With the recent attachment and passage of a rider to the Congressional budget bill by Senator John Tester (D-Montana) and Congressman Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) delisting wolves from the Endangered Species Act, hunting is once again proposed for Idaho and Montana wolf populations. Wyoming wolves would remain under federal control for the time being due to the failure of Wyoming to come up with an acceptable wolf management plan.
There are a number of misconceptions, and a lack of perspective that drives the wolf hysteria in these states. Below are a number of commonly heard popular comments about wolves and a response. Like any popular quip there is typically some kernel of truth that often is greatly exaggerated or is repeated without verification. These assertions are repeated so often they are adopted as “truths” without critical examination of the fundamental assumptions.
POPULAR COMMENT: There are “too” many wolves and the Northern Rockies states can’t support the current population of 1650 wolves, much less more wolves as some people advocate.
RESPONSE: What is too many is, of course, a matter of perspective. It’s important to distinguish between biological carrying capacity and social carrying capacity. The idea that there are “too many” wolves in the Northern Rockies is not based upon biological realities. There is sufficient prey to support 1650 and quite a few more wolves.
Rather the desire to reduce wolf numbers in the region is more a reflection of intolerance by some members of the region—primarily hunters and ranchers. Politics is driving wolf delisting, not biology and that important distinction should be emphasized over and over again.
For comparison we can look at Minnesota. Minnesota is smaller and more densely populated (10+ million people) than Idaho, yet has 3000-3500 wolves as compared to an estimated 1650 wolves for the entire Northern Rockies including the states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Although there are some obvious differences in geography and prey between Minnesota and the Rockies, the main point is that livestock industry and hunting are sustained in Minnesota, despite having double the number of wolves found in the Rockies.
The two primary factors identified as responsible for wolf carrying capacity are prey base and human population density, a crude proxy for development. In that regard, from a biological perspective, the Northern Rockies with its low human population and development as well as strong prey base, should be able to support far more wolves than at present.
In the three state region of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, there is a combined human population of over 20 million people, and somewhere between 4200-4500 wolves. The combined human population of the Northern Rockies states of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana is approximately 2.5 million and these three states geographically cover a much larger area than the Upper Midwest states, so theoretically should be able to biologically support more than 1650 wolves.
The combined prey base biomass of elk and deer in the Northern Rockies is equal or slightly greater than the biomass of whitetail deer, the primary prey of Midwest wolf populations. Between the three Upper Midwest states there are an estimated 3 million deer. Despite assertions that wolves will destroy hunting opportunities, Upper Midwest hunters kill hundreds of thousands of deer annually and overall the presence of wolves hasn’t caused any significant decline in hunting opportunity.
The tri-state Northern Rockies area is home to several million mule and whitetail deer, plus 370,000 elk (each elk worth about two-three deer minimum in terms of biomass) suggesting that the Northern Rockies prey base could easily support at least twice as many wolves as exist today.
Even accounting for differences in geography (Upper Midwest is flat, while the Rocky Mountain states are, well, mountainous which tends to concentrate wolves and prey to lower elevations in winter), there is clearly sufficient prey and habitat to support more than 1650 wolves in the region. There are not “too many” wolves for the prey base and/or habitat.
POPULAR COMMENT: The minimum populations called for in recovery plan was 100 wolves in each state so 1650 and is now way over the biological targets.
RESPONSE: The original minimum population goals of 100 wolves in each state were not based upon biology but politics. This is important because the ESA clearly says that biology should drive listing and recovery decisions. It is telling that at the same time that 100 wolves minimum goal was adopted for in the three Rocky Mountain States, the MINIMUM population set for wolves in Minnesota when listed was 1600 wolves! In other words, what is now considered far too many wolves for the Rockies (1650) was low enough that wolves in Minnesota were listed under the ESA. Are the biological needs of wolves in Minnesota so much greater than in the Rockies? Probably not. Rather those huge differences in numbers are a good indication of the political way that wolf recovery plan for the Northern Rockies was developed.
In addition, since the original recovery plan was written more than 20 plus years ago, we have learned considerably more about minimum populations needed to maintain wildlife species. There is some question whether 100 wolves, particularly if they were geographically isolated, might not be sufficient to ensure the long term viability of these populations. It is now recognized that recovery across its historic range is both desirable and possible.
Though all the states are likely to maintain wolves at populations higher than the minimum—for instance, Montana is planning on maintaining between 300-400 wolves—unexpected population declines from disease, and/or other factors could jeopardize recovery. Plus there is a growing awareness of problems created by genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding of small populations that may not be apparent for generations. Why risk this by allowing wolf populations to be reduced to minimum numbers.
We have also learned considerably more about the ecological influence of wolves—information that was not available when the original plan was written. The projected numbers of wolves that Idaho and Montana plan to maintain is still not sufficient to ensure that the ecological influence of wolves is sustained across the region.
Wolves, by their mere presence reduce elk and deer numbers in some places for a period of time. This gives plant species like aspen and willows time to recover from heavy browsing pressure. This in turn increases the ecological function of riparian areas along streams, and increases wildlife habitat for everything from songbirds to trout. Wolves can also influence other wildlife. For instance, since wolves tend to kill coyotes, and since coyotes are among the major predators on pronghorn fawns, the presence of wolves increases fawn survival. Another study suggests that wolves ,by reducing coyote predation on mice and voles, increases the opportunity for hawks and owls to hunt for these prey species.
Managing wolves based on 25 year old information would be analogous to fighting cancer using the knowledge base of the 1980s. What we know today is that 100 animals is inadequate to ensure the long term viability of wolf numbers and is too small to ensure the ecological function of a top predator.
Wolves, even if they do not ultimately reduce elk and deer numbers, change the way these animals use the landscape. Where there are wolves, elk spend more time in dense timber and in steeper terrain. This makes it more “challenging” for hunters—a challenge that apparently most hunters are unprepared to accept.
POPULAR COMMENT: Wolves are ruining the livestock industry and threatening public safety.
RESPONSE: The number of domestic livestock killed annually by wolves is incredibly small compared to other sources of mortality. Weather, calving problems, digestive & respiratory problems are the leading cause of cow/calf deaths totaling 95% in most years Predation, mostly from coyotes, accounts for the remaining less than 5% of all loses in these states. Of those losses in the northern Rockies, in 2010 only 199 cows and 249 sheep were killed by wolves. Such losses are hardly going to “ruin” the livestock industry as some suggest.
What’s more, most of the livestock conflicts are self-created by poor animal husbandry practices. In other countries where indiscriminate killing of predators is not permitted, livestock producers must implement practices that discourage predation. This includes use of guard dogs, night time corralling of livestock, rapid removal of dead carcasses, and other measures. In fact, in Minnesota, when a wolf is involved in a livestock depredation, the livestock producer is required to sign and implement changes in animal husbandry that will reduce or preclude the likelihood of a repeat depredation before any financial compensation is provided. A similar requirement in the Northern Rockies would further reduce livestock conflicts without having to kill wolves.
In a number of studies these practices alone or in conjunction were shown to reduce livestock losses by up to 90% or more. If one reduced these livestock losses by 90% considerably less than a hundred animals would likely be killed a year by wolves—a total would make the argument for wolf control laughable.
POPULAR COMMENT: Wolf hunting will reduce livestock conflicts and increase public safety.
RESPONSE: Contrary to popular perception wolf hunting likely exacerbates human conflicts by disrupting the social ecology of wolf packs. Hunting wolves tends to skew populations towards younger animals that are less skillful at hunting, and have less “cultural knowledge” about where to hunt such as where elk migration routes are located and that sort of information. Hunted packs are also likely to be smaller with more pups per adult to feed, making it more difficult for the parents to provide for pups.
To illustrate you can have 20 wolves in a given area. That 20 wolves may be a single pack with a hypothetical 15 adults and 5 pups, or you could have 20 wolves divided up in four packs with 2 adults and 3 pups each. The smaller packs with only two adults would have a more difficult time providing for their pups than the single large pack with 15 adults.
Younger animals whether we are discussing bears, cougar or wolves tend to be bolder but less able to provide for their own needs. These animals are more likely to attack people and/or associate closely with human habitation. Thus indiscriminate sport hunting and predator control indirectly increases potential conflicts with humans.
What’s more hunting is indiscriminate taking out many wolves that are not involved in any livestock depredation. Most hunting takes place on the larger blocks of public lands. Hunters do not hunt on the fringes of urban areas nor is there a lot of hunting on private ranchlands due to limited access. Thus the wolves that are killed are not the ones most likely to be involved in any livestock depredation or a potential threat to public safety (even though that threat is greatly exaggerated).
POPULAR COMMENT: Hunters, through their purchase of license tags, pay for wildlife management.
RESPONSE: Most wildlife management is directed towards maintaining and increasing hunter opportunity. The only reason there is a need to manage deer, elk and other wildlife is to keep hunters from killing too many. It would be desirable for state agencies to start spending more money managing for all wildlife. (We can debate about how to pay for this—but public funding of state wildlife agencies is desirable). This is not to devalue the contribution that hunters make towards the acquisition of wildlife habitat through their purchase of license and tags. There is no denying that purchase of say elk and deer winter range indirectly protects habitat for many other species, particularly predators which may depend on these ungulates, but this ecological value is primarily coincidental conservation and secondary to the main goal of sustaining and increasing hunter opportunities.
However, much of the management of predators including wolves appears to be more persecution rather than directed towards maximizing their biological potential. State agencies have a Public Trust obligation to preserve and protect all wildlife for all citizens. Deer and elk do not “belong” to hunters. Rather all wildlife is held by the state as a Public Trust. By demonizing wolves, and practicing population reductions merely to satisfy the desires of some hunters, state agencies are abandoning their Public Trust mandate.