Herd management is more effective than killing wolves

What many conservationists expected is now confirmed: killing wolves does not effectively reduce livestock depredation. On the contrary, various methods in which people killed wolves, resulted in increase or no change in number of livestock depredation. Using non-leathal protective measures to improve herd protection, luckily did show reducing numbers of livestock depredation.

“Non-lethal methods were more effective than lethal methods in preventing carnivore predation on livestock generally; at least two lethal methods (government culling or regulated public hunting) were followed by increases in predation on livestock; zero tests of non-lethal methods had counterproductive effects.” – A. Treves, M. Krofel, and J. McManus

There are currently many different ways to protect livestock from livestock depredation, ranging from lethal (e.g., culling, trapping, poisoning) to non-lethal (e.g., fences, guard dogs, night enclosures). However, livestock owners or local authorities use most of these methods without any proof of effectiveness. A recent study managed to compare the effect of a variety of methods to reduce livestock depredation. Their findings were clear, killing predators like wolves does not help.

Cascade-effect of killing top predators

The study focussed on conflicts with wolves, lynxes, bears and coyotes in Europe and America. In both continents, these animals often play the role of top predator within their ecosystem. Predators prevent excessive herbivory and support increased species biodiversity. Killing top predators, like wolves, largely influences nature’s balance, and has led to less healthy ecosystems.

In some cases, killing of the top predator lead to smaller predator species take its place, continuing to depredate on livestock. In other cases the social dynamics of groups like wolf-packs changed the population distribution, effecting more neighbouring livestock owners. Coyotes even started to produce more offspring when hunted down, resulting in higher population growth and increased pressure on food sources like livestock.

Killing results in little practical benefit

Killing bears did not show decrease in livestock depredation. Instead, availability of other food sources reduced sheep loss. In Slovenia 25% of the wolf population (51 individuals) were killed annually for 11 years, but no effect on livestock losses was found.

In some cases, where a complete wolf-pack was killed or a lynx was poached, loss of sheep was reduced only minimal and for a short term. Other wolf-packs soon took over the territory and since the lynx’ territory is large calculated benefit for sheep owners was less than 1 lamb saved per killed lynx.

“Culling and hunting appear risky for livestock owners because effects were slight or uncertain and five of seven tests produced no effect or a counterproductive effect. […] The non-lethal methods that have been tested were not associated with similar negative results.” – A. Treves, M. Krofel, and J. McManus

Fences and guard dogs reduce losses more effectively

Some non-lethal ways did not affect the losses, like distracting the carnivores with other carcasses. But more commonly used ways proved to be effective in reducing depredation numbers. These methods include fladry, electric fences, guard dogs and night enclosures.

A fladry is a fence with pieces of cloth or other material strapped to it. Fladry was effective against wolves, but not against coyotes or bears. See how a wolf interacts with a fladry around a carcass in America:

Since the coyote’s relative, the golden jackal, is on the rise in Europe, livestock owners should consider a combination of measures for the best livestock protection. In France, electric fences, guard dogs and night enclosures proved their effectiveness in a long-term study. Depending on the herd size, a combination of at least 5 guard dogs and night enclosures would prevent almost all wolf depredation. These methods proved in 80% of the cases to be effective, compared to only 29% with killing predators.

” …we found a greater proportion of non-lethal methods were effective in preventing carnivore predation on livestock than lethal methods. ” – A. Treves, M. Krofel, and J. McManus

Herd management is the satisfactory alternative

The conclusion is clear, stating that farmers, managers, policy makers and courts have to consider effectiveness of intervention methods before implementing. They need a common strategy and consider public acceptance and ecological consequences as well.

Non-lethal protection measures outperformed killing of predators in reducing livestock losses. Killing methods often face legal difficulties as Habitat Directives protect species like the wolf and lynx. The Directive only allows killing in case of “absence of a satisfactory alternative”. And those satisfactory alternatives are now scientifically proven.


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Sign the Open Letter to the German Ministry

Join more than 70 forest experts demanding a radical change in the German forest management system.

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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