Wolf Wars - NAT GEO WILD, A NEW TV CHANNEL. COMING THIS

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Unformatted text preview: NAT GEO WILD, A NEW TV CHANNEL. COMING THIS APRIL-NATGEOWELflfiflM Packs are making a comeback. That’s a thrill for wildlife lovers. But wolves are still wolves, killing cattle and elk. Many Westerners are angry. And so, the age—old fight over land and food has begun anew. Wolf Wars By Douglas H. Chadwick Wolves range far beyond Yellowstone’s protected territory. This winter run took the Washakie pack across Wyoming’s Absaroka Range in search of food. JEFF WNUGA 34 Wolves, when you get down to it, are a lot like us. They are powerful, aggressive, territorial, and predatory. They are smart, curious, cooperative, loyal, and adaptable. They exert a profound influence on the eco— systems they inhabit. Nevertheless, we have problems with wolves, no doubt about it. Maybe we can’t wrap our minds around both the big bad wolf and the close relative with the adoring gaze that follows us around the house. Or maybe it’s because gray wolves are the planet’s most widespread large land mammals after humans and their livestock andiin the Northern Hemisphere—have long been our most direct competitors for meat. Whatever the reasons, humans are at war with wolves. It is an ancient dispute over territory and food between their clans and ours, and its battleground spreads across the northern Rocky Mountain states and right up to the door of my remote cabin near Montana’s Glacier National Park. A young female named Diane marked the place by peeing on the front-porch mat. There is a den not too far away atop a tim- bered knoll sheltered by overhanging boughs. Dug between tree roots, the opening gapes like a maw and extends underground for 18 feetia manor by wolf standards. The ground around it is worn bare by generations of pawed feet. Paths lead to an open hillside overlooking a mile-long meadow fringed by autumn-colored aspen and willow, hushed except for the occasional call of a raven. The snowy peaks of the Continental Wildlife biologist and longtime contributor Douglas Chadwick lives in Montana wolfcountry. His book The Wolverine Way will be published this spring. 38 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC D MARCH 2010 Divide rise in the distance, and a wild river flows close by. Wolf tracks intersect with the prints of elk, deer, moose, and grizzly bears. Though the pups reared here are running with the adults now, the pack isn’t far away, according to the radio signals of the alpha female. MANY HAD THOUGHT the war was over. Relent— lessly shot, trapped, and poisoned, even in nature reserves, gray wolves were gone from the West by the 19305. In 1974, when Cams lupus was declared endangered in the lower 48 states, the gray wolf popul ation was confined to a corner of northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park out in Lake Superior. Then, during the mid719805, a handful trot— ted down the Continental Divide from Canada. Two settled in the hidden meadow in Glacier and in 1986 reared five pups. Footsore biologists trying to keep track of the newcomers dubbed them the Magic pack for the way they seemed to vanish and reappear like wisps of ground fog. The pack grew and soon split into two, then three, keeping mostly within the park. Some animals broke away and dispersed to neighbor- ing national forests. Then all at once, a pair was denning on private ranchland 90 miles south west of Glacier and less than 30 miles from the Idaho border. People began to report wolves in both Idaho and northern Wyoming. Still, there was no proof those wolves were anything but passing wanderers. Not yet. In 1995 and 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured wolves in Canada and released them into 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho’s wilderness areas. The unprecedented federal action triggered such an eruption of hope, fear, resentment, lawsuits, and headline news that most people assume the whole return of the wolf to the West began that way. It didn’t, but those reintroductions worked like a rocket booster. Populations grew, and the war escalated. During 2008, wildlife agents confirmed 569 cattle and sheep deaths from wolves through- out the West. That amounted to less than one percent of livestock deaths in the region, but the Hunters protest federal management of wolf populations outside the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Kalispell. In a region reeling from lumber-mill and factory closures, wolves are direct competitors for meat to stock the family freezer in winter. damage is never distributed equally. The same year 264 wolves were killed for attacking live stock in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. That’s a big number, but it was taken from a wolf popula— tion now grown to around 1,600, roaming the region in more than 200 packs. Today there are two new packs in northeastern Washington and, some whisper, a small enclave in Colorado as well. The West is getting wilder by the hour. MICHAEL GALLAGHER, MFSSOUUAN Wildlife enthusiasts and tourists couldn‘t be happier. In Yellowstone alone, tens of thousands come to watch wolves each year, adding an esti- mated $35 million to the area’s economy. Scien- tists are documenting ecological changes tied to this top predator’s return that may hold the poten— tial to repair out—of—balance wildlands, making them more stable and biologically diverse. On the other hand, some folks say they no longer feel as safe taking their families into the woods. Sportsmen complain too—bitterly. To many out West, where interior decorating tends to involve antlers and come fall, “Howdy” is replaced by “Get your elk yet?” wolves are depicted as four-legged killing machines—land piranhaseravaging game populations. Guys mutter about taking matters into their own WOLF WARS 39 hands and to hell with the Feds. Bumper stickers Show a crossed-out wolf and the slogan “Smoke a Pack a Day.” In May 2009, the wildlife service declared the species recovered in the northern Rocky Moun- tains and handed over responsibility for them to Montana and Idaho. Both instantly labeled them game animals and set quotas for the first legal wolf hunts in either state’s memory¥75 in Montana, 220 in Idaho. “It’s amazing—from a single, endangered pack to a huntable surplus across a whole region,” says Iim Williams, the Guys mutter to hell with the Feds. Bumper stickers show a crossed—out wolf and the slogan “Smoke a Pack a Day.” Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife 8: Parks wildlife program manager for northwest Mon- tana. “This is the most striking Endangered Spe- cies Act success storyl can think of." Maybe. In November 2009, Idaho extended its season to last until the quota is met, or until March 31, whichever is sooner. The change could open the door to hunters traveling by snowmobile and to the killing of pregnant females. After an earlier federal decision to delist Western wolves in 2008, Wyoming essentially defined the animals as varmints, or pests, allowr ing virtually unlimited shooting and trapping yearlround. A resulting lawsuit forced the wild- life service to temporarily put wolves back on the endangered list. (Since then, the service has refused to take them off in Wyoming until that state comes up with a different plan.) Meal} while, a coalition of 14 environmental and animal protection organizations led by Earth- justice is suing the federal government to relist all wolves until the Western states develop a regional conservation strategy that includes coreprotected areas and buffer zones where 40 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC I MARCH 2010 wolves can live in normal packs that won’t get shot to pieces. JOHN AND RAE HERMAN run 800 head of Angus cattle in western Montana’s Hot Springs area. They grew up in America’s golden age for pasto— ralists, in rolling valleys of bunchgrass and sage with forested mountainsides—with virtually all large native predators wiped off the landscape. “We’d usually be missing three to five calves at roundup,” Iohn says. “Now it’s closer to 25. This spring our calving grounds down near the house got hit. Seven calves were confirmed wolf kills, so we were reimbursed for them.” The trouble is if ranchers don’t come across a carcass right away, scavengers may drag off or shred all the evidence. Many say in some areas the actual kills by wolves may average as high as seven for every one that can be proved, but no confirmation, no compensation. And dead and missing animals are only part of the toll. Cattle harassed by wolves over one season can lose 30 to 50 pounds each. On top of that, hormonal effects from stress kick in. “We had 85 pregnant heifers this spring, and 60 aborted,” Iohn says. “The worst part,” Rae says, “is that 23 of the cows that aborted were in our sons starter herd of 25. He’s stuck with a $7,500 bank note and two calves to pay it off with. We’ll end up selling some mother cows to offset our losses, so we'll be going backwards.” Stock with leg injuries from chases or infections from wounds become unmarketable. And after brushes with wolves, mother cows stay ornery and extra protective of calves. The Hermans aren’t the only ranchers to say it is harder to wrangle such cattle in pens; who don’t even think about using their dogs; who consider the fact that if you drive those cows onto prime range the next summer, they may not stay because the upland forests are where the wolves hang around. THE BLACKPOOT CHALLENGE ranchers—a coop— erative established in 1993 to conserve the rural setting in west-central Montana’s Blackfoot River watershed—are trying a range rider pro— gram. I’m patrolling with the lone rider himself, Friendly canine eyes watch Jason Simonsen from his pickup as the ranch hand turns from the remains of a dead calf near Cameron, Montana. A wildlife specialist found enough evidence of woir predation for the owner to apply for compensation, around $600. Peter Brown, who travels by pickup truck, mo- torcycle, or foot. He monitors the whereabouts of wolf packs in relation to cattle and reports daily to ranchers so they can move herds to safer grazing spots or keep a closer eye on them. Electric fencing now surrounds calving lots in many risky areas. To visually warn wolves away from other pastures, Brown sometimes turns to the old European technique called fladry, MA'I'I' MOYER stringing wire with bright flags along its length. As we scan some bottomlands amid October snow flurries, Brown’s gaze is drawn by ravens, among his surest guides, to a carcass. In this case the birds are merely scavenging elk guts left by a human hunter. So is a raven-black wolf from the Elevation Mountain pack. Yet four deer are grazing peacefully across a fence line, and scores of cattle are doing the same 200 yards beyond. “A herd’s behavior is our early warning sys- tem,” Brown notes. “What I look for is cattle bunched up or running, or just looking around alertly and calling. 1 also keep an eye out for unheaithy stock, which can attract predators. I think that just by moving around the area, my presence deters wolves from killing livestock. The wolves are learning and adapting at least as WOLF WARS 41 COUNTING SHEEP LOSS Wolf predation reported by ranchers in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho (2008 statistics below) accounts for a fraction of sheep deaths but is one more blow. Of the cases wildlife agents were called to investigate, 355 were confirmed as wolf kills, eligible for compensation. g—Wolf 1% - 1,300 sheep Hg, '23s“ ca _ ‘iCoyote ' ' 25,3%-31,600 FBear 1.8% - 2.200 s In 1: E n. I» y—Cougar 1.4% - 1,700 r l —Dog 1.1% - 1,400 —Other predators 6.5% - 8.100 (fox. eagle, bobcat. other or unknown ) 1 —Weather 22.5% - 23,300 0. B . o g; | i? inisease E 11%- 13,?00 2 Lamoing complications 9% - 11,200 : —Old age ! 5.8% - 7,200 ; iOther e 7% - 8,700 mUnknown 7.7% - 9,600 125,000 Total reported sheep loss Percentages exceed 100 because of rounding. NG ART SOURCE; USDA NATlONAL AGRIQULTURAL STATISTICS SERVICE. 42 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC I MARCH 2010 fast as we are. Besides that, we have good pop- ulations of natural prey here. I’ve seen wolves walk right through cattle herds to stalk deer.” Ranchers used to leave stock that died of dis- ease, birthing problems, and accidents lying on the range or collected in heaps called bone piles. But “as predators began to recover, the carcasses kept luring them into trouble,” explains Seth Wilson, a conservation biologist who coordi- nates the range rider program. “Now we collect carcasses right away and compost them at a dis- tant site. It’s one of the simplest and most effec— tive ways to reduce conflicts with both bears and wolves. It just requires changing old habits.” The question is no longer how to get rid of wolves but how to coexist with them. Family rancher David Mannix says, “We have to realize that the general US. population wants wolves. That population is also our customers for beef. It’s not a good idea to tell your customers they don’t know what they’re doing. So instead of taking a hard line and fighting to get everything back to where it was 50 years ago, we’re trying things like the range rider.” “But if ranchers can’t make a living,” stockman and veterinarian Ron Skinner says, “the alter- native these days is usually subdivision for real estate, and there goes an awful lot of the open space and prime wildlife habitat in the West.” WHEN THE NEW WOLVES in Yellowstone first came calling, the area’s elk and moose stood their ground as though they were still dealing with coyotes. Bad plan. Today Yellowstone holds half the elk it did 15 years ago. Yet by most mea- sures the population had swelled too high, and their range was deteriorating. Shortly after kill- ing the last Yellowstone wolves in 1926, park officials were culling elk by the thousands. The elk kept rebounding and overgrazing key habi- tats, creating a perpetually unnatural situation for a park intended to preserve nature. With a near-unlimited meat supply, Yellowe stone’s new wolves rapidly multiplied. But the count abruptly fell in 2005. It increased again, reaching 171 in 2007, then sank to 124 by the end of 2008, a 27 percent drop this time. Doug Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project, recorded the fewest breeding pairs since 2000. “We have a declining wolf population,” he says. “Numbers never got as high as we expected based on the availability of prey. This suggests that once wolves reach a certain density, you start to get social regulation of their numbers." Clashes with humans are by no means the only wolf wars under way. Yellowstone’s Druid Peak pack established its territory in 1996 and has held it ever since. In all probability they have been the most watched group of wolves in the world: The wide-open country they claim on both sides of Wyoming’s Lamar River Valley is bisected by one of the park’s main roads. On a late October morning the tem— perature is reading 4°F. Hoarfrost coats the noses of bison below one of the Druids) favorite ren- dezvous sites. Scattered elk graze the same slope, and two coyotes are picking over the remains of an elk calf on the river’s shore. I spy no wolves, but Laurie Lyman, a former teacher who moved from California to be near Yellowstone’s wolves and has watched them almost daily for several years, lowers her binoculars to tell me about the ones she saw yesterday. Two Druids—a female labeled Number 571 and her younger brother, called Triangle Blaze, for his white chest patchwwere traveling by the river when three invaders from the new Hurri- cane Mesa pack appeared. The groups exchanged howls and then ran at each other. Outnumbered, the Druid pair gave way first, but the Hurricanes caught up to 571. Four times they pulled her down onto her back. The final time two held her on either end while the thirdiand largest— bit into her chest, shaking and tearing with its teeth. “That’s when Triangle Blaze jumped in,” Lyman recalls. “He came to her rescue, fighting off the Hurricanes. They started chasing him, but not before 571 got in a bite on one’s rear. She escaped across the river. When her brother finally rejoined her, he was limping, and she was bleeding from her wounds.” During 2008, Yellowstone saw twice as many wolves killed by other wolves as in any previe ous year. Distemper claimed a record share too, after hitting the population in 1999, 2000, and 2005 as well. Parvovirus, another deadly canine disease, has been detected in the area. And like many packs, the Druids are suffering serious hair loss from an epidemic of mange. Loss of superabundant prey is another is- sue, Smith says. There are still close to 10,000 elk wintering in Yellowstone and perhaps double that number summering in the park. “But wolves are very selective hunters,n Smith says. “What counts for them is the amount of vulnerable prey.” When the new wolves in Yellowstone first came calling, the area’s elk and moose stood their ground. Bad plan. Much as experience with wolves can trans- form cattle into not-so—domestic animals, pack— hunted elk turn into less vulnerable quarry. They become more vigilant and keep on the move more. In the wolfless era, herds practi- cally camped at favorite winter dining spots, foraging on young aspen, willow, and cotton- wood until the stems grew clubbed and stunted like bonsai plants. Released from such grazing pressure, saplings now shoot up to form lush young groves. More songbirds find nesting hab- itat within their leafy shade. Along waterways, vigorous willow and cottonwood growth helps stabilize stream banks. More insects fall from overhanging stems to feed fish and amphib- ians. Beavers find enough nutritious twigs and branches to support new colonies. Surveying the huge northern range, where most of the park’s elk winter, Doug Smith turned up just one beaver colony in 1996—the lowest tally in decades. By 2009, he recorded 12. Along Crystal Creek I find another recent bea- ver darn storing water, releasing a more con stant flow for riparian { Continued on page 54) won: WARS 43 Return 0ftheW01f Exterminated as vermin. gray wolves vanished from the lower 48 (save for the far upper Midwest) by the 1930s In 1995 and 1996, the US. Fish and Wildlife Service airlifted 66 wolves from Canada in an experiment to repopulate Yellowstone National Park and Idaho wilderness areas. A few wolves had already crossed the border into Montana by themselves and formed packs. By the end of 2008, the northern Rocky Mountain states held more than 1,645 wolves in 217 packs. 1,500 of them living outside national parks. 0 Wolf pack (2008) 0 Wolf pack (1992) A pack is two or more H Wolf release (199511996) WOIVGS that haVe a Wolves from Canada defined territory were relocated into ’ Wyoming and Idaho. current range CANADA ‘ . IftAlane . . . I gas-J F933 - + A o ’ ll . . ‘—H°t §P”“93 Great Falls | .I. 0 t 4‘ Missoula M O N TA N A ‘ ‘ til i I | l l - . . I ‘I l a. . g ‘4 . . MEX. I I ‘i CLEARWATER - " hHe'ena " ' x‘ NATIONAL .o ' r... <’ FORES- ‘Bitterroot Valley 0 ‘ W . I\ ' . ¢ B tte l ‘ “ ' ' o ' ’4 " Billings . \ a c o o . I ‘i ,1. . o o I DETAIL i: / . . o - AT RIEHT - f ' o ' - ” (ioidout) ’ o a . II n o . a fi . I . :fi . . ISheridan 1 rr' Gillette ! o g ,. . '0 0 . . ' 'go ' i l . . i ' ' o . o i ‘ Boise I i ! W Y O M l N G I i g i I D A H O ' yCasper ll . . i l i l 7 i 7 ’ ‘ '— ‘i Urban or National National @3 ‘ built-up Forest Park ' a mi 50 area System System 0 km 50 Che)?“ I 44 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ' MARCH 2010 Before &After Wolves Restoring wolves to Yellowstone after a 70-year absence as a top predator—espe- cially of elk—set off a cascade of changes that is restoring the park's habitat as well. YELLOWSTONE WITHOUT WOLVES 1926-1 995 3’ ELK overbrowsed the streamside willows, cotton— woods, and shrubs that prevent erosion. Birds lost nesting space. Habitat forfish and other aquatic species declined as waters became broader and shallower and, without shade from streamside vegetation, warmer. ASPEN trees in Yellow stone's northern valleys, where elk winter, were seldom able to reach full height. Elk ate nearly all the new sprouts. COYOTE numbers climbed. Though they often kill elk calves, they prey mainly on small mammals like ground squirrels and voles, reduc- ing the food available for foxes, badgers, and raptors. ART BY FERNANDO G, BAPTIST-A. NG STAFF. AMANDA, HOBBS, NG STAFF SOURCES‘ ROBERT L, BESCHTA AND WLLLIAM .l. RlFPLE, OREGON STATE UNlVERSITY; DOUGLAS W, SMITH, YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK YELLOWSTONE WITH WOLVES 1 995-PRESENT r” ELK population has been halved. Severe winters early in the reintroduction and drought contributed to the decline. A healthy fear of wolves also keeps elk from lingering at streamsides, where it can be harder to escape attack. ASPENS The number of new sprouts eaten by elk has dropped dramatically. New groves in some areas now reach 10 to 15 feet tall. COYOTES Wolf predation has reduced their numbers. Fewer coyote attacks may be a factor in the resurgence of the park‘s pronghom. WILLOWS, cottonwoods, and other réparian vege— tation have begun to stabi- lize stream banks, helping restore natural water flow. Overhanging branches again shade the water and welcome birds. BEAVER colonies in north Yellowstone have risen from one to 12. nowthat some stream banks are lush with vegetation. especially willows (a key beaver food}. Beaver dams create ponds and marshes. supporting fish, amphibians. birds. small mammals, and a rich insect population to feed them. CARRION Wolves don‘t cover their kill. so they've boosted the food supply for scavengers, notably bald and golden eagles, coyotes. ravens, magpies, and bears. (Continued from page 43) species downstream through the dry months. Ponds and marshes that form behind the dams create habitat for moose, muskrat, mink, waterfowl, wading birds, and an array of other wildlife. After wolves moved in, cougars that had begun hunting the valleys retreated to the Steep, rocky terrain they normally inhabit. The big canines killed nearly half the coyote population. They may have rebounded a bit, but the coyotes now live in groups with shrunk territories or as vagabond “floaters.” With less competition from elk for Large mammals are learning and changing their behavior all the time: deer, elk, bears, wolves, and yes, humans too. grasses, bison may be doing better than ever. From a single new predatory force on the land— scape, a rebalancing effect ripples all the way to microbes in the soil. Biologists define the series of top-down changes as a trophic cascade. In a nod to the behavioral factors at play, others speak of the “ecology of fear.” CRISTINA EISENBERG is a five—foot—two—inch, hundred—pound answer to the question of how dangerous wolves are to people. Over the past four years she has studied wolves, elk, and aspen in Glacier Park, often on its west side among two large wolf packs, one with 20—plus mem— bers. They sometimes watch as she and an assis- tant measure habitat features. Then the wolves pull out her marker stakes. During a blinding snowstorm, they silently took down an elk a stone’s throw from Eisenberg. Our afternoon survey leads to a trampled— down rendezvous site. The Dutch pack has dragged in ceramic shards, cans, pots, pieces of iron tools from abandoned homesteads in the park. Canine junk collectors. Who knew? 54 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC I MARCH 2.010 But what Eisenberg wants to show me is an aspen stand. Its upper tier consists of towering trees that arose between 1840 and the 19205, before wolves were eliminated. The bottom row, 15 feet high, is of saplings that shot up after wolves returned. There are no aspens in between. None got past the elk’s mouths. By contrast with Yellowstone, elk numbers haven’t changed much here. As far as Eisenberg can tell, the recent aspen growth is almost all due to wolf-inspired changes in elk behavior. The wolves’ diet here is mostly whitertailed deer. Northwestern Montana has at least twice as many cougars as wolves and twice as many grizzly bears. Together they kill more adult deer and fawns than wolves do. Coyotes and black bears take a share as well. On top of that, the area has had two tough winters in a row. Deer totals dropped even where few predators prowl. Yet overall deer numbers remain within the historical average. For that matter, both elk and deer are doing well across the West. As game manager Iim Williams puts it, “With wolves back in the picture along with cougars and bears, we’ll have places where elk and deer may never be as abundant again as people remem- ber, and we’ll have other places where they’ll do fine. There are bigger drivers than wolves in these systems.” Studies have shown that winter weather and the quality of wintering habitat are really what control deer and elk populations over time. That and human hunting. Craig Iourdonnais is the state game departi ment’s wildlife biologist for Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, near the Idaho border. Until recently, he says, most gripes about wildlife concerned elk raiding haystacks and deer damaging crops and gardens and being a danger on highways. “Now we have 10 to 12 wolf packs for a mini- mum of 45 to 60 wolves. We also have 14,000 hunters coming through the Bitterroot check station in a given year.” The main complaints he hears these days are about wolves overrun— ning the place and wiping out elk and deer. “I’ve been on the job 30 years, and I’ve never worked with any critter that raised so much emotion.” Somehow, Iourdonnais is supposed to make a This juvenile eyed the camera curiously as the Canyon pack ranged along a power-line corridor near Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin. The wolf has been demonized, defeated, and defended by humans. it must now renego- tiate its place in a changed habitat. place for wolves where recreation and livelihood intermingle. He understands that big-game hunting in Ravalli County is worth $11.2 mil— lion annually. He also sees game losing critical winter range to subdivisions up and down the valley but knows that the one topic as hot as wolves out West is planning and zoning. Bottom line? Survival rates for young game animals are lower the past couple years. Wolves TOM LEESDN may be partly responsible, but winter may be too. Overall, Bitterroot deer numbers are still fairly good. Whereas the elk total stood below 3,000 in the 19705 because sportsmen were allowed a generous take of females, it’s currently above 6,000. A thousand of those animals have learned to retreat before the hunting season to a private ranch where only limited shooting is allowed. Large mammals are learning and changing their behavior all the time: deer, elk, bears, wolves, and yes, humans too. For our part it seems we need to formulate better answers to the questions posed by the return of wolves—not the wolves in our minds but the real wolves watching from the mountainsides. When we say we want to con- serve wildlife communities in America, does that mean including the wolf, or not? [I WOLF WARS 55 ...
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