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Sheep Heart Monitors Alert Farmers When Predators Approach

Farmers feel like they need to kill predators like wolves to protect their flocks. But a new system that alerts humans when the animals sense danger nearby could allow for a less stringent prevention policy than extinction.

Sheep Heart Monitors Alert Farmers When Predators Approach
Nagy Melinda/Shutterstock

Wolves are back–barely. After hunting one of the world’s top predators nearly to extinction, the U.S. government is behind their slow recovery under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and reintroductions that have boosted the population to about 6,500[/url ] in the lower 48 states, [url=http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1081&context=icwdm_usdanwrc]double its size in 2002.

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Yet pressure is mounting again. Western states have re-opened hunting seasons on the species (delisted from the ESA in many states), and some landowners are returning to old methods of trapping, hunting (often from helicopters), and other methods to keep the wolves at low levels.

Swiss biologists are pioneering a new approach by listening to the heart rate of livestock and sounding an alarm (and sending text messages to shepherds) when predators attack. In tests, the researchers attached heart-rate monitors, similar to those used by human runners, to 12 sheep. When two muzzled Czechoslovakian wolf dogs were released near a flock of experimental sheep, the frightened animals’ heart rates soared from 60 beats per minute to 225, triggering the alarm.

The team, including biologist Jean-Marc Landry who authored the paper, Non-Lethal Techniques for Reducing Depredation (PDF), plans to test a more elaborate system next year that will emit a repellent, potentially reducing the need for expensive measures such as guard dogs.

Whether that will change practices in the U.S. is about policy and culture more than technology. Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and several Western states have removed ESA protections for the species, and are culling the populations. At least 5,000 wolves have been killed legally in the U.S. since the late 1980s, reports the Associated Press in a review of state and federal records.

Yet the total number of cattle killed by all predators each year–several thousand annually–is less than 1% of all deaths. The real culprit, says Montana’s Billings Gazette, are the rigors of weather and life on the range, which killed 22,000 cattle and 52,800 calves in Montana alone.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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