Managing Wolves with Science, Not Politics

Gray wolves are among the most studied animals in our nation’s history. Over the past decade, we’ve come to understand their habits, needs and interactions. It’s time to put that scientific data to work. First, to ensure a viable, sustainable population of wolves throughout the Northern Rockies. And second, to balance the needs of wolves with those of the people and wildlife who share the landscape with them.

The Components of Sound Management

We believe, as do most biologists, that sound management of wolves should include the following:

  • Current scientific population analysis and recovery goals that provide for a single, naturally, well-integrated wolf population rather than three separate sub-populations. Trucking wolves around to artificially duplicate genetic mixing between wolves in the region is both expensive and a clear indication that this species is not yet recovered.
  • A stakeholder process with input from a balanced group of livestock owners, wildlife conservationists, recreationists, hunters and members of the public to collaboratively address wolf management.
  • An emphasis on the use of proven, proactive methods (such as guard dogs, range riders, and electrified, portable fencing) to prevent and reduce conflicts with wolves and other carnivores before they occur.
  • No use of poison or aggressive aerial gunning programs to indiscriminately eliminate large numbers of wolves or their offspring.
  • Once the regional wolf population is stable and naturally genetically viable, we do not oppose reasonable, fair-chase hunting as an appropriate tool for management as long as core populations and important corridors connecting them remain unthreatened.
  • Statewide protection of wolves after delisting equal to that of grizzly, bald eagles, and other newly delisted species.

The Science of Sound Management

A number of important scientific studies have dramatically improved attempts to restore wolves to the Northern Rockies, while others have proven very helpful in providing tools for the resolution of conflicts that sometimes arise between wolves and the people/ livestock that share the same habitat.

  • Ecology: Over the past 15 years, scientists have made some surprising discoveries about the role of wolves in Western ecosystems. In Yellowstone National Park, for example, elk have responded to wolf presence by spending far less time in open areas near streams; this change in elk behavior has allowed streambed vegetation to regenerate after decades of over browsing, leading to the return of beavers and many songbirds to these areas. Similarly, wolves sometimes kill coyotes, leading to lowered coyote numbers, which, in turn, has dramatically reduced coyote depredation rates of pronghorn fawns. Scientists recently documented a four-fold increase in pronghorn fawn survival in the Yellowstone area since the return of wolves.
  • Dispersal patterns and genetics: At some point after reaching sexual maturity, wolves decide to leave their family pack and strike out on their own in search of mates. Understanding how far wolves are likely to move during that time, the obstacles that wolves face as they try to move across state boundaries, and how many wolves are needed to ensure good genetic interconnectedness between populations, is critical to the recovery of this species in the Northern Rockies.
  • Disease: Wolves are susceptible to a number of diseases that affect other canid species, such as parvovirus, rabies, and distemper. By studying the effects of disease on wolf packs, managers can better understand which diseases are most devastating to wolf populations, and how much time is needed for a population to recover from a disease outbreak.
  • Prey preferences of wolves: Studies of wolf prey preferences can be used to better understand why wolf packs might switch from hunting their preferred prey (elk) to hunting other species of wildlife (such as bison) or even livestock. This kind of research allows scientists to identify the “tipping points” that might cause wolf packs to switch from one prey species to another.
  • Wolf hunting behavior: By watching thousands of wolf hunts, researchers now have a far better understanding about the types of prey behavior that might allow a prey animal to escape a wolf pack. For example, animals that turn and face wolves head on are much less likely to be killed by a wolf pack than those that turn and run, and this information has led to suggestions that more aggressive breeds of cattle may fare better in wolf country.
  • Wolf behavior: Studies of wolf behavior have revealed just how much wolf packs resemble human families. Usually just one pair reproduces, although all members of the family unit help take care of any offspring, and bonds between family members are very strong.
  • Wolf pack responses to hunting by humans: Some wildlife species respond in surprising ways to hunting pressure by humans. Coyotes, for example, significantly increase their litter sizes when hunted intensely. In the case of wolves, packs are much more likely to break up if one of the alpha animals is killed, which could lead to an increased risk of younger, more inexperienced wolves attacking “easy” prey such as livestock as they wander on their own across unfamiliar territory without their family unit. Hence, aggressive hunting of wolves could actually result in increased conflict with ranchers, creating an urgent need for research into the effects of hunting on this species after they are removed from protection under the Endangered Species Act.

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