Posts Tagged ‘elk’

The Incredible Shrinking Megafauna

An Elk With Majestic Racks

Elk With Majestic Racks

The Incredible Shrinking Megafauna 

 By Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

Part 1 – Of Wolves and Elk

Doug Smith, who is in charge of the Wolf Recovery Team in Yellowstone National Park (YS) said, during a December 17, 2009 interview by The Billings Gazette, that he had recently been seeing something that he never before witnessed. Several times he had watched a bull elk successfully fight off a pack of wolves. Smith said that the bulls had become so large and had such massive racks, that they were now a match for the wolves. What has happened to the Yellowstone elk to bring this about, and why?

As background to this question, you should know that a fascinating, natural experiment has been taking place in YS ever since wolves were reintroduced there in 1996. By “natural experiment,” I mean one that was unplanned and unforeseen. The last naturally occurring wolf in Yellowstone was killed in 1927. Lacking natural enemies with the wolves gone, and with hunting also prohibited in national parks, the elk proliferated over the years. By 1996 the YS elk population had burgeoned to from 15,000 – 18,000. They overran the area, overbrowsing and damaging the ecosystem in many ways. Then came the wolves, 45 of them. In the 17 years since then, the wolf and elk numbers have changed drastically. The wolves increased, up to around 160 individuals, and thereafter they have fluctuated periodically between that and to less than 70 animals, while the elk have decreased to between 5 – 7,000 animals. You can say that the elk and wolves are participating in a mutual dance of death. The wolves reduce the number of elk by preying on them until the elk become scarce enough so that the wolves find it hard to continue to maintain their own numbers. That situation, together with other stresses, such as hard winters and disease, reduce the number of wolves. Up come the numbers of elk until the wolves, with prey easier to obtain, become healthier, less stressed, and begin to increase their population again. This dynamic fluctuation of the wolf and elk populations has occurred several times during the relatively short span that these animals have been interacting in Yellowstone.

Erosion On A Yellowstone Creek

Creek Bed Erosion

Other dramatic changes have taken place in the Park during this period. William Ripple and his colleagues have documented several changes in YS riparian habitat.  It is rapidly being restored, with cottonwoods, willows, and aspen again growing along the hitherto eroded stream banks, which have regained stability. This has resulted in clearing the water of turbidity and debris. Expanded tree coverage along creeks and rivers has also lowered water temperatures, bringing back cold water fish, such as trout, along with song birds, and many amphibians.. The presence of more carrion, a byproduct of wolf predation, has proven beneficial to a whole string of scavengers, like vultures, crows, ravens, foxes, and coyotes.

Young Willows, Growing on the Bank of a Yellowstone NP Creek

The presence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park has changed the habits of elk there. They no longer overbrowse riperian vegetation, but have moved away from stream beds where they used to provide tempting targets for wolf predation. This has resulted in new growth of willows (shown here), cottonwoods, and other stream side vegetation.

Ripple attributes these changes to the presence of wolves, and indeed he has documented similar changes in Banff National Park in British Columbia, as well as in other locales. But aside from all these changes, the one that strikes me from an evolutionary point of view, is the vision of these elk bulls, with their majestic racks. Why has this happened? From the point of view of genetics, the answer seems simple enough. Wolves prey mostly on the weak, disabled, and sick, as well as on bulls, calves, and does, simply because the former are the easiest to kill. Thus, the wolves are removing genes from the elk population for smaller, less robust bulls. If you think about it, hunters do the opposite. They go after the big bulls with the most imposing racks. Their success therefore removes the very genes they most prize, and results in smaller, weaker elk. Now, you may find it hard to believe that humans can have such drastic effects on the genetics of wild animals. However, I have come across some rather startling evidence that I believe will convince you.

First of all, we can turn to the father of the theory of evolution himself, Charles Darwin. Much of the evidence that Darwin accumulated in the eighteen hundreds for his then revolutionary theory, was obtained through observation of and breeding experiments on domestic animals.

The Father of the Theory of Evolution, Charles Darwin

A portrait of Charles Darwin, who is credited with the theory of evolution.He was particularly interested in pigeons, and actually became a pigeon fancier and breeder himself. Along the way he grew convinced that all pigeons in their incredible variety, were descended from wild doves, an idea that contemporary geneticists, using DNA studies, have shown to be accurate. Pigeons, and other domestic animals, have been derived from populations of wild animals, and deliberately bred for characteristics that humans wanted, resulting in present day cattle, sheep, chickens, and so on.  Even man’s best friend, the dog, originated from wolve

 Part 2. The Tuskless Elephants

The breeding of domestic animals was deliberate on our part. What is more surprising is the inadvertent effects that man has had on a wide variety of wild animals. I recently came across an article in Newsweek Magazine, of January 2, 2009 that describes some of these effects. The most startling one was the discovery of the tuskless elephant.

An African Elephant Without Tusks

A new Variety of Tuskless African Elephant

Elephants use their tusks to root around the ground for food, and in fighting between males during their rutting season. We also know that historically, and from the study of fossils, about two percent of elephant bulls have been tuskless. This was obviously caused by recessive mutations, which have put these animals at a disadvantage from their tusky relatives. Their loss of these useful appendages has undoubtedly been the main factor in winnowing out these genes from the population, thus keeping the number of such elephants low – until recently.

The number of tuskless elephants  has lately climbed to  38% in Gambia, and even more startlingly, to 98% in one South African population. The factor that brought about this change is the poaching of elephants for their tusks. The price on the market for tusked animals has recently risen to $10,000 per animal. That is a lot of money for a poor African, thus making these animals tempting targets. Furthermore, this is not just an African phenomenon. In Asia, female elephants do not have tusks, but the proportion of tuskless male elephants has more than doubled in recent years, rising to  greater than 90%. This has happened even on the island of Sri Lanka, where male elephants are used in the work force, and their tusks are valued as tools. As scientist, Mario Festa Bianchet of the University of Sherbrook, who has been documenting this phenomenon, pointed out, “You end up with a bunch of losers to do the breeding.” Both sexes of these elephants are also getting smaller. “These changes make no evolutionary sense,” he said.

 Part 3. A Whale of a Tale, or Floundering Around in the Mediterranean

Lest you think that these strange goings-on are confined to pachyderms, there is another, perhaps even weirder story about fish. It seems that fishermen as well as scientists have noticed that several different kinds of commercially valuable kinds of fish, such as flounder and groupers in the Mediterranean Sea, are getting smaller. Once again, the cause is painfully obvious. Fishermen, using more and more trawlers equipped with dragnets that cannot distinguish between species or size, have made it a practice to keep only the larger individuals of fish such as groupers. After sorting the fish on deck, they throw the smaller ones back, perhaps in the mistaken belief that they are being good stewards of the sea in doing so. This practice has resulted in the removal of genes for larger size from these fish populations, producing ever more smaller cod, salmon, flounder, and groupers, at least since the 1980s.

Scientists have been curious to know how far back this trend of the shrinking fish goes. After all, fishermen have been plying the Mediterranean for thousands of years. As Samir Patel reported in the January/February 2013 issue of “Archaeology,” scientists from Stanford and the University of Salento, Italy  hit upon an ingenious and novel way to find out. They went to various museums, examined mosaic tiles of fishing scenes from antiquity, and measured the fish depicted there by comparing them with objects in the mosaics whose size was known. Lo and behold, they found out that dusky groupers (Epinephelus marginatus) have been shrinking considerably for thousands of years. Even if the man-swallowing grouper in the mosaic pictured here is more than a slight exaggeration, it is obvious how far back the phenomenon of the shrinking fish goes.

Grouper Mosaic

Tile Mosaic of a Large Grouper

Man’s unknowing tinkering with nature is widespread. Big Horn sheep from Horn Mountain in Alberta, Canada have had a 25% decrease in horn size because trophy hunters  only go after the ones with imposing horns. In Australia, red kangaroos have become smaller in size because poachers target the biggest  ones for leather.

None of this information will come as a big surprise for readers of this blog. Last year, I posted a summary and analysis of an article appearing in the journal, Science, entitled “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth.”Its author, James Estes, along with 22 eminent collaborators, describes how apex predators, such as wolves, sharks, tigers, and lions, are being rapidly eliminated  by humans, and that this loss is having profound effects on the Earth’s ecosystems through the phenomenon of trophic cascades, by which an ever widening number of other animals and plants are being negatively effected.

Wolves' Effects on Their Enviroment

A Cascade of Effects Come About from Wolf Predation

 Part 4. How to Make More Coyotes

Doctor Robert L. Crabtree, is Research Associate Professor at the University of Montana. He is one of North America’s foremost researchers into predator/prey relationships, and an expert particularly on the coyote (Canis latrans). He has recently described a similar situation with regard to the coyote populationin the western United States. It seems that the US Wildlife Services (WS), a little known federal agency that kills millions of wild animals every year, mostly at the behest of ranchers and farmers, has unknowingly  gone into the coyote growth business. Apparently most of WS ‘s “predator control” programs are indiscriminate, in the sense that the animals killed are probably not the offending ones. (The same is true for wolves. Their haphazard removal by WS and others is grimly reminiscent  of the slaughter of Greek villagers in WW II by SS troops, in retaliation for partisan attacks on German soldiers. Most of the villagers killed were not the same people as the partisans, but the act satisfied the blood lust for revenge on all Greeks).

A trappers Idea of "Fair Chase."

Trapped and Attacked

Crabtree reports that coyote populations compensate powerfully for reductions in their populations, and WS ‘s widespread control measures (traps, poison, explosives, shooting from the air, etc.) only increase immigration, reproduction, and survival of remaining coyotes. He makes the following observations:

(1) These control campaigns result in immediate immigration into the control area by lone animals and/or invasion by other neighboring coyote groups.

(2) Litter size increases, probably due to better nutrition, caused by greater availability of prey, which results in higher birth rates and better pup survival.

(3) There is recruitment of adults from outside sources into the pack. This situation results in a doubling or tripling of the number of hungry pups to feed, and recruitment of larger and more available prey (usually sheep) to do so. Therefore, these control measures result in the opposite effect from that wanted, with more attacks on domestic animals (Note: coyotes are responsible for over 60% of livestock killings, while wolves account for less than 0.1% This means that for every sheep killed by wolves, 600 are killed by coyotes. The constant clamor by ranchers to WS and state authorities to kill more wolves is not exactly cost-effective, but what the heck, its not the ranchers, but the tax payers who are paying for this).

(4) Coyotes (and also wolves), learn what constitutes appropriate prey when they are taught as pups by adult pack members. The removal of these adults by control actions makes the pups’ education more problematical.

(5) Reduction in coyote population by control methods results in more females becoming breeders. This increases the number of pups in the ensuing generation.

(6) Removal of coyotes from a pack results in a reduction of the average age of pack members, so that more of them are reproductively active.

(7) Reduction in pack size also induces more young adults not to disperse, but to remain and become permanent pack members. Either that, or they secure breeding positions in the exploited area.

Coyotes Find a Way to Increase Their Numbers

The Wiley Coyote Outsmarts the US Wildlife Services

It is clear from these examples how humans can inadvertently and mistakenly have profound effects on the genetics and behavior of wild animal populations, and that much of the time these effects are either unintended or even contrary to the hoped-for results.

 Part 5. Of Wolves and Men

This returns us to the wolves. In 1996, wolves were reintroduced in the West. It was hoped at that time, that wolves would resume their natural role in our forests as top predators, bringing more balance into western ecosystems. At their peak, in 2011, the three states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming had a combined wolf population of 1,804 animals. Adding in the Great Lakes states’ wolf population, there are about 4,800 wolves in this country. At first glance this might sound like a lot of animals, but compared with other predators in the US, such as black bears (630-725,000)  and mountain lions (24-36,000) , prey such as elk (1 million) and white tailed deer (30 million), as well as domestic livestock (169 million),  it is a proverbial drop in the bucket.

Wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list in 2011. Since that time each of the three western states have instituted wolf hunting seasons unlike those for most other wild creatures except those considered varmints, such as coyotes and prairie dogs. For instance, Idaho’s season is yearlong, thus overlapping the wolves’ breeding and denning seasons. Methods of killing wolves have been expanded to trapping, use of snowmobiles,  electronic wolf calls, along with WS ‘s shooting them from airplanes. How has Idaho’s wolf management plan fared so far?

I was struck by a recent report from Idaho Fish & Game (IF&G) on wolves in Idaho. IDF&G stated that  the wolf population there at the end of 2012 was 683 wolves, a decrease of 11% from 2011. Extrapolating from the numbers in the report, only one pack in two has a breeding pair. (I must add the caveat that wild animal populations are notoriously hard to count and IDF&G terms these numbers minimum ones). These figures are in contrast to most wolf populations that I know of, including those in Canada’s Algonquin Park and in YS, in which each pack usually  has at least one breeding pair.

Furthermore, 70 wolves were killed by hunters in Idaho’s Panhandle. One of the main reasons given by IDF&G for institution of a wolf hunting season was to decrease livestock depredation by wolves. Yet, there has never been a case of livestock depredation by wolves in northern Idaho. I do not know for certain what has led to these skewed numbers, but the year-long hunting season, together with a limit of six wolves per hunter (which is to be raised this year to ten per hunter) with no upper limit on the number of wolves to be killed, may have damaged both the physical and social structure of these wolf packs.

Wolves are an extremely social species, and the complexity of their interactions is rivaled only by that of ourselves and ants. Within most packs there is a network of adults, sub adults, breeders, hunters, pups, and their caretakers (usually the sub adults). Intricate vocalizations, smells, and body language help them to communicate and coordinate with each other. Teaching and learning appropriate wolf  behavior is an important pack function. For example, it is the sub adults who usually teach the pups what is appropriate prey. Therefore the wolves grow up being attracted to elk or deer as the case may be, and not to cattle, sheep, or human beings.

I, along with many wolf biologists, believe that an intact and healthy wolf pack is one of the most important keys to low livestock depredation. One way to test a hypothesis, such as the importance of an intact wolf pack to their appropriate choice of prey, is to examine the effects of damaging that structure. There is an unplanned, inadvertent experiment going on in these three states now with increased hunting and “control” actions considerably lowering the numbers within, ages, and mix of wolves in  these packs. In the next few years, we should be able to see the results of this “unnatural” experiment. What sort of effect will these haphazardly reduced wolf populations have on livestock numbers and comparisons of wolf numbers to depredations? Will the reduction in wolf numbers lead to inbreeding and development of birth defects as it has in Isle Royale NP and Scandinavia?  This is one experiment that I wish was not taking place.

Trophic Downgrading or Where Have All the Predators Gone?


(Or, where have all the predators gone?)

  J.A. Estes, et al. (2011) The Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth (2011) Science, 15 July, 333(6040) 301-306.

Summary and Comments by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

This is a paper that is worth your diving into because the information it contains is important to the health of our planet. I will help you get through it by summarizing and commenting on it. You can either read the summary or skip directly to my comments on it at the end of this post. What is it about? It deals with the recent and rapid disappearance of top predators, such as wolves, lions, & sharks, mostly brought about by the actions of that top predator of all – mankind, and the surprisingly profound effects their loss is having on ecosystems worldwide.  It was the feature article in the July, 2011 issue of Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. Among its 23 authors are: John Terborgh, Joel Berger, Michael Soule, and William Ripple. The former three are considered to be among the founders of the field of Conservation Biology, and Ripple is our foremost researcher into the effects of top predators on the ecosystems of North America. Simply put, a trophic cascade (TC) is the effect that the absence or abundance of a top or apex predator has on succeeding levels of the rest of the ecosystem. The authors have gathered a vast array of evidence showing that these losses lead to ever-increasing and widespread effects on other living creatures, on ecosystems, and on the Earth itself. Terborgh pioneered this type of study by showing the profound effects of the presence or absence of predators on the fauna and flora of isolated islands in the Barro Colorado, a recently flooded region near the Panama Canal. Soule, in a classic paper, neatly demonstrated how the presence or absence of coyotes effected the bird and cat populations within the urban canyons of San Diego. Ripple has shown the profound influence that the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstoneand loss of mountain lions in Zion National Park  have had on the animals and plants in those areas. In this paper, these scientists turn their attention to the effects of predators on ecosystems worldwide and warn us of the present and impending dangers that our  steady & seemingly inexorable extermination of predators is having on the Earth

Summary of the Paper

 The loss of apex predators all over the world is having a pervasive influence on nature. There are cascading effects of the disappearance of predators. These “top-down forcings” (causes of variability) are having unanticipated effects, such as increase in disease, wildfires, losses in carbon sequestration, appearance of invasive species, and disruption of biogeochemical cycles. In its 4.5 billion years of existence, our planet has undergone several mass extinctions, with huge loss of biodiversity, followed by novel changes. We are now in the early to middle stages of a sixth mass extinction. Man has mostly caused these recent extinctions. Many of them are started by the removal of apex predators. These extinctions may be mankind’s most pervasive effect on the natural world. Extinction obviously means a permanent loss of these animals, which in turn often has a ripple effect, causing many other changes throughout the ecosystem. These widespread changes are what are referred to by scientists as “trophic cascades” (TCs). Some of the ultimate outcomes of TCs are: fires, disease, climate change, habitat loss, and pollution. Theory behind concept of TCs: (1)  An ecosystem is shaped by its top consumers (usually apex predators). (2)  Alternative stable states. TCs push a system, and it reaches tipping points. These are thresholds or breakpoints, and when they are reached, significant phase shifts occur. (3)  Connectivity – this is built around connection webs and through the mechanics of predation, competition and mutualism (organisms that have a supportive effect on each other), biologically, and through physicochemical processes. Cryptic nature of TCs: Species interactions are usually invisible under stable conditions. They may require years to become evident due to the long generation times of some species.  The effects usually do not become evident until after the loss. The scales of TC s can be much more vast than most feasible scientific studies can handle. Most field biology studies concentrate on small, discrete areas, and on non-motile species, with short generation times, making them easy to  manipulate. This results in an incomplete and distorted picture of apex predator influence. Hence, the authors have written what is called a mega study, which brings together the results of many other similar studies, using similar protocols & subjects. This enables them to combine the studies & to note general principles and draw important conclusions with more certainty. Widespread Occurrence of TCs: TCs have been documented throughout the world. When apex predators are reduced or removed, and sufficient time and space are accounted for, their influence becomes obvious. “Natural experiments” showing these effects are pervasive: e.g. loss of: killer whales, lions, wolves, cougars, sharks, sea otters.

These interactions are often complex. e.g. apex predators have little influence on megaherbivores:  Elephants, hippos, rhinoceroses, etc. in Africa are basically invulnerable to predation. Mostly, therefore effects are seen in the increase in smaller herbivores: e.g. Thompson’s gazelle, impala. Influence of apex predators on autotrophs (An organism capable of synthesizing its own food from inorganic substances, using light or chemical energy. Most plants are autotrophs): (a)  Increase of autotrophs – by suppression of herbivory (any animal that feeds mostly on plants), e. g. the loss of sea otters, which prey on shellfish,  have diminished the health of kelp forests. The extirpation of wolves from forests has resulted in a corresponding increase of ungulates adversely effecting other animals and plants in various ecosystems. e.g. the removal of wolves from what has become Rocky Mountain NP in Colorado has resulted in the overgrowth of elk, which in turn have devastated much of the plant life. (b) Decrease of autotrophs – e. g. large mouth bass by feeding on smaller fish, which feed on 200 kinds of plankton (microscopic aquatic plants & animals)  have decreased their numbers to such an extent in many mid western US lakes, that this has resulted in a loss of oxygen, leading to the demise of other life forms in these lakes. Herbivory and Wildlife: Increase in herbivory (mostly domestic animals that eat plants) has resulted in a change from grass lands to scrub lands, & the burning up to 500 million hectares (ha) in the global landscape and has released over 4,000 metric tons (Tg) of CO2 into the atmosphere. Diseases: e.g. Rinderpest (an infectious viral disease) in East Africa decimated ungulates. (animals like wildebeests & buffalos that chew their cud). This led to an increase in plant biomass, which in turn led to wildfires. Vaccination and control eliminated Rinderpest and this led to the recovery of the wildebeests and buffalos. Because of this, shrub lands became grass lands, which reduced the frequency and intensity of wild fires.

e.g. Impacts of predatory fish on mosquito larvae: effects the incidence of Malaria. Physical & Chemical Influences: There is a linkage between apex predators & atmospheric CO2. e.g.  presence or absence of predatory fish in lakes can effect the production & uptake of CO2. e.g. whaling transferred 105 million tons of carbon from whales to the atmosphere. e.g. Extinction of Pleistocene herbivores reduced atmospheric methane & contributed to a drop of 9° C. temperature drop in the Younger-Dryas period, some 12,900 years ago. Soils: e.g. Herbivores profoundly influence soils. e.g. introduction of rats & arctic foxes in high latitude (mostly arctic) islands reduces soil nitrogen by disturbing nesting birds. Water: e.g. collapse of large demersal (bottom feeders) fish in the Baltic Sea led to a 20% decrease of silica in pelagic diatoms (one-celled organisms that make up the majority of plants found in the open sea). e.g. Yellowstone wolves protect riparian vegetation from over-browsing herbivores. This leads to more shade & cooling of streams, which in turn decreases streambed erosion & increases cover for fish & other aquatic organisms & leads to an increase in songbirds.

Invasive Species: Lack of top-down predators allows invasive species to spread. e.g. spread of the brown tree snake, originally from the Solomon Islands, on Guam, which has exterminated most of its birds, was due to lack of other predators, which could have held the snake population in check. e.g. reduced fish predation in the Mississippi River led to the invasion of zebra mussels. Biodiversity (Abundance of & diversification in living creatures): Biodiversity(BD) is now largely confined to protected areas (e.g. national parks, designated wildernesses). Loss of BD has been mostly caused by over-exploitation (hunting, fishing, increase of areas reserved to domestic & other ungulates, etc.) has led to habitat loss & fragmentation of ecosystems. e.g. over browsing by an increasing population of elk in Rocky Mountain NP is due to lack of natural predators,(i.e. wolves). The same situation occurred in: the Kaibab Plateau, adjacent to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, which was overrun with deer. Minnesota has a serious problem with areas overrun by more than 1 million deer. Princeton NJ had to employ sharpshooters to kill deer, which were overrunning suburban gardens. Deer (ironically) starved on Deer Island in San Francisco Bay due to their burgeoning population, which was unchecked by predators.  Mesopredators (coyotes) in San Diego canyons strikingly changed populations of songbirds and cats.

e.g. Sea Stars in intertidal areas interact with mussels, wiping out many species. e.g. loss of small vertebrates after the extirpation of wolves, cougars & bears in temperate & boreal North American forests changed the ecology of these forests. Effects of Tree Longevity: e.g. wolves & other megapredators were almost entirely eliminated in the US by the 20th century. At that time there began to be recruitment failure & reduced tree growth rate in many places (most obvious in national parks). e.g. wolves were eliminated 100 yrs. ago on Anticosti Island in mouth of the St Lawrence River. This led to a decrease in the number of saplings & an increase in graminoids (grasses), e.g. wolves were extirpated from the Scottish island of Rum 250 -500 years ago, resulting in total loss of its forest. It is now treeless.

Conclusion: “Best management solution is likely restoration of effective predator regimes.” [English translation: Bring back the predators] Paradigm Shift in Ecology: There is clearly a top-down forcing in ecosystem dynamics.  [We argue that ] “burden of proof be shifted to show for any ecosystem, that consumers do (or did) not exert strong cascading effects.” Conclusions: Unanticipated changes in the distribution & abundance of key species, as well as pandemics, population collapses, eruptions of unwanted species, major shifts in ecosystem states, are caused by altered top down forcing , brought about by loss of native apex consumers. Repeated failures to anticipate & moderate such events arise through  fundamental misunderstandings of their causes. Resource managers usually base their actions on the expectation that physical causes are the ultimate drivers of ecological change. “Top-down forcing must be included if there is to be any real hope of understanding & managing the workings of nature.”

 COMMENTS – Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

 I find it helpful in understanding TDG to picture a pyramid, with the predator at the peak or top & prey animals at several successive & increasingly wider levels, (indicating larger populations) underneath. For example, sharks are the top predators in our oceans & they prey on smaller fish such as tuna, which in turn prey on smaller fish like anchovies, etc. until the lowest & most fundamental layer is reached, which consists of microscopic plankton (autotrophs) & is effected in a profound way.

Along this line, I recently read a paper published in Nature by Daniel Boyce of Dalhousie University in which the author utilized hundreds of thousands of historical records to show that the clarity of most of our oceans has been greatly increasing in the past few years. This is an indirect but powerful method, showing that plankton populations are decreasing rapidly. Because plankton are the base prey in our oceans, their scarcity would adversely effect all fish populations & since they are the ultimate autotrophs (think of what would happen if their dry land equivalent, grasses, were to decrease considerably) tend to increase CO2. Such a profound worldwide change undoubtedly has more than one cause, but the disruption of world fisheries through the loss of top predators is probably a contributing factor.

It is easy to overlook the effects of some predators, either because they are not charismatic megafauna, like “lions & tigers & bears oh my!” or are out of sight much of the time. For instance, who would even thought of sea stars as predators? I know that I had not until recently despite my background in Zoology.  Yet it has been shown that their loss can have profound effects on shellfish.  And those cute little sea otters. Who would have thought that they have an important effect on kelp beds? The film, “Jaws,” which came out in 1975, gave sharks a bad name that they have yet to overcome. That, together with the insatiable appetite of Chinese & other Orientals for shark fin soup (Talk about waste. They cut off the fins & throw the shark carcass away) & the dislike of commercial fishermen for sharks, who they view as competitors, in the same way that many elk hunters view wolves, has led to their wholesale destruction. No thought was given to the sharks’ role as the ultimate apex predator in the sea & the  effect their demise is having on other fish lower in the TC pyramid. It is quite possible, even probable, that the loss of many commercial fish species is linked not only to overfishing but also to the destruction of sharks, which has upset the ecological balance in oceans. In this connection, commercial fishermen may be doubly responsible for the serious depletion of fisheries worldwide, through their overfishing & destruction of apex predators.

My own studies on wolves and as an advocate for them has given me a fresh perspective on their importance in maintaining healthy forests. In this respect, the authors’ citing of studies showing that the eradication of wolves changed the flora of Anticosti Island in the St. Lawrence estuary & deforested the Scottish island of Rum, is instructive & worrying.

We do not however, need to go to the ends of the earth to find examples of TDG. In my own little part of northern Idaho, we have seen the results of overfishing in Lake Penderay, invasive species like spotted knapweed & the infamous zebra mussels, and loss of biodiversity caused by overpopulation of elk in the Clearwater NF. There are a substantial number of elk hunters in the state of Idaho, whose idea of heaven seems to be forests containing only elk & hunters. One of their leaders recently stated that he would only be satisfied when hunters success rates reached 90% Success rates throughout the Northwest have been historically at around 18 -20% (Spokesman Review 2/22/08). Idaho already contains over 100,000 elk. He apparently wants to turn Idaho into an elk farm, where hunters do not even have to get off their ATVs to kill elk. I doubt that many other Idahoans would agree with that vision. These hunters & the politicians who support them are responsible for the present vendetta against wolves, which in the last year has resulted in the killing of around 429 out of only 760 wolves in this state & the extension of the wolf hunt to year around, a hitherto unheard of strategy for “managing” wildlife.

I hope that this publication on the importance of top predators, like wolves, will be brought to the attention of state wildlife organizations like IDF&G and will result in a change of their policy toward a greater respect for these animals. For those of you who are interested in finding out more about this fascinating & important subject of how the loss of top predators is effecting the earth, I recommend the following books:

Monster of God – by David Quammen A very readable account of how our fear & killing of predators is changing the world.

Where The Wild Things Were – by William Stolzenberg A journalist writes about the research that been revealing the key role that predators play in ecosystems.

Song of the Dodo – by David Quammen One of our best scientific & nature writers chronicles the researchers & their studies who have created the new field of Conservation Biology.

Of Wolves and Men – by Barry Lopez A brilliant examination of wolf biology & the often-searing history of mankind’s relationship to these fascinating & badly misunderstood animals.

Wolf Country – by John B. Theberge. The results and conclusions of wolf biologist from an eleven year study of wolves in Algonquin Park, Canada. This book includes a lot of valuable information, written in a readable and popular format.


                                                                       MYTHS & FACTS ABOUT WOLVES  (1/16/12, Rev. 6/15/13)

Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance (NIWA)


Ancient Pathways to A Sustainable Future

Contact: Ken Fischman, Spokesman

•      Minnesota’s wolf population has been stable, at 3,000 since,(2004, 5X as many as in Idaho).

•     Wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List by

a political manoeuver, in placing a rider on a must-pass appropriations

bill. It was never voted on or even debated. This marks the first time an

animal was removed for other than scientific reasons.

•     Wolves were hunted in Idaho barely five months after being taken off the

Endangered Species List. No other species has had this happen to

them. Almost 300 wolves were killed in Idaho & Montana’s first hunts

in 2010 and this number increased to over 550 in 2012.(did not include wolves killed for livestock depredation)

•   In most of Idaho they did not even setting an overall quota for the

2011 – 2012 hunt. Hunters may kill as many wolves as they can,

individual hunter limits are 10 wolves each, & they are

allowed to utilize: traps, baiting, & electronic wolf calls to do so.

•    The killing of such a large percentage of the wolf population

amounts to a slow motion extermination campaign. It is certainly not

“Managing” wildlife.

•     The 2011-12 Idaho wolf hunting season was 10 months long – beginning

September 1st. & ending in June. This long a hunting season is

highly unusual for any animal, & impacts the wolves’ mating denning


•   The  long wolf hunting season creates an almost year-round danger

for hikers, bird watchers, campers, & boaters from accidental shooting

by hunters. It is not safe to go out into the woods at any time now.

•    There have been only two authenticated killings of humans by wolves

in North America in the last 200 years, You are in greater danger of

killed by a dog. Dogs killed 27 people in 1997-1998 . 

•   Wolves belong in our wild areas. They are an essential part of a

healthy and functioning ecosystem. As an apex or keystone

predator they are crucial to the well being of everything from

flowering plants and trees to insects and all the other mammals,

including elk and deer.

•     There has been talk about the Idaho wolves being “aliens” because

they were introduced from British Columbia & Alberta. These statements

have no scientific basis. All state wildlife agencies as well as independent scientists

agree that  genetically, the wolves that

were historically eradicated from the northern Rockies

and the wolves that have been re-introduced in the past

decade are the same species, Canis lupus.

•     There have been wild claims that these wolves are huge, many over

200 pounds. All 188 wolves killed in the first Idaho wolf hunt in 2009 were officially

weighed by IDF&G agents. The average female was 86 lbs. and the

average male, 101 lbs. The largest was 127 lbs.

•     Many hunters claim that wolves are decimating elk herds – According to the Rocky

Mountain Elk Foundation 2007 Report, the Idaho elk population has been above

100,000 since 1985, and the Northern Rockies elk population has

increased 32.9% in the last 25 years, to over one million animals. Elk #s

increased by 3,000 in 2010 alone.

•     Idaho’s elk population fluctuates, but the hunters’ have a

perception that elk numbers are decreasing. This is probably due to the

wolves pushing elk off the valley floors and into the mountains,

making the hunters work harder to find them.

•     Contrary to the claims of ranchers, wolves are not killing off large

numbers of  livestock – According to the USDA

Statistical Bureau they are responsible for less than 2% of all

livestock deaths due to predation( less than 0.1% in Idaho).

In 2008, feral dogs killed more than four times as many sheep in Idaho than wolves did.

Eagles and other raptors carry off far more lambs than wolves kill.

•    There are 2.2 million cattle in Idaho. Last year wolves killed 71 of them.

Can you do the math to figure out the % killed? Hint: It is less than 1/100th

of 1%.

•     IDFG’s “wolf-management” strategy will reduce wolves to a remnant

population. Most wolf biologists agree that they  would become genetically isolated,

prone to inbreeding and inherited diseases, and unable to perform their historic

function in bringing balance to the ecosystem.

•     IDFG is using conflicting numbers when reporting wolf population.

They assumed a steady annual increase of 20 to 22% whereas in

reality Idaho’s wolf population increased by 8.8%, 15.6%, and

dropped 0.4% in 2007 , 2008, and 2009 respectively. In 2012, they decreased 11%. (USFW statistics).

•     In Yellowstone National Park the wolf population fluctuates. They declined by 27%

in 2007, & they lost nearly all their pups due to severe weather, disease, and prey scarcity. This happened again in

2008.- and this is in a place where they aren’t even hunted.

• There has never been a single case

of livestock depredation due to wolves reported in Idaho’s Panhandle.

and IDFG estimated the wolf population there to be a

minimum of 55 wolves in 2012.

Nevertheless, the wolf hunt quota for the Panhandle was removed.Hunters killed 71wolves there.

•     IDF&G’s attitude toward wolves is that they are damned if they do

& damned if they don’t. If wolves kill livestock, IDF&G retaliates. If

they do not kill livestock, they want them killed anyway they say, in order to reduce the possibility of livestock depredation.

•     Anti-wolf people claim that wolves are infected with tape worms(Echinococcus),

& that they are a threat to infect hunters with the worms. The Montana &

Idaho wildlife agencies as well as independent scientists have stated that

these worms were endemic to domestic livestock long before

the wolves were restored. Big-animal veterinarians

testified in state legislatures that there is little or no danger of people becoming infected.

All wolves released in Yellowstone and Idaho in 1996 were dewormed first.

•     If you chunked up Idaho into areas each of 100 square miles and

evenly distributed people, elk and wolves among the chunks you

would have in each chunk 1,800 people, 140 elk, and 1 wolf. That

demonstrates how few wolves there really are. How are they to

fulfill their role of keystone predator?

Stephen Augustine’s Comments on Idaho’s 2011-12 Wolf Hunt


Stephen Augustine’s Comments on Wolves to Idaho Fish & Game and Op Ed in The Reader

Stephen Augustine’s eloquent and perceptive words about the Idaho wolf hunt disserve the attention of all those who care about the fate of our wildlife. He points out that the Idaho Fish & Game’s (IDF&G) charter requires them to manage game only for the benefit of hunters, and hopes that the agency will eventually be replaced by one that reflects the majority pro-wildlife views of Idaho’s citizens.

He also shows the far-reaching effects of wolves’ trophic cascades on the well being of other inhabitants of our forests, some of them surprising, like those on songbirds, kokanee salmon, and even bees.

Stephen also makes the important point, that contrary to what we often hear from hunters, it usually costs them more for the meat they obtain from hunting than it would for them to hunt through supermarket aisles.

Finally, he finds the present wolf hunt to be very similar to the bounties that resulted in the original extinction of wolves.  He points out that wolves are being persecuted, not because they wreck havoc in our forests, but on the contrary, because they were beginning to exert their appropriate age-old role of apex predators, and hunters and ranchers could not stand the competition.

        Ken Fischman


Comments to the Idaho Fish & Game Commissioners

Coeur D'Alene, 09 November 2011

By Stephen Augustine, Co-Founder of Sandpoint Vegetarians

Good evening. My name is Stephen Augustine and I am a resident of Sandpoint, Idaho. I am an ardent supporter of wildlife conservation in Idaho with an annual donation on our tax return and wildlife plates on our vehicle. I firmly believe and uphold the law that ALL the wildlife in the State of Idaho is to be maintained for the benefit of ALL the people of Idaho.

Last month was an interesting month: planet Earth reached 7 billion people, the Javan rhino became extinct in Vietnam, and purse seiners took advantage of the turmoil in Libya to plunder critical Bluefin tuna spawning grounds in the Mediterranean. Earlier, in July, the universally respected journal Science, published a report titled "The Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth". The report concluded that the most pervasive and far-reaching negative impact that humans have had on Earth's natural ecologies is the removal and destruction of apex predators – species such as Bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean or wolves in the Rockies. Our shared planet is, sadly, stressed well beyond sustainable limits.

It is long past time for humans to grow up and stop being hedonistic, shortsighted, schoolyard bullies. Here in Idaho we still have a chance to preserve some remnant of what is natural. Managing wildlife in Idaho as a big stocked killing arena is NOT natural. Sadly you, IDFG, are tasked to operate under an obsolete charter wherein Idaho is perceived to be some fantasy frontier and all wildlife exists to be hunted and killed. This is reflected in observing that IDFG's wolf "management" policies are designed precisely to ensure that wolves do NOT play a meaningful ecological role and that they do not upset the status quo wherein you, IDFG, try to provide your client-hunters a maximal number of elk for them to kill.

I realize that, to some extent, your hands are bound by this outdated and anachronistic charter. Even your staff biologists have to stifle their advanced training and modern science to kowtow to the desires of people who want to go out and kill something. The hysterical prattling, by those calling for bounties on wolves, has nothing to do with anything related to truth or what is relevant to the people of Idaho. One needs only look north to Canada, with 50,000 wolves, where presumably there are no elk or deer left, all the young children have long since been gobbled up by vicious “Canadian wolves”, and all the remaining Canadians are severely infested with Echinococcus granulosus.

You should realize that you do not need to give in to the shrill voices calling for yet more creatures to kill but can make decisions that serve the majority of the citizens of Idaho – a majority who want to see an integrated and natural ecosystem where species like wolves are restored to their meaningful and necessary place. In the meantime, I remain hopeful that, within the next generation, IDFG will be replaced by a new agency that has a new and more rational charter and has as its constituents ALL the people of Idaho.

Thank you for your time.

Stephen Augustine


Cry Wolf

By Stephen Augustine, Co-Founder of Sandpoint Vegetarians

Op Ed in Sandpoint Reader, September, 2011

Tuesday, August 30th marks the beginning of a 7-month open season on the estimated 1000 wolves dispersed throughout Idaho. Wolves will run a gauntlet of hunters armed with any weapon of their choice, electronic calls, snares and leg-hold traps. To garner more kills and revenue, Idaho Fish & Game (IDFG) will be selling an unlimited number of wolf tags and has reduced the price of a non-resident wolf tag from $186 to a mere $31.75.

This open season on wolves is brought to us courtesy of a completely out-of-place rider attached to the Congressional budget bill that was passed on April 14th of this year and summarily removes wolves from the Endangered Species List. The rider, sponsored by Montana Senators Jon Tester and Max Baucus along with Idaho Representative Mike Simpson, was forced through by powerful hunting and ranching lobbies and undermined the rule of law in matters that should have been left to scientists.

Exactly three months after the passage of the budget bill and its perverted rider, Science, one of the world’s most respected and cited scientific journals, published a collaborative report by some of the world’s most respected wildlife biologists titled Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth. The report concludes that the most pervasive and far-reaching impact that humans have had on Earth’s natural ecologies is the removal and destruction of apex predators. Not just big predators like wolves, cougars, lions, tigers and sharks but other smaller species such as bass, otters, sea stars, foxes, and coyotes. The removal of such apex predators results in a disruption of the incredibly complex interactions between flora and fauna in a healthy natural ecosystem – interactions that have evolved over thousands if not millions of years. In the case of wolves in Idaho their interactions with their prey species results in a “trophic cascade” that positively impacts the vibrancy and health of not only trees and native plants but other fauna such as songbirds, eagles, ravens, beavers, wolverines, kokanee salmon, steelhead, bees, butterflies, and many, many others.

In many aspects the western states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming exhibit a frontier-like attitude where sound science takes a backseat to other interests. In this context natural resources are perceived to be unlimited, public lands are to be used for mining, logging, and ranching and the role of wildlife is to be hunted. Never mind that any frontier ceased to exist over 100 years ago and that the pressure of growing populations consuming at ever greater levels requires us to be ever more cognizant of protecting and preserving the few wild places that do exist and enjoying them in non-consumptive ways. Sadly, wildlife management agencies such as IDFG operate on a charter that is almost as old as that frontier and reinforces that frontier mindset. IDFG was chartered in 1938 to provide “continued supplies of such wildlife for hunting, fishing and trapping.” Indeed, in relation to the aforementioned hunting, fishing and trapping, the ubiquitous and telling word that is used by both the sellers (IDFG) and buyers (hunters and hunting lobbies) is “harvest.” The employees of IDFG end up being glorified livestock managers who use science selectively to further the goal of providing a maximum number of animals for hunters to kill.

Many proponents of this outdated charter justify it by saying that numerous people depend on hunting to put food on their table. About two years ago IDFG commissioner Tony McDermott from Sagle conceded to me that his expenses to bag an elk were in actuality greater than buying a comparable amount of meat at the grocery store. Assuredly, there are hunters in Idaho who do in fact stock their freezers with meat (usually deer) at a cost lower than buying an equal amount of meat from the grocery store. Assuredly, some of those same hunters also depend on hunting to put food on their tables to supplement their meager incomes. One might posit that this state of affairs is a sad reflection of a wealthy society that has failed its people who, as a consequence, have to resort to hunting and gathering in order to survive. That sad reflection aside, what percentage of the total hunting population might these need-based hunters constitute? Drawing from all the hunters with whom I have had conversations my estimate is on the order of 5% and probably not more than 10%. The rest would be “sportsmen” engaged in the presumably pleasurable hobby of finding and killing animals for “sport.”

If the wildlife in Idaho truly belongs to all the people of Idaho then all wildlife in the state should be protected and conserved using general tax dollars for the benefit of the majority of the population and not just for that small segment of “sportsmen” who “pay to play.” From that majority viewpoint IDFG is an obsolete relic and needs to be completely disbanded and a new organization should be created with a new charter.

Coming back to wolves, the bottom line is that they do not have a bounty on their heads because they are overstepping their natural bounds in any meaningful way. Far from it – they are being persecuted precisely because they are beginning to exert a valid and meaningful role in the ecology of wild Idaho. Unfortunately both the sellers and buyers perceive that legitimate role as that of a vicious competitor who has no place in their neatly stocked ungulate farm.





The Case of the Missing Predator, or Please Pass the Shark Fin Soup

The Case of the Missing Predator, or Please Pass the Shark Fin Soup


From time to time in this website, we examine important scientific papers in light of what they show us about subjects of interest to ourselves and our readers.

         The following paper (Crooks and Soule, Nature, 1999) has become a classic because it vividly shows how the presence or absence of a predator can have unexpected and important effects on an ecosystem.

(I regret that I cannot reprint the entire paper, and can show you only the abstract. Copywrite policies prevent me from doing so, even if I were to purchase it. This is detrimental to the free flow of scientific information, but I have no control over the situation.)

Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinctions in a fragmented system

Kevin R. Crooks1 & Michael E. Soulé2

  1. Department of Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA
  2. The Wildlands Project, PO Box 1302 2010, Hotchkiss, Colorado 81419, USA

Correspondence to: Kevin R. Crooks1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to K.R.C. 
(e-mail: Email:

Mammalian carnivores are particularly vulnerable to extinction in fragmented landscapes1, and their disappearance may lead to increased numbers of smaller carnivores that are principle predators of birds and other small vertebrates. Such 'mesopredator release'2 has been implicated in the decline and extinction of prey species2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Because experimental manipulation of carnivores is logistically, financially and ethically problematic6,7, however, few studies have evaluated how trophic cascades generated by the decline of dominant predators combine with other fragmentation effects to influence species diversity in terrestrial systems. Although the mesopredator release hypothesis has received only limited critical evaluation8 and remains controversial9, it has become the basis for conservation programmes justifying the protection of carnivores6. Here we describe a study that exploits spatial and temporal variation in the distribution and abundance of an apex predator, the coyote, in a landscape fragmented by development. It appears that the decline and disappearance of the coyote, in conjunction with the effects of habitat fragmentation, affect the distribution and abundance of smaller carnivores and the persistence of their avian prey.

Letters to Nature

Nature 400, 563-566 (5 August 1999) | doi:10.1038/23028; Received 22 February 1999; Accepted 5 July 1999

The Soule paper was a sort of scientific detective story.

Michael Soule, who is considered to be the dean of the field of Conservation Biology, if not its creator, examined a puzzling situation in his home city of San Diego, California. The city, although it is highly urban, is transected by many deep and mostly wild ravines that extend out to the ocean front. The ravines contain animal populations and are basically isolated from each other by houses, streets, etc. One can think of them therefore as islands of life, the denizens of which can enter and leave only with great difficulty.

When Soule surveyed the animal populations in these ravines, he noted a strange situation. In some of the ravines there were dense populations of song birds, whereas in others, there were hardly any at all.

The mystery was clarified when Soule examined the other animal populations in these “urban islands.” He found cats in some ravines, and coyotes in others, but never cats and coyotes together. He also noted that in those ravines where there were coyotes but no cats, there were plentiful populations of song birds, but in others where there were no coyotes, but many cats, song birds were missing.

This is partially a big fish, little fish story, with intriguing consequences and implications. The picture that Soule put together was the following: Coyotes and cats are both predators. We call coyotes mesopredators because they themselves are the prey of others, such as mountain lions and wolves. Coyotes, in turn prey on cats and cats eat birds as well as their eggs and young.  Did you ever think of your kitty as a predator when it brought a dead creature home? Well, domestic as well as feral cats are responsible for the deaths of millions of song birds every year!

In those ravines where the only predators were cats, the cats decimated the bird populations. However in those ravines where there were urban coyotes, they preyed on the cats, keeping their numbers way down, thus allowing the bird populations to flourish. Mystery solved.

So, what has this to do with our interests? Just this.  Wolves are keystone predators, meaning that they sit on top of the food chain (if humans are ignored), and due to this situation, their behavior and eating habits result in a cascade of effects to the rest of the ecosystem.

Yellowstone National Park, like those San Diego canyons, is a sort of island of wildlife, surrounded by ranches, highways, houses and other accoutrements of human habitation. Animals do not easily get in or out. When a few wolves were reintroduced there in 1995, some of the effects were anticipated, but others were not.

 The effects of these predators have been widespread and profound. First, they reduced the number of coyotes in the park considerably as the wolves took their place as the top predators in Yellowstone. Then they reduced the elk population from roughly 15-17 thousand to around 4,500 – 5,000 at present. Lest you think that this drop in elk population is the nightmare hunters fear it is in other locales, it all depends on whose ox is gored.

In fact, the elks, themselves an introduced species in the 1930s, had increased greatly in numbers, due mainly to the lack of predators. They overran and overgrazed the park, considerably  changing the ecosystem. How profound these effects were became apparent when the wolves reduced elk numbers and changed their behavior, by chasing them from the river bottoms into the hills.

Aspens, willows and other water–loving plants began to grow in riperian areas, resulting in the stabilization of crumbling creek banks and increasing the amount of shade. Cold water fish, like trout, returned to shaded, cooler waters. Other animal species also benefitted. Animals that depended on the availability of carrion left by the wolves, such as vultures, crows, and foxes made a strong comeback.

These changes have been examined in many studies of the Yellowstone ecosystem by Ripple as well as Creel, W.D. Smith, and Hebblewhite. The documentary film, Lords of Nature, dramatically shows the effects of these changes, both in Yellowstone and in Zion National Park, where extirpation of mountain lions in the main valley has resulted in its being highly degraded by the ever-increasing deer population. In side canyons, where mountain lions still live, the riperian plant and animal life remains lush.

In Yellowstone, the elk and wolves have alternated in population bursts. When wolf numbers increased, the elk numbers diminished. Then the wolf population, stressed by lack of prey, dropped in turn, enabling the elk to make a comeback. These cycles have been observed a number of times during the wolve's 16 year sojurne in Yellowstone, as the wolves and elk repeated their predator/prey dance.

In recent years, the roles of predators in keeping an equilibrium in other species have been intensively studied in many ecosystems. Their value more appreciated by biologists than by the general public. Who knew for example what profound effects the loss of sharks, who are top marine predators, would have on the world’s fisheries. Shark fin soup anybody?

The Number of Wolves Needed for Survival



There has been a swirl of recent events, which threatens the very survival of wolves in the northern Rockies. First, there was the delisting of wolves from the ESA, then the declaration by IDF&G that there will be no kill quota in most of the state during the upcoming wolf hunt, and IDF&G's target of killing 60 out of the estimated 80 wolves in the Lolo region of the Clearwater NF, for allegedly lowering the numbers of elk there. 

Right from the beginning of wolf reintroduction, there has been controversy over the numbers of wolves that would indicate that they were biologically and genetically recovered. Much of the numbers thrown around were quite frankly politically derived and not scientific.

The following article is as far as I know, the first serious attempt by a reporter to examine this issue in an objective way. For that reason, it is well worth reading, if only to compare it with the nonsensical and often irrational opinions that have appeared in much of the western states media.

Ken Fischman



Scientists debate ‘magic number’ of wolves needed for species' survival


By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian | Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2011 7:00 am |


Conservation groups and the federal government continue to disagree how many gray wolves are needed in the Northern Rockies to ensure the species’ survival. 

One of the biggest arguments left unresolved by last year's wolf lawsuit was the most obvious: How many wolves are enough?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the gray wolf off the endangered species list in 2009, with the caveat that at least 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs endure in each of the three states in the northern Rocky Mountain population (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming).

Recent surveys found at least 1,700 wolves in that area – more than enough to justify delisting.

But a coalition of environmental groups sued the government, claiming those numbers were wrong. To survive and thrive, they argued, the population needed at least 2,000 and preferably 5,000 wolves.

FWS biologists said they used the best available science to pick their number. Coalition members cited the well-established rules of conservation biology to justify their threshold. While the scientists dueled, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy decided the case on a technicality and Congress reversed him with a budget rider. Wolves in the Northern Rockies are now delisted, but almost nobody's happy.


Over the past decade, biologists have sought a "magic number" that would simplify endangered species debates. In 2010, an Australian team led by Lochran Traill of the University of Adelaide published a study declaring 5,000 was the population size required to prevent any species' extinction.

"We don't have the time and resources to attend to finding thresholds for all threatened species," Traill told Science Observer Magazine. "(T)hus the need for a generalization that can be implemented across taxa (classes of animals and plants) to prevent extinction."

But another group of U.S. Forest Service researchers along with American and British professors warn that a simple tool may be a flawed tool. While they agree that an easily understood standard helps persuade judges or members of Congress of the need for action, the 5,000 figure doesn't add up. Their paper will be published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

"It's natural for any policy maker and practitioner to look for ways of simplifying the overwhelming process of endangered species management," said Greg Hayward of the Forest Service's Alaska Region Office. "If that worked, it would be a delightful world to live in. But if you're really going to do anything positive, in terms of turning around the situation for these species, going for that simple rule of thumb isn't going to help."

Both sides use a lot of math to make their points. Traill and company looked at 1,198 species with a computer model that calculated how many of each would be needed for the plant or animal to survive in the long term. In particular, the study looked at how many are needed to ensure a species doesn't in-breed itself into extinction.

That's key because one requirement to getting off the endangered species list is a population big enough to guarantee genetic diversity. Earthjustice attorney Doug Honnold relied on that in his argument to Molloy, to show why the wolf should remain a listed species.

"If you're talking about genetics, then there are some basic genetic principles that apply across all species," Honnold said. "It's been documented with every species that's been studied."

Honnold referred to what's called the "50-500 rule" which states you need at least 50 breeding-age females of a species for short-term survival or 500 for the long term. In the case of wolves, there's usually only one breeding female in a pack of four to 10 wolves, so the total population number balloons to 2,000-5,000.


The "magic number opponents" respond that genetics isn't everything. In the case of wolves, where might that 2,000-5,000 figure apply? Do we need a minimum viable population in the three states where wolves were reintroduced back in 1995? Or should the figure be spread across the six-state area now delisted by congressional fiat (adding Utah, Washington and Oregon to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming)? Does it count the Canadian wolves that have relations with American packs along the international border?

"Under the Endangered Species Act, we sort of ignore other segments of populations that are outside the United States," said Hayward's colleague, Steven Beissinger of the University of California-Berkeley. "In the case of the paper we did, one thing we found was, the particular technique people used to come up with this minimum number was very context-specific."

In other words, each animal needs its own formula. Passenger pigeons had different lifespans and breeding rates than wolves. They could fly across continents at will, while wolves may be stymied by freeways. Passenger pigeons were, in fact, the most abundant land bird in the continental United States – 3 billion to 5 billion individuals – before the population crashed between 1870 and 1890. [ note: Here I disagree with the reporter. The passenger pigeon population did not crash. It was deliberately exterminated, using the most atrocious means imaginable.]

Science rarely gets to be just science. Lots of scientific reasons justify the wolf's presence on the landscape: It reduces elk populations, which in turn improves the plant communities along streams, which brings back songbirds and beavers.

But reduced elk numbers aggravate a hunting community that's invested millions of dollars to improve elk habitat. Wolves also have proved a poster target for politicians who want to leash the Endangered Species Act.

Natural Resources Defense Council staff scientist Sylvia Fallon said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knew it would face public resistance if it proposed reintroducing lots of wolves, so it picked a deliberately low 150-per-state figure to get the reintroduction in play.

"They (FWS biologists) say they came up with that number in consultation with scientists, but they never said who they were," Fallon said. "It was some guesswork factoring in social and political considerations at the time, what would be acceptable to the states and the public."

FWS attorneys rejected that claim in their court briefs, but they never got to have the argument in Molloy's courtroom. Without ever discussing what an appropriate number should be, the judge only said the federal government illegally used state boundaries to divide a natural population.


Beissinger suggested a better target in the search for the elusive magic number. Instead of a unified field theory of how many of a species is needed to survive, we humans should settle on what risk factor we're willing to work with, he said.

"In my profession, we don't have a single standard that's been set for what degree of risk we're willing to accept for a species to go extinct," he said. "I could make a calculation for a species and say nine times out of 10, it would be viable there, for 50 years. Would that be good enough, or would you want a 95 percent chance, or an 80 percent chance? But it's too naive to use just measures of population size and come up with some rule of thumb whether a population is safe or not."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at


Wolves Don’t Belong On The Firing Line

Wolves Don’t Belong On The Firing Line

WRITERS ON THE RANGE - September 23, 2009By Ken Fischman

Signs of the times

 The day before the first-ever official wolf hunt started in Idaho on Sept. 1, I stood on the sidewalk outside the county courthouse in Sandpoint, watching cars stream into town. As demonstrators on the sidewalk waved placards protesting the hunt, people in those vehicles reacted, and I focused on their hands, counting waves and thumbs-up as being for the wolves, and middle fingers and thumbs-down as against. The results of my hour-long, admittedly crude poll were 128 for the wolves, 14 against. Surprisingly, truck drivers overwhelmingly sided with the demonstrators and against a hunt.

It occurred to me then that Idaho’s reputation as the most dependably conservative state might be based on a misunderstanding. But then again, where emotions are high, truth flies out the window. When you bring up the subject of wolves at a cafe or gas station in the nearby town of Clark Fork, you’re likely to hear people telling or accepting the most outlandish tales. For instance, many hunters insist that Idaho’s 846 wolves are devastating Idaho’s elk, even though the opposite is true. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, an organization dedicated to hunters, reported in 2009 that although Idaho’s elk population fluctuates, it has risen above 100,000 animals for several years.

Many ranchers in Idaho believe that wolves are decimating livestock. But the Idaho Fish and Game Department found that wolves are responsible for only 1 to 2 percent of sheep depredation. In fact, feral dogs killed four times as many sheep in 2008 as did wolves.

Of all the questions surrounding wolves, the most crucial — and the one that has proved most intractable — is whether the population of wolves in the Northern Rockies has sufficiently recovered to warrant their being taken off the endangered species list. Looking for the right answer is like driving down a winding mountain road in the dark, without headlights.

When the federal government brought wolves back to the West in the mid-’90s, spending some $21 million in the effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that the wolf population would be considered recovered when Idaho, Montana and Wyoming each had 100 wolves. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they came up with that goal.

Common sense tells us that a few hundred wolves in each state can’t be defended as a biologically viable population, yet legislators and wildlife professionals keep trotting out these figures as though they were holy writ to justify their insistence that wolves must be hunted. The latest federal report says that there are 846 wolves in Idaho, 497 in Montana, and 302 in Wyoming. The best minds in conservation biology — the science that deals with the preservation of species — are in agreement that the full recovery of these three distinct populations requires not hundreds, but thousands of animals. 

That means that a hunt at this time is premature. Compare Idaho to Minnesota, where there are 3,000 wolves, almost four times the number in Idaho. The Minnesota wildlife agency will not even consider holding a hunt for five years after wolves are delisted there.
Let’s put the issue in perspective. There are four times as many human beings in the tiny town of Bonners Ferry, up the road from Sandpoint, than there are wolves in all of Idaho. If hunters kill as many wolves as they plan to in this hunt, it will leave small, disconnected populations of wolves genetically isolated from each other and in danger of becoming inbred.

A few months ago, a study by Rolf Peterson of the Michigan Technological Institute, revealed what can happen when wolf populations drop too low. Peterson looked at genetically isolated wolves on Isle Royale National Park, an island in Lake Superior off the coast of Minnesota. All the wolves there have deformities of their backbones, making it difficult and painful for them to run. This is due to inbreeding.
As for what happens now that hunting wolves has begun, the political battle continues. Federal Judge Donald Molloy recently rejected a request from 13 environmental groups that he block wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana. Molloy said that the plan to kill 20 percent of the wolves does not put them in danger of extermination. He warned, however, that the federal government probably violated the Endangered Species Act by leaving Wyoming out of its plan, distinguishing a natural population of wolves “based on a political line, not the best available science.”  By definition, the judge added, that seems “arbitrary and capricious.”

Ken Fischman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a retired geneticist and member of the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance. He lives in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Remarks At Demonstration Against Wolf Hunt


Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

Sandpoint, ID 83864


Remarks at Sandpoint Public Demonstration Against the Upcoming Idaho Wolf Hunt, 8/31/09.

Good Signs of the timesmorning, ladies & gentlemen. I am Dr. Ken Fischman. I am a retired geneticist, living in Sandpoint, Idaho.

I would like to address some important questions of fact and Science today.

Many hunters believe that wolves are devastating Idaho’s elk.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation RMEF), an organization friendly to hunters, published a report in February of this year, showing that Idaho’s elk population fluctuates, but that it has been above 100,000 animals for several years now. The hunters’ perception that there are less elk is probably due to the wolves pushing elk off the valley floors and into the mountains, making the hunters work harder to find them

         RMEF also said that there are over one million elk in this country, most of them in the Northwest. Compare this with the tiny number of wolves. At the last official IDF&G count, in March of this year, there were 846 wolves in Idaho. Hundreds of thousands verses hundreds.

         If you say that it is unfair to compare predators with their prey, lets compare the wolves with other predators. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, there are over 31,000 mountain lions in the Pacific Northwest alone.

• Many ranchers believe that wolves are decimating livestock in Idaho. Once again, this is far from the truth. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Statistics reports that coyotes are responsible for over 2/3 of livestock depredation in the US, and wolves are far down the list.

         The difference gets even more dramatic in Idaho.  ID F&G states that wolves are responsible for only 1 -2 % of sheep depredation in Idaho. Wild dogs killed over 4X as many sheep in Idaho than wolves do. Even eagles and other raptors carry off more lambs than wolves do.

         Yet, when a wolf killed 2 calves on a ranch in Eastern Idaho, it got front page headlines. Why? The answer lies in mythology and hysteria, not in fact.

Lastly, I would like to tackle the question of whether wolves are sufficiently biologically recovered in Idaho to justify their being hunted. Let’s put this in perspective. There are 4X as many human beings in the little town of Bonners Ferry, up the road from here, than there are wolves in all of Idaho. If this hunt goes through and they kill as many wolves as they plan to, they will leave small, disconnected populations of wolves, which will be genetically isolated from each other, and in danger of becoming inbred.

         When we asked for evidence of genetic connectivity, the USF&W gave a few anecdotal references to wandering wolves. That does not prove gene flow from one population to another.

         We no longer have to guess about the consequences of genetic isolation of wolves.  Just a few months ago a study was published on what has happened to the wolves on Isle Royale National Park. Isle Royale is an island in Lake Superior. All the wolves there have deformities of their backbones, making it painful and difficult for them to run. This is due to inbreeding.

         What will IDF&G do to prevent that from happening here? Will they fly wolves by UPS between Yellowstone and central Idaho like they now truck salmon around dams?

         The restoration of wolves has been a great success, but it is premature to hunt them now. The best minds in Conservation Biology talk in terms of several thousands of animals needed for recovery, not hundreds.

         Minnesota, where there are over 3,000 wolves, will not even consider holding a hunt for 5 years after wolves are delisted there.

         Minnesota has acted conservatively. Idaho should follow their lead and postpone its wolf hunt.