Self-reported cattle deaths reveal minor losses to predators

How many cattle are there in the United States? How many die each year from respiratory illnesses or bad weather? And why should you care?

The answers to the first two questions can be found in a new report from USDA released at the end of December, Cattle and Calves Nonpredator Death Loss in the United States, 2010. Produced by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), this report offers a rundown of cattle and calf losses in 2010, organized by cause of death, size group, and region.

Out of the 1.7 million cattle deaths in 2010, non-predator causes accounted for an overwhelming 97.7%. Out of these 1.7 million losses, respiratory problems were the biggest culprit, having caused more than a quarter of non-predator deaths, followed by “other” and unknown causes, weather and calving problems. Numbers are similar for calves, with 92% of the 2.3 million calf deaths accounted for by non-predator causes. Respiratory problems again ranked high (29% of all losses), followed by digestive problems (17%).

If 1.7 million sounds like a lot to you, you may be surprised to learn that this number is actually only 2.3 percent of the entire U.S. cattle stock. A January 1st inventory this past year counted 92.6 million cattle and calves. That’s one cow for every three Americans!

The answer to the last question – why you should care – is that the future of wolves relies in part on our ability to address conflicts with livestock. Accurately assessing livestock losses helps us to better understand the scope of the problem. It also shows us opportunities to develop solutions that promote coexistence between wolves and livestock.

Understanding interactions between livestock and predators like the gray wolf is crucial to finding ways to coexist.

The numbers in this report highlight how small a fraction of nationwide cattle losses are from predators. The magnitude of livestock losses to wolves and other predators is often blown out of proportion, and predators are often quick to be blamed for livestock deaths. As this report shows, respiratory, digestive, weather and calving problems take a far greater toll on the cattle industry each year than do hungry wolves, grizzly bears, and other predators.

According to a related report based on self-reporting by cattle producers that NASS released last May, Cattle Death Loss, 4% of all cattle and calf losses were caused by predators. Of these, 53% were reportedly caused by coyotes. Unknown predators were blamed for 12% of losses, followed by dogs (10%) and mountain lions, bobcats, and other big cats (9%). Only 4% and 1% of predator-caused losses were from wolves and bears, respectively.

These low numbers are particularly significant because these statistics are self-reported, derived from surveying a random sample of U.S. cattle producers (excluding Alaska). Self-reported statistics are less reliable than verified reports confirmed by trained wildlife managers. The cause of death can be tricky to identify, particularly if time passes between the animal’s death and when it is discovered. For example, it can be hard to tell the difference between a cow that predators have actually killed and one that predators have simply scavenged after it died of other causes. In addition, the sample does not include surveys from all livestock operators, and surveys that were included are subject to omissions, duplications, and mistakes in data collection and reporting.

As an example of potential discrepancies between self-reported and verified numbers, NASS’s Cattle Death Loss reports that 4,437 head of cattle were lost to wolves across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in 2010. This is 23 times higher than the same number reported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (188 losses), data that is confirmed by trained field agents based on evidence collected from the depredation site in addition to the rancher’s report. Although verified reports cannot capture all livestock losses, it does not make sense that the actual number reported by cattle producers is 23 times greater than the losses verified by wildlife biologists, particularly for a heavily monitored species like the wolf that mostly rely on native wildlife for their food. Despite the overestimates, these reports still illustrate just how small the impact of predator-caused losses is on the cattle industry as compared to other causes.

Although predators cause a small fraction of total cattle losses each year, Defenders recognizes that these losses can more concentrated in regions and communities with more large predators, and can have meaningful impacts on individual ranchers. We are working on the ground to help livestock producers and predators coexist, using proactive, nonlethal approaches to managing conflicts with predators. These tools include using fladry (rope strung with colorful flags that can be electrified), range riders, livestock guard dogs, fencing, and alternative grazing strategies. When verified predator-caused losses have happened, livestock depredation compensation programs have helped offset the financial burden of depredations and foster tolerance for these important predators. Learn more about our coexistence work.

 

Download USDA’s Cattle and Calves Nonpredator Death Loss in the United States, 2010 here, and Cattle Death Loss here. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data on cattle losses in the Northern Rockies can be seen here.

This post was written by:

- who has written 1 posts on dotWild.

Lauren Richie is a Conservation Associate in Defenders of Wildlife’s Field Conservation program. She coordinates Defenders’ “Living with Wildlife” program and focuses on human-wildlife conflicts and predator control.

Contact the author

2 Responses to “Self-reported cattle deaths reveal minor losses to predators”

  1. CAPT Tom Richie says:

    On the assumption that some of the cattle taken by predators were diseased, possibly by infectious agents that might have spread to other cattle, it is possible that loss of these individuals resulted in net lives saved, by reducing the spread of infection.

    It is also possible that the presence of wolves has altered other aspects of the local ecology, such as reductions in other herbivore populations, potentially increasing the forage available to cattle (to the degree that the wild herbivores compete with cattle for resources).

  2. Kathryn Gruenthal says:

    The response of Capt. Tom Ritchie was spot on. As an Environmental Policy major at Humboldt State University, I find that the wolf is necessary to a healthy ecosystem. The suggestion regarding the infected cattle I had not considered before. Thanks for sharing that thought. I will keep it for my research.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks


Leave a Reply