Humans, Livestock, and Wild Carnivores
Reference: Wilkenson, C.E., et al.(2020). An ecological framework for contextualizing carnivore-livestock conflict. Conservation Biology. 00:0, pp. 1-14. doi: 10.1111/cobi.13469.
Livestock and Livelihoods
Roughly thirty percent of our world’s land is grazed by livestock. Many people rely on cows, goats, and other species for both their nourishment and livelihoods, but humans are not the only ones interested in easily attainable sources of sustenance. Several carnivores (including wolves, leopards, and cougars) are known to attack livestock, which – depending on management practices – can make for an easy, relatively risk free, meal.
A hundred animals may be lost in a single incident of carnivore-livestock predation. In places like Mongolia, where livestock contribute a large percentage to most families’ income, losses from such “surplus killings” can have major impacts on people. Retaliatory killing of predators by humans is not uncommon, but, though intended to reduce future predation events, it can in some cases result in greater livestock mortality (see the Case Studies section about cougars, below).
Ecology and Livestock Management
Despite the inherency of predation ecology to carnivore/livestock dynamics, ecology is often overlooked in management decisions. Wilkenson and colleagues provide a framework through which managers can apply ecologically sound conflict-intervention tools to make more informed choices. Three categories of ecological factors relevant to livestock protection are: characteristics of the landscape, and the ecology of carnivores and livestock.
Landscape characteristics include factors such as vegetation, season, topography, daylight hours, and how close livestock are kept to human activity. These features can inform managers about times and places where carnivores and livestock are likely to interact. For instance, dense vegetation near pastoral land could obscure predator activity, and may serve as a refuge in which predators operate with lower risk.
Important aspects of predator ecology include group size, hunting mode, sex, age, flexibility in behavior, physical condition, and demography. Characteristics of individual predators, as well as carnivorous species in general, can affect the risk they pose to livestock. Livestock guardian dogs are one example of management that considers predator behavior, as they can discourage attacks by certain predator species.
Research has typically focused on ecological factors that make wild prey susceptible to predation, but less is known about the prey ecology of livestock. Human management of livestock makes them unique. Domestic animals have been bred for certain traits such as docility and higher weight that may impair their ability to detect and avoid threats, and their ranges are typically set by human-imposed barriers.
Three case studies involving wolves, snow leopards, and cougars are examined in the original article to highlight the value of ecology to livestock management. Each case involves a unique situation in which management decisions were based on geography, ecology, intuition, or some combination of the three. The wolf and snow leopard cases were both successful (only the snow leopard case is summarized here), while the cougar case highlights how vital ecologically informed decisions are to preventing mismanagement.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, snow leopards are a vulnerable species experiencing population decline. In parts of the Himalayas and Central Asian Plateau, their territories overlap with grazing lands and they have a history of conflict with livestock. Retaliatory killing of snow leopards has been considered a top threat to the species’ persistence.
Thankfully, four interventions have led to lower livestock predation by snow leopards. Livestock rotation allowing for intermittent use of pastureland by wild prey resulted in higher wild prey densities. Corrals were redesigned to be more protective, and livestock were corralled at night to reduce vulnerability. Herding practices were also altered to keep the livestock in sight of humans.
Unfortunately, management is not always successful. From 2005-2010, 19 – 42 cases of cougar predation on pets and livestock were reported per year in Washington. Hunting adult cougars is permitted by law, and it was thought that reducing cougar numbers would increase livestock safety.
Though killing cougars was meant to protect livestock, lethal removal has been found to increase predation risk. Predation events were higher a year after hunting! Though that outcome may not seem intuitive, reductions in cougar population size often result in a higher proportion of young males (the group most likely to kill livestock), and hunted areas may actually become attractive to them.
Future Human-Carnivore Conflict Resolution
Incorporating ecological considerations into decision making is likely to prove invaluable to the field of livestock management. Managers can apply the framework provided in this paper to strengthen their operations and make adaptive decisions about herd protection. Perhaps most importantly, protecting livestock vital to the nourishment and livelihoods of people could foster better relationships between humans and wildlife.
Reviewed by: Brandi Pessman and Laura Schifman