Thursday, July 24, 2008

Howl

In recent weeks there has been a trio of developments in the West that should excite hunters and nature buffs, all involving wolves. For the first time in several decades, wolf packs have been confirmed in both Washington and Oregon, and a federal judge has ruled to temporarily place wolves back on the Endangered Species list, effectively scuttling the wanton killing in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana following de-listing earlier this year.

Why should hunters be excited? This is certainly an emotional issue, but in FOTL's opinion, any real hunter would want to practice his age-old craft in an environment that hasn't been debased by the elimination of top predators. Any real hunter would be in tune enough with his environment to see the benefit of returning wolves to their rightful place. Any real hunter wouldn't believe for a moment the red herring arguments about wolves devastating elk populations.

Just look at Yellowstone NP. With the return of the wolf, elk are no longer lounging around in the willow beds like tenured tourist attractions, munching their way through the web of life. Elk are once again on the move as wolf packs pick off the sick and the old. Now the willows are back—and so are trout populations that depend on willow cover for shade; so are willow flycatchers and all sorts of other songbirds and small mammals; so are the raptors that feed on the small birds and mammals. Meanwhile the leftover wolf kills feed grizzly bears, eagles, ravens, and host of other scavengers.

In biological terms, this is called the trophic cascade. When you remove top predators from an ecosystem, all sorts of ecological mayhem ensues, with unintended consequences right down to the level of single-celled organisms. The result is an impoverished landscape.

Yes, resurgent wolves will occasionally take livestock—but there are costs associated with living in harmony with the natural world and its critters. The costs of living with wolves will be a pittance compared to the costs racked up by climate change. The sooner we learn how to live responsibly, the better. It's a simple question of ethics, really.

I'd like to hear from my hunting readership on this issue. My guess is that most hunters who read FOTL would be thrilled to hear a wolf howl in the wilderness—but maybe not. As a forager, I spend a lot of time in our wild places. Those places will feel a little wilder with wolves in the mix.

(photo by ucumari)

10 comments:

Tom Sorenson said...

I'm a hunter and not thrilled by this. I'm also a sympathizer with ranchers - and that's probably the main reason I'm not thrilled by this. On a recent moose hunt, my mom and dad had four packs of wolves howling around them - and while this is a pretty neat thing to experience, it does make the hair of the back of your neck stand up. I spend a ton of time all year round in the wilderness because I find no place like it - so peaceful, calm, and serene - but I've no desire to see it overrun with wolves...wolves that were never native to Idaho to begin with. The Rocky Mountain wolf was native - they gave us the Canadian Grey wolf - almost twice as large and it runs in much larger packs than the Rocky Mountain.

I generally like to stay away from controversy - go ahead and call me a weanie...it's true! :) but I know you use Yellowstone as an example of wolves and elk co-existing....I give you Yellow Pine, Idaho. Where elk used to be more than abundant - since wolves have come in, they are no longer abundant. In fact they're downright scarce. Perhaps it is a coincidence, I choose not to think so. I have no problem with wolves, I just think they should be regulated. I think a wolf population kept in check by hunting would be a good thing. Wolves, unregulated...not so good. My two cents.

Keep up the good work on you blog - I enjoy it!

Finspot said...

Tom, I appreciate your comments and can understand that some folks will be less excited than others. I don't know the particulars about Yellow Pine, but my guess is that wolves have made those elk more wary--in a sense, behaving more the way they ought to. Of course, this will make hunting them more difficult.

As for management, I'm not opposed to the future hunting of wolves, but I think the de-listing was premature. As you can guess, I'd like to see the wolf firmly reestablished throughout the intermountain west. The way Wyoming was structuring its wolf-kill zone, the natural repopulating of places like Colorado and Utah was going to be much more difficult.

Can you point me to sources that discuss the differences btwn Rocky Mt and Canadian wolves?

Audrey said...

Great post. I remember reading in Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone that the NPS followed a policy in the mid-20th century of killing off all wolves. Which meant an explosion in the elk population, which meant elk seeking non-traditional food sources including moose browse and thus significant decline in the moose population ... plus a number of other unintended ecological consequences.

Tom's is a good counterpoint, and I don't think there's a perfect solution to the wolf reintroduction issue. But I do think we owe it to our ecosystems that evolved with wolves to try, especially in remote areas like the Lamar Valley.

It is amazing how much controversy surrounds wolf reintroduction, unlike for example bison. Or eagles, which seem equally predatory.

Tom Sorenson said...

Finspot - You got me to thinking on that last question. I heard a wildlife biologist say that several years ago - and when you posed the question, I had to look it up and couldn't find anything to back it up in my limited research. I wouldn't be terribly surprised, still, if it were true, however, since I can't find substantial evidence of it as of now, I'm going to retract that from my argument.

You make a good point about the natural re population of other states, however, I hate to think of some close friends that are losing their ranching business in the process - I realize there are costs, but try telling that to a young family that has only known ranching for five generations. It's a tough issue.

And lastly, I agree that part of the issue of not seeing the elk is that they have gone into hiding, but I also think we should still be seeing sign - scat, tracks, etc. And around Yellow Pine and Big Creek, there is very little sign, even. Nothing has changed except the introduction of wolves. I would suggest a controlled hunt on wolves now - and if they have to be introduced to neighboring states by planted introduction, then so be it. I hate seeing my rancher friends lose more cattle.

Thanks for having one of the most open and least offensive blogs on this topic that I've seen so far! This is a hot topic, and I still feel very passionately about it, and my passion comes through as anger when the blog is written from a biased standpoint on one side or the other - but your blog has allowed me to think of this subject from a more level standpoint and helped me form a clearer and less demanding, sarcastic, and stupid opinionated argument!

Finspot said...

Thanks for your generous comments, Tom. I don't want to see your ranching friends go under either. It's important that people still be able to work the land. I'm sure there's probably red tape, but from what I understand groups like Defenders of Wildlife will compensate ranchers who lose livestock to wolves. In some cases the compensation probably isn't enough--I don't know for sure--but one thing I can say for sure (without the actual data to back it up, sorry!) is that the vast majority of enviros want this to work and see the importance of helping ranchers along the way. This is not an insidious plot to end ranching. If anything, enviros want family ranchers to survive, because the alternative is subdivision and condos.

Thanks for your comments as well, Audrey. Re: Bison: I think you'll be hearing more about this brucelossis thing down the line...

t-mos said...

Ahhh, the good old wolf debate. Back home, in Northeastern MN, this is and always has been a pretty hot issue. The hunters swear that the wolves are "eating their deer" and most scientists and environmentalists say the opposite, that without wolves the chance of a deer population collapse actually increases. Hunters (which make up the VAST majority there) would shoot wolves whenever they had the chance, some even went to greater lengths...setting up bait stations for wolves and then using rat poison in the bait to kill them. At least one man I know was arrested for this...they matched DNA from poisoned venison at the bait site to some venison in his freezer...smart move.

I've always had the feeling that shooting wolves was pretty useless. There were plenty of deer and plenty of wolves for, presumably, thousands of years. And the fact of that matter is, deer will ALWAYS outnumber wolves, has to be this way, otherwise the wolves are dead. The other fact is that the wolf population follows the deer population in cycles, not the other way around. For example, if there are more deer there are more wolves, less deer, less wolves. Not, more wolves less deer, less wolves more deer. To put it in some perspective, there are about 1000-1500 wolves in NE MN and southern Ontario (this is a mixed population, they don't abide by the border) and in the same area there are some 200,000 deer. Clearly, every deer the wolves kill is one less for a hunter to shoot, but in reality, even if all the wolves did was hunt for sport I believe the deer population would be just fine.

So, that covers my opinion on the hunting issue. The ranching issue is completely different and seems like a tight rope walk to pick through all the relevant issues. Such as, what gives humans the right to say, "this is MY land, the animals that were here first take the back seat, if they don't kill or harm MY animals they can stay, but if they do they must go"...? This is an issue I can't begin to tackle on anothers blog...maybe on my own at some point, but not here.

Anyways, thanks a lot for the post. It is a very relevant ethical issue that stretches far beyond wolves in the west. And is something that needs to be discussed, so thanks again!

Mike Spies said...

I agree that wolves complete the experience in the same way that grizzles do - they pt the food chain into perspective.

Regarding Oregon wolves, I have had several reports of wolves not far from my long-time bird hunting spots north of Enterprise, OR. I am not surprised that this has been confirmed, given the wlves ability to colonize (or take back) suitable ranges.

On balance a good thing, and fuel for grumbling or exaltation, depending.

Anonymous said...

Yes, resurgent wolves will occasionally take livestock—but there are costs associated with living in harmony with the natural world and its critters.

Spoken blithely by a man who does not and never has made a living from raising livestock, and who has probably never seen the devastation that can be caused by a single hungry wolf. Domestic livestock are far easier to catch and kill than wild elk and other prey species, and when the wolf has a choice of prey he'll go after the livestock every time. The "wanton" killing of wolves you mention was done with a specific purpose--retaining a living--not for sport or out of boredom. Wolf-reintroduction organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife will only compensate ranchers for confirmed wolf kills, even though an estimated five out of every six wolf kills cannot be definitively proven because there are no remains left behind. Ranchers and land grazers, who face losing up to 10% of their herds each year to wolf predation with no ability to defend their property and no guaranteed compensation for their losses, have begun to be forced out of business.

I do enjoy reading your blog, but humbly suggest you stick to subjects about which you have actual knowledge, such as foraging and local food.

persimmonpudding.com said...

The Rocky Mountain wolf is a subspecies of gray wolf. See:

http://www.wolf.org/wolves/learn/basic/wolf_types/inter_gray/rocky.asp

"The Rocky Mountain wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis) is also sometimes called the Alaskan or Mackenzie Valley wolf. This subspecies inhabits parts of the western United States, much of western Canada, and Alaska, including Unimak Island in the Aleutians, and is the subspecies which was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and central Idaho."

Monica said...

I spend a ton of time all year round in the wilderness because I find no place like it - so peaceful, calm, and serene - but I've no desire to see it overrun with wolves

Well, it cuts both ways. Some of us could say the same about having our peaceful wilderness serenity interrupted by hunters and gunfire. I was recently in an enclave of elk in Colorado, in an area I didn't realize was being hunted. The gun blast cut through the "natural" experience in a way that no howling pack of wolves could. So I think hunters especially need to walk their talk and realize that there's great hypocrisy in holding for themselves the right to hunt, with obtrusive weaponry no less, while rescinding that right for wild inhabitants whose existence certainly precedes all of ours -- us Europeans and other immigrants on this American land.