They’re thinking of reintroducing wolves in Scotland.
While sensible people keep up with Britney’s drug problems and Anna Nicole’s autopsy, around here I follow global wolf reintroductions. This is because while I have little to offer to improve the lives of celebrities, like everyone else in the Rockies I have all the answers about wolves.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B at the end of January, several scientists suggested that reintroducing the wolf into Scotland would have substantial conservation benefits, especially in controlling an exploding population of red deer. An estimated 500,000 red deer may be roamin’ the Scottish gloamin’, a number perilously close to the “carrying capacity.”
The first thing you notice with this report is that there isn’t a single American among the six authors. It seems like if you’re going to try to slip Scottish wolf reintroduction through in the dead of night, you ought to have at least a couple of cowboys who have been around the block on this issue. They’ve got three guys from Norway and three from London. Norway? I’m not sure the descendants of mere Viking marauders are strong enough to face the stresses of reintroducing wolves on an island as small as Britain.
The Royal Society report says, “We investigated perceptions of the costs and benefits of wolf reintroductions among rural and urban communities in Scotland and found that the public are generally positive to the idea.”
They add this laconic note: “Farmers hold more negative attitudes.”
Uh-huh. This must be that famous British understatement.
Whenever I write about wolf reintroduction in the Yellowstone area, I get nasty notes from ranchers and their supporters. Just the other day, after I wrote a thoughtful, sympathetic and closely reasoned piece on wolf recovery, a friend of mine accused me of being harsh and insensitive to the hardworking, barely surviving ranchers who drive out each morning to feed wildlife for free out the back of their wagons, only getting as thanks their dogs and livestock murdered at night by gangs of slathering, tattooed, mohawked wolves waving automatic weapons. Well, she may not have put it exactly like that, but you get the idea.
Anyway, if the wolves of Yellowstone are living the life of Riley on the succulent flesh of Rocky Mountain beef, those newly introduced Scottish wolves are going to think they’ve landed in a wolf cafeteria. According to the Abstract of Scottish Agricultural Statistics, there were 8 million sheep in Scotland in 2005, none of whom have seen a wolf for 240 years. The greatest natural danger Scottish sheep have faced since the Battle of Culloden is bagpipe-induced heart failure.
The Royal Society report says, “Wolf predation on sheep will cause conflict. Our model does not consider the impact of wolves on sheep.”
I hate to throw a spanner in the works, but this strikes me as inadequate analysis.
The report concludes that a population of 500 wolves in Scotland would reduce the red deer population to one-quarter of its present level in about 30 years. If they had the same effect on the sheep that would be, let’s see, six million fewer sheep. But the average Scottish sheepman loses £200 a year (about $400) on his sheep operations, so the wolves would be doing them a favor. This argument has been run up the flagpole in the Rockies, too, but it hasn’t been eagerly embraced.
The giddy enthusiasm of a wolf reintroduction effort is stamped all over this Scottish proposal. Eleanor Milner-Gulland of the Imperial College of London, one of the study’s authors, told The Guardian, “We have shown that reintroducing wolves would significantly reduce the need for expensive culling, and the resulting decline in deer numbers would lead to a marked increase in plant and birdlife biodiversity, and reforesting the area would be easier too.”
Wolves in Yellowstone have in fact improved the general health of some parts of the ecosystem that have been damaged by elk. But the wolves have been given far more credit for reducing elk populations than they deserve. The number of elk in the northern herd has been reduced by about half, but this is largely the result of management decisions by the state of Montana and of drought.
In a 2005 paper in the journal Oikos, Michigan Tech University biologist John Vucetich and coauthors found that drought and hunters killing elk accounted for almost all of the decline in elk in the area between 1995 and 2004. Human harvest of elk was “superadditive.” That is, for every elk shot by hunters, the population declined by 1.55 elk. “To the extent that harvest and climate largely account for the decline in elk abundance,” they wrote, “wolf predation would have been … numerically minor.”
So what’s all this got to do with Scotland, you may well ask. It’s just that the goal of reducing red deer in the Scottish heather — if heather is where red deer hang out, I’m no David Douglas — by wolf predation might be a tad ambitious. Wolves and ungulates have coexisted for hundreds of thousands of years. They adjust.
“People give wolves these supernatural powers,” says Ed Bangs, Yellowstone wolf recovery coordinator. “It’s not about reality and it’s not about wolves. It’s about what people think reality is, and how they perceive wolves.”
Bangs says that Yellowstone experience with elk indicates that wolf predation is not the primary factor in determining ungulate population levels. When ungulate populations start to trend down from other reasons — like climate or hunting pressure — wolf predation can accelerate the trend. And when they trend up, wolf predation can slow the recovery, but doesn’t reverse it.
A report released this week by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department — whose opinion on this Scotland idea I’d be eager to hear — confirms that wolf predation on elk is secondary to other factors. “We have seen a downward trend in many of Wyoming’s elk herds over this 26-year period” that the study examined, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Chief Jay Lawson told the Associated Press. “That trend is likely due to long-term drought and other habitat related factors. But in half of the herds occupied by wolves, we saw a significantly greater rate of decline after wolves were established compared to herds without wolves. We can’t attribute that increased rate of decline to any factor other than wolves.”
Given Wyoming’s position on delisting the wolf, Wyoming G&F probably didn’t intend with this report to support the general agreeableness of wolves in the ecosystem. But by supporting the bulk of the research on this topic, that’s what they did.
Alan Watson Featherstone, executive director of the Scots charity Trees For Life, says, “The wolf probably has the worst public image of any large animal on the planet, fed by children’s fairy tale stories and Hollywood movies about werewolves. They have a very, very bad PR problem. People think they’re a real threat, that that’s just not true.”
And like everything about the complex relationship of wolves and the world, this statement is partly true. Certainly wolves ought to fire their PR firm and start over. But as to whether they are a “real threat,” that depends on what you’re threatened by.