Quirks & Quarks

This Alberta rancher has been called a 'wolf lover' for using no-kill methods to protect cattle

Alberta ranch manager Joe Engelhart shot his last wolf 19 years ago. Now he’s the focus of a study on how to manage the predators without killing them, while working a 22,000-hectare ranch about 100 kilometres south of Calgary.

Researchers are studying rancher Joe Engelhart's gentler methods of predator control

Alberta ranch manager Joe Engelhart has not had to shoot a wolf in years. He finds methods to avoid killing predators that still protect the cattle that he oversees. (Molly Segal/CBC)

Alberta ranch manager Joe Engelhart shot his last wolf 19 years ago, then realized there had to be a better way to protect his herd from the predators.

"I needed to do something different. I mean, the wolf is going to be a wolf. He's going to eat meat," said Engelhart, who works a 22,000-hectare ranch about 100 kilometres south of Calgary.

Now, the rancher's cattle-protection strategies are the focus of a University of Wisconsin study on how to manage wolves without killing them, and preliminary results suggest his ways are effective. But, in a profession where culling wildlife to protect livestock is common practice, and where cattle kills cost ranchers time and profits, Engelhart's methods have been met with skepticism. 

For this, he says he's endured every slur, from "wolf lover" to "granola cruncher."

Hundreds of wolves culled each year

Canada has the largest wolf population in the world, with an estimated population of 50,000-60,000. About 15,500 wolves live in B.C. and Alberta, according to provincial data. In Alberta, wolves can be hunted in season, and killed on private property if they threaten wildlife. B.C. also allows wolf hunting and culling. 

The total number of wolves killed by humans to protect livestock is not clear, as many cases are not reported, tallied or made public. But at least hundreds of wolves are culled in B.C. and Alberta each year to protect livestock, and in failed attempts to protect endangered caribou.

Experts also say there is no scientific proof that killing wolves actually protects livestock. In 2018, a carnivore ecologist at the University of Wisconsin reviewed the research and found no evidence that it was effective.

There's a growing push to find ways to protect livestock that doesn't involve culling wolves in Canada. A new Quirks & Quarks documentary, Cry Wolf, explores gentler methods of predator control. (Dawn Villella/The Associated Press)

Engelhart's cattle-protection strategies are based on prey and predator behaviour. His methods involve managing the herd with patience and calm to keep stress levels low so cows don't run and become separated from calves, making them more vulnerable to wolves.

Engelhart also draws on his knowledge of the land, determining where wolves den and favour. He spends a lot of time on the range, which is labour intensive, but deters the wolves.

Provable potential

University of Wisconsin PhD candidate Naomi Louchouarn is a member of the Carnivore Coexistence Lab and studies animal-human conflicts. She's researching Engelhart's wolf management methods to see if they have provable potential.

"There's this deep-seated conflict between the cowboy and the wolf. It's everywhere. And it's been around a long time," said Louchouarn.

Naomi Louchouarn secures a remote camera as part of a predator study in Alberta. She is a PhD candidate who studies animal-human conflicts. (Molly Segal/CBC)

The trial involves monitoring predator activity using remote cameras secured near grazing areas, and other clues, such as tracks, hair and scat. 

Preliminary results show his non-lethal approaches seem effective at protecting cattle, with no attacks or kills observed during the study timeframe from July to October 2020.

Skepticism from other ranchers

Don Lowe, a shareholder in Spruce Ranching Co-op, where Engelhart works, says he worries the no-kill methods would be expensive from a production standpoint.

"I like wolves. I just don't like it when they eat your cattle," said Lowe.

His brother's feelings are a bit stronger. Bob Lowe, president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, says: "You've got to be allowed to get rid of the bad ones … the guy with the cows up here can't keep paying for everything that the people in the city want."

Don Lowe of Spruce Ranching Co-op with his horses. (Molly Segal/CBC)

Engelhart is no city slicker. He grew up ranching in B.C. where, he says, any wildlife that threatened stock was killed.

But, his turning point came in 2003, when he had to shoot pups born to the Willow Creek wolf pack after 29 cattle out of his herd were killed by wolves.

Engelhart says biologists radio-collared the wolves, which gave him insight into how close the wolves were so he could protect the herd.

'They just keep killing'

For some ranchers, frustration and fear take over.

Wolves have killed stock on Erik Butters' family farm west of Calgary for 40 years. He's lost up to 10 per cent of his calf stock some years  — each calf worth $1,200. He suspects the calves were all eaten by predators.

A small group of cattle graze under a blue Aberta sky. (Molly Segal/CBC)

If provincial wildlife officials verify a wolf kill, then the Alberta Conservation Association will pay a minimum of $400 in compensation. Bite marks and bone bruising offer tell-tale signs of wolf kills. But Butters says that those kills can be a challenge to find in sprawling forest ranges where scavengers clean up kill sites.

As for predation prevention, he said he's yet to see a method that works.

"If you get a 'bad' pack that starts killing cattle, I haven't heard of any way of stopping that. They just keep killing," Butters said.

While shooting wolves gets rid of them short term, it's no long-term solution unless you kill every wolf, said Engelhart.

"Can you shoot yourself out of a wolf problem? Probably not … when you remove a bunch of wolves, it creates a vacuum. [A new pack] is waiting, waiting for an open spot to open up."

Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Molly Segal, producer of Cry Wolf, a radio doc airing on Quirks & Quarks on Jan 8, 2022.


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