The Values and Costs of Living With Wolves
This article is part of our ongoing series Wolves in Colorado: Science & Stories, a special five-part virtual presentation of the Institute for Science & Policy and Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, in partnership with the Center for Collaborative Conservation, the Center for Human-Carnivore Coexistence, CSU Extension, and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Watch the full recording of the session and explore the episode archive.
In the third episode of our ongoing series about wolf reintroduction in Colorado, the Institute’s Senior Policy Advisor Kristan Uhlenbrock and Center for Collaborative Conservation Director John Sanderson chatted with Stanley Asah, Professor in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington; Shauna Baron, a naturalist guide in Yellowstone National Park; and Dana Hoag, Professor in the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics at Colorado State University. They discussed different interpretations of costs and values, as well as the inherent tensions of coexisting with wolves.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Watch the full recording of the session.
JOHN SANDERSON: I feel honored to welcome our guests tonight and want to thank them for being part of this important dialogue. I'll start by introducing Dr. Stanley Asah. Stanley is a social scientist at the University of Washington and studies the ways that human behavior, organizational behavior and politics can be used to inform sustainable natural resource management and conservation. He is interested in human-environment interactions that span from how to connect people especially children to the outdoors, and all the way to the impact of smoke from wildland fires on small forest communities Stanley has also published several papers on wolves and on the valuation of ecosystem services in making decisions in society.
STANLEY ASAH: Thank you , John, and thanks for the opportunity. I am coming from a very humanistic perspective in terms of the notion of values. And my take on this, from that disciplinary perspective is: what are the values, and to what degree are they important? I would argue that values are fundamental to everything that we do. They are relevant to desirable goals, they are belief systems that orient us towards the goals and certain things we want to achieve. And our values are sort of relative, they vary in importance. The things that are important to us have different degrees of importance.
Most importantly for the context of conservation and natural resource management, values serve as guiding principles. They serve the interests of an individual or they serve the interests of a social entity. They also motivate action, and they give direction and emotional intensity to the kinds of things that people do and why they do it. They help us to judge standards and to justify our actions and to justify the actions of others.
Values are what are important to us. It's not something we're born with. We actually acquire that through socialization in a dominant group. That could be your family, it could be your cultural makeup, it could be an educational background that you have. And it also is acquired through unique learning experiences. This all sounds very theoretical, like, wow what is he talking about. Here are some examples to bring this to how values play in conservation.
In my personal experience working with different stakeholders in the wolf issue, I have come to learn several things that I want to point out to you. Here's a quote from a rancher: “I shoot wolves because I cannot shoot a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife person and get away with it.” Here is another observation I made: biologists actually have names for the wolves that they study. I asked them if they ever met this wolf, and many of them say ‘no, I haven't. I met them once when I was putting a chip on them and now I just look at them on the computer and I can tell where they're having lunch or taking their nap or where they're going. But I really do love Susie (Susie is the wolf).’
These same scientists don't understand why a rancher who gets up every morning and goes to feed the cattle everyday would be emotionally affected if that calf is killed by a wall. They don't come to realize that the encounter between a wolf and a calf is not a friendly one. It is observing a cow die in a way that they themselves would not kill the cow.
What I'm trying to get at here is that with [that rancher’s quote above], what they're actually saying is, wolves are not the problem. Our values is the problem. Wolves is just a place for these different vantages that we have, whether we are an ecologist, conservationist, rancher, whatever we call ourselves. Wolves, just like forest fires and climate change, is just a place for different values to interplay, and whoever’s values dominate.
DANA HOAG: Stanley talked about introducing values, because what economists do is we try to put a number on cost and a number on benefits and we primarily use prices. We even value things like intrinsic value, so we try to do even the weird stuff. So that's just the most common way people measure values or a common way to measure values.
Now, I'm just going to go through five quick points. The problem is, there's not a lot of research in Colorado available. So, I have to go to other states like Wyoming and Idaho where there is. So I can't give you exact numbers, but I'm going to go ahead and give you ballpark numbers, but just keep in mind, those are based on what I see in other states.
The first point I want to get at is that there are many people that benefit from introducing wolves, but only a few people bear the costs. This is a real problem. If you think about it, there's 5.7 million people in Colorado. If all of them just had a $10 benefit, it wouldn't be a big deal to them. But 5.7 million people times 10 is $57 million. That's a lot of benefits. The cost, maybe there's only 500 ranchers that will have an appreciable damage from wolves, but those could be $10,000 apiece. And I'm glad Stanley talked about how a rancher feels when an animal's killed, because a lot of times I feel like people that are voting to have wolves really don't care about them, they don't care that they're suffering.
So we have this problem where we have this opportunity to get this tremendous benefit, but it's a big cost to just a few people. One of the things you can do to address that problem is that you can compensate, since there's all these benefits. I estimate the benefits are maybe five to 10 times greater than the cost - they're big. So if they're five times bigger or 10 times bigger, take some of that money and pay compensation to the people that are bearing the cost. For example, if a cow was killed you pay them for the value of the cow. Now, we already have programs like that in Colorado, and they have programs like that in other states of wolves, so we can do it. It's very highly nuanced and I don't have time to go into all those little details right now. It's hard to do, but we could do it. So that's one way to solve that problem.
Typically, we think of four kinds of benefits. The two big ones for wolves are non-consumptive, like tourism. When they reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone, they estimated a 5-10% increase in tourism. Recent studies show that people spend $47 million a year just coming to that area to see wolves. Okay, so that's an opportunity for a benefit. It's non-consumptive, meaning it doesn't hurt the wolves to do it. So that's a big value. That's probably the biggest value that we have on the benefit side.
A second benefit that's fairly big is existence value, or bequest value. And that's simply, I want to know that wolves exist, so I'm willing to pay. A lot of people watching today would pay to preserve polar bears, for example, even though you're never going to see one, most likely. But you'd like to pay to know they’re there. A bequest means you'd like to know they're there for your kids and your grandkids as well. In Yellowstone, when they introduced wolves, they estimated that that value was about $11 million. Another big number. Now it wouldn't probably be that big in Colorado because wolves are not as rare as they were in the Rocky Mountains at that time. And Yellowstone's a lot more famous than Colorado.
The option value simply means I'll pay now because I'd like the option to see a wolf someday if I feel like it. Maybe I'll go to Yellowstone and I'll go to one of these tours that Shauna offers. The last one is consumptive use which is, for example, wolf hunting. Now, if they get reintroduced they'll still be considered endangered, so you can't hunt them. But in Montana and Wyoming, you can now hunt wolves, and one guy in Idaho, for example, charges $3,800 for a wolf hunt. So there's a lot of revenue potential. That's called a consumptive use.
Now what do we know about costs? Costs include private and public costs. On the private side, probably the biggest one is livestock losses. Wolves kill cows, they injure cows, they injure calves. And then when they chase these animals around, the stress reduces their pregnancy rates and makes them lose weight. So people lose money from wolves attacking their animals. This is probably the biggest cost. It's isolated, but one rancher told me that he gets really irritated when people say it's a small number statewide. Because it is a small number, if you added up the whole state. But he said that's sort of like saying that when somebody's house burns down, it's not a very big number statewide. Well, for the person whose house burns down, it's a big number. So those ranchers feel pretty upset about when it happens to them and some of them could even lose their operations.
On the public side, one study estimated that we're going to spend $350,000 to $450,000 for the first two years if this amendment passes. We’ve got to spend money to manage wildlife.
Like everybody else, I'm going to recommend that we need broad public discourse based on experience. This is a rare opportunity. We can go to a state like Wyoming, where they've dealt with this for 20 years, and we can ask them what they think. Now I'm going to tell you, I just did that. I went and interviewed people in Wyoming and Montana and the ranchers told me there were four things that matter to them. One is, don't fight the Feds. So, when you deal with people who manage wolves try to get along with them and everything works better. The second one was they want some means of lethal control. Now I know that sounds controversial but they feel like if they have some way to control problem wolves. They're much more willing to live with them. The third is compensation. And the fourth is they've been spending more time in the woods with their animals so they also leave them there, they're spending more time with them and they say that's the number one deterrent for wolves. And they found that successful.
JS: Shauna, can you tell us a little bit about your experience working with tourists? I know you also work with ranchers that are on the periphery of Yellowstone, so you have both of those perspectives to share with us.
SHAUNA BARON: Sure. Thank you for having me tonight. And yes, I actually get paid to go out there every day. So I thought I'd share just a little bit about what tourism looks like here in the northern part of the park. I live in Gardiner, Montana at the North Gate of Yellowstone National Park and I take folks out into the park every day to look for wolves in particular. But we're also looking for lots of other wildlife and I'm teaching anywhere from one- to five-day classes on wolf ecology and predator-prey relationships. We do talk to ranchers and I'll get to that in a minute. And we spend a fair amount of time outside the park as well as inside the park.
I'm pretty lucky to have an amazing place like this to work. Lamar is one of those places that we spend a fair amount of our time. I know it might seem that Yellowstone is a unique setting to see wolves in, with 2.2 million acres and wolves are protected inside the park. It may be hard to draw those parallels for Colorado, especially when discussing building an entire tourism industry around wolves. But I think we can do it, and wolves really only need one thing: tolerance. They're incredibly resilient, they can live pretty much anywhere if we'll allow them to, and they're actually easier to live with than we thought. But the one thing that they absolutely need and cannot live without is actually tolerance.
Now, just here in Gardner, we have over a dozen guiding companies that run out of the North Gate. And that's in a basically in a town that has a little over 800 people. Most of those folks are going out there to look for wildlife. Over 90% of our requests from our guests are to see a wolf in the wild. That's pretty much across the board with everyone. The companies I spoke to, the small operators, are making anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 a year gross income.
In Yellowstone, we have an average of 100 wolves. And so if one of these operators is making $300,000, you know, each wolf is going to be worth about $3,000 to that individual company. It's not all the companies, that's just one company. That's a $3,000 wolf. Fortunately, we do have an intensive ability to see them here. We see wolves almost every day in Yellowstone. And that may be a little harder in places like Colorado, but I think there will be some places that you will see them often, especially in those protected habitats. And we'll talk more about those boundary areas between protected habitats in those public lands or private lands.
It gets a little crazy out there, with cars parked all over the place and people just trying to see a wolf. We try our best to keep or distance from them, and we like it when they're at least a half a mile away from us so that they're going about their business, doing what they need to do. And we don't want to wind up with a situation where we have wolves watching people watching wolves. We don't want that. And it doesn't matter the weather. People will spend a bajillion dollars on winter gear to come into Yellowstone in the winter and stand up there all day long and watch wolves. My students will stand up for hours at a time. We get everything from little kids to retirees to teachers coming for continuing education credits. We get a ton of school groups and a teenager will get their butt out of bed in the dark to go see a wolf.
We're hoping to catch a glimpse of a lone wolf in our scope, to see one walk by us. We're hoping to have that magical moment when we can catch that beautiful amber look in their eye. Not only to see a wolf, but hopefully seeing one look back. It's a really powerful thing. I can tell you, the first time anyone sees a wolf, they will have a reaction to it, no matter their hate for them, no matter their love for them. First time I took some ranchers group out into the park, their first words were, ‘I hate those wolves,’ but their second word was, ‘oh my god, they're beautiful.’ So they don't hate the sheer fact that it exists, they tend to hate the wolf for the complications that it brings.
We of course have had a lot of myths about wolves, and I work really hard to dispel some of those myths. No, they are not the size of a direwolf. No, they are not the animals that were in Game of Thrones. No, we did not introduce an animal that is physically larger than the wolves that used to live here. These are the things that I get all the time. I’m trying to work to help people understand the animal, just for the animal’s value and its existence alone, and then understand the animal from an ecological perspective and really what they're capable of.
It's very, very rare for a wolf to ever do anything to a human. And we can have fun conversations about that. The other thing we do is we take a lot of our student groups out to meet with the local ranchers. The one way that we can, you know, hopefully change the conversation about wolves, change the narrative about wolves, is to change the story we tell all the time. And so having these ranchers have a voice, bringing them to the table, bringing them to the conversation is an amazing way to include your community members and get them on board.
Our ranchers are living with wolves every single day. And not only do they get to talk about what the reality is, what it's like to actually live with the wolf in the landscape, but can earn a little money that day to become a guest speaker for us. So it's an income for them as well. And then we also volunteer time on their land, whether it's to learn about husbandry practices and what changes they’re implementing. We've learned a lot over the past 25 years of living with wolves in this ecosystem, and we can live with wolves. It's not that hard. We only have to make a few changes to do it.
So, my advice as we move forward for Coloradans is to build tolerance with your stakeholders. I do believe Colorado, having lived there, has a lot of places where we have both public land and private land. And I think if we can work with those landowners that wind up having wolves on their land, we will have more wildlife viewing opportunities, and potentially more tourism opportunities as well. The wolves will thrive, but they're very resilient. They can live anywhere. If you can do this, the people who are longing to see a wolf and wanting to connect with something so viscerally wild as a wolf, they will come. And I can guarantee that the money will flow and tolerance will grow as well. So, thank you so much for having me. I'm looking forward to this discussion.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: Stanley you've written about how nature is perceived and valued in starkly different and often conflicting ways, and that there's a need for pluralistic approach to recognizing the diversity of values when we make decisions. So I'm wondering if you could speak to our audience about some of the advice that you would have for them.
SA: Dana has made a very good case for recognizing that those who are actually bearing the bulk cost of the existence of wolves are ranchers. We talk about composition a lot, giving dollar-for-dollar value that is equivalent to the cost of a life of cattle that someone has raised from a little calf. The ranchers raise them, they develop relationships with them just like you develop relationships with your pet at home your dog or your cat. And then all of a sudden, they see that cow die at the hands of a wolf, or they see the carcass. There's no money that can buy that.
There is this multiplicity of values, and I'm saying this because I have spoken to ranchers who don't want compensation in Washington. They don't want anything to do with compensation. But it's not the compensation per se. That is the issue. It is the different value relationships and power relationships. The ranchers feel they are not part of the decision making. They don't have power and control about how the compensation is actually organized, who is in control of it.
So while we understand that a teenager can get up in the middle of the night to go watch a wolf and get excitement out of it, we don't understand that a random might like to shoot the wolf to prevent the life that they may end up taking. And remember, this is not just losing money. So there is more to ranchers’ values about the cattle that is not just a dollar amount.
DH: Stanley's right on track. I like what you're saying, and that's a lot of what I heard. One of the ranchers actually told me without compensation of any kind - he would like more, but even a little - he wouldn't tolerate worlds. In other words, that's the one thing that makes him say, I'm not happy about it but I'll tolerate it. And so, I think a lot of this is they just want to be heard. I think a lot of times they feel like nobody's caring. Somebody in Denver goes, ‘oh, I'd love to see wolves’ and they're just happy about it. It's not. Maybe they feel good about it, but the ranchers are out there going, ‘you might kill my ranch.’ Or somebody says. ‘well, we paid you for the cow,’ and like Stanley says, they're like, ‘how would you like have your cows ripped up right in front of you?’
I have pictures from one of the ranches I visited where wolves invaded one of their corrals and killed five animals. Left them all stripped and wounded. Some of them had to be killed later. Only ate about the size of a grapefruit worth of meat. They also killed their horse the same way.
It just takes time. I asked every rancher what an environmentalist or a pro-wolf person could do. And the first thing they said is try to just understand where we're coming from. So offering money matters, and how much you offer matters. But I think it would help if everybody would just help ranchers understand: I'm not voting for wolves because I don't care about you. I do what can I do to help and money would be good but I do think there could be more expression of: sorry I'm voting yes, but I do care about you and your ranch. Maybe I could come help you, maybe I could donate some money, something like that. That would matter. I think that's the biggest thing: they just feel like society doesn't care.
SB: I myself come from a dairy background, so I tend to have a leg up when talking to these guys, or women that are running these ranches. We can learn to live with them and over time, the more exposure we have to these animals, the more tolerance that I see. Yeah, wolves can be a pain in the neck, and some ranchers are hit harder than others. And that's something I think we always need to keep in mind when we're having these conversations.
But there's also a whole suite of practical minded ranchers out there that have learned to live with wolves. They've made adjustments. Some of those adjustments cost some money in order to make those husbandry practice and changes. And so I think we need to value that, but more importantly for me, especially in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Even if I'm not a meat eater - which I am - but even if you're not, I value ranchers’ presence and their existence for the cultural way of life and maintaining that historic, cultural value of ranching in the West. A lot of people will feel differently, but I also am very invested in keeping the land open. And so if we can keep ranchers in business, we have now full corridors available for our wildlife to move to. Without them, it gets developed and if you drive to Paradise Valley, you know what I'm talking about.
DH: Several ranchers made that point to me, that if you don't care about me, you should care about you because if I go, condos are coming next. And so that was a point many of the ranchers made. A lot of times the ranchers are promised things that they're not given. In Montana, there was a $5 million trust fund established to pay these payments and some environmental groups had pledged and they raised the whole $5 million. But that was in 2013 and not one single dollar has been put in there. So we need to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. In those kind of experiences, what happens is one rancher tells another and then it becomes, you know, giant.
SA: They are the ones that are in direct contact with wolves, more than an environmentalist, more than an ecologist, more than all of us. The ranchers are the ones actually interfacing with wolves outside public lands. They can choose to kill one and hide it from us. And they can also develop better ways of conserving wolves that have nothing to do with killing them.
KU: Dana, could you give us some more specifics on how a compensation program would work and how it gets funded?
DH: Yeah, it's interesting because when I talked to Montana for their compensation program, they feel they're very underfunded compared to Wyoming, for example. They just can't find money. But the federal government actually gives money to the states to be able to be used for some of this and so they get to split that up, divvy that up. So the federal government's one potential source. But it's hard, the answer is that it's just hard. In Wyoming, if an animal is found, you get seven times the value of that animal with the assumption being for every animal you find, you didn't find another six. Okay. In Montana they don't do that because they can't afford it. So, part of it is always like everything, like buying a car: you know you want something, but you can afford something else. The programs not only depend on what we want to do, but also how much we can afford to pay. And that's going to be a hard conversation.
JS: Shauna, you mentioned that wolves can bring huge benefits in terms of dollars. How can individual ranchers tap into that, or companies in Colorado who are interested in the tourism? And then have the dollars from that potentially flow into building tolerance across all society?
SB: I can use a couple of examples from some of the ranchers that we work with pretty often. A few in Paradise Valley, a few on the Madison Valley side. I won't mention any names, of course, but one in particular has learned that the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know. If he has wolves on his land - which he does - he doesn't tell anybody about them. He doesn't let anybody hunt them. He keeps a real close eye on them. As you can imagine, he's had to change some of his husbandry practices around, whether it's calving later in the year or sending calves up onto the allotments later in the year in order to get more weight on them, or bringing them down earlier in the fall to get them away from grizzly bears in the fall.
But one of the things that he has said to me over the years is that he has also become an outfitter in the area. He takes folks hunting on his land in the fall, and he has figured out that he can charge to take people to go look for wolves on his land. So he's not taking them to go kill them. He's taking people to go see them. And so he's a businessman, and he he's figured out all sorts of ways to reap whatever benefits he can.
One of the biggest benefits he tells me about is that once you have a pack that is established, that is socially intact, and you're not disrupting that social structure of the pack, leave them the heck alone. The more you leave them alone, the more that he can actually get to know those animals on an individual level. He can get to know their routines, their patterns, how they move on his land, and of course, they get to know him. There's a respect that develops between the two. And the minute you kill any of those wolves, more wolves are going to come. And that is like sticking your finger in the dike. The wolves are just going to keep coming.
A lot of these ranchers that live on these boundary areas have figured out that I can just kind of deal with the ones I've got, because the next pack might not make the best neighbors, and the next pack might cause depredations and might cause trouble for me. And so I think that's an important thing to think about when we're talking with ranchers: how to encourage them to get to know the animals that are on their land.
DH: I heard a lot of the same sorts of things, and I totally agree. We're going to release a video of the people we interviewed and you'll hear a lot of these stories. But the one thing I'd say on tolerance is that if Colorado ranchers could talk to people that are actually doing this in Wyoming and Montana -they're mad, they're scared, they don't know what’s going to happen – time is one of the solutions and they've already moved through and found all these things. If they go talk to them, I think they'll feel a little better about it, but they're understandably very upset and very worried.
SA: Ranchers are actually our primary managers of wolves outside public lands. Ranchers are capable of managing wolves productively if they are adequately and sufficiently informed. It is time for us to be engaging with ranchers, listening to them, understanding their values and their concerns. What is important to them, what are their fears? What is the uncertainty of not knowing and never encountering a wolf? And if we can engage them to overcome that fear or uncertainty and give them a certain amount of control over decisions, that may actually promote non-lethal control because they want those friendly wolves around.
DH: I want to be careful too. I want to make sure that ranchers get a fair hearing. And Shauna, when you talk about all the things we can do, I agree that's most people's experience. But there are horror stories for ranchers, too. In Montana, one rancher I heard about lost 48 of 60 rams right before he was going to release them for breeding. Lost them in one night. And so when you hear stories like that, we can't dismiss it. Maybe overall, we learned, but we don't want to dismiss it either. The ranchers have good reason to be worried. So, I want to be careful to make sure I say that.
SB: And value what happened, you know, that he had an incredible loss. When we see that, depending on the geographic location of those ranchers, some of them just sit in an area where you have a lot of migration happening and you have a lot of animals moving their land. And if we can look at the timing of the event that happened, what the circumstances were, we can probably go in there and try to find some positive ways of helping him to not have that happen again. But we have to acknowledge that that is an incredible economic burden, that emotional burden that he's going to have to suffer. And we need to find ways that we can balance those negatives with a positive.
JS: One thing we've heard on the pro-wolf side is that their voices have not been heard for a long time in Colorado, because the pro-wolf voice has been not really admitted into the dialogue. And some people have told me - right or wrong, I'm not saying either way - that the reason we've got into ballot box biology is because nobody's listening to us. What are your thoughts on that?
SA: I think that this whole conversation is based on the premise of a problem. We're looking at how do we get wolves into Colorado and make them stay and keep ranchers from killing them. We know the biggest threat to wolves is people. And this is not a question of majority politics, because if it was, wolves would just be everywhere because the ranches are minority.
SB: This initiative is the first step. But, you know, we keep going back to time: time for us, time for us to communicate with one another, time for us to actually realize that wolves are not going to grab a kid at the bus stop. We hear all those fears. People need to be around wolves and see them living in the wild and learn to understand them so that we can get over those fears. And that takes time.
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