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Wolves Being Trained To Shun Cattle

September 26, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Captive wolves in Montana are being trained to shun cattle in favor of natural prey such as buffalo in an experiment in which the wolves are zapped with an electric shock when they approach the livestock.

The federal agencies and private groups involved say they are trying to avoid killing the wolves, which belong to an endangered species that has been bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild. Critics call the experiment cruel and say that Western ranchers, not wolves, are the ones that need behavior modification.

``We think it’s absolutely ridiculous that we should be trying to alter the natural behavior of wild animals, particularly to benefit a private industry that uses public lands,″ said Andrea Lococo of the Fund for Animals.

Government-funded livestock protection programs all but wiped out gray wolves from the continental United States by the 1960s. After the wolves were put on the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began breeding them and reintroducing them into the wild in 1995.

Now, more than 250 released wolves and their offspring live in the northern Rocky Mountains and more than 20 are in the Southwest. The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking the species off the endangered list.

Under the reintroduction program, wolves that repeatedly attack livestock can be killed.

The three wolves involved in the Montana experiment _ one about a year old and two that are 2 years old _ were part of a pack that repeatedly attacked livestock during the spring and summer. Eight wolves in the pack were shot and the pack’s lead female died while struggling to avoid being collared as part of the experiment.

The three juvenile wolves are being kept in a half-acre enclosure on the Flying D Ranch in southwestern Montana owned by media mogul Ted Turner. The wolves are fitted with collars that can provide both an annoying noise and a mild electric shock.

Researchers then put a calf into the pen wearing a transmitter that gives the wolves shocks if they got ``within biting distance″ of the calf, explained John Shivik, the Agriculture Department researcher leading the project. The calf was unharmed, even after researchers left it in the pen with the wolves overnight.

Officials now plan on releasing the wolves back into the wild in mid-October, said Ed Bangs, who heads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf recovery program in Montana.

Young wolves learn how to hunt from their parents and other adult wolves. It is hoped that through the $40,000 experiment the offspring of the trained wolves will learn to stay away from livestock.

``Leaving the wolves out there killing livestock isn’t an acceptable solution, because they’re just going to be teaching their offspring, and the problem gets worse,″ said Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife, which supports the experiment.

About half of the cost is for the equipment and USDA workers’ time; the rest is the Turner ranch’s share for housing the wolves.

Critics say ranchers should learn to live with a few animals being picked off by wolves and say it’s particularly cruel to try to shock wolves into avoiding cattle.

``If we want wild animals in wild areas we can’t be turning them into Pavlovian dogs, because they’re no longer wild animals,″ said Lococo, who lives near Jackson, Wyo.

Shivik said he shocked himself with one of the collars and said the jolt is milder than the zap from static electricity. Trying to change the wolves’ behavior is better than killing them, the researchers said.

``I suppose if you could crawl in the head of a wolf, they might say, ``I’d rather live four months in captivity and get shocked rather than get shot in the head with a shotgun,‴ said Mike Phillips of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.

Critics include the Humane Society of the United States, which called the shocks ``unacceptably cruel″ in an e-mail to members in July. Phillips, Bangs and Fischer noted that the Humane Society is paid by Radio Systems Corp. for the use of its logo in advertising the company’s training collars for domestic dogs, which are similar to the wolf collars.

Humane Society spokesman Howard White said Tuesday the group had ended its deal with Radio Systems. But a company official said the arrangement was still in effect.

``The Humane Society wouldn’t be putting their logo on our packaging, no matter what the relationship, if they thought the product was in any way inhumane,″ said Bob Andrysco, a dog behavior expert who works for Knoxville, Tenn.-based Radio Systems.


On the Net:

USFWS wolf site: http://midwest.fws.gov/wolf/

Turner Endangered Species Fund: http://www.tesf.org/

Fund for Animals: http://www.fund.org/

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