Wolf Awareness: Oregon Update

By Neva Knott

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Photograph courtesy of ODFW.

Last week was Wolf Awareness Week. In graduate school and here on The Ecotone Exchange I’ve written about wolf science and the legacy of wolves in Oregon and for Wolf Awareness Week 2013 I posted a commentary entitled “A Wolf’s Eye.” In the past few years, I’ve taught the essay “Lone Wolf” by Joe Donnelly, published in Orion magazine, about Oregon’s famous wolf OR-7, the first to disperse from his pack and travel over the Cascade Mountains since wolves came back to Oregon in the mid-1990s. My community college students not only found Donnelly’s article to be an excellent example of essay-writing, but fascinating.

Today, I read updates on the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife website Wolf Page and looked for current media coverage. Oregon’s wolf population is growing and their status is up for re-evaluation and possibly a big change–and soon. Currently, all wolves in Oregon are protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act; additionally, wolves in western Oregon are federally protected. A meeting to consider delisting them from protection under the state’s ESA is slated for November, this year.

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Map courtesy of ODFW.

Oregon wolves are managed under the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. At the end of 2014, our wolf population numbered 77 wolves. Now that there are eight breeding pairs that have produced pups for at least three consecutive years, Phase II of the WCMP is in place, triggering the move to consider delisting.

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Map courtesy of ODFW.

On one hand, delisting under Phase II of the WMP signals that wolves are thriving here on the landscapes of their once-home–wolves are a native species to Oregon:

“Wolves are native to Oregon. They were listed as endangered by the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974. When the Oregon Legislature enacted the state’s own ESA in 1987, it grandfathered in all species native to Oregon that were then listed under the federal ESA, including wolves. This law requires the Fish and Wildlife Commission (and ODFW) to conserve wolves in Oregon. Also, Oregon’s Wildlife Policy directs the Commission to manage wildlife “… to prevent serious depletion of any indigenous species and to provide the optimum recreational and aesthetic benefits for present and future generations of the citizens of the state.” This includes a species as controversial as the wolf.” –ODFW.

On the other hand, delisting allows for killing of wolves at the hand of ranchers if they are caught in the act of depredation. Now, only ODFW can kill repeat offenders; as explained on the agency’s website, “Four Oregon wolves have been killed by ODFW or authorized agents in response to chronic depredations of livestock, including two in Baker County in September 2009 and two in Wallowa County in May 2011. In both situations, landowners and wildlife managers first tried a variety of non-lethal measures to avoid wolf-livestock conflict.” Currently, private citizens cannot harm or kill wolves.

Even though a reported 70 percent of Oregon citizens, according to the Statesman Journal, want wolves to come home, the conflict that spurred the wolf bounty and eradication remains and runs deep–generations deep.

I don’t live in wolf country–at least not yet, not until more of them trek over the mountains–and I know I’d be frightened and wary should I ever meet a wolf while camping or hiking. But I also believe wolves belong in Oregon. I believe in the ecosystems science that documents the benefits they provide as an apex predator–and if you’re interested in learning what wolves provide, I strongly suggest the film Lords of Nature.

More importantly, I fundamentally believe people cannot kill off everything in the way of human endeavor. We have hit the wall with that brand of progress mentality.

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Photograph courtesy of ODFW.

Last weekend, my partner and I watched the original, animated version of Dr. Suess’s  The Lorax. In it, Dr. Suess so very aptly illustrates what happens when species are sacrificed at the hand of industry. Though ranching in Oregon has not compromised the landscape to the extent that Mr. Onceler’s Thneed business did in The Lorax, the truth remains that Oregon wolves were killed off for one reason only–so that the ranching industry could take hold.

So how big of a problem are Oregon’s wolves to Oregon’s livestock? Not a big problem at all, according to OFDW’s depredation reports–for example, of the handful of reports filed in September, none showed signs of wolf kill, though one animal had been eaten by wolves, along with other predators and scavengers. And The Statesman Journal, in an article entitled “When the Wolves Return to Western Oregon,” quantifies 104 wolf kills of livestock since wolves returned to Oregon [in the mid- to late-1990s].

In contrast to the attitude that wolves are a huge threat for ranchers, Oregon Wild reports that the Eastern Oregon’s cattle ranching industry has shown significant economic growth concurrent with the arrival of wolves to that area of the state:

“Northeast Oregon’s Wallowa County is a case study for that very point. It is ground zero for the argument from wolf detractors that wolves will decimate Oregon’s livestock industry. The county’s livestock industry has been in a steady decades-long decline preceding wolf recovery. However, from 2009 to 2011 – while the wolf population grew from two to fourteen, livestock revenue jumped nearly 50 percent to nearly $27 million in a county with barely 7,000 citizens. Wolves were not the cause of the increase, but it’s clear their effect on the industry is negligible. Though wolves may have some localized impacts on individual livestock operators, those can be significantly reduced with responsible husbandry. Additionally, in Oregon, ranchers are fully compensated by taxpayers for any losses.” –Oregon Wild.

This chart puts into prospect loss of of livestock to wolf attacks:

Cattle_losses_by_rank

Courtesy of WildEarth Guardians.

Clearly, wolves aren’t a problem. Next month, on November 9, the ODFW Commission will meet in Salem to discuss the delisting of wolves in Oregon. Delisting–or taking away wolves’ protection as an Endangered Species–is a public process. This means your voice matters. ODFW cannot make rules or change the listing status of wolves without public input. Please send your comments to odfw.commission@coho2.dfw.state.or.us. Please make sure to include “Comments on Wolf Delisting Proposal” in the subject line of emails. Public testimony will also be heard at the meeting.

One of the most significant take-aways from graduate school for me was reading into  case studies of environmental legislation and coming to understand how important public comments are in the rule-making, or legislative, process. Speaking on the issue of wolf protection is a democratic opportunity; please let your voice be heard.

I’ll leave you with this famous passage from Aldo Leopold:

“My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” —“Thinking Like a Mountain”

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Saving Red Wolves: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the AZA Red Wolf SSP

By Maymie Higgins

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It was becoming cooler and darker inside the hollow tree trunk.  In spite of their restless wills, the five pups were sleeping soundly after nursing themselves to a sleep-inducing level of fullness. The mother shifted her weight, bent her long, delicate legs and raised just enough to peer out of the trunk opening.  Her mate should be returning soon.  He left to hunt just as the sun had fallen below the tree line.  She heard the snap of twigs from behind and quickly slipped back into the darkness.  From there she saw four paws appear at the opening.  She smelled rabbit and wasted no time in sharing the meal with her mate because nursing requires much energy.  She had hesitated in pairing up with this mate because he had an unusual hide around his neck.  But he turned out to be a good choice with excellent hunting and parenting skills.  In fact, she could only remember birthing three pups but somehow yesterday, there were five pups.  She immediately began caring for the new pups as if they had always been there, not worrying about her and her mate’s ability to feed and rear two more.  As the pair finished their meal, the eruption of coyote howls echoed across Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the only place in the entire world where red wolves (Canis rufus) exist in the wild.

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The red wolf was once common throughout the eastern and south central United States but their numbers declined in the early 20th century because of intensive predator control programs and loss of habitat.  Now they are one of the most endangered canids in the world. There are approximately 300 red wolves alive today, and only about 100 of them are at Alligator River.  The rest are in captivity in zoos and other captive breeding facilities throughout the United States.  All red wolves alive today are descended from a founding population of 14, from the total remaining 17 wild red wolves captured in 1980 along the Gulf coast in Texas and Louisiana.  Red wolves were then declared extinct in the wild.  A breeding program at Point Defiance Zoo had already begun in 1977 but the plan was revised in 1984 and approval was received from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) for a Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP).  During the same year, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was established on land in northeastern North Carolina.  In 1987, experimental release of wolves took place and the first wild litter was born in 1988.  Other propagation locations and projects on several islands and in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were initiated and all later ended by 2005.  All wild wolves in those locations were captured and placed in the 43 breeding zoos and facilities that participate in the AZA SSP.  The Red Wolf Recovery Program is supervised under the jurisdiction of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.  Red wolves have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1967.  You can read more about the recovery program here http://www.fws.gov/redwolf/index.html

As an intern at the North Carolina Zoological Park, I briefly had the privilege of working with captive red wolves.  At that time, there were two red wolves, a brother and sister, that were on exhibit for zoo visitors. The remaining nine red wolves were off-exhibit in several large fenced areas in about a half acre of wooded area, somewhat separated from the typical noise and activity of zoo operations and visitors.  While it is safe for zoo staff to go into the wolf enclosures, doing so is usually limited to no more than three times/week by only one person at a time.  There is no engagement of the wolves, either directly or indirectly.   Wolves want nothing to do with humans and, as is true for many animals, will go away without harming a human if given sufficient “flight distance”, which is the amount of space an animal needs between themselves and a predator to feel unthreatened.  It is important to preserve wild behaviors because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may choose any of the red wolves to be placed into the wild population, within reason.  Older red wolves or those who do not exhibit sufficient wild behaviors are not likely to be placed in the wild.  During my internship, a male red wolf was delivered to the zoo for veterinary care after living in the wild for many years.  He was older and had some health problems, which the zoo treated successfully.  He was retired from the wild at the very zoo in which he was born.

At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, management of the wild population includes monitoring more than 70 radio-collared wolves as well as tracking and monitoring more than 60 sterilized coyotes (Canis latrans) referred to as placeholders.  Though coyotes and red wolves are two distinct species, they can interbreed and produce fertile offspring, known as wolf/coyote hybrids.  Therefore, to preserve pure red wolf DNA when coyote territory expanded into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, biologists began capturing, sterilizing and then releasing them back where they were captured.  Because coyotes are territorial, even when sterile, they continue to occupy the same territory as before but can no longer interbreed with wolves. This prevents new, fertile coyotes from moving into the territory and breeding with wolves.  There are studies suggesting that all red wolves today are hybrids, but this is still in debate and under scientific scrutiny.  Red wolves are only slightly larger than coyotes and are often mistaken for coyotes, which has resulted in several deaths by gunshot, even of collared wolves in the protected refuge.  http://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/go-outside/the-last-howl-red-wolves-being-shot-in-n-c/

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Another part of wild population management has included successfully placing captive born pups with wild born litters of the same age.  These pups have gone on to become adult wolves with wild born litters of their own, helping to maintain genetic diversity and supplement the wild population.  The North Carolina Zoological Park also has a history of providing pups to wild born litters.  http://www.fieldtripearth.org/article.xml?id=469

The red wolf story is just one of many examples of how biologists, veterinarians, keepers and aquarists at zoos and aquariums throughout the world are collaborating with governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and even corporations to conserve and preserve the natural world.  It is also a story of how challenging it can be to save a widely persecuted species in spite of the greatest available legal protection.  October 13-19 is Wolf Awareness Week and this will likely be a year of historical events that determine the plight of all wolf species forever.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to remove another wolf species, the gray wolf (Canis lupus), from the list of threatened and endangered species, which would shift management of wild populations to the state level.  Citizens may submit their comments about the delisting until December 17, 2013 at 11:59 pm at http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073-30560

Red wolves have been out of their historical range for so long, it is impossible to know for certain all the ways their absence has adversely affected the ecosystem.  However, reintroduction of gray wolves in the northwestern U.S. has yielded documented ecosystem benefits such as those observed in Yellowstone National Park.  This includes better regulation of prey numbers and movement (elk and deer), allowance of stream bank habitats to recover (elk forage and destroy less vegetation along the water’s edge because they are more vulnerable to wolves there), reduction of coyotes (gray wolves will kill coyotes in their territory) and increased food for scavengers (leftovers from a hunt).  Gray wolf recovery also required the assistance of zoos through an AZA SSP and, for now, is a positive story of the environment.  Even with the current debate I believe wolf advocates, who are a passionate and determined group, are going to successfully preserve these keystone species for a long time.

All photos obtained from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service website http://www.fws.gov/faq/imagefaq.html)