Thursday, 03 November 2011 13:05

Livestock losses to carnivores prompt changes in carcass disposal methods

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By Susan Quinlan
Southwest Alberta
A study of wolf feeding behaviour was undertaken by the University of Alberta, given rising concern over the likelihood of these carnivores negatively affecting livestock in the province.
Results of the just under two-year study — part of the Southwest Alberta Montane Research Program — have since prompted changes in methods of disposing of carcasses, particularly in areas such as the County of Cardston.

“Our overall research purpose was to document the impact of wolves on domestic and wild prey, and provide information to wildlife managers and stock growers to help mitigate wolf-livestock conflicts,” explained Andrea Morehouse, M.Sc.

“We just didn’t have good information on wolf diets.”   

Morehouse explained given the overlap of forest reserve and landowner property in southwest Alberta, incidents of livestock lost to predation have increased, and thus there has been an increase in compensation payments.

“Those payments and the number of claims increased significantly over the past decade.”

It’s likely the increase relates back to the BSE crisis, explained Morehouse, and the subsequent implementation of rigorous legislation regarding disposal of livestock carcasses.       

“Rendering companies used to pick up free of charge and use (carcasses) in feed or dog food. Since BSE and changes by the Canada Food Inspection Agency, they’re now charging.”

As a direct result, the number of boneyards on landowners’ property has increased.

“They’re an attractant for wolves ...

We investigated wolf diets year-round in southwestern Alberta, where seasonal cattle grazing is the predominant land use, and wolf–cattle conflicts have increased in recent years.”

Morehouse’s study, undertaken between June 2008 and October 2009, involved collaring four wolves from three packs, then collecting GPS data identifying sites visited and time spent at each site. The wolves’ scat was also collected and analyzed.

Results indicated a shift in the wolves diet from wild prey during the non-grazing season, to cattle in the grazing season, explained Morehouse.

Wolves scavenged more frequently during the non-grazing season with 85 per cent of all scavenging events occurring at ranchers’ boneyards.

Cattle represent a higher proportion of wolves’ diets than previously thought, Morehouse said, recommending sanitary disposal of dead livestock to prevent the wolves from becoming accustomed to feeding on livestock, and development of management plans aimed at reducing predation.

In the County of Cardston, the Chief Mountain Landowners group (CML) and Tim Romanow, assistant agricultural fieldman, devised a couple of solutions to reduce livestock losses to large carnivores.

“We started in 2009, having community meetings spurred on by an increase in losses primarily in the Mountain View area, expanding into Carway and Beaser.”

Romanow explained in the past, the County of Cardston dealt with more of a grizzly bear issue, but in the past five or six years, the wolves have become the problem.

To get the ball rolling, various stakeholders along with Romanow visited the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana to see what solutions that landowner/environmental group had come up with, in dealing with this same problem.

Solutions included support from the governor’s office and state Fish and Wildlife, as well as funding from various environmental groups. A cost-efficient method of carcass pick-up was subsequently employed as was the more expensive solution of surrounding large tracks of grazing land with electric fences.

“The thing that really hit home was that they were seeing an 80 per cent reduction in conflicts because of that program. We thought, why can’t we work a bit better with these (government and environmental) agencies and bring some of these ideas forward ... Let’s come up with Southern Alberta solutions; build up our own program.”

Romanow said the group knew if they showed Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) they were making the effort to design a viable program, support would likely be there, as that program could then serve as a pilot for SRD to utilize throughout the province.

“The first thing we looked at was dead stock removal.”

With a grant from SRD, a local metal worker was hired to construct four dead stock bins and they were placed in the county.

“We got the four going in January and February, 2010, one month into calving season. They got a fair bit of use.”

Local landowners have proven co-operative in both allowing the bins to be placed on their property and in using the bins, said Romanow.

This year, was the first full season of using the bins, said Romanow, and thanks to the availability of some Alberta Bear Smart funding, two additional bins were purchased and placed.

The Waterton Biosphere Reserve has also donated to the project.

“The ‘reserve’ was fantastic; they gave us a lot of cash.”

As to the contents of the bins, a rendering company in Lethbridge collects the carcasses once a week from January to July, with either the landowner, upon whose property the bin is located, or Romanow, placing the call for pick up.

“Each bin has a landowner’s name attached; he checks it and calls the rendering agency.”

Romanow said prior to BSE, the rendering company picked up about 1,100 carcasses a year in the County of Cardston. Post BSE, there were zero pick-ups, as there were no longer consumer uses for the dead stock.

In addition to the bin solution, Romanow said ranchers such as Tony Brooder and other members of the Drywood/Yarrow Conservation Partnership have been instrumental in having the Canadian Food Inspection Agency streamline the process of disposing of calves that were either stillborn or died shortly after birth.

In the past, that process had required a permit to move the carcass. That isn’t  the case anymore, said Romanow, thanks to Brooder and the partnership.

“It’s one hurdle after another, but we have some determined landowners ... We’re moving in the right direction.”

The carcass pick-up program has not been a burden on ratepayers in the County of Cardston, explained Romanow, but use of the bins is expected to increase.

“We needed to come up with a cost-effective solution for the whole program, so we’re now looking at our own composting facility.”

Having consulted with a composting expert at the Agricultural Technology Centre in Lethbridge, Romanow is confident this long-term solution is viable.

The end product of composting could be used in road construction, said Romanow, as a top dressing to reduce weeds.

“It makes sense to keep the material local, reduces costs for transportation ... I think this is a good solution. In five or six years, you can see this popping up in different jurisdictions. It’s a safe process and you’re confining any biological risk.”

The composting facility will be located at the Chief Mountain dumpsite.

Romanow said the overall cost of setting up the cover-all composting building would be between $60,000 and $80,000. A grant from SRD will cover a portion of this cost, with the remainder being provided by various funding sources. The County of Cardston will donate a backhoe for use at the plant.

The composting facility should be in place by January 2012.

As to other short term issues under consideration by the CML group, Romanow said items include establishing an insurance framework where livestock owners would pay a per head premium, cost shared by different conservation groups and government; lowering the burden of proof for Fish and Wildlife to identify a confirmed kill by a large carnivore, with compensation more accurately reflecting lost market value; continued removal of problem wildlife; and installation of electric fences.

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