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Some of the world’s leading scientific research on wolves has come from universities in the Rocky Mountains. One needs to look no farther than Montana State University at Bozeman, where ecologists have produced a complex and subtle picture of elk-wolf interactions. For years, these researchers studied five elk populations and monitored wolves. Among many discoveries, they learned that concentrations of the female hormone progesterone are lower in elk where wolves are more numerous, and that these lower concentrations correspond to fewer calves born. This revelation, which indicates that the mere presence of wolves can affect elk reproduction, is one of several “risk effects,” which are a unifying theme of the group’s multifaceted research. In this case, the risk effect is that while elk change their behavior to avoid predation by wolves—including where they graze and how much nutrition they subsequently get—these changes also can carry costs to the welfare of the species.

When Emotion Drives the Wolf Debate, Research Suffers

All the information out there, informed and uninformed, surely has raised awareness that wolves are important to many of us, whether by their presence or absence. But how good are we at recognizing and using accurate information to shape our opinions?

As a former science journalist, what’s become clear in the cacophony regarding wolves in the West is that where emotion rules, research should.

For six years, I wrote about biological research for scientific trade journals. I can’t use a Bunsen burner or a radio collar to save my life, but one thing I did learn is how the scientific method works. Through countless interviews with scientists across this country and around the world, I came to understand that the way scientists analyze and try to solve problems is much different from how you and I might do it.

Their method, developed over centuries, has definable steps, builds upon what others have done, and causes changes in accepted thinking that often occur very slowly, against great resistance. Good science is inherently a conservative endeavor. If a study method is flawed, its results can be questioned.

For example, the number of individuals in a given study could be too small to provide a statistically significant result. The study might not last long enough, or it could have inadequate follow-up. Perhaps there are no controls, such as groups that are not treated, say, with an experimental drug, or are unaffected by some other situation being investigated.

Any number of other shortcomings can make the results of a study debatable. The public should have a general awareness of such things. If it’s technical, we don’t expect to understand all of it, but we sure can look for the presence or absence of key indicators.

When you look at all the talk about wolves, relatively little of it concerns the most well-informed, rigorous, reliable information we have.

Some of the world’s leading scientific research on wolves has come from universities in the Rocky Mountains. One needs to look no farther than Montana State University at Bozeman, where ecologists have produced a complex and subtle picture of elk-wolf interactions.

For years, these researchers studied five elk populations and monitored wolves. Among many discoveries, they learned that concentrations of the female hormone progesterone are lower in elk where wolves are more numerous, and that these lower concentrations correspond to fewer calves born. This revelation, which indicates that the mere presence of wolves can affect elk reproduction, is one of several “risk effects,” which are a unifying theme of the group’s multifaceted research. In this case, the risk effect is that while elk change their behavior to avoid predation by wolves—including where they graze and how much nutrition they subsequently get—these changes also can carry costs to the welfare of the species.

The Montana group’s leader, ecology professor Scott Creel, won the 2010 Carl Gustaf Bernhard Medal from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for this work. Yes, the same group that awards several of the Nobel Prizes. Yet for many folks, the take-away message of Creel’s research was that he seemed to be anti-wolf. After all, his work showed that wolves scare elk into the mountains, where the cows sometimes can’t get enough good nutrition to produce offspring.

Late last year, Creel the wolf-hater became Creel the wolf-lover. It began when he and Jay J. Rotella published a scientific paper in September that analyzed the relationship between gray wolf populations and human killings of the animals. The paper mentions that under a hunting proposal submitted to the federal government by Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), the state’s wolf population would incur a decline “substantially greater” than the 13 percent predicted by the agency.

In December, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported it had obtained a copy of a letter from an FWP official to the university’s president complaining about Creel’s findings. The official, Dave Risley, who heads the agency’s Fish and Wildlife Division in Helena, later complained to a reporter that Creel had not contacted FWP researchers when “selectively” using the agency’s data in his study, and charged a lack of professional integrity. The university backed Creel’s peer-reviewed work.

The paper is a meta-analysis, which means it uses established statistical methods to examine all the relevant, scientific data on wolf population growth, total wolf deaths and those deaths caused by humans. What Creel and Rotella discovered was that the prevailing opinion, among not only governmental authorities but also other wildlife biologists, concerning how many wolves could be killed by humans without destabilizing a given population was higher than that indicated by the data. The study is a tool for wolf management.

The biologist who is also an accomplished statistician is rare. The paper by Creel and Rotella ends with a reminder relevant to this point. “Finally,” it says, “these results highlight the ongoing need to fully incorporate quantitative analysis of available data in the development of conservation and management policies.”

The misunderstanding by the general public of these scientists’ work is far from unusual. Scientists are the best sources of information about the world around us, yet too often what they discover and report is drowned in a flood of poorly informed opinion. If we want to understand wolves, and not just emote about them, we have to understand what the biologists are learning. That’s discernment. That’s what wise consumption of information should be about.

You can get opinion at the coffee shop with your doughnut, and it can be fun to have. But if we vilify scientists because what they discover doesn’t suit our preconceptions, then our amazing access to information nowadays becomes threatened by the curse of irrelevance.

About Steve Bunk

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29 comments

  1. Todd, what has your comment got to do with the article above?

    There is a difference between “facts” and science. You can pick through facts and write a rant supporting whatever side of an issue you’re partial to. Science involves developing hypotheses (i.e., asking specific questions), gathering as much relevant data as you need, and testing the predictions of said hypotheses with statistics. Contrary to popular belief, is not a piling up of facts.

    Also, try not to use the word “fact” to talk about what are actually estimates with associated measures of uncertainty.

  2. Todd, you and your kind don’t like facts do ya? You keep going on and on about elk and their #s. Guess what, wolves are supposed to kill elk. The days of having extremely large elk populations is long gone. Predators need to kill elk in order to eat and survive. You don’t care about the facts. The fact is wolves killing elk, there is nothing wrong with this and it should be expected that wolves are going to kill elk. There was no elk management objective for yellowstone. Wolves have every right to kill elk and you people faulting wolves for doing that is absurd.

  3. Too much of the current wolf research is tenth grade science hyped as University level research. Putting radio collars on wolves (or any other animal) and then recording where they are at any specific time of the week isn’t rocket science.
    I taught high school biology for many years and the bulk of the so called wolf research could have been performed by many, if not most of my tenth graders.
    I was watching an uncollared gray wolf dig up a coyote den below Mammoth Hot-springs two years ago, when a blue pickup pulled up and a wolf biologist jumped out, waved his antenna at the surrounding area for a few minutes, and then prepared to drive off.
    He told me there were NO wolves in the area.
    I hope he was embarrassed, when I pointed out the wolf who was sitting 200 yards away and watching us.

  4. “The fact is the imported wolves were supposedly going to kill 20% of the elk, they have killed over 70% so far.”

    No elk died at hands of weather?, disease?, hunters?, other predators? Wolves killed all 15,000 huh?

    Nice job sticking to the “facts” and not letting hyperbole get in the way, Todd.

  5. Todd, first off, they are not technically imported wolves. They were reintroduced wolves that were reintroduced because they were wiped out decades ago. Wolves kill elk Todd. They will kill a lot of elk. We already know that. You shouldn’t expect otherwise. The wolves are doing what they are supposed to do and that is kill other animals in order to survive. Wolves are adaptable animals Todd. There are other food sources out there besides elk altbough elk do make up a very big part of their diet. That elk are there for the wolves to eat elk. I don’t know why anyone wastes their time blaming wolves for eating elk as any reasoable person knows that is what wolves are supposed to be doing. Yes, I know you hunters are angry that wolves are eating elk, but that is just too bad. I definitely don’t like it when elk are killed because they too deserve a right to live, but that is nature Todd. Wolves killing elk is part of the game.

  6. Todd, the yellowstone elk herd as gone down. There is no doubt about it. Wolves are a factor in that, but you cannot deny that there are other reasons responsible for that. Wolves cannot be held responsible for killing every single elk in the yellowstone elk herd. I’m sure weather has killed some, disease has killed some, starvation, etc. You cannot expect elk #s to remain high at the numbers you hunters want when you have animals that need to kill them in order to survive. I know you may not like this Todd, but elk will continue to die at the hands of wolves. Wolves have a right to eat and anyone who understands nature sees nothing wrong with wolves eating. Although you may view wolves eating elk as bad because they don’t leave enough elk for you hunters, to the rest of us, it’s simply nature doing what it’s supposed to do.

  7. Steve,
    Thanks for putting up a link to the Creel paper.
    I will need more time to fully digest it, but I can see how the Greens would be jumping all over this thing, it will be in the court records within hours, and Molloy would love to have something like this.
    But the hunt levels set are INTENDED to reduce and destabilize the population to resemble “agreed upon” or “promised” populations and levels of impact.
    I would say that the question becomes whether the public level of frustration with “science” pushes Congress to exempt wolves from the ESA. I frankly hope it reaches that point —
    If it does, the reality is, the affected states will take pains to manage wolves in such a way that Congress is not later so frustrated that the law is changed again to re-list wolves under the ESA.

  8. It’s very easy for someone like Todd to blame everything on wolves, but not one person can prove that wolves are responsible for killing ALL of those elk that came from the yellowstone elk herds. It’s very likely those elk died from numerous things including predation.

  9. Todd, you should stop worrying about the elk. Yes, some of them will die by wolves and for other reasons, but I believe they will do just fine. They are tough animals. You also gotta remember that wolves and elk co-existed together for thousands and thousands of years and elk are still here.

  10. Dave,

    I’d love to see ANY documentation on “agreed” or “promised” populations or impacts. To my knowledge there were EIS estimates based on the current science at the time, but in no way were there ever any agreements made.

    Todd,

    The “wolves are going to kill all the elk” rhetoric is just BS that no scientist is going to take seriously.

  11. I appreciate all the above comments and am a proponent of wolf reintroduction. I do think, however, that we need to also be concerned about the dwindling elk populations.

  12. Todd,

    Most wolves will move on long before elk are wiped out…it happens with all predators….wolf count in YNP is down to 30-some..mostly due to disease…have some of those wolves moved out of YNP?…undoubtedly, as they follow the prey…Look, I have NO PROBLEM with a hunting season on wolves – I would like to see it more science-based..ie, harvests focused mostly on areas where wolves have impacted elk numbers..but to say ‘they are killing all the elk’ is just as much hyperbole as saying ‘they will have no impact on elk numbers’….The Northern YNP herd of elk has been impacted by many variables as I listed above..drought is another…wolves are one of the variables that can be manpulated, # of hunting licenses is another….there are active advocate groups for both…There is nothing in any of Malloy’s rulings that he has a problem with a hunt per se…The idiots running Wyoming are the biggest impediment to any resolution.

  13. Amazing, Here’s a writer saying the general public needs to understand how the scientific process works in order to have “a wise consumption of information” and the conversation breaks down to the above kind of thing. And although I fully understand what the author means, and agree on one level, what I’d take issue with is the statement, “Scientists are the best sources of information about the world around us.” Yes, and no. Poets, in an entirely different way are arguably the best at showing us the world around us, often in much more important ways than the hard cold pebbles of facts and all that data scientists produce. Still the most important sentence of the article is the last, and is what the author was trying to say.

    “But if we vilify scientists because what they discover doesn’t suit our preconceptions, then our amazing access to information nowadays becomes threatened by the curse of irrelevance.”

    Anyone care to discuss what the article is really about? Doing good science and people’s preconceived idea and how both sides ignore information that doesn’t suit their point of view?

  14. Nick,
    the “promise” was in the EIS, that delisting would be pursued after each of three states had 10 breeding pairs apiece and gross populations of a minimum of 100, 30 pairs and 300 total for three states at a minimum. Then the line was raised to 15 with some grumbling.
    That was the “deal” going in. Most reasonable people figured that was kind of hard to argue against — such a modest target. Anyone raising cain about such a modest target would be seen as a “gasp” extremist.
    So the wolves came in, started to spawn and eat, and we all said, my, they sure are doing good. Won’t be long now before we’ve met the criteria and can get to managing them at an acceptable level. At least that’s what most of us (not the Greens, or certainly their agency enablers like Jamie Clark, Mike Phillips) thought. Ooooops.
    Spawn spawn spawn, munch munch munch.
    Sue, sue, sue.
    Delist delist delist.
    Bang bang bang.
    Run run run. Spawn spawn spawn. Munch Munch Munch.
    Sue sue sue.
    Enjoin enjoin enjoin.
    Spawn spawn spawn, times ten. Munch munch munch times ten.
    I kind of feel sorry for the straight biologists at the agency who worked to make this all work out within the law. I guess they know now that the Greens never acted in good faith on this fiasco, but it’s too late to matter.
    But it isn’t too late to do the right thing, and Congress is working on it. We’ll see a congressional delisting in 2014. The enviros are wasting their credibility, and their foundational dollars, at an amazing rate. Sportsmen may be a minority in this country, but if you get them on the same page for once, and wolves are doing it, they have power.

  15. ” I believe the science about the wolves is fairly sound, but it is more than obvious that the population took off faster than what most believed it would, with consequences that have cost money, an unimaginable amount of animosity amongst people, and the lives of quite a few wolves. Throw in, and I don’t mean to insult at all, but a good sized chunk of the population that is truly uneducated in the intricacies of ecology, in turn agitated by our favorite anti-wolf fanatics, and we have problems.” — Immer Treue

    Once again, only they can see the reality, while the folks that see hunting tag opportunity dropping in several locations, by the game department’s cutting tag opportunity, and admitting wolf predation as the cause, are some how ” uneducated in the intricacies of ecology, anti-wolf fanatics.” meanwhile the looking down the nose and insulting those folks continues.

    What I see in the Sawtooth Zone, Boise River Zone, is not science, it’s a disaster.

    Why not use science for the best interests of hands on management practices. We need to put this observational Science where it belongs, into the nearest dumpster, and stop with the people management sciences and forced regulatory punishment against people.

    We need to share the resources with wolves not give it up to wolves. Hunting tag opportunity losses and eventual closure of some hunting units is not good for wolves, nor the hunting community. So when you claim Emotion Drives the Wolf Debate, Research Suffers, I beg to differ, elk herds suffer. Science has no credibility any longer, to many twists and turns of that scientific wax nose these days.

    Those wolves have moved on;

    The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has closed several moose hunt areas south of Yellowstone.

    ” The moose hunting in Wyoming continues to decline. Moose populations have begun to stabilize a bit in most areas, but the Department did shut down a number of areas on the southern border of Yellowstone National Park where the wolves have continued to take their toll on the moose population, to the point of finally dropping it below a sustainable level for hunting.” —January/February, 2011 Edition of Eastmans’ Journals —

    The IDFG has cut hunting tag opportunity in several units, general open hunts, and controlled special hunts.

    ” Scientists ” need to bring to the public full disclosure of all corporate financial donations private and government, and show the complete modeling process used from start to finish, along with their ” papers.” Because the population that is truly uneducated in the intricacies of ecology, are fed up with the BS and the lies.

    We do not want wait and see the outcomes of Linear predictions, we want real results. Time to stuff that crystal ball in the garbage can.

  16. Excellent piece by Bunk. And some excellent commentary — “people ignore the science that doesn’t fit their preconceived notions.”
    One writer attributes the decline of moose populations in WY south of YNP and the Dept of Game and Fish hunting closures to wolves. In my opinion, WY G&F;has not been forthright about
    causative factors related to moose population declines, they don’t mention, for example, subdivision and home construction in the river bottom habitat throughout much of Jackson Hole.
    The wolves get blamed for negative impacts and ecological situations that humans are responsible for in the first place.

  17. From the Southern border of YNP to Jackson Hole and surrounding rural subdivisions there happens to be millions of acres of wild habitat and range. Miles and miles of wet lands, river and creek bottoms.

  18. Apex,

    Thank you for elevating me to the level of going to another blog, and quoting me. Even though that was a portion of my post, I’ll stand by it.

    In terms of wolves, one can look at it as, ” is your glass half full or is it half empty. If you are pro-wolf, the reintroduction and recolonization of wolves has been wildly successful. If your glass is half empty, which it was even prior to the arrival of wolves(in terms of wolves), then you are not very happy about it.

    If we can really look at the article, the science is still going on. Not everybody is going to be happy about the directions the science takes, no matter what side of the fence you are on. Fifteen years is a part of a natural cycle, that will continue. I’m sure that most of the anti’s have heard enough about the wolves and moose of Isle Royale, but they have existed together for ~60 years, and the wolves have not eradicated the moose., and this is on an island (one main, with many small)

    Okay, elk numbers are down. They will come up again, either by the wolf population self-regulating, which appears to be going on in Yellowstone, or by an increase in elk forage. The fifteen years since wolves have returned is an extrordinarily small amount of time since wolves, elk, and other ungulates have coevolved.

  19. Excellent article.
    Many of the comments reflect a respect for a species vilified by some humans. Many of the comments do not show a respect for the idea that we truly share a web of life with all animals and all that the natural world supports.
    Until it can be seen that when we humans mess with, kill, or change the environments of anything in the natural world we can cause big messes that affect the planet, we will continue to do so and the devil may care.
    It’s an interesting thing about elk in and around Yellowstone Park.
    I saw at least 5,000 near the Park in the vicinity of Cameron. I do not exaggerate – I was not the only one there and none of us had any agenda regarding exaggerating the numbers. Somehow I don’t think wolves in or around Yellowstone National Park are going to kill them all.
    And if the elk numbers are down, then is this a concern regarding lack of animals for humans to kill? And are the humans killing for food or for trophies? And if they are killing for bragging rights and trophies, do some of us as non-hunting citizens owe it to the hunters big game animals for sport?
    Where in the Constitution of the United States does it state that those wishing to kill are guaranteed an animal to kill? This is something I would really like to know. It’s a puzzlement to me.
    And, check back in history – it wasn’t that long ago that elk were being slaughtered around Yellowstone Park because there were too many-it was decided. That put quite a few outfitters out of business. Humans killed more elk in a short time than any number of wolves could have.
    I think that as part of the study on wolves that there should be a study on humans and all the reasons that humans hate, fear or respect the wolf. Now that would be an interesting study.
    We can’t study only the wolf. That is only half of the issue.

  20. Todd, sorry, but that is the price you are going to have to pay for being a rancher. Ranchers know when they get into the ranching business, their cattle is at risk from predators. it’s all part of the being a rancher. If you don’t like it, you can always quit and find some other line of work.

  21. Todd, wolves were not forced on anybody. Wolves were brought back because people exterminated them. Humans have no right to wipe out a species. What do you say when coyotes and bears and mt. lions attack and eat livestock?Again, predators will eat livestock. it is the rancher’s fault for leaving his livestock out in the open.

  22. Todd, what would your excuse be if wolves were not reintroduced and they still killed livestock and elk? Wolves were not forced on anyone. They were brought back because they were exterminated and a good amount of people feel; they have a right to exist. You clearly don’t think so. Humans don’t have a right to wipe out any species they want. Wolves have a right to exist whether you disagree or not. You can go on and on about the conspiracy theories as you think wolves were brought back to kill all of the elk and kill rancher’s livestock, but that isn’t true. They were brought back because they deserve a rightful place in this world.

  23. Todd, if pet owners were responsible and looked after their pets, then their pets wouldn’t be getting killed, now would they? As for wolves being in your yard, that is a bunch of bs. Have you actually had wolves in your backyard or do you just make this crap up? If you have a decent size fence like a normal person, I doubt wolves would be able to get into your yard. There are precautions that people can take, but it seems like you people don’t wanna bother taking them in the first place. I am in favor of bringing wolves back to some other states. Yeah, I know what you are thinking. Let’s bring them back to the overpopulated cities. No Todd, that is foolish thinking right there. You bring them back to where the habitat is available for them. That isn’t the cities. Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, etc all have available habitat for wolves to thrive in. Other states on the east coast do as well.

  24. Todd, what do you recommend then? When you live in a stated filled with wildlife, every now and then you might come into conact with it and they might end up near your house. What do you do about it? Wildlife are going to go where they want to go. Do you think killing is the answer?

  25. Emotion and facts do not mix. Ever. Great perspective and read by the way.

  26. Nice article. However, it does fall short of exploring the psychological components to the anti-science and anti-intellectualism that seems to have become fashionable in the last 20 years. Those who seem determined to ignore the wolf science and undermine the restoration project by dismissing the science seem to be part of a larger set of individuals with strong political (usually Right wing or heavily religious) views that include disbelief in many other scientific subjects and historical events including, for example, climate change, holocaust, evolution, and causes of cancer, or dangers of vaccination. There is a denialism need in some humans that is more than just a disagreement or skepticism, but a determination to make science fit into a pre-conceived personal belief system.

  27. We are getting “researched” out of the woods..Our hunting heritage is being researched away…For this article, emotion is being substituted of me and my brothers sense of vision as we walk the in the woods, as we try to hunt the land our forefathers did…There is no question that science fills in the gaps but typically the eye test is rock solid…and in this case the eye test is spot on, our herds are being demolished!!

  28. “There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.” Aldous Huxley

  29. Excellent article.
    The blogging reveals an interesting conceit — that Man always knows what is best for all the players within an ecological area, when history shows plainly that we do not.
    Todd seems hung up on wolf and elk numbers, implying that wolves will someday kill and eat the very last elk in the Greater Yellowstone. Never happen.
    He flunks both Biology 101 (predator and prey numbers rise and fall in tandem) and History (how come wolves never exterpated elk before Lewis & Clark?). He also flunks Ecology 101, where the data clearly shows that the Yellowstone ecosystem is clearly in better, functioning balance with wolves, than it was without wolves just two decades ago.