Including Yellowstone Stories and Images
The State of the Wolves, 2015-2016
Wolf image public domain via Pixabay
For wolves and their advocates, 2015 was a year of triumph and tragedy. The year began with the glow from a great victory: wolves had been placed back under federal protection in four states where they had been slaughtered. The year ended with advocates breathing a tired sigh of nervous relief that wolves had not been stripped of that federal protection through a last-minute, cagey congressional rider.
Meanwhile, wolves did what comes naturally: dispersed in search of mates and territory. Wolves returned to their home in a state where they had not walked in ninety years. In other wolf states they dispersed into new areas.
And we humans also did what comes naturally: we let our wide-ranging beliefs about these essential predators bring out our best and worst. In one state, pro-wolf and anti-wolf groups met regularly to try and find common ground. In another state, a poacher in his truck chased an innocent wolf down, shot it, turned himself in, and was fined a measly $100 for killing an endangered animal.
Here is a wolf-state-by-wolf-state report on the triumphs and tragedies of 2015. As well as a glimpse into what 2016 may hold in store for wolves and their advocates.
Pups from California’s Shasta pack. (CDFW)
In May and July, trail cameras in Siskiyou County recorded images of two adult wolves and five pups. California’s first wolf pack was named the Shasta Pack. Their scat was analyzed, and DNA revealed that the Shasta pack’s breeding female was born into Oregon’s Imnaha Pack, that state’s first wolf pack.
Any wolf that enters California is protected under both state and federal Endangered Species Acts. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) will encourage the use of non-lethal methods to minimize livestock losses from wolves. This welcoming of wolves was, for Patricia Herman, founder of California-based Protect the Wolves advocacy group, “…our biggest success after fighting for so long with so many states to stop killing them. When we found a state that actually welcomed the idea of wolves it was a dream come true.”
The gray wolf is native to California. Records from 1750 to 1850 show that wolves roamed California’s Coastal Range from San Diego to Sacramento. From 1850-1900, they were spotted in Shasta County and in the central Sierra Nevada.
California has plenty of room for more wolves. The Klamath-Siskiyou and Modoc Plateau regions in northern California and southwestern Oregon could support up to 470 wolves, according to a study conducted by the Conservation Biology Institute and reported by the California Wolf Center.
CDFW is preparing for the return of wolves by developing a wolf management plan. “But the plan steps far outside the bounds of credible research and into the world of special interest-driven politics when it calls for authorizing the state to kill wolves when the population reaches as few as 50 to 75 animals,” says Amaroq Weiss of the Center for Biological Diversity. The deadline to comment on California’s plan is February 15, 2016.
Wolf from Oregon’s Wenaha pack. (ODFW)
By early 2015 Oregon had 81 wolves in nine packs, most in eastern Oregon. OR-7’s Rogue pack lives in the southwestern part of the state. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) confirmed that two new wolves were spotted traveling in territory near the Rogue pack.
Oregon’s response to the return of wolves has been positive. “Oregon has been the only state in the nation with a meaningful wolf population that did not kill them despite having the authority to do so,” said Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild.
But that may change. In November, ODFW stripped Oregon’s wolves of state endangered species protection. Wolves remain fully protected in the western two-thirds of state under the federal Endangered Species Act. In Northeast Oregon, where most of the wolves live, ranchers can still only shoot a wolf caught in the act of wounding, biting, killing, or chasing livestock. The state still makes non-lethal deterrence the first choice for resolving conflicts between ranchers and wolves.
To delist wolves, ODFW had to show that wolves were not in danger of extinction or population failure. The agency claims it did that. Klavins says ODFW did not. “They ignored substantive critiques from world-renowned scientists while justifying delisting based on a few sentences (in some cases cherry-picked) from a small number of selected experts of varying levels of credibility. They ignored over 20,000 public comments and overwhelming public testimony in favor of continued protections. They ignored troubling conflicts of interest and likely violated important legal requirements. The agency was dishonest with conservation stakeholders. Governor Brown was silent.”
On December 30, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a legal challenge to the removal of protection from gray wolves under Oregon’s Endangered Species Act.
Pups from Washington’s Diamond pack. (WDFW trail cam)
By early 2015, Washington had at least 68 wolves in 16 confirmed packs in the eastern and central portions of the state. Though Congress stripped wolves of federal Endangered Species Act protections in the eastern third of the state, all wolves remain protected under Washington’s ESA.
But, as elsewhere, protection hasn’t stopped the killing. According to the Seattle Times, at least half a dozen Washington wolves have been killed by poachers since 2012. This includes a Whitman County poacher fined a measly $100 last September. Another wolf was struck and killed on Interstate 90. State sharpshooters in helicopters shot and killed seven wolves in one pack in 2012 for preying on livestock.
The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) went to court to stop such state-sponsored killing. WELC sued Wildlife Services, a federal extermination program under the USDA, challenging its authority to kill wolves in Washington. In late December the Seattle Times reported that a federal judge ruled that killing wolves “to reduce predation on livestock is not only highly controversial, but highly uncertain to work as intended, given the ongoing scientific dispute about the policy. Therefore, the agency must complete a full environmental-impact statement before engaging further in “lethal removal” of wolves…”
As of early December, north-central Washington has a new wolf pack. The Loup Loup pack was identified after numerous reports of wolf sightings prompted wildlife officials to investigate the Methow Valley. Biologists tracked up to six animals traveling together. Because this pack is in western Washington, the animals are protected under the federal ESA. Officials plan to outfit at least one wolf with a radio collar.
Wolves have also been spotted in the North Cascades, where they have been moving back and forth across the Canadian border. Scientists have identified more wild landscape in Washington that wolves could occupy, including on the Olympic Peninsula.
Idaho wolf. (IDFG)
The most recent official count found 770 wolves surviving in Idaho at the end of 2014. In that same year, hunters killed 256 wolves, wildlife agents killed 67, and 19 other wolves died at the hands of humans.
And 2015 looks to be as deadly. Wildlife Services has removed 70 wolves and as of early December 120 wolves have been shot or trapped, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. And 145 more could still die.
The cost of hunting licenses reveals how Idaho values wolves. A wolf tag costs $11.50, while a turkey tag costs $19.75. A tag to take an elk costs $30.75. Hunters may buy up to five wolf hunting tags per year and use electronic calls to attract wolves.
A group of hunters with the misleading name Idaho for Wildlife was planning a January 2016 wolf and coyote killing derby on public lands near Salmon, Idaho. The contest included a $1,000 prize for whoever kills the most wolves and another $1,000 to the killer of the most coyotes. But in mid-November the group canceled the derby after being challenged in the courts by the Western Environmental Law Center, representing WildEarth Guardians, Cascadia Wildlands, and the Boulder-White Clouds Council. Four other groups—Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and Project Coyote—also sued the Bureau of Land Management, contending the permit opposes the federal government’s wolf-reintroduction efforts.
Both lawsuits continue since the derby organizer has said that the derby would be held in January—but on private ranches in the Salmon area and on U.S. Forest Service land that doesn’t require a permit.
In early-August, conservation groups won another victory for Idaho wolves. Earthjustice, representing Ralph Maughan, Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, Wilderness Watch, and the Center for Biological Diversity, had filed a federal lawsuit to halt the killing of wolves in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Idaho wanted to kill 60% of the wolves in this federally protected area managed by the USFS. But the USFS has told Earthjustice that Idaho will kill no wolves in the area in the winter of 2015-2016.
Wolf from Montana’s Smart Creek pack. (MFWP)
The number of gray wolves in Montana continues to fall under state management. The verified population at the end of 2014 (latest data) was 554, as compared to 627 wolves at the end of 2013, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP). In 2011, the year wolves were stripped of ESA protection, there were 653 wolves in Montana.
In 2014, 308 wolves died; 301 at the hands of humans. Wildlife managers, including Wildlife Services, killed 57 of those wolves. Hunters killed 206 during the state’s expanded 2014-15 hunting season. A wolf-hunting license costs $19 for residents, and 20,383 wolf licenses were sold in 2014. The combined maximum hunting and trapping bag limit is five wolves per person.
Conservation groups saved some wolves from hunters. In July of 2015 The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission reduced from three to two the number of wolves that can be killed each year in two hunting districts near the north border of Yellowstone National Park. These districts are two of the three more tightly controlled wolf-hunting districts in the state. The third is near Glacier National Park, which already had a quota of two wolves. This quota reduction represents ongoing success: In 2014 wolf advocates were able to get the quota in those two units adjoining Yellowstone reduced from four to three wolves.
Also in 2015 MFWP brought together groups that want to protect wolves (for example, Wolves of the Rockies, Bear Creek Council, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Montana Audobon Society) and groups that want to shoot wolves (Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Montana Bowhunters’ Association, and Montana Stockgrowers’ Association). The groups discussed, among other issues, whether non-hunting conservation groups and hunter conservation groups can find common ground. “This is a promising move forward in working together for the betterment of wildlife management and is open to the public to attend,” said Kim Bean, vice-president of Wolves of the Rockies.
Wolf from Yellowstone’s Lamar Canyon pack. (Mary Strickroth)
At the end of 2014 (most recent count), Wyoming had 229 wolves in the state with an additional 104 in Yellowstone National Park for a total of 333 wolves.
In 2014 Earthjustice, representing Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity, fought in court to keep Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Wyoming. The coalition won and stopped the killing of Wyoming’s wolves. The federal government and the state of Wyoming have appealed. “Wyoming appears determined to defend its uniquely hostile approach to wolf management,” said Tim Preso, managing attorney for Earthjustice.
History supports Preso’s statement. The federal government turned wolf management over to Wyoming in 2012. Most of the state was designated a predator zone, where anyone could kill any wolf, at any time, and for any reason. In less than two years, more than 200 wolves were slaughtered, according to Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife. Among the early victims of Wyoming’s killing spree was 06, the famous alpha female of Yellowstone’s Lamar Canyon pack.
The return of ESA protection has not stopped the killing. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, reported in late-October that 55 wolves have been killed in Wyoming—mostly by Wildlife Services—and that is the largest government-funded wolf killing in eight years.
In mid-November, two U.S. senators (Republicans from Wyoming and Wisconsin) vowed to push to strip federal protection from gray wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes states—and to prohibit courts from intervening in those states on the embattled predator’s behalf.
The Great Lakes States
Wolf photo by USFWS
In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimated that 3,722 wolves live in the three Great Lakes states, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. About sixty percent of those wolves roam Minnesota. The remainder is split almost evenly between Michigan and Wisconsin.
In December of 2014, all of those wolves came back under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act. Relisting was a huge victory for wolf advocates, but fighting to keep them listed, says Rachel Tilseth, of Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin, has been the biggest challenge of 2015. She told Wisconsin Public Radio, “Can states be trusted to manage wolves? I think not, and many other scientists agree that individual states cannot be trusted.”
In November two groups of scientists wrote letters about whether the gray wolf should be delisted as an endangered species.
First came a letter signed by 26 wildlife scientists urging the federal government to strip ESA protection from gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region. The scientists sent the letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Dan Ashe, director of USFWS. Among those writing the letter were David Mech, a wolf specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Minnesota. The scientists say that the integrity of the ESA is undercut if species aren’t removed when they’ve scientifically recovered. They believe that the combined population in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin represents recovery.
Less than a week later a group of 70 scientists and scholars wrote an open letter disagreeing with their colleagues. These scientists said that removing ESA protection from wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin could be justified if and when the USFWS “uses the best available science that justifies delisting,” But, they added, ”Currently, it does not.”
“Quite simply, wolves still fit the legal definition of endangerment in the Great Lakes region and nationwide,” said the scientists, including John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson of Michigan Technological University, leaders of a long-standing study of wolves at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.
The Associated Press reported that in the rebuttal letter, the scientists said public tolerance of wolves has risen substantially since they were given protection. Any suggestions that patience is wearing thin are spread by “special interest groups that are vocal, but small in number.”
Michigan wolf (MDNR)
Michigan has about 630 wolves and all were believed to reside in the Upper Peninsula. In September, the website Michigan Live reported that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) confirmed that a second gray wolf has reached the Lower Peninsula. Genetic testing of male wolf scat found that this dispserser may have originated in northeast Ontario. Though wolves have moved into the Lower Peninsula, there’s not yet evidence of a breeding population.
Meanwhile, in Isle Royale National Park, the wolf population has fallen to three, including one deformed from inbreeding. In 2014, park officials hoped that new wolves would come to the island across ice bridges, but that didn’t happen. “There is now a good chance that it is too late to conduct genetic rescue,” John Vucetich told UPI. Vucetich and Rolf Peterson suggest that fewer and smaller ice bridges as well as development on the mainland may hinder repopulation.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said in August that the state’s wolf population estimate has not varied “significantly” over the last three years. The latest survey estimates that 2,221 wolves live in 374 packs within northern and central Minnesota. That estimate is down from the previous winter’s estimate of 2,423 wolves.
In June, wildlife officials announced that the state’s wolf population is close to an all-time high. Preliminary surveys conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) place current wolf numbers between 746 and 771, about a 13 percent increase from last year’s 660.
In August, WDNR reported that a pack of three to four wolves resides in the Wisconsin Dells area, according to WiscNews. Except for one other location in the state’s southwest, this is the farthest south that wolves have migrated in Wisconsin.
A Look Ahead to 2016
Here’s how some of the advocates contacted for this report see 2016 shaping up.
Wolf photo public domain via Pixabay
“Sadly, our wolf, wildlife, and environmental issues will play out in the political arena based largely on special interest and politics, not on science, conservation, or preservation,” says Dr. Robin Chriss of Chriss Wildlife Consulting. “We need to be there in solidarity as wolf advocates, to be a voice. If not, we will lose a lot in 2016.”
“Corporate ranchers and farmers,” says Patricia Herman of Protect the Wolves, “don’t want to learn to coexist with wolves. They just want to continue to take more and more land, until there is no room for wildlife anywhere.”
“Keeping the Great Lakes wolves under federal protection,” says Rachel Tilseth of Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin, “is and will be the biggest challenge of 2016.”
For Oregon Wild’s Rob Klavins, 2016 looks scary. “Anti-wolf interests and their political allies have brought anti-wolf legislation every year since wolf recovery began. They’ve promised to do so again, and wolves have lost some of their champions in recent years.”
Kim Bean from Wolves of the Rockies believes the attack on the ESA will continue and “wolves will most likely be delisted nationally.” This leaves the states to manage wolves without any federal help. “We as advocates,” advises Bean, “need to stand and fight even harder, and will need the help of an empathetic public to do so. We need one loud and powerful voice.”
In the Temple of Wolves
by Rick Lamplugh
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Posted by Rick Lamplugh at 7:43 AM, January 2, 2016
November 16, 2015
Territorial species, like gray wolves living in Yellowstone National Park, will often fight if they encounter a neighboring group. Observational research over the course of 20 years has allowed scientists in Yellowstone to examine the roles of each individual in a wolf pack during these fights over territory and resources. They have discovered that old wolves are the most important in pack versus pack fights as the experience and leadership provided by an old wolf often allows a pack to win even if they are outnumbered.
River Valley Pack,
“All the wolves trotted to the stranger and practically surrounded it, and for a few moments I thought that they would be friendly toward it for there was just the suggestion of tail wagging by some of them. But something tipped the scales the other way for the wolves began to bite at the stranger. It rolled over on its back, begging quarter. The attack continued, however, so it scrambled to its feet and with difficulty emerged from the snapping wolves. Twice it was knocked over as it ran down the slope with five wolves in hot pursuit. They chased after it about 200 yards to the river bar, and the mantled male crossed the bar after it. The two ran out of my sight under the ridge from which I was watching.”
– Murie, Adolph. 1944. The Wolves of Mount McKinley. University of Washington Press.
It was 1940 and Adolph Murie was hired to record data on wolves and Dall sheep in Denali National Park (then called Mount McKinley). Murie followed one pack closely for several years, watching them raise pups, hunt prey, and even chase and attack intruding wolves. His field notes may have been the first time in history these territorial, aggressive accounts were written down. I like to imagine this consummate observer and naturalist would be happy to hear the work he began nearly 80 years ago has continued with the return of the wolf to Yellowstone National Park.
Since the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone 20 years ago scientists have been gathering data on survival and reproduction, mortality and hunting. But one thing biologists didn’t really expect when wolves were brought back to Yellowstone following a 70-year absence was their consistent visibility. Wide open valleys with abundant elk and plowed roads, combined with a decent scope or pair of binoculars, now provides visitors and scientists views of wolf behavior rarely seen elsewhere.
Biologists have long known wolves are territorial and have noted the difference between the amiable way wolves treat pack mates, usually their close family members, and the aggression they show neighboring, rival packs. When a wolf was found dead researchers pieced together clues from tracks, often concluding that a pack-vs-pack fight had occurred. In Yellowstone those interactions have been observed and recorded for two decades and play a decidedly influential role in the lives of gray wolves, accounting for two-thirds of natural mortality.
Besides the effects these territorial fights have on individual survival, they likely have long-term effects on reproduction, pack persistence, and the redistribution of resources based on which packs are able to consistently defeat their opponents. But what allows one pack to win over a rival? Is it just a numbers game with larger packs always winning out over smaller ones? Do resident packs enjoy a home field advantage? Or is there some compositional factor? Are packs with more of a certain type of wolf, say a large male wolf in his prime, more likely to win? Observational research, like Murie’s, was the only way to find out.
It was 10 a.m. but the mid-morning sun was just barely cresting the eastern ridge. I’d been alternately huddling for warmth in my layers of down and stomping around the small dirt trailhead trying to keep feeling in my toes for over two hours. Watching as the western slopes lit and warmed, I beheld nature’s visual timepiece, anticipating the blanket of sunlight edging temperatures into positive degrees.
I was tracking the Slough Creek wolf pack by listening for pings on the radio receiver, indicating one of the collared wolves was nearby. Finally I saw them travelling up out of the Yellowstone River corridor, their thick winter coats shedding river ice, keeping them a lot warmer than me and definitely not worrying themselves over the speed of the sunrise that morning.
The seven figures followed in each other’s footsteps, noses to the ground. They gathered around one area, and judging by their quickly rising tails and hackles, it was the fresh scent of rival wolves. The alpha male took off running to the north, the five pack females and a yearling male following quickly. Intrigued by the wolves’ behavior, I tuned the receiver to test the signals for other packs. Sure enough, loud beeps from a Druid Peak pack wolf rang out—they must be close by, too. I looked back in the scope and watched the Slough Creek pack running hard now, the dark black alpha male in the lead. Scanning ahead of them about 400 meters I saw five members of the Druid Peak pack. They glanced at each other and began their own charge, tails like flags, straight at their opponents.
The distance closed rapidly and all of a sudden it was chaos. The Slough alpha male slammed his body into a Druid wolf but when another grabbed his neck and shook violently he broke loose and ran out of the fray. The Slough females followed the male’s wake but finding themselves in the midsts of four huge male Druid wolves, tucked tails and ran. Two of the Sloughs turned around and hopped briefly onto their hind legs, trying to figure out who was a pack mate and who was not. The Druid wolves stayed in a solitary unit, chasing and spreading out the Slough wolves for several minutes, keeping them from joining together. As the commotion died down, the Slough wolves started to bark-howl from all angles. They were lost and separated, not sure where to go for fear of running into the Druids again. Eventually the tension dissipated and the Druids relaxed. The Sloughs wandered in several small groups, separated by miles of mountainside.
Even though the Sloughs outnumbered the Druids, they had lost; completely displaced from the fight location—firmly in Slough Creek pack territory. And as it turned out, this encounter would be the prime example of what characteristics are important to a pack during successful inter-pack interactions.
The first important factor, the only one in the Slough’s favor, was pack size. Having one more wolf than an opponent increases a pack’s odds of winning by 140%. Numerical assessment studies have found this same pattern in many social species from chimpanzees to African lions to mongooses. But for wolves, pack composition is also important. A pack with one more adult male enjoys a 65% increase in win odds. Adult male wolves are 20% larger and more muscular than females; they are built for fighting and protecting territory and resources. The Druids had the advantage here with two adult males more than the Sloughs (4 to 2). A home-field advantage doesn’t exist for wolves. Even intruders can compete with residents if they have the numbers or those valuable individuals present.
But the most influential factor was the presence of old wolves (>6 years old). A pack with one old wolf more than an opponent had 150% greater odds of winning—making it more important than pack size. As the Druids exemplified (they had one more old adult than the Sloughs), they won despite being outnumbered. Old adults are nowhere near the fastest or the strongest but what they do have is experience. They’ve encountered competitors many times. They’ve seen pack mates killed, and likely participated in killing a rival themselves. They may avoid a conflict they figure they can’t win—upping their success percentage. Leadership and experience make old wolves the most valuable individuals in the pack during aggressive encounters.
These pack vs pack battles have gone on for thousands of years, contributing to the evolution of territoriality, aggression, and sociality in gray wolves. There have surely been occasional human witnesses to these episodes of truly wild nature: Homo sapiens during the Pleistocene, Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery, and, of course, biologist Adolph Murie in 1940s Alaska. And now, in Yellowstone, we can all observe this instinctive yet advanced behavior exhibited by a complex, social species—a species with intelligence and a division of labor amongst group members, the goal to protect themselves, their resources, and each other.
From The Sacramento Bee August 10, 2015
Speakers for and against the preservation of the gray wolf take turns at the microphone at a 2013 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hearing in Sacramento. Jose Luís Villegas Sacramento Bee file
By 1924, wolves in California had been completely driven from the lands that they called home for centuries – hunted, trapped and slaughtered to near-extinction.
Now it looks like wolves are finally making their way back home to the Golden State where they belong. California is graced with rich areas of suitable habitat that can and will support a healthy wolf population, and wolves clearly want to return.
Having trekked last summer in a remote part of Siskiyou County where the now-famous wolf OR-7 traversed – and where officials announced last week a second gray wolf was spotted – I can see why wolves would choose to inhabit this rugged, wild part of our state. And I strongly believe they will – it’s just a matter of time and human tolerance.
Wolves are one of America’s most iconic species, but until recently, we were in grave danger of losing them in the lower 48 states. Thankfully, people have finally begun to see that without wolves, the ecological health of our landscapes suffers. Today, 83 percent of California voters believe that “wolves should be protected” and “are a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage.”
In protecting gray wolves, it appears California is headed in the right direction. In June 2014, the state Fish and Game Commission voted to shield them under the state Endangered Species Act.
Despite the state’s support, some people still believe in the fables of the “big bad wolf.” Many don’t know about the true lives of wolves, the strong social bonds they nurture within their familial packs, or their important role in the natural world. They also don’t know that California’s extensive ranching industry can coexist with returning wolves, given the right tools.
So it is up to Californians to ensure that wolves are indeed welcome, and to provide protections as they make their way toward recovery. The state must avoid the mistakes in places such as the Southwest and in the Northern Rockies, where the first reaction is to kill as many wolves as possible instead of seeking solutions that protect both livestock and wolves.
California has the opportunity to forge new partnerships to reduce potential conflicts. Lawmakers, conservation professionals, local officials and private landowners should cooperate to help ranchers use proven, nonlethal methods – including specialized fencing, range riders and guard dogs – and develop even more innovative ones. This focus on “coexistence” should be a key part of the final wolf management plan adopted by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Defenders of Wildlife has a long history of working with ranchers in other parts of the West. I have seen firsthand the success of these efforts, such as on the Wood River Wolf Project in central Idaho, where wolves have successfully shared habitat with the highest concentration of sheep grazing on public lands in the state. We’re ready to work with the ranching community to bring these successful tools to California.
California, along with Oregon and Washington state, has an important role to play in setting the standard for managing wolves in a more principled, ethical and sustainable manner, avoiding the ruinous path followed by other western states where slaughtering wolves is considered wildlife management. I believe California can lead the way to peaceful wolf restoration and recovery.
By Pamela Flick
Pamela Flick of Sacramento is California representative for Defenders of Wildlife.
From: National Geographic News
The remains of wolves killed by wildlife officials hang over the side of a truck in Montana in 2004. These animals, which were not part of the Huckleberry Pack, were killed because they attacked cattle.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOEL SARTORE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
In late August, a government sharpshooter in a helicopter hovering above a wooded eastern Washington hillsidekilled the lead female wolf of the Huckleberry Pack. The aim was to end attacks by the wolf pack, which had killed more than two dozen sheep.
The research, published today in the scientific journal PLOS One, flies in the face of the common idea that the swiftest and surest way to deal with wolves threatening livestock is by shooting the predators. It adds to a growing understanding of how humans influence the complex dynamics driving these pack animals, sometimes with unexpected consequences.
As wolves spread across the West, triggering more encounters with sheep and cattle, and as two states host wolf-hunting seasons, the new research also adds more fuel to an already heated political debate about how to deal with wolves.
“The livestock industry, they’re not going to be happy with this,” said Rob Wielgus, a Washington State University ecologist and the study’s lead author.
Back From the Brink
Shooting wolves is a long-standing practice in the ranching world. It helped lead to the animal’s eradication in the western United States in the 1930s. Since the wolf’s reintroduction in the mid-1990s, government officials and ranchers have frequently reached for a gun to cope with livestock problems—killing more than 2,000 wolves by 2013.
In 2011, wolves were removed from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in Idaho, Montana, and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Utah. (Wyoming got a similar stamp of approval in 2012, but a federal judge recently overturned that decision.) That has made it easier to shoot wolves—Idaho and Montana now even allow recreational hunting.
But there have never been any large-scale studies of whether killing wolves really helps protect livestock.
Enter Wielgus. He has a track record for turning conventional wisdom on its head when it comes to attempts to control predators. In 2008 he made news with research that found shooting cougars led to more attacks on livestock. When mature adults were killed, Wielgus said, less seasoned adolescents moved in and were more likely to prey on cows and sheep.
After wolves arrived in Washington in 2008, growing to 13 packs by 2013, Wielgus turned his attention to the newest carnivore on the block. He examined 25 years of data on killing of wolves and cases where wolves attacked cattle and sheep in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—the first states where wolves were reintroduced.
Gray Wolves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
What the Data Say
Wielgus found that when a wolf was killed, the chances of livestock getting killed increased the following year in that state—by 5 to 6 percent for cattle and 4 percent for sheep. With each additional wolf killed, the chance of livestock attacks rose further. The trend didn’t reverse until more than a quarter of the wolves in the state were killed in a single year. Then livestock losses started to decline.
That level of wolf-killing happened several times even while wolves were federally protected, under rules that allowed shooting of wolves that threatened livestock. And it is happening now in Idaho and Montana. Last year, hunters killed 231 wolves in Montana and 356 in Idaho, helping to reduce the population to slightly more than 600 in each state. The Idaho legislature this year created a Wolf Depredation Control Board, a move critics say is aimed at pushing wolf numbers down to just above 150—a cutoff that could trigger renewed protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Wielgus isn’t certain why more livestock die when smaller numbers of wolves are killed. But he suspects it’s tied to changes in pack behavior. Packs are led by a male and female breeding pair. If one or both of those wolves is killed, the pack can break up, giving rise to several breeding pairs—and thus an uptick in the wolf population. Livestock losses decline only when enough wolves are killed to overwhelm their ability to keep up through reproduction.
The theory fits observations made in and around Yellowstone National Park. Wolf packs inside the park—where wolves aren’t shot—are large and complex, with wolves of a variety of ages living together, said Doug Smith, a lead wolf researcher at Yellowstone. Wolf packs elsewhere tend to be just a breeding pair and pups.
For Wielgus, the upshot of his study is that while killing a wolf might sometimes be necessary, as a routine practice it’s counterproductive and unsustainable. Either livestock losses go up or, if enough wolves are killed to reduce livestock deaths, wolf numbers eventually drop so low that wolves wind up back on the endangered species list. If the killing slows to less than 25 percent of the wolf population per year, his study suggests, depredation rates shoot back up.
“It’s a bit of a catch-22,” Wielgus said. “You can reduce them now, but you can only reduce them so far, and when you stop that heavy harvest, now you’re at maximum livestock depredation.”
Is There Another Way?
Reaction to the new study was split down predictable fault lines. Wolf conservationists pointed to it as evidence that shooting wolves to save livestock usually doesn’t make sense. “You have this very archaic paradigm of kill first, ask questions later,” said Suzanne Stone, senior northwest representative for the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife. Overall, people in the livestock industry are “still pretty rigid in their views that the only way to deal with predators is to kill them. And that’s not true. It actually works against them.”
Stone has run a program with sheep growers in one Idaho valley aimed at finding ways for sheep and wolves to coexist. The ranchers there resort to a number of tactics to protect roughly 30,000 sheep: monitoring wolves to avoid grazing the sheep near denning sites, using guard dogs, flashing bright lights to scare off wolves, stringing a wire hung with small strips of fabric around the flock at night, and increasing the number of people herding the animals.
Stone said the program is cheaper than dispatching a gunman in a helicopter. Fewer than 30 sheep have been lost to wolves in seven years, and no wolves have been killed.
Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said his group works with members to help them deter wolves without shooting the animals. But he still sees guns as critical tools, and he says wolf problems have declined recently as the number of Idaho wolves has gone down.
“Wolves get into livestock, we kill the wolves. And that works well,” Boyd said. “The professor can say whatever he wants. We’re not going to just let wolves run wild.”
In Washington state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which paid for Wielgus’s research, is waiting for him to complete a broader examination of all options for managing wolves, said John Pierce, the agency’s chief wildlife scientist. “In the long run, we definitely would prefer to do nonlethal removal if we can figure out how it works,” Pierce said.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on the Huckleberry Pack. In the aftermath of the shooting of the lead female, will fewer sheep die in wolf attacks—or more?