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Carcass Disposal–A Conservation Tool for Predators: Interview with Dr. Seth Wilson

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To your average Westerner, the words “management of predators” typically conjure up reactive, and terminal measures following a negative experience with dangerous, nuisance animals. Preventive measures to mitigate human-predator conflict are now commonly employed by ranchers. Why? Reactive management is very time consuming, for one thing.  Secondly, the need to ‘put down’ an animal is often perceived as a drastic measure and draws negative sentiment from the public. Certainly, bear managers choose to dispatch an animal as a last resort. 
 
Contributing Editor, Jordan Schaul, interviews wildlife biologist, Seth Wilson, in his first of a series of articles on carcass disposal.

Jordan Schaul: As populations of large carnivores rebound in Western states will the human-apex predator interface evolve?

Historically, perceived threats of large carnivores to sheep and cattle operations have been nearly ubiquitous in agricultural landscapes on this continent and abroad. Today, however, new management tools are mitigating issues pertaining to poultry and livestock loss. Ranchers are much more amenable to living with bears and wolves.   

Carnivore-livestock conflicts are no longer resolved through extermination campaigns.  Rather, public interests now focus on recovery efforts and conservation for these predators.  In some instances a negative perception of these predators prevails, but research clearly suggests that wild ungulates serve as a prey base for these carnivoran mammals and livestock are consumed only incidentally. In fact, livestock loss has been significantly reduced as result of a number of efficacious management tools.  

One emerging trend is incidental carcass disposal– a tactic that has been commonly used on a much larger scale following natural disasters and disease out breaks. The removal of carcasses from the proximity of  feed lots and the like reduces depredation on cattle and sheep.
  
Interview:

Jordan Schaul:
From the human-dimension perspective, why is the Blackfoot grizzly population so interesting?

Seth Wilson: 
There are two key reasons that we are working on the issue of human-grizzly bear conflicts in the Blackfoot Valley.  First, the Blackfoot watershed is excellent bear habitat and beginning in the late 1990s, we starting seeing more and more grizzlies.  This led to conflicts and a general recognition among valley residents that we should do something to get ahead of the problem.  Secondly, we had the support and leadership of the landowner-based NGO group called the Blackfoot Challenge and they were willing to bring folks together to work on the issue. 

The Blackfoot Challenge was formally incorporated as an NGO in 1993 but had been bringing people together to work on natural resource issues as early as the 1970s.  The Blackfoot Challenge prides itself as being a non-advocacy group and instead focuses on being the forum in the watershed for fostering communication, trust, and consensus building needed for natural resource management and conservation across public and private lands in the 1.5 million acre watershed.

Jordan Schaul: Predator-human conflicts (predator-caused human injuries and property damages) are commonly thought of as situations that result in lethal consequences for the animal or at least direct manipulation of them (e.g., relocation).  We often fail to recognize the impact that public education and the management of attractants have on reducing the potential for wildlife-human, as well as preventive measures such as closures and access restrictions to parks and other bear management areas.  Can you elaborate on some common prevention measures and address what we mean by “carcass management” in your region of the country. 

Seth Wilson: In the Blackfoot Valley we have used a suite of tools to reduce conflicts with grizzly bears and other carnivores.  For example, we have worked closely with commercial beekeepers and have constructed solar powered electric fences around apiaries to prevent bear damage.  We have installed more than 60,000 linear feet of electric fences around calving areas to protect newborn calves from depredation on dozens of ranches in high conflict areas.  When we began in the early 2000s, one of the initial efforts that I started was to sit down with ranchers across the valley and map out their ranch operations using GIS on laptop computers—these one-on-one mapping sessions helped me understand how each ranch might be at more or less risk to grizzly bear conflict based on where attractants were located in relation to bear habitat.  For example, I found that there were dozens of “bone yards” located near calving areas and we had several grizzly bears that had honed into this food source and eventually were killed by the authorities because of chronic conflicts due to the carcasses.  We realized that we had basically been leaving out the welcome mat and grizzlies quickly figured this out.

The GIS mapping helped build trust with the ranching community and together we initiated projects like livestock carcass removal.  I think that one of the benefits of the mapping was that we could collectively see the extent at which attractants like bone yards were distributed in the landscape and that it would take a community level response to tackle the problem at the right scale. 

Today, our program reaches 70-80 ranches annually across 600,000 hectares and since 2003; more than one hundred residents have taken advantage of the program.  In the Blackfoot, our conflicts with grizzly bears have dropped by 96% from 2003 to 2010 due in part, to these types of efforts.  

The annual cost of the program is approximately $12,000, or about $15/carcass.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service donate fuel and a truck, Montana Department of Transportation does the physical composting, and the Blackfoot Challenge has paid for all contract labor.  Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks collect carcasses during the “off-period” from June throughout January.  Funds for the program are generated from rancher donations and private and public grant sources.  It’s been extremely gratifying to see where we have come since 2003. 

Jordan Schaul: Can you speculate on wolf -rancher conflicts as these predators come off the Endangered Species List.

Seth Wilson: With wolves now delisted, some of the rhetoric from both sides of the debate has subsided and that’s positive.  But it many respects, the hardest work is in front of us—now that we’re moving from beyond the press conference and courthouse, my hope is that we can spend more time and resources on learning how to live with wolves by reducing livestock depredations.