Gray wolves chasing an elk.
Have conservation scientists become carried away, touting the ecological benefits of wolves where there are perhaps — dare I say it? — not as many as we believe there to be? Perhaps some people in the media, and even some in science, have gotten carried away with the ecological changes that wolves are actually capable of mediating, says globally-renowned wolf biologist L. David Mech in his most recent paper “Is science in danger of sanctifying the wolf?”
Ever since the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and by extension the Northern Rocky Mountain ecoregion, the role of apex predators in regulating trophic cascades has been an issue of great debate. Among the first to publish a correlation between a return of aspen and willow recruitment to stands where they’d been long absent, at the same time that wolves were reintroduced, were a pair of researchers from Oregon State University, Ripple and Beschta. They promulgated an idea dubbed the ecology of fear which postulated that the presence of wolves caused a behavioral shift in elk, leading them to graze less often in open riparian corridors where they were more likely to be attacked by wolves. Their warier behavior, and shift in browsing pressure, led to a rebound in the aspen and willow growth. It’s become a familiar, almost calcified narrative, and one that many wildlife proponents have embraced (myself included).
But in his newest paper, Mech reviews the literature both supporting and refuting wolves as the mechanism of a behaviorally-modulated trophic cascade in Yellowstone. He asserts that other factors may be at play in stimulating the willows and aspen to regrow, and that they at least deserve more serious discussion. Mech seems to feel that some conservation scientists have become so myopically focused on wolves as the mechanism of ecological change that we tend to view as positive that they are unwilling or unable to look beyond wolves for alternative or contributing factors.
I have to admit, if this paper had been written by someone other than Mech, I’d probably have not have paid as much attention to it. This is because I find myself wanting to believe the wolf-as-ecological-mediator narrative. I freely admit, I’m biased in this regard. But the fact that a wolf biologist as learned and experienced as Mech produced this definitely caught my eye. (more…)
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The Wolverine Way, by Douglas Chadwick
Wolverines are badass animals. That’s probably why Marvel Comics made a character based on them. But unfortunately, we know more about the comic character than the real deal! Myth tells us that these animals are enormous gluttons, so much so that their latinized name is Gulo gulo, which means glutton glutton. I suppose the double name speaks to the intensity of glutton they were once thought to be.
Wolverines are a modest sized animal that can weigh anywhere from 15 to 70 pounds, with most being in the 30-50 pound range. They have the lithe muscular bodies of young black bear cubs, but with the wide digging-ready paws of a badger. Their heads look like a mashup of a Tasmanian devil with a mongoose. They have enormous strength that allows them to gallop for hours on end through deep snow fields, swim through freezing streams and rivers, and haul their bulk up nearly vertical cliff faces. And did I mention their skulls harbor bone-crushing teeth? Well, they do, and they make good use of them, gobbling up bones from carrion and fresh kills alike to process the fatty, nutritious marrow that many other animals can’t access.
Despite their obvious badassery, wolverines have remained one of the most understudied mammalian predators on the continent.
A few years ago, a multi-year project to study the life history details of these animals was undertaken at Glacier National Park, where a small population of the animals still remain. The study provided the perfect vehicle for Douglas Chadwick, who volunteered on the project, to write a book about these amazing but largely unknown carnivores.
In The Wolverine Way Chadwick narrates the time he spent as a volunteer on the Glacier project. His voice offers a mix of wonder and humility with just the right amount of swagger. But that last element stems almost solely from what we learn of wolverines: how they can scale sheer rock and ice mountain faces in times that make the most ardent mountaineers green with envy; how they can roam twenty or more miles across rugged topography in a single day, treating mountain slopes as if they were flat; how they can go head-to-head with grizzlies to stake a carcass as their own; and how they can munch bones like so many stale breadsticks to carry them between meaty meals.
Chadwick’s engaging, at times poetic, writing and reflections of the natural world are what elevates this book from a mere documentation of a project to an insightful tome into what I can only call the mindset of a wolverine. Check out this video trailer to see what I’m talking about:
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Wildlife Services sounds like a benign name, right? Yet this little-known government agency in the Department of Agriculture provides the farthest thing from a “service” to wildlife that you could possibly imagine. Don’t be confused… I’m not talking about the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the Department of Interior agency tasked with recovering endangered species and monitoring all kinds of wildlife. Wildlife Services is diametrically opposed to the FWS. It’s a radically different shadow agency tasked with killing millions of animals each year. I’m not kidding — millions of animals that bear feathers, fur, and teeth. Unfortunately, the bulk of Wildlife Service’s efforts have historically gone into killing predators such as wolves, coyotes and foxes, usually at the behest of the livestock industry which benefits from having fewer wild carnivores on the landscape. And even more unfortunately, they often kill many more species than their intended targets.
Starting last week, the Sacremento Bee published a three-part investigative series on Wildlife Services that was written by veteran environmental reporter Tom Knudson. (Part I, Part II, Part III) According to the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, it took Knudson one year to report and write the stories. They detail an agency out of step with science, and out of sync with modern times. For a truly disturbing inforgraphic, check out this one which details all the animals which Wildlife Services killed on purpose, and by mistake, between 2006 and 2010. (And think, this is only what was reported as by-catch… their trappers and agents have a long history of not always reporting nontarget kills, so these numbers are likely the lowest possible estimates.)
Shortly after the series ran, WildEarth Guardians announced they were suing Wildlife Services… which makes me think they were holding off on their NOI to sue until after Knudson ran his stories so they could use them as leverage for public opinion. (Kind of sneaky, but also exactly what I would have advised them to do if I was running their PR dept.)
As most readers of Wild Muse know, I’m intensely interested in predator ecology and predator conservation. With all that is now known about the importance of predators in our ecosystems, it’s sickening to think that a government agency is working to “control” them through lethal means. Even worse that this is occuring despite evidence that Wildlife Service’s own methods aren’t working (see Knudson’s articles for more on that). (more…)
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Cover of The Tiger, by John Vaillant.
Can a tiger hold a vendetta against a person? This is a central question in The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant. The book holds a haunting tale you won’t soon forget. It’s based on true events that transpired in Russia’s Far East in the late 1990s. The truth of the events portrayed in this book will stalk your conscience until you are forced to confront several revelations: that animals like tigers may possess an intelligence which allows for pre-meditated action, that animals like tigers may have emotions and act upon them, that tigers may have the emotive and cognitive capacities to possess grudges and enact vendettas, and that most humans who don’t live with wild tigers tend to downplay and discredit these possibilities.
The story Vaillant tells in this book is based upon a series of events that took place in the far eastern Soviet taiga, which is a type of habitat that transitions between tundra and temperate forests. The bulk of the book takes place in Primorye Territory, a maritime province which harbors one of the last reservoirs of wild Siberian tigers. The opening scenes begin in December 1997 on the sliver of Russia’s eastern coast that lies between China and the Sea of Japan. A man had just been attacked and partially eaten by a tiger, about 60 miles from the logging town of Luchegorsk.
But it wasn’t just any man, and very soon the tiger’s act of killing and consuming this man takes on a chilling revelation: the tiger knew this man. The tiger, in fact, was carrying a bullet that the victim had shot into it just weeks before. Did the tiger remember that this particular hunter had shot it? Did the tiger seek out revenge? (more…)
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The Lost Wolves of Japan, by Brett Walker
The Lost Wolves of Japan is a first-rate academically-oriented text that combs through the natural and cultural history of wolves on the Japanese archipelago. Author Brett Walker is a professor of history at Montana State University who specializes in Japanese history; this book was published by the Univ. of Washington Press. He used historical research methodologies to frame an inquiry into what the Japanese wolf was, and what led to its extinction. If you like historical detail, this book serves it up in helping after generous helping.
Walker explores many different themes in The Lost Wolves of Japan, most of which are centered around people, culture, wolves and nature. He pokes and prods the relationships of these entitites to each other by using various historical lenses. He examines the near-myth of Japanese “oneness” with nature; the culture of the Ainu (an indigenous people group in the Japanese archipelago) and their spiritual reverence for wild wolves, and their close relationship with domesticated hunting dogs; how early Japanese naturalists classified the wolves and mountain dogs that populated their islands; the Japanese government’s quest to modernize their society through ranching during the early years of the Meiji Restoration (ca. 1868); and theories of wolf extinction.
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Fladry in the wind. (Photo by Nathan Lance, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks)
Fladry has proved to be an interesting and rather low-tech tool to ward wolves away from domestic livestock in certain conditions. It consists of red flags or pennants attached to a piece of twine or thin rope at regular intervals (about 18 inches or so) and strung around a livestock corral or pen. Like all predator deterrents, it has some limitations.
For one thing, it depends upon the livestock being concentrated in one area — I’m told that it’s tough, and expensive, to string this stuff up around expansive ranges. For another, it loses its effectiveness over time as wolves become accustomed to seeing it. Part of fladry’s success, it seems, is that it’s a new object that causes wolves to become frightened of passing it. Past studies have shown that fladry can be effective in field trials for up to 60 days before wild wovles cross them (Musiani 2003).
In the race of cunning to outwit wolves, some intrepid thinkers came up with the idea of running electric current through fladry to extend its usefulness. Perhaps a little electric shock would ward wolves off for longer, the thinking went. The negative stimulus of electric current works in theory much like the electric-collar on your pooch that tests the boundaries of its yard. (Except, in the case of turbo-fladry, the goal is to keep the wolves out; whereas you want to keep your dog in, but nevermind, you catch my drift…)
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Red wolf pup in a kennel. © DeLene Beeland 2011
In the past week, I’ve seen snow flurries on Nags Head beach, whale spouts puffing within a half-mile offshore and gangly white tundra swans careening through the air. But the highlight was watching a pack of endangered red wolves scramble into the woods.
I’ve been working on more book research, and spent a few more days with the red wolf biologists. They are heavy into their winter trapping efforts, part of which entails trying to capture the puppies born in March and April of 2010. By now, the pups are large enough to receive a radio collar.
Collaring the young of the year is essential. When they are born, the biologists try to tag all of the red wolf pups with passive integrated transponder chips, rice-grain-sized chips they inject under their skin. When scanned with a radio-frequency ID device, the chips emit a unique radio signal. But they don’t broadcast a unique signal like the radio collars do. So between the time the pups are born and tagged, and winter trapping eight months or so later, the biologists essentially have a data blackout on them. They set soft-catch leghold traps to capture the pups, and then take them to a processing facility where they fit them with collars, and give them vaccines against things like rabies and heart worm.
Transferring the red wolves in kennels back to their territory. © DeLene Beeland 2011
To reduce re-trapping the same animals from a pack’s home range, sometimes the biologists will take the trapped animals and hold them a few days, hoping that within that time they will capture the other targeted animals in that area. This past week, I was lucky to witness a breeding female and three of her four pups returned to their home range. The biologists I was shadowing loaded them up into their trucks and drove to the wolves territory.
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This post was originally reported for OnEarth magazine’s blog, it appeared there first on Dec. 16, 2010.
Red wolf panting; image by Barron Crawford.
“Another day, another dead wolf — actually, make that two.”
The digital characters glared at me from my phone message center. I sucked in my breath involuntarily. It was Tuesday, November 16, and it was a bleak day for the Red Wolf Recovery Program.
The message was sent by a biologist I’ve interviewed over the past year for a book on the natural history of Canis rufus. Red wolves are federally protected and they are an entirely separate species from gray wolves, which are known to scientists as Canis lupus.
So far this year, four red wolves have died from unlawful gunshot wounds, and a few additional cases are under active investigation for apparent illegal take. On average, six to eight red wolves have died by gunshot annually in the past three years. The Fish and Wildlife Service biologists working to recover red wolves say 2010 is shaping up to be above average.
Red wolves are shot when hunters or gun-wielding people in the recovery area mistake them for their more common cousin, the coyote (Canis latrans), and then pull the trigger. (At least, the shooters claim they mistook them.) It’s legal to shoot coyotes anywhere and anytime in North Carolina, including the red wolf recovery range.
“We’re really not sure if some hunters are mistaking the red wolves for coyotes and shooting them, or if they are targeting red wolves,” says Ryan Nordsven, a biological technician with the recovery program. “In all likelihood, it may be a combination of both.”
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The Wolf's Tooth, cover (Island Press)
If I could use only three words to describe The Wolf’s Tooth, these are the ones I’d choose: elegant, forceful and fluid.
This is a story about how two intertwined ecological concepts — keystone predators and trophic cascades — leave their signatures upon entire landscapes. The Wolf’s Tooth is authored by Cristina Eisenberg, a PhD candidate at Oregon State University who studies conservation biology. Before graduate school, she was a journalist and editor. Her dual career paths collide in The Wolf’s Tooth, and the result is a remarkable and timely story about her own research but also an entire mountain of literature that came before her.
Before I go on, some definitions may be helpful. Trophic cascades are a phenomenon whereby reactions cascade through a trophic web, or food web. Because trophic webs are really giant networks that process energy and nutrients through an ecosystem, when something causes a glitch or a change in the system it ripples through to other levels. Eisenberg studies this concept with a focus on the interactions between reintroduced gray wolves, elk and aspen and willows. This is a three level trophic web, where the wolves eat the elk which eat the aspen and willows. In this system, the wolves would also be known as a keystone species. By definition, these are carnivorous species that are the glue that bind their ecosystem together; without them, things have a tendency to fall apart or shift dramatically. Keystone species exert a disproportionately strong influence on the other species in their systems. For example, in the very real case of wolves being extirpated from Yellowstone National Park, the elk population swelled to great numbers and then ate the aspen and willow stands down to the point that new trees were not growing into mature trees because of over-browsing.
To tell the story of trophic cascades and how we know what we do about them, Eisenberg weaves fluid first-hand accounts of her PhD field work and personal experiences in nature with summaries of foundational studies. Her own field work entailed monitoring aspen and willow stands for herbivory patterns from elk, and correlating these patterns with the presence or absence of wolves and predators in the area. The scenes she bases on her field work transport the reader to the slopes and valleys she worked in Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon and elsewhere. As a reader, you experience what she does: you discover a coyote carcass with its throat torn out by wolves, clear evidence of a territorial dispute; you tiptoe through a den site littered with the chew toys of wolf puppies; and you feel the hair on your neck raise when a moose is taken down by wolves only a few hundred yards from Eisenberg as she’s wrapping up a transect line. The sheer force of her narratives thrust you into the journey she’s embarked upon to understand how species interact in the web of life. (more…)
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Readers of Wild Muse know that I am fascinated by wolf ecology, and I often post on wolf research. A little while ago, I wrote up a review on the best kinds of livestock guarding dogs based on the writing and research of Cat Urbigkit. A reader named Jennifer commented on the post, referring to a run in her dogs had with wolves a few weeks back. I emailed Jennifer for more information and then extended an invite for her to share her story here on Wild Muse. She accepted, and I thank her for her time in writing up the events. I hope readers will appreciate the opportunity to share her experiences. For me, it is always fun to pontificate upon ecology in the abstract; but for some, it can get deeply personal. - DeLene
I live on a remote island between the mainland of British Columbia and the central part of Vancouver Island. My family of six has been here for eight years now. We own over 30 acres and are surrounded by crown land that stretches for miles beyond that. It’s wild and beautiful and a great place to raise children.
In the first year that we were here however, we lost a dog right off our front porch to a cougar. It was a very traumatizing situation mostly for myself, as she was my best bud who came everywhere with me. It was a big wake up call for us all, as it could very well have been one of our children. We had been told by many residents in the area that it was only a matter of time before we saw or had an interaction with a cougar as they are fairly common and prevalent here. I suffered post traumatic stress and depression after the death of my dog and had irrational fears of going outside and cougars breaking into our house. It was quite debilitating for me.
Several months later my husband brought home two rottweiler black lab cross puppies, males from the same litter. They were 12 weeks old. The pain from the loss of my previous dog was still fresh but my husband felt it important to have two dogs for the safety of the family. My husband grew up on a farm and always had working dogs that lived outdoors and had specific jobs, whereas I always had dogs that were inside dogs and more or less pampered pets when I was growing up. I had fears that the same fate would meet these new dogs and a cougar would take them down. I was very apprehensive. But in the end, I realized I needed these dogs to help me heal and get past my fears. (more…)
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