Monday, November 24, 2008

Cat's Yellowstone Wolves, and others

Our own Cat Urbigkit has just published a book on the Yellowstone wolves and their reintroduction (so to speak as you will see.)

She brings a unique perspective as she is both a sheepherder and a naturalist- observer, one who can appreciate big carnivores but doesn't want them killing her sheep or her livelihood.

Her history is also unique. Before she was a shepherd she and her husband joined an unlikely coalition of stockmen and environmentalists who sued to protest the introduction of the Canadian wolf subspecies, arguing that there was a small and harmless population of the nearly extinct native subspecies already existing in the Yellowstone ecosystem. I admit that this was the most difficult argument for me to accept going in, but her careful documentation has made me a believer. Probably they nearly disappeared when the horrific poison 1080 was in use, and were gradually building their numbers. These wolves were smaller and probably would have been more fearful of humans, which emeritus large- mammal biologist Valerius Geist argues is probably a good thing. Again, more below.

Cat next documents the long drawn out legal battles, culminating in the "re" introduction of the big Canadian subspecies, and going on to document how they finally arrived in her sagebrush plains, in one case approaching her 12 year old son as he herded sheep.

There is a LOT more here, documented without editorial comment-- of the wedge the issue has driven between the government and stockmen (even worse down here in NM due to a program where the wolves are constantly handled, moved around and habituated); on the environmentalist side, the decision to sacrifice a unique subspecies without studying it to see if it was recoverable without intervention; on the utter uselessness of the compensation program, which demands an impossible standard of proof; even dark humor. When a hunter shoots a pre- intro wolf (?) he thinks is a coyote, he is held in legal limbo for more than a month. As the Jackson Hole Guide editorialized. "How is it that the Fish and Wildlife service-- our federal wildlife experts--can expect Kysar to have known he had shot a wolf when they have already spent six weeks in their laboratories trying to figure it out, and still don't know what it is they're dealing with?"

There are other issues in play than endangered species or embattled ranchers. As Cat reports, elk were eating the park, and there was no politically acceptable way to reduce their numbers. As we are increasingly coming to know, big predators seem to control the whole ecosystem-- see William Stolzenburg's Where the Wild Things Were.

And there is one more issue, only hinted at in Cat's book: the increasing probability that wolves that become too habituated will also become dangerous. Dr. Valerius Geist, now retired, is the dean of North American big mammal studies, and author of too many books to cite, though I am particularly partial to the magisterial Deer of the World. He and I have been corresponding for years on this, the Pleistocene, and many other matters. He was one of the scientists called on to testify in the notorious Kenton Carnegie case in northern Ontario, where a young intern was killed and partially eaten by dump- habituated wolves (there was a ludicrous attempt to blame the killing on black bears, but anyone who has looked at the entire testimony of both on- the- spot observers and the scientists would be convinced, as was the jury, that wolves were responsible).

Val is both a serious biologist and a serious backwoodsman, a rare combination in his youth and one that is getting rarer today. He used to believe that wolves were as harmless as their modern image suggests, until some scary encounters with habituated wolves in his own Vancouver backwoods, papers on habituated California coyotes' behavior before attacking children, and the Carnegie case made him study the history and literature of other countries' experiences with wolves. What he found suggested our "harmless" wolves are a historical phenomenon based on a unique phenomenon: our common use of guns. Wolves killed people in the Soviet Union until after WW II, kill people today in India, and are considered dangerous by Canada's northern "First Nations". (Val has convinced uber- wolf maven David Mech of the truth of this as well!)

Wolves are magnificent, efficient, sometimes deadly predators, not "spiritual healers". To keep wolves near humans benign (to the humans at least), they should best be hunted. Would a similar phenomenon be behind the rise in cougar attacks in (over?) civilized places like Boulder and California?

In several papers and articles Val seeks to mediate between our desire for a robust, healthy wilderness, the reasonable expectation of our ranchers to make a living, and safety. He proposes large wilderness areas surrounded by mixed land where big predators are allowed but hunted, in turn ringed by farms and suburbs where they cannot be tolerated. It seems that we already are well on the way to this in the US (perhaps more than in his Canada) with parks surrounded by National forests. It will still need both some tweaking and a lot more efforts to understand, coming from predator advocates and stockmen alike. Let's try to get this one right and maybe we can start to talk about "re- wilding". Cat's book is an excellent place to start-- for both sides.

I should add one more opinion here to forestall otherwise inevitable arguments: I am for public land ranching in places like the National Forests not just because I respect ranchers (though I do-- as primate researcher Robert Sapolski grudgingly but good- humoredly admits, people who spend their whole life on the "range" are likely to know a lot more about local specifics than specialist biologists) but also because of a phenomenon that is screwing up biodiversity worse than any rancher ever did. Every time a "public land" ranch goes on the block down here the "deeded" sections-- the private anchoring portions that are the best and have all the water-- are cut up into subdivisions of from five to fifty acres, fenced and developed.

And the wildlife goes away. It DIES.

I have gone on long enough. Read Cat!

Oh and- I have many of Val's papers, and the (grisly) Carnegie report, as PDFs -- haven't figured how to link but I can send as email.


Anonymous said...

Anyone with any real wolf experience knows that as soon as you make up some rule about wolf behaviour, some wolf(or wolves) will come along and contradict it! They are just too intelligent and too individualistic to cram into our narrow human stereotypes. I have read the "Wolves In Russia" book, and although I think SOME of the information is sensationalized(based on newspaper accounts and hearsay), there is just TOO MUCH evidence to the contrary to discount ALL wolf attacks on humans. I also agree that based on the evidence, the recent incident at the Canadian dump is purty cut-and-dry; no older person just having a heart attack out in the woods and being scavenged by wolves, but a healthy young guy hunted and killed and eaten. And the problem IS habituation. And we are going to see more and more of this with wolves, cougars, and bears in the future. Not only is it because animals lose their fear of humans, but often the humans are urbanites with NO CLUE how to act around wild animals, unlike the original Natives and pioneers and farmers who settled this country. People are inadvertantly acting like prey animals, or not respecting a wild animal's personal space, and in ignorance, just asking for it. And it only takes a time or two for clever predators to learn. I'm all for wolf and other predator reintroductions, but as much as I dislike predator control, you MUST allow ranchers to protect their stock and/or families on their own land, if these predators leave the protected areas and attack people or domestic stock. Otherwise you eventually doom any tolerance for those animals, and the only place they will be allowed is in zoos. I was actually on a wolf reintroduction study in Montana years ago, just before the Yellowstone program got under way, as a field course offered to college students by the University of Montana in Missoula. Our professor, Bob Ream, also in the state legislature, commented THEN how some wolves were ALREADY in Yellowstone(someone had actually video-taped one there), and slowly but surely repopulating the Northern Rockies on their own, and people should just leave well enough alone and let them do it naturally--no political turmoil, no expenditure of enormous amounts of money, no alienating the ranchers and other residents(at least not as much as what followed did). But alas, no one listened to him--everyone was in too big of a hurry......L.B.

mdmnm said...

Excellent and informative. Thanks, Steve.