Saturday, February 14, 2015

Wolf Ecology




Dick Thiel-Field Study
The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.-Barry Commoner

If anything was learned at a recent TWIN wolf ecology workshop, it was that-everything is connected-Including... the role of the wolf in our environment. TWIN (Timber Wolf Information Network) is based in Central Wisconsin, and focuses on science-based educational outreach, conveyed through wolf ecology workshops presented each winter. The session I attended was held at the Beaver Creek Nature Preserve near Fall Creek.

The workshop was a great learning experience for anyone interested in this species. TWIN instructors Scott and Dick Thiel and Beverly Paulan did an excellent job in presenting information in a very scientific and factual way. Attendees varied in background from very pro-wolf to those of us who are trackers and want to delve deeper into what this creature is about and its place in our natural world.

In presenting the historical view, Wisconsin was a much different place and supported many more species in the past. Woodland caribou (extirpated by 1910), American Bison (1832), Elk (1868), Cougar, Lynx and Wolverine, all were common here. Of course bear, wolves and deer also inhabited the state, which was composed of oak savannah (prairie) in the south-west half and boreal forest and hardwoods in the north.

To understand the wolf now, we have to comprehend its past. By 1900, Wisconsin was in the midst of ecological devastation. Europeans moving into the Upper Midwest wiped out the white pine at first followed by the remaining timber. Expanding towns and cities along with farming changed forever the landscape of the state. Market hunting eliminated entire species and any animal deemed as direct completion to man were persecuted. Bounties were placed on most predators including the Grey Wolf, which was successfully erased as a species here by the 1950s. Ecologically, it was not understood at the time what role large predators have in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Frontier mythology and tall tales also played into this extirpation.


In trying to fathom the wolf in context of modern culture, TWIN member Scott Thiel also included an extensive natural history component in its workshop. Although I'm familiar with a basic knowledge of large carnivores, including wolves, the presentation dove deeply into where they evolved from, their genetic make up, and how climate changes forced animals to develop differently depending on where they lived and migrated. A robust species, the Dire wolf, once roamed much of North America and became extinct around 10,000 ago. Other canis family members still remain, though some are truly threatened or endangered. Coyotes are very common and thriving, while the Grey Wolf (Timber Wolf) has gained foot holds were humans have allowed it to do so. Lycaon (Eastern Wolf) survives only in Algonquin Provincial park in Canada, while very small numbers of Red and Mexican Wolf attempt a comeback in North Carolina and Arizona respectively. There seems little optimism either of those species will successfully recover.

Biologically, the wolf is designed to be effect at taking down ungulates (hoofed animals) with whitetail deer being the primary prey in Wisconsin-though beaver can also comprise a significant food source. Success of the species relies heavily of it's unique social configuration, unique among all large predators. Jodi Picoult perhaps describes it best: “I woke up one morning thinking about wolves and realized that wolf packs function as families. Everyone has a role, and if you act within the parameters of your role, the whole pack succeeds, and when that falls apart, so does the pack.”

The family structure, or pack, typically is made up of 2 or more animals, with 3-4 being the average in Wisconsin. There is a strict hierarchy- the alpha pair, another related adult or 2 and any surviving pups the most common group. The average lifespan is 2.2 years old (if one includes pups) or 4-8 not factoring in the high mortality of young of the year. Starvation is the leading cause of death for pups who are born in May. In summer, young are moved to rendezvous sites and by fall they accompany the pack. Wolves in Wisconsin average a 25% mortality rate each year.

The strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” -Rudyard Kipling

Territories average about six by six miles in Wisconsin. A pack's home turf is based on the type of prey, its abundance and weather. Typically, range and pack size are much larger to the west and north where prey is larger. As with humans, pack territories are defended against outsiders-a “fence” of scent (scat and urination) delineates boundaries and wolves, with a hyper sense of smell, respect each packs home. Besides communicating with smell-howling can also define a territory and aids in communication between pack members.

Of all the information I learned, the accuracy of the Wisconsin monitoring program is most remarkable. Paulan, a DNR pilot, presented information on how the DNR conducts surveys to formulate rigorous population numbers. Despite barroom banter, there are not wolves behind ever tree. Wisconsin conducts the longest running and most detailed analysis in the country. Between monitoring radio collared animals and tracking surveys, an accurate assessment can be made of distribution, pack and territory size, birth and mortality rates and total numbers. Wisconsin is the only state to conduct annual surveys over the entire wolf range and do aerial monitoring across all management blocks. Wolves travel great distances daily, so tracks and other sign left behind can give the appearance of greater than actual numbers. Detailed scrutiny of survey results yields scientific figures aiding research and management of human wolf conflict.

Each wolf ecology class also includes field work. Several TWIN members spent the morning surveying the adjacent Eau Claire county forest for wolf and other carnivore sign. Luckily, a lightly traveled snow covered woods road provided the perfect teaching opportunity for the students. We caravanned to the remote location and within a short hike studied tracks of fox, coyote, fisher and wolf. The beauty of this location was many of the tracks were next to each other, so size and gait could easily be compared between species. A RLU (raised leg urination) also marked this stretch of road, indicating an alpha wolf had ventured here. Forest type and regeneration were also discussed and how land practices effect animals living there.

The wolf made the deer what it is. The deer made the wolf what it is” For the Timber wolf in Wisconsin, the whitetail is the main prey. In presenting predator/prey associations, Dick Thiel examined closely that relationship and how it effects the ecosystem. Studies unequivocally show wolves prey mostly on the young and old- much different from (human) hunters who tend to kill the most prime animals. The end result is that the prey species can actually be healthier as a result by wolf predation. Contrary to most tailgate chatter, the wolf, at a density of .1/square mile (compared to coyotes at 1/sq.mi or bear at .5/sq.mi) are far down the list as a cause of deer mortality. Hunters and winters top the list by a huge margin. Recent scientific studies of deer mortality conducted in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan support this fact. In earlier times, nature would keep the deer herd in check with predators, avoiding over browsing and changes to the ecosystem. Now, man has stepped in to dictate deer numbers (as a favored species) and carnivores like the wolf are secondary.

The wolf is neither man's competitor nor his enemy. He is a fellow creature with whom the earth must be shared. ... If the wolf is to survive, the wolf haters must be outnumbered. They must be outshouted, out financed, and out voted. Their narrow and biased attitude must be outweighed by an attitude based on an understanding of natural processes. (Dr. L. David Mech)

Of course wolf/human conflicts do occur acknowledged the TWIN presenters. Whereas “predation” is killing of a native prey, “depredations” are of a domestic animal, and they do happen. Proponents of the Wisconsin wolf hunt justified it because, among other reasons, agricultural damage (to livestock). Statistically in the state, only .17% of the farms experience loss. Interestingly, deer damage payments total $1.2 million in ag claims, bear at $262,000 and $151,000 for wolves, ( $56,000 of that paid to hound hunters). Wolves depredating on livestock (much like problem bears) are targeted though lethal and non lethal means and have been quite successful in reducing those losses. Depredation on hounds has not, and even though the DNR reports on every dog killed and publishes “caution areas” there are still claims being made and paid by the state-in some circles, a controversial policy. No other state makes (up to $2500) payments to hound hunters. 2/3rds of these losses occur during the bear (hound) training season in July and August when wolf packs move to rendezvous sites, which are diligently protected. Although the wolf hunt law provided for the very contentious use of dogs, past seasons never progressed into the mating and breeding seasons-a potential for more aggressive behavior.

Although Little Red Riding Hood in reality has a much more perverse meaning, tales like that of the big bad wolf along with the Three Little Pigs and folklore perpetuate an animosity not founded in reality. Prior to 1900, there were few attacks in North America and until 2005, no humans killed. (2005-a runner in Saskatchewan near a dump was killed, bear and wolf possible and not confirmed. In 2010 a female runner in Alaska, also near a dump and not taking precautions was killed) Other species, like our much more common Black Bear, (which does attack and kill people) seem to get a free pass and not generate the same felicitous fear the wolf does. I queried why that might be? Scott Thiel suggested maybe because wolves are similar to us and perhaps we see ourselves in wolves.

Farley Mowat (Never Cry Wolf) described it this way: “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.” And author Gerald Hausman concurs with Thiels thought: “We humans fear the beast within the wolf because we do not understand the beast within ourselves.”

We learned there is a correlation between our two species. Both have been evolutionarily successful, both live in social groups made up of families and are characterized by hierarchies, cooperation and communication. We both have fixed territories and homes, pursue and consume flesh while hunting the same species. We have co-evolved with wolves.

At the time our hunter/gatherer ancestors, we lived in a boom or bust cycle of survival. We had large territories and the spiritual view of nature was positive. Later, during our agriculture based society, we had a stable food supply for the most part and a religious view of nature in the negative. The natural world was to be conquered and tamed. Market hunting exploited game and sport hunting developed to conserve just a selected species with the elimination of a suite of predators who were viewed as competition. Perhaps this backstory shapes our view of the wolf?

The TWIN workshop wrapped up with a close look at wolf management across the country and more specifically the state. 1974-75 marked the first wolves wandering back into north west Wisconsin from Minnesota. By 1977-78, 2 packs had formed in Douglas County, signaling a start in recovery to the state. That same year the species was listed as threatened in neighboring Minnesota, while endangered elsewhere. In 1999, Wisconsin's written wolf recovery plan had a goal of 350-500 in population in what was thought at the time to be suitable wolf range. They have proven to be able to adapt to habitat outside of the deep remote forest of far northern Wisconsin and populations have now reached 660 (in last winters count).

Federal protection yo-yo'd back and forth for a number of years before delisting in 2012. Although no mention of a wolf hunting season was contained in the original wolf recovery plan, a harvest bill was quickly written after de-listing. Dick Thiel recalled that January 29th, 2012 was a Friday night ( date of the wolf de-listing), by Saturday a hunt bill was drafted and the following Wednesday there were public hearings. Quickly thereafter the bill was signed into law. Of concern with Wisconsin Act 169 (wolf hunt bill) was how quickly it was enacted. All indications are it was written and backed by a special interest group and passed long by legislators. Concerns raised were that the DNR had no negotiations with native tribes, to reduce the population to 350, having a season structure spanning one-third of the year-including breeding season and the unprecedented use of hounds. In one hastily passed bill, science plans were totally wiped out by the legislature.

After three years of sport hunting, the eastern grey wolf was again re-listed in December of 2014. How federal law protections of wolves and indeed the future of the Endangered Species Act are uncertain. Lawmakers, even at this time, are rushing to pass legislation to remove all protections permanently (as they have in Montana and Idaho). The controversy over this animal will undoubtedly continue. There are extreme views from stakeholders on both sides of the wolf issue and perhaps groups like TWIN, and the scientific education they provide, can narrow that divide and bring a more sound reasoning and understanding of the species.

Wolves are not our brothers; they are not our subordinates, either. They are another nation, caught up just like us in the complex web of time and life. (Henry Beston)