Wildlife Issues

New research says elk fear cougars more than wolves…and for good reason

 Buckrail Aug 7, 2019     Jackson Hole, Wyoming

 New research suggests elk are more afraid of cougars than wolves. NPS / Connor Meyer

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – A new study released in Ecology Letters this month highlights how elk navigate areas where more than one predator is present. Specifically, the results suggest elk are more afraid of mountain lions than wolves because cougars are better at killing than canines.

The study begins with the accepted notion that many ecosystems, including the GYE, contain sympatric predator species that hunt in different places and times. The question researchers wanted answered was whether there exist places and times when prey can feel relatively safe, and whether they adjust their behavior accordingly.

What the authors of the study found is that prey, in this case, elk, do indeed minimize threats from multiple predators simultaneously by adjusting their movements to certain types of terrain at certain hours of the day or night. For the most part, elk are able to avoid one predator without necessarily increasing its exposure to the other.

“We tested the extent that elk selected for vacant hunting domains to avoid predation from wolves and cougars in northern Yellowstone National Park,” stated lead author Michel T. Kohl. “Wolves are cursorial predators that kill mainly in flat, open areas at morning and dusk, whereas cougars are spot-and-stalk/ambush predators that kill mainly in topographically rugged, forested areas at night. We predicted that elk selected for flat, open areas at night (night-flat and night-open domains), and for rugged, forest areas during daylight (day-rugged and day-forest domains). We studied elk habitat selection in winter when wolves and cougars were the only major elk predators inside [the park] and during a period (2001–2004) when densities of both predators were highest.”

Authors of the study said one main takeaway from their research is exposing the false notion that wolves are solely responsible for elk predation or any population reduction.

“We demonstrate how it is perilous to assume that prey habitat selection in a multi-predator environment is sensitive to just one predator species. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995–1997, they joined a system that was already populated by other predators of elk, including growing numbers of grizzly bears and cougars,” Kohl wrote. “Despite this predator diversity, subsequent research and commentary about elk space use in and around Yellowstone have assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that wolves are the only (or primary) predator that elk respond to. Our study is the first to test this long-held assumption, and our results suggest it is false.”

The study found strong evidence that elk habitat selection is shaped by the risk of predation from both wolves and cougars. Further, wolf-only models of elk habitat selection performed poorly compared to other models that included male cougars.

“We also found that male cougars, not wolves, exerted the most pressure on elk habitat selection,” Kohl added.

Researchers were not sure why male mountain lion activity and not females had the most effect on elk but could not rule out the role females play in elk predation.

Bottom line, researchers say, is their results shed new light on how multiple predators can drive prey habitat selection in a predator-rich environment, and how prey are able to minimize these multiple threats simultaneously.

Cattlemen say ‘incremental’ removal of wolves ineffective

Wolf

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s incremental approach to thinning a wolfpack in the Kettle River Range leads to a cycle of conflict between wolves and livestock, a cattlemen’s group said Monday.

By not removing the entire pack, Fish and Wildlife allows cattle-killing wolves to regroup, reproduce and renew attacks, according to the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association.

“This ‘incremental’ approach has not worked from the beginning and is still a failed policy,” the association’s president, Scott Nielsen, said.

Fish and Wildlife Director Kelly Susewind on July 10 ordered the incremental removal of wolves after the OPT pack killed a cow in the Colville National Forest. The department did not say how many wolves it planned to kill, but incremental removal in the past has meant shooting a wolf or two and pausing to see the effect on the rest of the pack.

The department shot two wolves in the pack last year. When depredations continued, Fish and Wildlife planned to kill the pack’s two known survivors. The department suspended the operation after a fruitless two-week search in November. Most of the cows were off the federal grazing allotment by then.

The department now says the pack has five adults and at least four pups.

By suspending the operation last fall, Fish and Wildlife left conditions for conflicts to continue this year, said Stevens County Commissioner Don Dashiell, a member of the department’s Wolf Advisory Group.

“They should have kept after it,” he said. “Just because most of the cattle were gone, there was no reason to quit.”

Fish and Wildlife has not provided an update on the current operation.

The department also killed wolves in the area in 2016 and 2017. At the insistence of conservation groups, the department pledged this year to seek “creative alternatives … to break the cycle of lethal removal of wolves.”

In this case, the department says non-lethal measures have failed and that it expects attacks on livestock to continue unless some wolves are removed.

The response from environmental groups has been fairly muted. The Center for Biological Diversity did not seek a restraining order to block Fish and Wildlife from shooting wolves, as it has in the past.

Conservation Northwest policy director Paula Swedeen said in a statement that the Kettle River Range was “important grazing lands for local livestock producers, many of whom have been working and stewarding these lands for generations.”

“The history of conflict here shows it won’t be easy, but we want to see successful coexistence in the Kettles into the future. We are anxious to participate in community-wide discussions of all interested parties on how to end this cycle of loss,” said Swedeen, who’s on the Wolf Advisory Group.

The OPT pack, also referred to as the Old Profanity Territory pack, has killed at least seven and injured at least 13 cattle since Sept. 5, according to Fish and Wildlife.

Defenders of Wildlife Northwest Director Quinn Read criticized the resumption of lethal removal.

“Wolves are subjected to a vicious cycle in which they are attracted to the region’s rich wildlife habitat, encounter cattle on problematic grazing allotments and are killed for the resulting conflicts,” she said in a statement.

The Psychology of Wolf Fear and Loathing

Why is the wolf, above all other species, including bears and mountain lions, so widely hated and feared?

We frequently hear two explanations for why wolves are so feared, loathed and hated, one being the folklore and fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, etc.) that we inherited from Europe; and one being that wolves kill livestock and compete with humans for wild game.

The problem with these explanations is that they are only the tip of something deeper.  They don’t explain why wolves were singled out in the fairy tales in the first place.  Nor do they explain why wolves are feared and hated more than are other large carnivores, like bears and cougars, that compete with humans for wild game and occasionally prey on livestock.  So, while fairly tales and depredation might partly explain why many Europeans and Americans fear and hate wolves, a deeper explanation underlies the animosity.  (Also, Europeans seem to be further along on the learning curve than Americans in this respect, as wolves are being allowed to make a comeback in several European countries.)

My conjecture is that the deeper explanation has to do with the fact that wolves are in many ways more like human beings than are any other animal species that we have shared the landscape with – at least since modern humans left Africa.  They are very social, just like humans, and live in extended family groups (packs) just as our ancestors did.  All members play a role in providing and caring for the family group, just as our ancestors did – at least until injury, sickness or old age becomes disabling.  And there is good reason to think that wolves and humans enjoyed a kind of mutualism when humans were nomadic hunters & gatherers, in which they helped each other acquire food.  Wolves probably led humans to sources of huntable game, and humans probably left plenty of scraps for the wolves, similar to what we see today in Yellowstone, where ravens lead wolves to game and share in the spoils of the hunt.

Canis lupus bailey © MasterImages

Canis lupus bailey © MasterImages

Now, so far this might seem like a good reason for honoring and respecting wolves instead of fearing and hating them.  But here’s the twist: As humans became more “civilized” and less dependent upon (and hence more removed from) wild nature, they simultaneously developed the idea that they were special – a little lower than the angels, as it were.  And with this came a kind of self-hatred and fear of our uncivilized but natural impulses that had to be suppressed in order for civilization to exist.  In this connection, I think Freud is illuminating – especially his book Civilization and its Discontents.  Thinking in terms of the core Freudian constructs, id, ego, and superego, the job of the superego is to censor the id and keep it under control by means of guilt to suppress anti-social drives and impulses. But at a price: foregone satisfaction – hence the discontent.  (Nietzsche, who predated Freud and really should be credited for the idea of the unconscious, referred to “the wild dogs in the cellar” that are constantly clamoring to break free.)

You can probably see where I am going at this point: Everything that we have come to loathe about ourselves, including our tendencies toward aggression and our basic animal nature and various bodily functions (“cleanliness is next to Godliness”), we civilized ones now project onto wolves, since wolves have no compunctions in this regard.

This helps explain why the wolf is equated with Satan in Christian lore – wolves are the enemy of the sheep, just as our base impulses are an enemy to civilization (and more immediately, to one’s social identity and acceptance by the flock).

This might also go some distance in explaining why we love dogs so much: they are domesticated wolves, analogous to civilized people with strong superegos.  It doesn’t go the whole way in explaining why we love dogs so much, I’m sure.  But perhaps it at least explains what made it possible for us to love dogs simply for what they are.

This explanation suggests that fear and loathing of wolves is indicative of alienation from and animosity toward wildness (unconquered, untamed nature) in general, as expressed by a compulsive need to try to control it and overcome it.  This folly can be understood as the metaphorical meaning of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9).

Might the foregoing explanation help us learn to coexist with wolves?  Can we use it to improve the prospects for the ecologically-critical but socially and politically difficult recovery of wolves across the country? Let’s share our ideas through Rewilding Earth, then with our neighbors.

Kirk Robinson

Kirk Robinson

Kirk Robinson is the founder and executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy.  He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Prior to founding Western Wildlife Conservancy, Kirk earned a Ph.D. in philosophy and taught courses at universities in Montana and Utah for 15 years. His favorite activities are exploring the wildlands of the American West and trying to learn to play fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar. Kirk is a charter member of TRI’s Rewilding Leadership Council.

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Wolves in the Gros Ventre of Wyoming

National Elk Refuge webcam pic

Here’s a link to an interesting article on wolves in the Gros Ventre of Wyoming which is just south of Grand Teton National Park. If you watch the National Elk Refuge cam, you will see how many elk are there this winter (2019), and if you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a coyote or wolf going by! https://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/environmental/article_28608fb3-4377-5546-aeef-6d7f8500c9d5.html

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A North American Wolf Vision

Beautiful, strong, and wild, America’s wolves once ranged across most of the United States. More than a symbol of wilderness, scientists agree that wolves have kept nature in balance and have helped maintain healthy populations of other important species. But, centuries of hunting, trapping, poisoning, and a government-sponsored eradication campaign had essentially eliminated wolves from the American landscape.

Today, thanks to the safety net of the Endangered Species Act, wolves are finally beginning to recover in wild places and are once again a vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage. Gray wolves returned on their own to the Western Great Lakes region and northwest Montana and were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. We have also returned  gray wolves to a small area of the high desert Southwest, and red wolves to a portion of eastern North Carolina.

However, the current restoration efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) endeavor only to recover small, geographically isolated populations encompassing a relatively insignificant portion of their historic range. And although gray wolves are slowly making their way into places such as Oregon and Washington — and one wolf has made it to California — the FWS has no plans to restore wolves to substantial areas of suitable habitat that exist in places such as the Southern Rocky Mountains, New England and, in the case of the red wolf, the remainder of the Southeast. In fact, the current FWS proposal will strip protections of the Endangered Species Act for all gray wolves, except for the tiny population that is struggling to survive in the Southwest.

If the current proposal is approved, it will allow states to engage in widespread shooting, trapping and poisoning of gray wolves. Any gray wolves attempting to repopulate additional portions of their former range could be heavily targeted for persecution. In the absence of legal protection, these wolves may never be able to establish sustainable populations across much of their suitable habitats.

We envision the return of the wolf to its rightful place in North American wild lands; where humans dwell with increasing respect and acceptance for this wild species. We call for the recovery of wolves across North America, filling their critical roles in nature, and providing hope and inspiration to communities.  Such recovery means:

1. Restoration of wolves in suitable habitats across North America, from the Northern Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico to the Canadian Rockies, and from the U.S. Pacific Northwest and California to the Upper Great Lakes, the Northeast, and the Southeast as well.

2. Protection and restoration of all suitable wolf habitats and the crucial corridors that link these habitats together, at the local, regional, and continental scales, allowing wolves to roam freely across a network of interconnected wild lands.

3. Restoration of wolves in ecologically and evolutionarily effective populations so that they may fulfill their natural keystone role of ecosystem regulation, aiding the continued diversity of native flora and fauna.

4. Increasing Social acceptance and appreciation by humans for the role that stable wolf populations play in reestablishing healthy landscapes across North America. 

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Coyote Fact Sheet

Coyotes are family oriented and very intelligent.  They are indeed wily.  They possess intelligence, feelings and emotions.  They experience pain and grief.  They love and care for each other.  Native Americans admired and revered them.

Coyotes are much more beneficial than harmful.  Coyotes control rodent and rabbit populations, thereby checking the spread of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and chronic wasting disease (which is lethal to deer, elk and moose).  By reducing rabbit populations, they create more forage for deer, elk, mountain sheep, pronghorns and moose.

Despite this, coyotes are killed by the thousands in Utah and other western states.  Utah is one of only two states that has a bounty on coyotes: If you have a dead coyote in hand and can prove it was killed in Utah, you can get paid $50 by the government!

There are also “coyote calling contests” in rural parts of the state, where a small entry fee allows you and a partner to engage in “calling” in and shooting as many coyotes as you can during a period of one or two days.  The team that kills the most coyotes, or the largest one, wins a prize, which is typically a piece of hunting or trapping gear.  Participants often describe the thrill and sheer fun they enjoy.  They think of it as a wholesome activity that actually benefits other wild animals, ranchers and farmers.

Yet random killing of coyotes, as occurs with coyote kill contests, has been shown to not reduce livestock depredation or to increase deer and elk herds.  Furthermore, it typically causes compensatory breeding by subordinate animals plus new coyotes migrating to fill the empty niche, resulting in even more coyotes, and hence more predation on deer fawns and sheep.  In short, coyote killing has been scientifically shown not to accomplish any legitimate wildlife management or livestock husbandry objective.

Despite their sentience and intelligence, their great beauty and ecological value – despite all these positive values, and despite the total lack of evidence that it does any good – coyotes have no legal protection in Utah and other western states.  A license is not needed to kill them and there is no bag limit.  Nor are there any special restrictions on how you can kill them: guns, fire, rat poisons and neck snares – all are legal.  The only thing that is illegal, it would seem, is allowing coyotes to go about their lives unmolested.

Given all these facts, can coyote kill contests possibly be moral?  Is killing intelligent beings for fun a moral activity?

If you learn about a planned coyote kill contest (sometimes referred to as derbies or calling contests), please contact bob@westernwildlifeconservancy.org – or kirk@westernwildlifeconservancy.org

Carnivores

Mexican Gray Wolves

What Good Are Large Carnivores?

There are many good reasons to care about carnivores. The very term means ‘meat eater’ and they do kill and eat other animals, which can arouse fear and loathing in some people. Trout and praying mantises also kill and eat other animals, by the way. Praying mantises could just as well be named preying mantises.

But when we are talking about biological classification, ‘carnivore’ is the term for an order (order, family, genus, species): it designates mammals with carnassial teeth. Carnassial teeth are the pairs of teeth on the sides of the jaw where molars appear in humans and deer. Rather than the top carnassials falling flat onto the bottom ones, they overlap the bottom ones like a pair of scissors – good for cutting meet, hide and sinew.

Thus, bears, which are actually omnivores, are classified as carnivores because they have carnassial teeth. In reality, most bears eat mainly vegetation, such as grass and tubers and pine nuts. Coyotes too, unlike their cousin the wolf, eat a lot of vegetation and even garbage. That’s one reason they do so well living near, and even in, our cities. I heard coyotes yipping in the middle of the day while walking Luna dog in lower City Creek just yesterday. So did Luna, and it really caught her attention.

Back to the question: Why protect and conserve wild carnivores? Here are some of the main reasons.

Cougars and wolves are especially good at keeping ungulate herds healthy, as they tend to remove the least healthy animals. Wolves are in fact very much analogous to the white corpuscles of our own immune systems, in that they key in on sick and feeble animals and remove them from the population. This could be especially important when a disease such as the encroaching chronic wasting disease (CWD) begins to affect herds of deer and elk in the Rocky Mountains, as has already begun to happen. Cougars, too, have been shown to focus preferentially on deer that have CWD.

Mesopredators, such as the coyote and the bobcat, do much to keep rodent populations under control.

Cougars and wolves in particular also keep prey populations within the carrying capacity of the habitat. You may recall that Aldo Leopold warned Arizona game managers not to kill off all the cougars and wolves on the Kaibab Plateau, but they did so anyway, hoping it would result in more deer. And did it ever – with devastating consequences. In fact, this was the main scientific justification for reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone. The elk herd had grown way beyond carrying capacity and was wreaking havoc on the land and its wild denizens.

Think of large wild carnivores as the evolutionary dance partners of wild ungulates. They shaped each other into what each now is through the long eons of evolution. They belong together. They need each other. Now we are beginning to “think like a mountain,” as Aldo Leopold put it in a famous essay by that title.

Add to this the fact that cougars, bears, wolves, bobcats, coyotes, lynxes, fishers, otters, martens, foxes and wolverines are just plain beautiful animals. And the stories of their lives are fascinating.

Large carnivores are always fewer in number than the species they prey upon. Thinks of the shape of the food pyramid. In all of Yellowstone National Park, at any given time there are only about 75 wolves and only about 25 cougars – all in an area that is roughly 3600 square miles. That’s one large carnivore for every 36 square miles – hardly too many. Adult animals need large home ranges.

Thus, protecting and conserving large carnivores requires protecting and conserving large areas of habitat, which not only results in protection and conservation of the carnivores, but of all the other species of plant and animal that live there as well. For this reason, large carnivores are sometimes referred to as “umbrella species”.

Large carnivores have been heavily persecuted since the first pioneers settled the West. Indeed, the wolf was entirely eradicated from the Western U.S. by about the mid-1930s. Only in the late 1960s were cougars finally removed from the list of vermin and given the status of a protected species in the Western states (which, outside of Florida, were the only ones that still had populations of cougars). Now, with the sole exception of Texas, all states west of the Mississippi River that have cougar populations require a permit for hunting them. California has gone a step further and completely outlawed the hunting of cougars. If a cougar kills your goat, you have to get a special “depredation” permit to kill that specific cougar. Only 100 or so cougars are killed on depredation permits in California each year. Last year, Utah killed 400 cougars.

Western Wildlife Conservancy is a small organization, and the only one in the state of Utah whose mission is to resist the regressive forces of carnivore oppression and persecution that are very strong here – a state where the largest convention of the year is now the “Hunting Expo” which caters mainly to trophy hunters. We will keep on doing our best to educate folks on the importance of carnivore protection and conservation, and to advocate for these wonderful creatures.

Coyotes
Coyotes in Utah are treated as vermin and can be killed at any time. In
designated areas of Utah, the state government offers a $50 bounty on
coyotes in a dubious effort to increase mule deer populations. 
Coyote hunting contests are held near towns like Beaver, Utah. Western
Wildlife Conservancy works to expose the barbarous treatment of coyotes and
promote co-existence.

Black Bears
Black bears in Utah are subject to being chased with hounds. Hunters set out
bait to attract bears. Orphaned bear cubs are sometimes left behind to
starve. Hardly anyone eats bears. A desire for a trophy on the wall is no
excuse for killing bears. Western Wildlife Conservancy testifies before the
Utah Wildlife Conservancy annually to reduce and finally eliminate trophy
hunting of bears.

Cougars
Cougars are hunted in Utah, sometimes with hounds. Cougars are an important
apex carnivore keeping nature in balance with their interactions with prey
species. Like black bears, hardly anyone eats cougars and there is no excuse
for hunting cougars. Cougar conservation has always been a major focus of
Western Wildlife Conservancy.

Wildlife Management Reform
Most Western states have atrocious wildlife management policies. State
wildlife commissions and boards are almost all captured by trophy hunting
and agricultural interests. "Non-consumptive" wildlife watchers and people
concerned about ecological integrity have little to no representation on
decision-making bodies. Ideas about managing wildlife as a "public trust
responsibility" and heeding the "precautionary principle" when faced with
uncertainty are alien to these agencies' 
practice. Western Wildlife Conservancy is taking the lead in organizing
wildlife protection advocates across the West to reform wildlife management
so it is democratic, ecologically responsible, and humane.