Monday, February 3, 2014

Dispelling the Myths About Wolves

So why is the reintroduction of the gray wolf back in to areas that was once their normal range been such a divisive issue? Much of it has to do with myths, misinformation, unfounded fears and plain old misguided emotions. Throw in a substantial dose of political backscratching and couple that with state conservation agencies that are, in effect state game managers beholding to those who fund their existence - namely the hunting population. Now add to the mix a serious lack of understanding regarding the critical role that an apex predator plays in their relation to healthy ecosystem and you've developed a recipe for less than efficient wolf management.

Hunters, Politicians and Game Commissions

First, understand that I am not anti-hunting nor am I a preservationist. I am a conservationist - meaning I focus on the wise use of our natural resources. As some one who, by profession is engaged in wildlife management, it is important to know that I see sport hunting as a tool to support science based decisions. It should always be the means to an end . . . never as the end itself.

It is often said that hunters are the foremost champions of conservation. That may be true for some, but in my experience, it is not necessarily an accurate title to be bestowed upon the majority. The reasons that individuals hunt are as varied as they game the seek; however I dare say, conservation in the purest form would rank somewhere close to the bottom of the list. Admittedly, the dollars hunters pay in licensing fees, equipment purchase taxes, violation fines etc do go to support state conservation agencies. Unfortunately, today wildlife management in many states is not conservation as a scientific discipline. More often than not, state wildlife agencies are simply game managers - charged with ensuring that an adequate numbers of targets are available for the next season. Know that in no way do I mean to disparage the fine men and women who serve as game wardens, conservation officers, biologists and field technicians who dutifully serve to protect and manage wildlife. My issue is with the commissions that are owned by local, power hungry, vote thirsty politicians who dictate policy without the education or background to make the necessary decisions which would benefit the ecosystem. It is simply the corrupt tradition of "follow the money". 

Not the wolve's historic range?

I've heard and read many instances of people who have "verifiable proof" that many areas in US (including the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) was never the range for the gray wolf. This is pure fallacy. The historic range of the gray wolf covered nearly two-thirds of the United States.

The reintroduction of the gray wolf back into what was once their historic range was a monumental effort to right a terrible wrong - The decline of North American wolf populations coincided with increasing human populations and the expansion of agriculture. In the 1800's, westward expansion brought settlers and their livestock into direct contact with native predator and prey species. Much of the wolves' prey base was destroyed as agriculture flourished. With the prey base removed, wolves began to prey on domestic stock, which resulted in humans eliminating wolves from most of their historical range. Predator control, including poisoning, was practiced here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other predators such as bears, cougars, and coyotes were also killed to protect livestock and "more desirable" wildlife species, such as deer and elk.

By the start of the 20th century, wolves had almost disappeared from the eastern USA, excepting some areas of the Appalachians and the north western Great Lakes Region. The gray wolf's decline in the prairies began with the extermination of the American bison and other ungulates in the 1860s–70s. From 1900–1930, the gray wolf was virtually eliminated from the western USA and adjoining parts of Canada, due to intensive predator control programs aimed at eradicating the species. The gray wolf was exterminated by federal and state governments from all of the USA by 1960, except in Alaska and northern Minnesota. Thousands of wolves were killed from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, mostly due to poisoning.

Officially, 1926 was the year that the last wolves were killed within Yellowstone’s boundaries. When the wolves were eradicated and hunting eliminated, the elk population boomed. Over the succeeding decades, elk populations grew so large that they unbalanced the local ecosystem. The number of elk and other large prey animals increased to the point that they gathered in large herds along valley bottoms and meadows overgrazing new-growth vegetation. Because of overgrazing, deciduous woody plant species such as upland aspen and riparian cottonwood became seriously diminished. So, because the keystone predators, the wolves, had been removed from the Yellowstone-Idaho ecosystem, the ecosystem changed. This change affected other species as well. Coyotes filled in the niche left by wolves, but couldn't control the large ungulate populations. Booming coyote numbers, furthermore, also had a negative effect on other species, particularly the red fox, pronghorn, and domestic sheep. Ranchers, though, remained steadfastly opposed to reintroducing a species of animal that they considered to be analogous to a plague, citing the hardships that would ensue with the potential loss of stock caused by wolves.

In the 1960's and 70's national awareness of environmental issues and consequences led to the passage of many laws designed to correct the mistakes of the past and help prevent similar mistakes in the future. One such law was the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973. 

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is required by this law to restore endangered species that have been eliminated, if possible. By 1978, all wolf subspecies were on the federal list of endangered species for the lower 48 states except Minnesota.

In 1991, Congress provided funds to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare, in consultation with the National Park Service and the US Forest Service, an environmental impact statement (EIS) on restoration of wolves. In June 1994 the Secretary of the Interior signed the Record of Decision for the final EIS for reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.
Staff from the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and participating states prepared for wolf restoration to Yellowstone and central Idaho. The US Fish and Wildlife Service prepared special regulations outlining how wolves would be managed as an experimental population and Grey wolf packs were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho starting in 1995.

MYTH: Wolves cause significant losses to livestock producers * 

Averaged percentage of total sheep loss in Wyoming to various predators between 2000-2005. Wolves are responsible for less than 1% of losses
A common belief is that attacks on livestock by wolves is a significant, or even one of the primary causes that account for losses incurred by livestock producers.
In the US emphasis is placed primarily on the financial side, and also often emphasizes that the inclusion of the wolf within the Endangered Species Act violates "property rights" and "constitutional freedoms". The "emotional trauma" suffered by livestock producers as a result of predation is also frequently mentioned.
"It may destroy our livelihood, and our entire
lifestyle is also in jeopardy."
"A person doesn’t know or realize the emotional stress and fears of those that have had animals killed or maimed by wolves until you have it happen to yourself"
Though ranchers and farmers are always ready to give the numbers of livestock affected by predation, these are never given as percentages, or even stated in relation to total herd numbers. In most states the losses of livestock due to wolf predation was less than 1%. In the state of Wyoming, which lies entirely within the Yellowstone re-introduction area the number varied depending on year between 0.9% and 2% in the period 2000-2005, averaging under 1% over the period. This compares with 33.7% to 48.3% over the same period for losses due to coyotes, 4.1% to 10.9% due to eagles, and from 11.2% to 20.7% due to weather. Indeed, poison, often left by livestock producers to kill wolves and other predators, was often responsible for a greater proportion of losses than those due to wolf predation.
Emotional trauma is of course impossible to either prove or disprove, but it is important to remember that livestock is ultimately reared for slaughter, either to directly obtain the primary products (meat and hides) or as means of profitably disposing of "spent" dairy or wool herds/flocks. Thus one would expect anyone working in the livestock industry to deal with the death and processing of animals into food and other end-products as part of the day to day running of their business. It is highly unlikely that any individual emotionally disturbed by the slaughter of animals for meat or other products would find livestock work tolerable as a long time career.
The inclusion of wolves in the ESA provides a mechanism for financial compensation to be paid for damages caused by wolves in partnership with the Wolf Compensation Trust, and in the case of wolves found in the act of attacking livestock or other domesticated animals within private property, it is permissible for the owner to take measures necessary to protect them. Therefore it is hard to see how such an act can be a "violation" of rights.

Adult wolves kill each other in territory disputes. Such disputes happen each year, but increase when food is less abundant. This may have been why so many adult wolves died in fights during 2008. That year, scientists also found two wolves whose deaths were partially due to starvation.

MYTH: Wolves decimate game herds

"All wolves must be eliminated to restore our big game herds."
"The Canadian wolves have decimated our elk, mule
deer and moose populations to lows not seen since the ’60s."
There has been considerable misinformation over the impact of wolf populations on herds of elk. However the National Park Service studies indicate that wolf reintroduction to the park, a major reserve for elk herds, would have negligible affect on hunting activities, and that the effect of wolf predation on elk populations would not, in and of itself, have an impact sufficient to be the decisive factor in elk population management.
Although the reasons behind fluctuating wild animal populations are complex, Drs. Doug Smith, Daniel Stahler and John Vucetich conducted a joint National Park Service-MTU study into elk population at Yellowstone. Their findings found that:
  • Elk population remained stable from the re-introduction of wolves in 1995 through to 2000, at around 17,000
  • In the period 2000-2004 the population dropped 50% to 8,334. During this period the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem area experienced drought conditions, and increased hunting of Elk by humans.
Though hunting permits did not allow for a kill level equivalent to the total population drop, the researchers concluded that hunting, led to a "super-additive" effect, whereby a 1% direct loss rate due to hunting was magnified to significant degree due to knock-on effects, which were only exacerbated by drought conditions. A recent study conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks found that the primary killer of elk were mountain lions, followed by bears and wolves came in a distant third. Although wolf predation was acknowledged to exist, it's effect on the large population drops seen was regarded as a minor, largely insignificant factor:
"Our analysis indicates that there is greater justification
for believing that the harvest rate and severe climate,
together, account for at least much of the decline"

MYTH: Wolves attack humans all the time

While it is known that wolf attacks on humans do occur, those engaged in wolf hysteria deliberately exaggerate the risk out of all proportion to implant the idea in their audience that all wolves routinely kill and eat humans.
"Wolves are blood-thirsty predators that attack and kill pets, livestock, children, and adults"
"...we need to protect [the cattle industry] from these intruders...they’ve moved into my ecosystem,
not the other way around"
"258 Congressional Members Support Funding for Mexican Wolves Stalking Children and Wolves Terrorizing Rural Citizens"
The facts in no way bear out such hysteria. Those involved in wolf misinformation often recount reports from the 18th and 19th centuries recanting real or imagined wolf attacks in Europe and Asia. 

Although European wolf subspecies are less wary of humans, and are able to live near higher-density human populations than their North American cousins there are no reports of attacks. As the map clearly shows, no wolf subspecies present on the Eurasian landmass is present on the North American landmass.

Statistics compiled by Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) on global wild (not captive) wolf attacks show that in the period 1950-2000, (50 years) there were only 13 confirmed cases of wolf attacks on humans in North America, none of which were fatal.
In the United States alone, approximately 1 million reported instances of domestic dogs biting humans per year, with an average of 16 to 18 fatal attacks per year.

MYTH: Wolves spread disease

Groups and politicians opposed to wolf conservation often use the claim that wolves spread diseases to livestock and game populations. Whilst wolf populations, like that of any wild animal, carry disease, as apex predators they are more often than not a "dead end" for transmission of disease, and are of little concern when it comes to disease management in most livestock and game populations.
The most serious diseases affecting wolf populations are those which also affect domestic canines: parvo, mange and intestinal worms. In all cases, transmission of the disease is driven infinitely more by domestic dogs than wolves, and it is believed that in most cases these diseases have been introduced to the wolf population by domestic dogs. A notable exception is the presence of mange in North American wolf populations in the Rocky Mountains. This population was deliberately infected by government veterinarians in 1909 as an attempt to "exterminate" the wolf population, spread to coyotes and other mammals, and eventually re-infected wolves upon their reintroduction to the area.

MYTH: Killing/trapping/hunting is the solution

"I believe wolves need to be eliminated"
A common refrain is that the only effective solution to any or all of the above is to drastically reduce the population of wolves. This inevitably entails lethal intervention on the part of humans. Such actions are proposed by many livestock producers as the panacea to all ills, and is, unsurprisingly, encouraged and guided by the hunting, trapping and fur lobby organizations, which naturally present themselves as the only viable way of going about any such lethal solution. Unfortunately, many hunting methods are exceedingly inhumane, with methods such as leg traps being commonplace in North America, though are banned in the EU due to concerns over its inhumane nature.

* From "Wolf Hysteria"