reintroduction that generally pits rural and urban voters against one another, as was the case with the November 2020 vote on wolf reintroduction in Colorado.” Coloradans narrowly passed the referendum calling upon state wildlife officials to bring wolves back to the state.  

The authors also reference the widespread challenge of deer-vehicle collisions that occur because of where highways pass through habitat and that it’s not an easy or inexpensive problem to fix. Having wolves could be a cheaper way to mitigate rather than having to employ costly engineering solutions. 

Nick Parker
Nick Parker
Of interest to those familiar with wolf issues in the West, they allude to some pioneering findings in Yellowstone National Park showing that wolf presence creates a “landscape of fear” for ungulates like elk, keeping those prey species constantly on the move, reducing foraging pressure on aspen trees and yielding positive ecological ripple effects. 

The authors also note that the beneficial effect of wolves in Wisconsin causing deer to avoid roadways where they are more vulnerable to wolf predation could not be achieved by hunters. 
“[Our] finding supports ecological research emphasizing the role of predators in creating a “landscape of fear,’” they note.  “It suggests wolves control economic damages from overabundant deer in ways that human deer hunters cannot.”

Not only are hunter numbers falling but hunts occur only seasonally while wolves are active all year long. The same argument applies to the beneficial role wolves can play in slowing the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in the West. While states employ hunter culling of ungulates in areas where CWD prevalence of deer family members is high, wolves actually have an ability to target animals that are sick and remove them, potentially helping to eliminate disease spreaders. 

Regarding wolves as allies to farmers, when lobos reduce the size of deer populations it lessens their impact on crops. In Wisconsin, deer cause 90 percent of all wildlife-related damage to agriculture. 

“The finding that wolves reduce deer-vehicle collisions primarily by changing deer behavior rather than by reducing deer abundance is likely good news for policy makers,” the authors note. “It implies they do not need to choose between a $20.6 billion nationwide recreational deer hunting industry and deer-vehicle benefits from wolves. At least in Wisconsin, it seems that wolves and deer hunters can co-exist with safer roadways.”

The paper’s implications for thinking about wolves in the West

The paper’s findings are especially timely given recent events in the Northern Rockies This winter and spring, Republican lawmakers- in both Montana and Idaho passed legislation, signed into law by Republican governors, that essentially greenlight action to re-eradicate recovered wolf populations in the face of little evidence substantiating its rationale, scientists, conservationists and others say.

In Idaho, a new law allows 90 percent of the state’s approximately 1500 wolves to be killed by hunters, trappers and bounty hunters—reminiscent of frontier-era campaigns that sought to wipe out predators to make western rangelands safer for livestock and to eliminate animals deemed competitors to human hunters. 

Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, the state has come under withering criticism from scientists and citizens for staging its first sport hunt of wolves that killed many more of the canine carnivores than expected and even allowed hunters to stalk wolves using dogs. 

“The timing is interesting that our paper is coming out now. It is important to us that we have good science-based natural resource policy, including policy oriented toward wildlife,” Parker noted.

Lawmakers in Montana and Idaho stand accused of presiding over hearings that were one-sided in terms of presenting evidence that ostensibly was informing the need for anti-predator legislation. Livestock losses and costs incurred by ranchers were exaggerated or not placed in context. 
A "Wisconsin" wolf, not much different from a Minnesota wolf and not much different from a "Yellowstone,"  "Idaho,"  "Montana," or "Canadian wolf."  Contentions that "Canadian wolves'" which were used in reintroduction efforts to Yellowstone and central Idaho are markedly different from wolves that existed there before have been proved false by science. Still, AM radio continues to spew Q-Anon like conspiracy theories. Photo courtesy Wisconsin DNR
A "Wisconsin" wolf, not much different from a Minnesota wolf and not much different from a "Yellowstone," "Idaho," "Montana," or "Canadian wolf." Contentions that "Canadian wolves'" which were used in reintroduction efforts to Yellowstone and central Idaho are markedly different from wolves that existed there before have been proved false by science. Still, AM radio continues to spew Q-Anon like conspiracy theories. Photo courtesy Wisconsin DNR


Outfitters and guides painted portraits of widespread negative impacts on game animal populations when, in most, elk numbers in the northern Rockies are at historic highs in modern times. State and independent estimates for elk herds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming place most near or above desired population objectives. 

These facts were either ignored or left out of public discussions and instead assertions were made about wolf impacts not backed by scientific data.  

“The legislatures in Idaho and Montana are dominated by a people with a distinct lack of knowledge about wolves, the actual number of livestock killed by wolves, predator/prey relations, the actually big game populations in each state, wildlife biology, healthy natural ecosystems, and the ethics of hunting and trapping,” wrote Dr. Chris Servheen, a board member of the Montana Wildlife Federation and, notably, the former national director of Grizzly Bear Recovery for the US Fish and Wildlife Service who formerly exuded confidence in the ability of states to management wildlife like wolves and grizzlies.

“In both states, extreme measures to kill wolves are being legislated based on nonsense in order to ‘save’ elk and deer from wolf predation and reduce livestock losses,” he added. 

He pointed to actual numbers. There are 2.73 million sheep in Idaho. The average number of cattle and sheep lost to wolves in Idaho is just 113, far below the thousands of animals lost to disease, weather, accidents, eating poisonous plants and even, sometimes, predation by feral dogs.  Some 40,000 cattle die from the causes above and not from wolves.

Under Idaho’s current plan advanced by the legislature and signed into law by the governor, nearly $600,000 will be spent to kill 90 percent of the wolves in Idaho or $5,221 for each cow or sheep preyed upon by wolves. 

As far as wildlife is concerned, there are today a near record number of elk in Idaho today with near record numbers of wapiti taken by hunters. The notion that wolves are decimating both livestock and wildlife is a fallacy, Servheen says.  A parallel scenario exists in Montana. 

Earlier this winter, Servheen told Mountain Journal that the politically-driven anti-wolf and anti-grizzly bear sentiments prevailing in Idaho and Montana were a disgrace to professional, science-based wildlife management as well as the public trust doctrine and antithetical to public support for wildlife conservation.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and Sierra Club today petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service May 25 to restore federal protection under the Endangered Species Act to wolves in the wake of the action in Idaho and Montana.
“Idaho’s and Montana’s legislative directives to kill wolves by nearly any means possible seriously endanger wolf populations in the West,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should immediately return Endangered Species Act protections to these wolves to halt the impending statewide slaughters before it’s too late.”

Added Bonnie Rice, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club based in Bozeman: “As a keystone species, wolves play a critical role in maintaining the health of ecosystems and in reducing the spread of wildlife diseases such as chronic wasting disease. These extreme and unethical laws in Montana and Idaho aimed at killing 85-90% of the states’ wolf populations will not only reverse 50 years of wolf-recovery efforts but will unravel entire ecosystems.”
Never in the history of the Endangered Species Act and America’s global leadership in wildlife conservation has a species been rescued or restored only to be subjected to aggressive means of securing its near-total eradication again. 
On May 10, more than 100 respected scientists and career wildlife management specialists sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Martha Williams, deputy principle director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (and recent former director of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks) said restoring federal protections to wolves is warranted.

Anti-wolf policies that exist in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming threaten to erase wolf recovery which has been called one of the greatest wildlife conservation success stories on the planet. At present in 85 percent of Wyoming and not far from Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, wolves can be killed 24 hours a day, without limit, by virtually any means, including using techniques that in other states would be considered gross violations of animal cruelty laws.

Adult wolves and their pups can literally be burned alive in their dens, they can legally be run over with snowmobiles, and shot for no reason. A number of prominent policy makers from both sides of the political aisle, including scientists, hunters, conservationists and citizens say Wyoming’s attitude toward wolves runs counter to professional wildlife management.

Never in the history of the Endangered Species Act and America’s global leadership in wildlife conservation has a species been rescued or restored only to be subjected to aggressive means of securing its near-total eradication again. The scientists say the spirit of species recovery, as intended in the Endangered Species Act, is to achieve distribution of formerly imperiled animals across their portions of their former range. 

“Some argue against reinstating federal protection on the grounds that doing so would unleash broad backlash in the form of eroding support for the Endangered Species Act among American citizens,” they write. “However, scientific evidence indicates that Americans’ support for the Act is strong, has remained strong over time, and is not reduced when the Act is implemented. Overall, the best-available science indicates that the American public respects the Fish and Wildlife Service to lead us toward wolf recovery.”

Parker is well aware of the debates surrounding real and alleged wolf impacts. When he is not teaching at the University of Wisconsin, he has been a senior research fellow at the Policy and Environment Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman. For 40 years, PERC has become known for its promotion of market-based approaches to conservation, especially on private lands, with a primary focus in recent years on blending the protection of private property rights and public wildlife.

“One of the things that’s interesting is how we think about the benefits and costs of wolves. The benefits are often thought to accrue mostly to people who are happy wolves exist and know they exist in healthy populations and may be valuable assets for eco-tourism,” he told Mountain Journal. “The biggest wolf advocates are often environmentalists living in big cities and they are removed from rural areas where wolves are regarded as a burden, so there’s a chasm is public perception about wolves that exists.”

What the study does, he notes, is illuminate the fact that wolves impart tangible economic benefits to people living in rural areas in the form of fewer vehicle wrecks. He did not sign the petition of scientists but he does support broader thinking about the value of healthy functioning ecosystems, including the dividends of species like wolves that have never been given a fair and full accounting. 

The benefits of wolves are not only financially convincing, but he also says, the role they play delivers important ecosystem services. It’s not what’s been on the ledger that matters in considering the worth of imperiled species, but what’s been left off. He hopes his study helps to provide a more comprehensive assessment of the value of nature.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, click on this link to a comprehensive interview with senior wolf biologist Doug Smith of the National Park Service.  Make sure you never miss a story in  Mountain Journal's by signing up for our free weekly newsletter. Click here: https://bit.ly/3cYVBtK



Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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