Leading the pack in wolf management

CMU research points to nonlethal ways to keep predators in check

| Author: Aaron Mills

Humans have spent thousands of years figuring out how — or whether — to live side by side with wolves.

And then, in the early 2000s, Central Michigan University biology faculty member Tom Gehring conducted some of the first rigorous scientific research into nonlethal ways to manage wolf populations near farms that raise livestock.

"We did the work because no one had done it before," Gehring said. "I was tired of hearing that nonlethal methods don't work, without any evidence. So I thought, well, let's go find the evidence and see what it tells us."

With a team of CMU graduate and undergraduate students, that's exactly what Gehring did. Now he finds their research and expertise have new relevance. Federal protection for wolves ended in 2020 across most of the U.S., leaving control and management up to states. Talk of wolf hunting is stirring passions in Michigan and elsewhere, including Wisconsin and Idaho.

Gehring, a hunter himself, says killing wolves may not be the best answer. Hunts throw wolf packs into disarray that can lead to more attacks on livestock and make space for new predators to move in. And although it's costly to a farmer when wolves kill livestock, he notes that it is a small problem: In 2019, only six of 900 Michigan livestock farms reported losses by wolves.

Nonlethal ways to manage wolves

From about 2003-11, Gehring and his team explored three ways to keep wolves from killing livestock. Here is what they learned:

  • Electrical barriers The team trapped wolves in Wisconsin to fit them with radio tags and collars for aversive conditioning. In the same way systems such as Invisible Fence use mild electric shocks to train dogs to stay in a yard, wolves were trained to stay away from farmers' pastures. Because wolves are pack animals, Gehring said, conditioning just a few individuals can keep an entire pack away from grazing land: "They learn, and they transfer information."
  • Fluttering flags They erected "fladry" — string fencing with strips of fabric tied every couple of feet to flap in the breeze — to create barriers wolves won't cross. Gehring said on one Upper Peninsula farm, wolves had killed 78 lambs in a year. "We came in and we put fladry up, and for the next three years they had no losses because they had no wolves coming into their pastures."
  • Puppy power They supplied selected Upper Peninsula farmers with Great Pyrenees puppies that would grow to become livestock-guarding dogs. Gehring and his students would deliver puppies in the U.P. during their spring break, and grad students would offer technical support throughout the summer. In four years of the grant-funded project, wolf attacks at the farms fell to zero. Gehring continued the dog program for four years after the grant ended.

Their projects earned international respect. In a 2016 review, the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment said two of Gehring's studies met the "gold standard" for scientific rigor, the only studies to receive that designation out of a dozen studies it considered worldwide.

Love-hate relationship

"We've had an intimate relationship with wolves for probably our whole history as a species," Gehring said. "Our dogs come from wolves. We have a whole mythology with wolves: stories, legends, fairy tales. People are fascinated with this predator that lives in a family group."

Fascinated — but also fearful. For decades, Michigan and other states paid hunters bounties to kill wolves.

"The goal was to exterminate all wolves," Gehring said. Packs vanished from the U.S. except in Alaska and a sliver of Minnesota.

A focus on ecology shifted attitudes beginning in the 1970s, and by 1991 Michigan once again had a small but growing native wolf population.

Now, Gehring wonders if the tide is turning again.

"My concern is that we will overcompensate and let emotions drive us down a road of reducing populations," he said. "I don't think anyone's going to win in that situation. We would waste a lot of money if we reduce wolf populations too severely and make them threatened again."

So Gehring wants to do what he can to shed light on the science of nonlethal management. Several months ago, he spoke about wolf issues with an aide to state Sen. Dayna Polehanki in southeast Michigan. German officials also have reached out to Gehring to join an international workshop as one of six global experts to assist them with managing wolf populations.

His aim is to safeguard both livestock on farms and wolves in the wild.

"If we can reduce the problem, farmers have less economic loss, and that's important to me since I come from a farming background," he said. "You also coexist with these wolves. They remain in an area; we control or manage the situation effectively in the long term.

"That's a win-win."