Posts Tagged ‘Wolf’

Sleeping With Wolves

Stonebraker Ranch

The Main House at Stonebraker

WolfSleeping With Wolves

By Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

 

It was a dream job. Lanie and I had been chosen by Idaho Fish & Game (IDF&G)to be the sole summer caretakers and guides at their Stonebraker Wilderness Ranch, The ranch was situated at Chamberlain Basin, in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, a 3.5 million acre tract straddling the Salmon River in the middle of the state. We had many wonderful adventures there. It just shows how great a job you can get, if you do not care how little you are paid.

Our time at Chamberlain Basin was almost up now. September had arrived, almost unexpectedly, and we knew that we would be leaving soon. The mornings already had the snap of autumn air in them, and we had to fly out around mid month.before the snows arrived,  It was this realization that spurred my decision to camp out at least once.

We had comfortable quarters in one of the log cabins behind the main dining room/kitchen building and just down the hill from the showers and bathrooms. It was not exactly luxurious. The furnishings were rudimentary and sparse, and the only heat in the surprisingly cold mornings came from the cabin’s wood stove that I had to start in the darkness.

Nevertheless, we did have gas lights, a gas range and refrigerator in the kitchen/dining building, and hot water, along with flush toilets in the shower building, courtesy of a solar panel which ran the water pump from the creek in back of the hill. We even had a generator that was used to run the washing machine.

We had taken many hikes, but we had always returned to Stonebraker Ranch in the evening. This was not roughing it. I felt I had to do something about this before it was too late, so I announced to Lanie that I was going to camp out the following night.

I already knew exactly where I wanted to camp. I must have identified it subliminally on one of our hikes. It was a wooded  area about a mile away to the southeast of the pasture and down two slopes from the ranch, where mounted visitors were supposed to leave their horses to browse. There was a small but flat grassy area, between two cottonwood trees. One side of it was directly above a ten foot bank leading down to a little creek that meandered out of the woods and through a wet meadow. It was an isolated and lovely place.

I carefully gathered the minimum equipment and food I that I needed, just a sleeping bag, some commercial freeze-dried food, a few pots, and some matches. No tent or stove for me. After all, I had been taught how to survive with even less by the legendary wilderness survival teacher Tom Brown, Jr. I was tough!

I said  goodbye to Lanie at the ranch house door in the late afternoon and started on my way. I left about three hours to hike out, set up my camp, and cook dinner before twilight set in. It was a lovely evening as I walked, first through the emerald green and sweet smelling tall grass meadows, then down the two slopes to the group of trees I had in mind.

I arrived in what seemed a surprisingly short time, and proceeded to set up my rather rudimentary camp. I gathered an ample supply of dry wood from fallen lodge pole pine branches and dead branches jutting out from other nearby trees, and proceeded to lay my fire carefully. I intended it to be a one match fire, and I succeeded. I felt like a mountain man.

I scrambled down to the creek to get some water with which to cook dinner. The stream, which was a tiny tributary of Chamberlain Creek at that point, flowed softly, with a gentle whooshing sound, just below the steep bank.  Soon the food was cooking. It is funny, but in situations like this, I had noticed on previous canoeing and camping trips that even ordinary camp food smelled and tasted as delicious as cuisine from an upscale French restaurant. It is supposed to  have something to do with what they call the “presentation” in such snooty places.

Well, Nature’s presentation that night could not be beaten. As twilight fell and the shadows from the trees lengthened , a soft breeze rustled the leaves high up in the cottonwood trees. I looked around at the enchanting scene, first down to the sweet, gurgling creek ,then across the meadow, and to the edge of the dark forest.

As I ate, and savored the food, stars began to be visible and the moon rose. What more could I want from a wilderness camp-out?

After dinner, I went back down the bank and washed my pots and other utensils with sand that I scooped up from the creek. I walked along the top of the bank about  hundred feet south of  my camp and hung these things up along with the next morning’s food. Now they were dangling high above me, on a tree branch where bears could not get to the food. I had even thought of that, and was quite self-satisfied about it.

I walked back to camp, confidant that my precautions lessened the possibility of visits from critters during the night. I snuggled into my down sleeping bag, making a pillow from my red jacket, stuffed inside my dark blue wool sweater.  Yellow and orange flames from the fire flickered and popped a few feet away, giving off a wonderful resinous pine aroma. I was very content.

As the last few embers gave off an ever decreasing red glow, I began to drift off into sleep. Then, the wolves began to howl.

I was instantly wide awake. I realized from the direction and volume of their howls that the wolves were on the other side of the stream and meadow, probably just inside the fringe of trees where the woods began. That meant that they were less than a hundred yards from me. A shiver slid down my vertebral column, from the axis and atlas vertebrae just under my skull, right down to my coccyx, where my tail should have been. If, like most mammals I had had hair on my spine, it would have been standing straight up.Throw baby to wolves

I was scared. Everything I really knew about wolves went right out of my mind. Images of Little Red Riding Hood played hide and seek with that of a ravenous wolf pack chasing a Russian sleigh on a snowy night while its occupants threw the baby to them in order to save themselves from being torn to bits.

I lay there shivering, realizing that only my thin sleeping bag lay between my body and those crushing, razor-sharp teeth. I was trapped. Where was my 30-30 rifle with the telescopic sight and silver bullets? Oh, oh. I did not own one! Well then, where could I go? Run for home? Too far I thought. Climb a tree? Damn, these were cottonwoods and pine, with long straight trunks, impossible for me to scramble up. Why was there not a fir friendly tree nearby, with low, wide spread branches? I lay still, with my mind Chamberlain Wolf 1996racing, trying to think of a life saving strategy.

Unaware Little Red Riding Hood

Beware of the Big Bad Wolf

Well, Lanie will tell you that I can sleep through anything, and I proved it that night. The next thing I knew, the sun was warming my face and a gentle breeze stirred the cottonwood leaves above me. I was still alive! I woke with a start, and looked around me. No wolves ominously circling. I breathed the fresh, cold air deeply a few times, unzipped the sleeping bag, got up, and padded around the periphery of my camp, searching the ground. No wolf tracks. I collected my senses, as well as the camping equipment.

I headed home, to Stonebraker. Ho hum, just another beautiful day in Idaho, but I had a good story to tell.

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.

Are the Beliefs of Earth-Based Peoples a Valid Guide to Their Behavior?

Are the Beliefs of Earth-Based Peoples a Valid Guide to Their Behavior?

Ken Fischman, Ph.D

Jon Young with Bushmen in Botswana

Jon Young with Bushmen in Botswana

Is there any validity to the oral histories of indigenous peoples? Typically, the avatars of western culture do not put much stock in the legends, stories, and myths of indigenous peoples. Being people of technology and the written word, we especially look down on those who have no written language, regarding them as “primitive,” and therefore not worthy of being taken seriously if we bother to study them at all.

When we study another culture, we usually take only so-called hard evidence seriously. Evidence such as bones, implements, hieroglyphics, and ruins can be touched, photographed, categorized, and put in the form of graphs and tables. We even define whether a people had something called a “civilization” in such a way as to downgrade the importance of  any people unless they had monumental ruins, a written (and decipherable) language, hierarchical social orders with division of labor, and whether or not they made war.(Guess which one counted highest.)

My point here is that I do not think that we attach sufficient significance to the beliefs of Earth-based peoples. Imagine if you can, that a future historian dismissed the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution as not having any bearing on the way people lived in North America during the past 200 years. I think that you would agree that such an attitude was ludicrous and showed sloppy scholarship indeed.

Yet, in a very real sense, this is what many scholars do when it comes to the beliefs and behavior of people whose traditions are oral. I believe that we should take these beliefs more seriously and give them more weight when we attempt to reconstruct events in pre-history. I came across the following story some years ago and found it a good example of this principal.

 

The Legend of Mount Mazama

 (As told by a Klamath elder to a soldier in 1865. Retold by Ella E. Clark In: Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1952.)

The story begins when the spirit of the Below-World fell in love with the chief’s daughter and demanded that she marry him. This overture was denied and the rejection did not sit well with the spirit, who threatened to destroy the people. “Raging and thundering, he rushed up through the opening and stood on top of the mountain.”

The spirit of another great mountain now intervened and the two mountains began some sort of combat. “Red hot rocks, as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The chief of the Below-World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountain and in the valleys. On and on the curse of the fire swept, until it reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, the people found refuge in the waters of Klamath Lake.”

The Klamaths decided that someone should sacrifice him- or herself to appease the spirit. Two medicine men climbed the mountain and jumped into the opening [Caldera?}

“Once more the mountains shook. This time the chief of the Below-World was driven into his home and the top of the mountain fell on him. When the morning sun arose, the high mountain was gone.” Then, according to the Klamaths, rain fell. For many years rain fell in torrents and filled the great hole that was made when the mountain fell …”

Note: This legend appears to be describing the simultaneous eruptions of two volcanoes. The very language seems to be evocative of volcanic eruptions. The Klamath’s legend appears to be about Mt. Mazama in Oregon, and its twin, Mt. Shasta in northern California, as having spirits who lived in them, and openings [vents?] which led to a lower world through which the spirits passed. The Klamaths apparently knew when the mountain was active because when he [the spirit] came up from his lodge below, his tall form towered above the snow-capped peaks [smoke, steam?].

volcano erupting

 

After all, how would the Klamaths know about such things unless they had actually witnessed them? The only trouble with believing that this legend was a kind of transposition of an eyewitness account is that there have been no volcanic eruptions in the Pacific Northwest since Mt. Mazama blew its top three thousand years ago. Could the story have been passed down from generation to generation for such a long time period?

Before you dismiss such an idea as fanciful, consider the part about the rain filling the great hole made when the mountain fell. It seems to be describing Crater Lake, which was formed in exactly that fashion when Mt. Mazama collapsed.

Our culture, which depends on the written word and now also on electronic bytes, can hardly conceive of such prodigious feats of memory. However, many other cultures, which depend on oral history to keep accounts of their people’s stories, developed this capacity over millennia.

Crater Lake, Oregon

One startling example of this capacity is cited by anthropologist Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in her delightful book, Other People’s Myths. O’Flaherty states “ India has two sorts of Sanskrit classics, typified by two great texts, the Rig Veda and the Mahabbarata.  The Rig Veda is a massive collection of hymns, a text of over 350,000 words (as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined); it was preserved orally for over three thousand years. The Mahabbarata is one of the two great Sanskrit epics (the other being the Ramayana), a text of over 100,000 verses, or three million words (almost ten times as long as the Rig Veda, and fifteen times the combined length of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament); it was preserved both orally and in manuscript form for over two thousand years. “

These texts were recited flawlessly in villages from one end of the Indian subcontinent, to the other without a single mistake. Doniger tells the perhaps apocryphal story that it was only when these classics were translated by an English Consul into print that mistakes began to appear.

Navaho “singers” are capable of memorizing three-day ceremonies so flawlessly that no mistake creeps in. In fact, these ceremonies are never written down, but are passed from one singer to another down the generations. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, tells the amusing story of one such singer, Jeff King, who, in 1966, recited his ceremony and made a sand painting for a distinguished audience at the New York Museum of Natural History. When he had appeared to finish, he was confronted by one very knowledgeable woman, who insisted that he had left something out. “No” he said. “Yes” she said, and insisted that he put it in. “I cannot, he said, if I did so, every woman in Manhattan would become pregnant.” As Campbell put it, “Those Navaho ceremonies had power!”

(Jeff King Sand painting below)

In sum, I believe that western scientists and anthropologists are mistaken to dismiss the oral histories of these people. In doing so, they are losing a lot of valuable knowledge, that may have at least as much validity as Carbon 14 isotope studies.

The reason why I emphasize that oral histories should be taken more seriously is that I have trouble with people who tell me that the only reason that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples did not destroy their environments just as thoroughly as we seem to be doing, is that they lacked bulldozers and insecticides.

On my side, I find it hard to believe that people who regarded the rivers as their sisters, would have raped them by pouring toxic waste into them, or thought of their forests as brothers, would have clear-cut them. Explain to me how people who looked at wolves as older brothers and whose scouts emulated them, like the Cheyenne did, would have turned around and shot them from Cessnas if only they had they possessed such equipment.

Wildlife Services airplane displays killed wolf decals on engine cowling

 

Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf

 

Again, An Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf

By Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

August 23, 2012

 

It looks as though Interior Secretary Salazar has struck a deal with Wyoming to end its Endangered Species listing for wolves in that state. According to the New York Times, the arrangement will be similar to that now in force in Idaho and Montana, with a minimum number of 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. However, wolves will still be treated as vermin, to be shot on sight year round in 4/5s of the state. Thus, Wyoming has apparently received from the Obama administration most of what it had held out for.

The New York Times August 21, 2012 Editorial, “Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf, “ (c f.) questioned whether 150 wolves/state would be a viable population for Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho. If you consider that my state, Idaho, contains about 1.3 million people, 20,000 black bears, and over 100,000 elk, the number 150 stands in stark contrast to these populations. No reputable biologist that I know of believes that such a number would be anything but a relict population, genetically threatened by inbreeding, and possibly extinction.

Even Ed Bangs, who was US Fish & Wildlife Wolf Recovery Coordinator, recently admitted that this number of wolves “is not defensible.”
Interestingly enough, the lead article in Science, September 2011, “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth”, emphasizes the value of wolves and other top predators in keeping a healthy balance in our ecosystems. It was authored by some of the world’s leading Conservation Biologists. The article is excerpted on the Ancient Pathways web site under the title of  “Trophic Downgrading or Where Have All the Predators Gone,?” and contains a lot of valuable information on the effect of apex predators.

Additionally, Times readers should know that the wolf hunting season in Idaho is now year around, if you count private land, which is about 40% of the state. Any land owner, with a valid wolf tag can shoot wolves on sight. When you consider that the southern third of the state is desert, in which wolves are rarely seen, the territory safe for wolves shrinks considerably more. Also, the number of wolves that can be killed in 8 out of 13 “Wolf Zones” is unlimited.

Obama promised that he would reverse the Bush administration’s politicization of science. This does not appear to be true for wolves. I guess that it is because they do not vote.

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New York Times

EDITORIAL

Uncertain Future for the Gray Wolf

Published: August 21, 2012

A Wolf Pack in Isle Royale NP

Wolves In Isle Royale National Park

Wolves in Montana and Idaho lost their endangered species status last year. Interior had concluded that both states had developed management plans that would keep wolf populations at healthy levels.

The delisting has led to the death of hundreds of wolves in sanctioned hunts. But at least Montana and Idaho established limits on hunting seasons and on the number of wolves that can be taken across the entire state. In Wyoming, by contrast, wolves in four-fifths of the state will be essentially treated as vermin that can be killed at any time, and for almost any reason.

Interior says not to worry. Most of Wyoming’s wolves are in the state’s northwest corner, it points out, and can be shot only during a defined hunting season. Further, the state has agreed not to reduce the statewide population below 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs.

This is a more protective plan than Wyoming’s politicians, ranchers and hunters wanted a year ago. But whether it’s enough to guarantee a sustainable population is far from clear. Interior has promised to review its deals with Montana and Idaho after five years. It must demand the same of Wyoming. The question there is whether, after five years, there will be any wolves left to review.

 

 

Trophic Downgrading or Where Have All the Predators Gone?

THE TROPHIC DOWNGRADING OF PLANET EARTH

(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.

The Tracks In Chauvet Cave

The Tracks In Chauvet Cave

by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

 

 

The two sets of tracks were side by side.  One of them was  that of a young child, and the other of a wolf.

What if I were to tell you that these tracks were found deep within Chauvet Cave, high above the Ardeche River in France, a cave, which contains some of the most glorious Stone Age art ever found? Some of the paintings on the walls of Chauvet date back to at least the Upper Paleolithic period, some 32,000 years ago. Among them are unforgettable scenes of mammoths, rhinoceroses, ungulates of all kinds, and even a leopard. One of the most striking scenes is that of a group of nervous, hard breathing horses, with the adjacent wall showing a pride of maneless lions intently stalking them.

Chauvet Horses

The Nervous Horses

My story begins a few nights ago, when my wife and I were viewing Werner Herzog’s film, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” on NetFlix. The film is a documentary about Chauvet. Herzog and his crew were the first non-scientists or technicians allowed in the environmentally fragile cave. As the film crew, shooting as they went, descended deep within the cavern, we were enchanted by the beauty of the cave itself as well as the artistry of the painters. The cave, with its paintings had afterward been sealed like a time capsule, due to a rock fall some 20,000 years ago. It was rediscovered in 1996.

The entire cave is about eighteen hundred feet long, and consists of several rooms, some large, some small, connected by passages. Most of the rooms are filled with stalactites and stalagmites interspersed with curtain like sheets of sparkling limestone. At one point the camera panned along the cave’s dusty floor, showing bones of various animals strewn haphazardly across it. We also saw numerous cave bear skulls (Ursus spelaeus).

And then, within the stygian depths of the cave, the camera came upon the tracks of the boy and the wolf. I forgot everything else at that point and focused on these like a laser.

Maneless lions, Stalking Horses?

Chauvet Lions Painting

To understand my fascination with these tracks, I need to tell you a little about myself.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of my adult life among the bricks and cement of New York City. I earned a Ph.D. in Genetics, and worked in a laboratory right in the middle of the Big Apple. Despite my upbringing and profession, I always had a great love for the out of doors and have spent a great deal of my spare time in the woods and on rivers.

In the nineteen eighties, following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say, my wife Lanie and I took our first class in primitive skills with Tom Brown, the noted wilderness survival teacher. We went on to participate in several of his tracking and wilderness awareness classes, and taught in his school. Since then, Lanie and I have created various programs and primitive skills classes ourselves.

One of our passions has been tracking. We even tracked weasels under the snow in Manhattan’s Central Park and pheasants in Inwood Park at the northern tip of Manhattan.

After we moved out West, I became interested in protection of endangered wildlife, especially the wolf. Living here in the Idaho Panhandle, a few miles from Canada, I have learned a great deal about the biology and behavior of wolves, and we have even tracked them in Yellowstone National Park.

Herzog, who served both as director and narrator of the film, again panned his camera over the wolf and human tracks. Yes, I could see that they were side by side, and was able to get an idea of their sizes and gaits (i.e. manner and pattern of walking), but the camera was too far away to see much detail. Herzog posed some provocative questions. “Was the wolf stalking the boy?” he asked, “or were they walking side by side as companions”? He also pointed out that the tracks may have been made simultaneously or a thousand or more years may have separated them in time.

Tracks can tell fascinating stories if you know how to read them, but these were enigmatic. Herzog’s questions intrigued me and set me to thinking.

Unfortunately, the chances of anyone ever inspecting and measuring the tracks from in close are not good. Herzog was filming from a metal walkway, laid down some years ago, about ten feet from the tracks, and he was not allowed to step off the walkway and get closer to them. Too bad. Although it is possible to track at a distance, and I once witnessed Tom Brown spot and identify fox tracks across a pond from him, you can tell much more about the animal or person who made the tracks from in close. However, the representatives of the French government, who control the cave, have “rules of engagement” that preclude anyone from seeing a lot of it at close quarters, for fear that they would disturb or destroy something vital. This is especially true of the cave’s floor, which has a thick layer of dust on it, which they do not want to disturb.

This situation was frustrating to me as a tracker, used to examining tracks on my hands and knees, and seeing subtle aspects of them that give clues, even about the animal’s state of mind and intentions. None of that was of course possible from such a distance, but still some information could be obtained from the quick look we were afforded.  Besides, it does have the advantage of leaving me free to speculate about the tracks without fear of contradiction by uncomfortable facts that may be uncovered later. In this I am in the common position of an Anthropologist, who my son, a science journalist, says use 5% facts and 95% speculation.

So, freed from those putative facts, I plunge into my own “cave of forgotten memories.”

First, you should understand that careful exploration of Chauvet had previously shown that although cave bears and other animals had obviously used it, no human ever lived in this cave. It was probably entered by humans only for the purpose of making the paintings, and using them for rituals and initiations. The child’s tracks however, were found deep in the cave. What was a young child doing there?

The nether regions of the cave were normally pitch black. Until recently, there was no light in those parts of the cave except intermittently, coming from torches carried by humans. Carbon traces from these torches have been found on the walls, which have been carbon dated to 28,000 years ago.

Due to the necessity for light, it is almost certain that the perhaps eight-year-old boy or girl was not alone in the cave. The child must have been accompanied, at the very least, by one adult. Given the youngster’s age, whoever accompanied him or her, was undoubtedly well known to the child, and was most likely a parent. So, I think that we may all give a sigh of relief, confident that the wolf did not “get” the youngster. Adding to this inductive reasoning is the fact that no child’s bones have been found in the cave either. This should give us even more assurance about his or her welfare.

As for Herzog’s question of whether the child and wolf were there at the same or different times, I am fairly confident about that situation too. First, the cave is basically dry. It is situated high above the present course of the Ardeche River, so that is likely that the only water that could have reached it was through a spring or springs trickling along tree roots, through the rock. We know that the tracks were made at least twenty thousand years ago. That is guaranteed by that rock fall, which sealed the cave until its rediscovery in 1996. The preservation of the tracks for at least the intervening 8,000 years, attests to the fact that no water, mud, or flood had ever reached them during that very long time.

Because of that, it appears that the wet conditions, necessary for making these tracks, must have been a very rare occurrence in the history of the cave. For these reasons, I feel pretty sure that the wolf and the boy had not been walking the cave thousands of years apart. That would have been too great a coincidence. Most likely, they strolled together, or had been there within a few days of each other.

I lean toward the companion theory for several reasons. For one thing, even the cursory sight we were afforded, showed me that both the wolf and the child were just walking along at a normal pace. There was no sign that either of them were running, galloping, or had even lengthened their strides. There was no sign of fear or panic on the part of the child.

Another aspect that I noticed was that the tracks never crossed each other or overlapped. If the tracks were made at different times, it is likely that they would have coincided, at least in part. After all, the cave is fairly narrow, and places where someone could walk are quite confined. There would not have been much room for their tracks to not come in contact except if they had been walking, aware of each other, side by side.

Furthermore, from what I know of wolves, if this one had been stalking the child, it would have literally walked in his tracks. For example, when a wolf pack walks in the snow, they step in each other’s tracks and do so with remarkable precision. This has the effect of breaking the trail, making it easier for the other wolves to follow the leader. Groups of human cross country skiers and snow shoers do this too, and for the same reason. It saves energy.

In this behavior, by the way, the wolf differs from human trackers, who on the contrary, are careful to not step in the tracks they are following. They do this as a courtesy to others, who also may want to examine and follow this set of tracks. Wolves apparently are not as courteous, but are more pragmatic than we are.

This wolf behavior reminds me of the flying wedges of geese, who essentially are “drafting“ the leader as racing cars do. The following geese switch places with each other from time to time in a systematic fashion so that they each take turns leading.  This has the effect of distributing the hard task of leading fairly equally among the flock.

I do not know if members of a wolf pack tracking prey, change places from time to time, but I have been assured by wolf biologists that wolves definitely track their prey, thus showing that they understand that tracks signify that particular types of animals have passed that way. For instance, they would not waste their time and energy tracking a grizzly bear.

By the way, I wonder if wolves can distinguish fresh or recent tracks from older ones? A good human tracker can “age” tracks visually, just by examining them closely. Such an ability would certainly be of value to wolves, because, once again, following old or “stale” tracks (especially if they were a thousand years old!) would be a waste of their energy. Conservation of energy is one of the prime characteristics of wild animals’ behavior. Your pet Labrador retriever might fetch a stick out of the water for you dozens of times, but you can bet that you would not be able to get a wolf to do that.

A wolf can probably track both visually and olfactorially, having a much keener and more discriminating sense of smell than we have.

To return from this digression to the question at hand, it seems to me that the parallel tracks indicate that the child and the wolf were aware of each other’s presence.

Whether they were companions is a more difficult question to answer. Present day dogs are the descendants of wolves, but the information we have at present, mostly from DNA studies, indicates that the transition from wolf to dog took place in at least two different areas of the world at about the same time, some 12,000 years ago. One of these birthplaces was in China and the other in the Near East, both far from Chauvet cave in the Ardeche region of south-central France. So, both in space and time, it seems unlikely that this transition was taking place near Chauvet at the time the tracks were made there.

Nevertheless, we must consider, for our purposes, that the transition from wolf to dog must have started, not with animal husbandry, but with the taming of wolves. This was most likely to have occurred by humans stealing or removing cubs from a wolf den. I know of no instance of an adult or even yearling wolf pup being tamed by humans. One of the most striking characteristics of wolves is their fierce wildness.

Aesop’s fable of the Wolf and the Dog indicates that this wolfy independence was a known and admired fact, way back in Roman times.

However, wolf breeders know that if they obtain a pup early enough, it will regard them as its parents and will bond to them for life. Present day hunter gatherers and other Earth based peoples are keen observers of their natural surroundings, and especially of animals. The wonderful stories and myths that have come down to us from Native Americans testify to that knowledge.

We can assume with confidence therefore that the Cro-Magnons of Chauvet were very familiar with this aspect of wolf behavior, and could have manipulated it to their favor, perhaps using such tamed wolves as guards or even aids in hunting, as present day Botswana Bushmen do with wild dogs.

Another important consideration is that human beings are not the normal prey of wolves. There have been only one or two authenticated wolf attacks on humans on this continent in the last two hundred years. This is true at least of North America. Admittedly, Of course I cannot vouch for this situation with respect to Paleolithic Europe.

All of these bits and pieces of information and speculation have painted a picture for me of a child and a wolf, wandering together through Chauvet cave while the adults were painting other pictures. It is a nice image, and I aim to keep it unless not yet revealed facts arise to contradict it.

Chauvet cave is a marvel indeed, opening to us not only a window on the considerable artistic abilities of Paleolithic man, but also on his inner life, and perhaps in the case of the child and wolf, on his connections to the natural world.

I suspect that the story of the tracks in Chauvet cave will always remain mysterious. After all, we are talking about events that happened a long time ago. Despite our careful analysis, it is still 5% facts and 95% speculation. Perhaps that is what it should be. Sometimes a mystery is more fun than its solution.

The Rhinoceroses of Chauvet

Wall paintings in Chauvet, showing two rhinoceroses

 

 

 

 

 

MYTHS & FACTS ABOUT WOLVES

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

Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance (NIWA)

and

Ancient Pathways to A Sustainable Future

Contact: Ken Fischman, Spokesman

bigfish@gotsky.com

•      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

seasons.

•   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

THE PREDATOR/PREY RELATIONSHIP. WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?        

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: krcrooks@earthlink.net.).

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?

Scientists debate number of wolves needed for species’ survival

 

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

[To my knowledge, this is the first article in the media to address from a scientific point of view the important issue of how many wolves are needed for a viable population. Chaney points out that according to the Conservation Biology 50/500 rule, from 2,000 - 5,000 wolves are needed in the Northern Rockies to insure a population with sufficient genetic diversity.

He also points out that the areas chosen for reintroduction, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, are artificial, ignoring the fact that wolves regularly move back and forth between these states and Canada. 

He looks at the much cited 1987 restoration goal of 150 wolves per state, and bluntly labels it as a dishonest political, and not a scientific number. Ed Bangs, the retiring Wolf Coordinator for USFW has admitted as much in a recent interview.

Finally, I would be remiss in not stating that Chaney's enlightening article appears to have come too late to save Northern Rockies wolves. As most readers know, they have been removed from the protection of the ESA. Idaho's and Wyoming's stated plans for them, will basically lead to either their total extermination or to their reduction to a few struggling packs and lone wolf wanderers, that will have little or no effect on the ecosystem and will be seldom even glimpsed in our forests.]

by Ken Fischman

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. National Park Service photo

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 rchaney@missoulian.com.

Note: some passages were bolded by KF for emphasis