Thursday, December 12, 2013

Montana Grayling Final Push for Listing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on the proposed listing of the Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Following the status review, the Service will either publish a proposed rule to protect the Arctic grayling under the ESA, or a withdrawal from candidate status in the Federal Register by Sept. 30, 2014. This may be the final step in the long drawn out effort to provide federal protection for this iconic fish.

The plight of the grayling, like many native fish in the West is tied to livestock production. Directly and indirectly livestock production is the major factor in grayling decline. As a result of the political clout of the ranching industry, the agencies responsible for grayling recovery including the Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) as well as the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have had to operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Their walking orders are to do nothing that would antagonize the ranchers. The machinations that have befallen the grayling are a clear example of how political considerations trump the biological criteria that are supposed to guide ESA decisions.


In 1990 I was clandestinely contacted by several Montana Dept. Fish, Wildlife and Parks fishery biologists who were concerned that their department was not aggressively addressing the threats to the grayling. They asked me to seek federal protection on behalf of the grayling under the ESA.

In 1991 I and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation filed a petition to list the grayling. It was our collective hope that ESA listing would provide the legal muscle to implement changes in habitat management to the benefit of the grayling that MDFWP, the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies were unable or unwilling to do without the club of the ESA hanging over their heads.

By 1994 the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had determined that the grayling was indeed headed for extinction and warranted protection under the ESA. However, listing was precluded according to the Service because other species were in greater peril—a common ploy to avoid listing controversial species.

Numerous attempts to gain listing since 1991 have failed as a result of political interference from Congressional members and the Bush administration, opposition from the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as well as the co-opting of environmental groups by ranching interests. Groups like Montana Trout Unlimited (TU) have actively fought against listing. Instead TU and other organizations have sought to cozy up to the ranchers and advocated modest modifications in livestock management instead of actively seeking ESA protection.


The effort to list the grayling and provide the federal protection it deserves under the ESA is a good example of Machiavellian logic and deceit. During the next decade, grayling numbers continued to plummet, but listing was avoided by numerous political machinations. After the initial decision by the FWS to list the grayling as a candidate but with no further movement I and others made repeated follow up requests to the Service to upgrade the grayling’s status.

In March of 2004 the FWS finally bumped the grayling priority from a level nine to a level three, the highest priority level for a candidate listing. In May 2004, I and others, petitioned for emergency listing of the grayling to try to move it from candidate to protected status. After nearly three years of delay, the Fish and Wildlife Service responded to our petition in April of 2007. Instead of listing the grayling, the FWS reversed itself due to interference from the Bush administration, and determined the grayling no longer deserved special Distinct Population Status at all and removed it from candidate status. This decision was legally challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity and others.

In 2009, after the election of Barack Obama, the FWS again reversed itself, and remanded the 2007 decision, and conducted a new review of the Distinct Population Status (DPS). In September of 2010 the FWS concluded that the grayling was indeed listable under the DPS. It was once again given a priority level three candidate status where it remains today.


Whether listing in 1991 when I first petitioned for ESA protection would have reversed the decline of grayling can be debated, but collaboration with ranchers has not produced the desired recovery of the fish. During this intervening period, Missouri River grayling populations have declined by an average of 7 percent a year and now number less than half of their 1990 numbers. In many remaining waters, the effective breeding population of fish numbers in the low hundreds—and grayling are in essence already functionally extinct. For instance, in the 113 miles of occupied grayling habitat in the Big Hole River, it was estimated by the early 2000s there were around 200 adult fish—or little more than one grayling per river mile. In 2012 researchers found an average of three grayling of 1 year age per mile in a 19 mile stretch that was surveyed. Whether grayling can be recovered in most of the remaining occupied habitat at this point is questionable, but certainly worth trying.


Arctic Grayling are found in cold clear waters across the Boreal Ecoregion in both North America and Eurasia. The Missouri River Arctic Grayling are an ice age relict and considered a genetically distinct population. The ancestral Missouri River once flowed north to Hudson Bay and the predecessors of today’s fish were isolated in the Upper Missouri when Continental Glaciers blocked the river’s northward flow and shifted its waters east and eventually to the Mississippi drainage and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

A beautiful fish with a large dorsal fin and shimmering purple sides, the species reaches its southern limits in the colder waters of Montana’s Upper Missouri River drainage. Lewis and Clark were the first to record the species. At that time, grayling were found in the Sun, Smith, Gallatin, Madison, Red Rock, Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Big Hole rivers. (There are unconfirmed reports that grayling may be native to the St. Mary’s River near Glacier National Park). The next closest population of grayling is found hundreds of miles further north in the Pembina River west of Edmonton, Alberta.

By 1990 when I became involved in grayling issues, the fish was restricted to the Big Hole River drainage, Upper Red Rock River drainage, and a small portion of the Madison River near Ennis, Montana. Natural populations of grayling were also found in a number of lakes in these drainages, including Miner Lakes and Mussigbrod Lake in the Big Hole drainage and Upper Red Rock Lakes in the same named river drainage. (Note that Arctic Grayling have been stocked in lakes outside of its historic range so one may find them in various other water bodies). The last significant refuge for Missouri River grayling is the Big Hole River where the fish are found in approximately 113 miles of the main stem and 45 miles of tributaries between Glen and Jackson, Montana. Today Arctic Grayling only occupy about 4-5 percent of their historic range in the Upper Missouri River.

The FWS estimates that, with the exception of the fish in Mussigbrod Lake, the remaining strongholds for grayling including the Big Hole River have a 13-55% change of extinction in the next 30 years simply due to random stochastic events.


The major factor in grayling decline can be summarized in one word—cows. Livestock production has multiple negative effects on grayling.

The biggest impact is dewatering of rivers for hay irrigation. Dewatering of the Big Hole River in particular has been exacerbated by a number of drought years. In June the river often runs at over 2000 CFS, but in summer during irrigation season, it can be drawn down to 20 CFS, with some portions of the river dried up completely.

Water draw downs affects grayling in several ways. First, reduction in water flows forces all fish into smaller pools of habitat, increasing the competition among grayling as well as other fish for food and security.

Reduction in water flow creates shallower river channels that heat up more in summer sun, with in-stream temperatures often climbing to lethal levels during extended hot periods. Indeed, in most summers, the Big Hole River exceeds Clean Water Act standards for temperatures. For instance in during the summer of 2012, ten out of eleven temperature monitoring stations in the river exceeded 70 degrees, the thermal threshold for salmonid species (like the grayling).

Run off water from irrigated fields that is not lost to evaporation also tends to be warmer, and sometimes full of pollutants such as manure and fertilizers.

Irrigation barriers and diversions in streams (small dams designed to shift flow into irrigation channels) also act as barriers to upstream migration of grayling that might otherwise seek out colder headwater streams.

Dewatering for irrigation often completely dries up grayling spawning streams, killing any eggs or fry that are in them. Entire recruitment for a season can be lost.

Young grayling that are hatched in tributary streams and move downstream during the summer months can wind up in irrigation ditches instead of the main river. At the end of the season when irrigation gates are closed, grayling are trapped in irrigation ditches that subsequently dewatered killing all fish in them.

Loss of adequate flows is probably the biggest factor in grayling demise. But cattle also impact grayling habitat by trampling and compaction the wet meadows, headwater springs, and other natural sponges that are a source for up to half of the late season flows in these rivers.

Trampling by cattle of the riparian streamside vegetation also harms grayling. Breakage of banks by cattle hooves contributes to widening of stream channels (and subsequently less pool habitat and higher water temperatures) with fewer deep pools which is the ideal grayling habitat. Cattle browsing on willows, as well as changes in hydrology due to livestock impacts, have significantly reduced streamside vegetation, eliminating shade which contributes to higher and often lethal temperatures for grayling. Trampling of stream banks by cattle also contributes to higher erosion and sedimentation in streams. Even non-grazed areas are impacted. For instance, portions of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that are closed to livestock grazing, still suffer from sedimentation flowing into the refuge from upstream livestock grazing damage.

This sedimentation flow resulting from accelerated erosion not only smothers grayling spawning beds, but fills in and reduces the deep pools that are a necessary component of grayling over-winter habitat. For instance, due to livestock induced sedimentation, the average depth of Upper Red Rock Lake in Red Rock Lakes NWR has shrunk from 25 feet to 16 feet in the last century.

Unlike northern grayling populations that co-evolved with top predatory fish like bull trout, lake trout, and northern pike, throughout its Missouri River range, the grayling has lived without an apex predator. Except for small grayling populations that co-existed with lake trout in Miner Lake in the Big Hole drainage, and Elk Lake in the Red Rock drainage, grayling did not co-exist with any top predatory fish.

Although the evidence is unclear, it is assumed that competition with non-native trout like rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout have impacted grayling populations. Circumstantial evidence suggests non-native fish do limit grayling since nearly all attempts to restore grayling in streams with competing non-natives have thus far been unsuccessful (though there is limited evidence for grayling recruitment in the Ruby River). Competition that may exist with non-native fish like brook trout is exacerbated by irrigation dewatering and the shrinkage of habitat associated with water draw downs. So once again, livestock production may be culpable for grayling decline induced by non-native fish competition.


Another suspected cause of the grayling decline in the Upper Missouri River system is the loss of migratory function. Many grayling populations migrate long distances between spawning habitat and over winter sites. I once witnessed a grayling migration in the Kobuk River in Alaska where thousands of fish stream past me as they were descending the river as it froze to overwinter in deep holes in the lower river. Similar migrations once likely occurred in the Upper Missouri River. However, numerous dams have been built on these rivers, including on the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Madison, Ruby, Jefferson, Sun, and Red Rock. For instance, the Ennis Dam on the Madison River is known to block grayling migrations, and any fish that fall below the dam cannot return back upstream and are lost from the population. Nearly all of these dams were built for irrigation water storage—thus yet another impact of livestock production upon grayling survival.


Historic effective breeding population of grayling in the Upper Missouri system was an order of magnitude of 10-100 times greater than today. Due to the fragmented nature of grayling populations, combined with current small population numbers, random genetic drift may jeopardize the future of the fish as maladaptive alleles are spread throughout the remaining fish populations. At least in the short term, reestablishing grayling populations across entire river drainages like the Big Hole and Red Rock River seems highly unlikely, which makes modification of grazing practices and livestock operations even more critical to the fish’s survival.


The wild card in the grayling’s future is climate change. Regional temperatures are predicted to rise an average of up to 10 degrees in the next century. Warming temperatures could prove even more lethal to grayling populations if water flows are not substantially improved. Earlier spring run-off could also influence grayling by reducing late season flows.


MDFWP has spent many man hours studying and attempting to restore grayling with limited success—manly because they are not permitted to address the fundamental issue of livestock production impacts in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, the agency has attempted to restore grayling in several rivers including the Sun River upstream from Gibson Reservoir and in the Upper Ruby River near Twin Bridges, Montana. The Ruby River efforts appear to be paying off, with reproduction reported for four years in a row.

However, all these efforts seem to be motivated more from a desire to preclude listing than to recover the grayling.

One of the ways that the FWS has avoided listing of the grayling so far (even though it determined as early as 1994 that the species listing was warranted) was by signing off in 2006 on a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). The CCAA was implemented by Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in an attempt to preclude listing of the fish. Ranchers, who agreed to voluntarily implement habitat improvement mechanisms like planting of willows on riparian areas or releasing more water during drought periods, would be protected against any future restrictions designed to restore the grayling, should the fish be listed. Over 30 landowners in the Upper Big Hole River have signed on to the CCAA.

The CCAA has spent $3.6 million (most of it tax dollars) to subsidize various projects designed to improve grayling survival and preclude listing. Among some of the improvements resulting from the CCAA and other efforts is a small increase in summer stream flows, removal of some barriers on tributary streams, and fencing of riparian areas. However, the overall effect has been far short of what is needed to stabilize, much less recover the grayling.

Groups that have supported the CCAA and generally thwarted efforts to list the fish include Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy. In their view, listing would have had little positive on the ground effects on the fish. They believe that the CCAA offered the best opportunity to improve conditions for the grayling. While undoubtedly some of the habitat improvements that have resulted are positive for the fish, the outcomes thus far are not very promising, as the grayling continues to slide towards extinction. If the grayling should be listed, the CCAA will limit the legal options for recovery.

Even in the face of obvious political machinations and duplicitous manipulation of data and biological information during the past two decades, these groups remained silent. Personally, I will consider them culpable if the grayling goes extinct for their failure to alert the public to the fish’s plight and work EVERY angle, including legal protection of the ESA designed to recover the fish.

Listing would have created a legal mandate for enforcement of the Clean Water Act minimum standards for water temperate, mandated grazing changes on federal lands managed by the Forest Service and BLM which control 50% of the grayling habitat, including much of its spawning habitat. It may also create opportunities to challenge dewatering of the Big Hole River by irrigators.

At this point, it is my sincere hope that the FWS finally lists the grayling, and provides a legal safety net that can result in significant changes in grayling management.

Anyone wishing to submit information regarding the Arctic grayling may do so by writing to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2013-0120; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM; Arlington, VA 22203, or electronically at After accessing the website, Search for Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2013-0120 and then follow the instructions for submitting comments. Information must be received by Dec. 26.

Additional information is available in the Federal Register announcement initiating this status review. For more information on the Arctic grayling go the FWP website or contact the FWP Service, Montana Field Office, 585 Shepard Way, Suite 1, Helena, MT 59602 or by telephone at 449-5225.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Allan Savory Myth and Reality

Allan Savory: Myth And Reality
By George Wuerthner

Allan Savory is an advocate for the livestock management system known as, Holistic Management (HM). He is a former member of the Rhodesian Parliament (now Zimbabwe) and has made his living as a consultant with the Savory Institute. He is best known for his recent appearance as a TED speaker where he made a number of controversial statements that he has been advocating for decades, as well as some new claims. His most recent assertion is the idea that more livestock grazing may be the solution to global warming.

In short, Savory’s basic theme is a variation on what has been called “short duration grazing” or “mob grazing”. Under such scenarios livestock, typically cattle are tightly herded through a confined pasture (small pastures) or rangeland so that the animals cannot be selective in their choice of food. Then the livestock are moved rapidly on to the next grazing area, and the previously grazed area is rested from livestock for an extended period of time, so the plants can recover and regrow. Savory’s advocacy for monitoring and careful attention to livestock plant utilization is consistent with well-established range management principles.

However, many of his observations about animal behavior, plant ecology, evolutionary history and carbon storage are well outside the accepted scientific consensus. And these ideas can lead to damaged ecosystems and in the case of his ideas about livestock and global warming may actually be counterproductive—leading to greater GHG emissions if implemented according to his ideas.

As with everything in science, there are few absolutes. There is great variation in land productivity, climate, and the experience of ranchers and farmers who are managing livestock that can affect outcomes. One may experience or hear about examples where Savory’s prescriptions appear to be valid, but as stated below they are usually isolated exceptions. Exceptions do not invalidate the rule.

The few scientific experiments that Savory supporters cite as vindication of his methods (out of hundreds that refute his assertions), often fail to actually test his theories. Several of the studies cited on HM web site had utilization levels (degree of vegetation removed) well below the level that Savory actually recommends.

The following are among Savory’s most debatable ideas that a majority of scientists and observers believe are contrary to standard rational understanding and observation.

MYTH: Livestock grazing can reduce Green House Gases and reduce global warming.

REALITY: One of Savory most recent claims is that grazing will stimulate the translocation of carbon from the atmosphere to the roots of plants, thus increasing domestic livestock numbers and grazing, Savory asserts, will significantly reduce global GHGs. While it is true that significant amounts of carbon are stored in the soils of rangelands, the ability to capture and transfer additional atmospheric carbon to grassland soils is very limited. Most arid grasslands have low productivity, thus low ability to store new sources of carbon.

Furthermore, a full GHG accounting would demonstrate that domestic livestock are among the largest source of global GHG. Methane emissions from domestic livestock, particularly cattle, are considered one of the largest sources of global GHG. Livestock also emit nitrous oxide that is even more potent as a greenhouse gas. Together these emissions are considered by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization to be responsible for up to 18% of global GHG.

Even worse much of the livestock pasture around the world has been created and continues to be created by the destruction of forests which results in the release of even more carbon into the atmosphere. The replacement of forests with grass pasture thus increases overall carbon emissions. According to a recent review by World Watch Institute utilizing this full accounting system livestock production may be responsible for as much as 50% of all global GHG. Thus a reduction of domestic livestock numbers would go much further towards reduction of global atmospheric carbon than any small amount of carbon which might be sequestrated as a result of growth from grasses related to livestock grazing.

MYTH: Holistic Management is superior to other grazing management strategies.

Reality: Due to particular unique aspects of a livestock operation, HM methods may produce better results than other livestock management methods for that specific operation. However, in side by side comparisons with other grazing methods, if EQUAL attention to forage utilization and timing is followed HM methods have not been shown to be superior. And in many other situations HM has resulted in poorer condition livestock and damage to the land resources.

The qualifier is that equal attention to forage utilization and timing is important because much of the success reported for HM has to do with a significant change in livestock producer effort as well as capital investment in more range developments like watering troughs and fencing that, along with intensive monitoring, resulted in better animal distribution. These results are often compared to past lack luster management whereby livestock were left to forage with little supervision. This frequently resulted in overgrazing in some areas, while other parts of the pasture, ranch or farm were barely utilized.

However, it is important to note, efficient cropping of forage by HM methods is not necessarily an improvement for wildlife and plants, soils, water quality, and other values since intensive grazing has many negative effects on these ecosystem values. For many species the lightly grazed areas on the ranch or farm were/are places where wildlife find/found refugia and suitable habitat. Many beneficial insects, pollinators, and larger wildlife such as reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals benefit from the lightly grazed areas and can be critical for ecosystem functioning.

MYTH: Savory’s intensive grazing management strategies have led to greater livestock production and economic gains for ranchers and are a panacea for declining ranch/farm bottom line.

REALITY: Many ranchers cannot or are not able to adopt Savory’s intensive grazing management. First, the intensive management required by HM methods to be successful often requires significant investment in fencing, water development and other infrastructure. It also requires diligent attention to livestock grazing effects and movement. This kind of diligence and attention is often difficult for ranchers and farmers to implement due to economic and/or human constraints. Other limitations to the success of HM techniques are climate and terrain. HM works best in flat terrain where livestock impacts can more equally be distributed and where adequate moisture exists for plant regrowth.

MYTH: Most rangelands suffer from “overrest” not overgrazing.

REALTY: Overgrazing is the cumulative effect of multiple cropping of plants that leads to a decline in plant energy reserves, reduction in root mass, seed production/reproductive effort, and is often accompanied by soil erosion and overall changes in plant composition on a site. In the absence of livestock grazing, plants recover energy reserves, seed and reproductive effort typically improves and soil erosion is reduced. There are no documented examples of “overrest”.

MYTH: In the absence of livestock grazing, plants become moribund and die.

REALITY: There is ample evidence that plants do not require livestock grazing to remain viable. First, there are few places on Earth where plants are not “grazed” or “browsed” by natural herbivores including larger native mammals like bison, wildebeest or guanaco to small animals like ground squirrels and grass hoppers. So plants do not “need” livestock to thrive and on public lands at least we can and should promote native herbivores over exotic domestic livestock.

Secondly, one can easily refuse this statement by visiting any number of natural areas that lack livestock and nevertheless have thriving grassland/rangeland ecosystems. Most National Parks do not permit livestock grazing. And there are literally tens of thousands of small and large grass covered landscapes that for one reason or another naturally exclude livestock like isolated buttes, cliffs, gorges, mesa, plateaus, and even rail and highway right of ways.

MYTH: Hoof action increases water infiltration and helps to plant seeds.

REALITY: Nearly all studies (dozens or hundreds) that have reviewed the effect of hooves on soil infiltration have shown that a thousand pound cow compacts soil, reducing the space between soil particles and thus reducing water penetration and increasing water runoff.

Seeds do not require hoof action to germinate. The plants in rangelands have many different adaptations to ensure adequate recruitment without “hoof action.” Some seeds are attractive to seed eating species like some birds, voles, even ants that carry seeds to their burrows or new locations and help distribute and plant the seeds. Other plants have special adaptations like needle grass which “drills” itself into the ground to ensure successful germination.

MYTH: Biocrusts capping soil surface inhibits plant growth, preventing seeds from penetrating the soil and water from soaking into the ground. Biocrusts need to be broken up by hoof action.

REALITY: Biocrusts are common throughout grassland ecosystems around the world. They are particularly common in arid landscapes where they play a critical role in ecosystem health and function. Biocrusts cover the soil between the spaces in bunchgrass communities (bunchgrasses are common in arid landscapes) keep other plants from germinating and competing for nutrients and water. Biocrusts can decrease the germination of large seeded annual grasses that are degrading grasslands and increasing fire frequency in grasslands and steppe habitats. While inhibiting annual grasses the biocrusts help the perennial grass species thrive.

MYTH: Livestock, particularly cattle, can be managed so as to emulate native species that may no longer graze grasslands.

REALITY: The notion that livestock can replace or emulate the native grazers that may have inhabited a region prior to conversion to domestication. Nearly all plant communities have multiple herbivores that chomp, chew, and graze upon their leaves, stems and even roots. This includes everything from nematodes in the soil that “graze” on roots to grasshoppers, ground squirrels, birds like geese to larger mammals like deer, elk and bison. However, funneling above ground biomass (leaves, stems, etc.) into a single animal like a cow simplifies energy flow in the ecosystem. It can also result in uneven herbivory on plants since the natural collection of animals all graze different plants, different parts of plants at different times and seasons than the single herbivore effects of one or two kinds of domestic animals.

MYTH: Domestic animals like cattle are merely replacing herds of native species like bison that once roamed grasslands.

REALITY: There are substantial evolutionary differences between domestic animals like cattle and native species like bison. Bison naturally move more frequently than cattle. They are better at defending themselves against native predators. They can exist on lower quality forage than cattle.

Furthermore, most of the American West did not have large grazing herds of bison and/or other large mammals. For instance, bison were largely absent or found in very small numbers west of the Continental Divide. Most of the Great Basin of what is now Nevada, western Utah, southern Idaho, southeast Oregon historically did not have large herds of grazing animals, nor did Arizona, much of California, Oregon and Washington.

MYTH: Domestic animals like cattle merely replaced extinct native herbivores that once roamed the western United States.

REALITY: Sometimes Savory advocates will admit that historically large herds of bison, elk and other grazing mammals were absent from much of the West. But they argue that cattle are merely replacing Ice Age herbivores like giant sloth and ancient bison that are now extinct.This ignores the fact that grasslands have not remained static since the last Ice Age. Indeed, in the absence of large herbivores, western grasslands have evolved in response to climate variation, and changing evolutionary pressures. The absence of large grazing mammals permitted plants with a low tolerance for grazing pressure to occupy much of the arid West. These plants invested energy in developing extensive root systems and other mechanisms to survive in arid environments but have few adaptations that permit them to survive grazing by large mammals.

MYTH: Plants need to be grazed and benefit from livestock grazing.

REALITY: Savory mixed up compensation with need and an economic value with a biological one. The grazing of a plant harms the plant, especially if the cropping occurs during the growing season. Plants can compensate for this loss but often do so at a cost to their overall fitness. Grazing the top of a grass means that the bottom or root of the plant will compensate for it but only with a loss of capital and root mass, weakening the plant that now needs rest from grazing.

The loss of photosynthetic material (leaves) by grazing causes a plant to respond by translocation of energy from roots or other parts of the plant to build new leaf material—assuming there is sufficient moisture, nutrients and other critical elements available to recover from the grazing event.

Thus cropping may result in greater overall biomass production as plants seek to compensate for their loss of leaf material. However, the production of more above-ground biomass is often done at the expense of other important plant material including a reduction in root growth, loss of reproductive effort (the plants expends energy on leaf production instead of seed production), and so forth. It is hardly a “benefit.”

To characterize compensation from a harmful event as a need is analogous to suggesting that shooting and poisoning of coyotes is a “benefit” to coyotes because they compensate for these losses by producing additional pups.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Revisiting Fire History Studies

Revisiting Fire History Studies
One of the cornerstones of current forest policy is the assumption that western forests are outside of their “normal” density and appearance or what is termed “historic variability” due a hundred years of mismanagement that included logging of old growth, fire suppression, and livestock grazing.

This idea has been used to justify logging public lands to “restore” forests to their pre-management era appearance and resiliency. Due to this past mismanagement we are told that forests are “over grown” “decadent” and ready to burn.

Not to dismiss the past management that largely continues unabated today, including on-going logging, grazing and fire suppression, but whether the current forest stand condition is that far from past conditions is a matter of increasing debate. This is especially important because the proposed solution to the perceived problem is to log the forest.

Deforestation is no longer done just to provide timber companies with profits or consumers with wood. Now lumber companies are involved in a much more noble enterprise—they are logging the trees to “restore” the presumed forest “health.

The scientific basis for “restoration” is dependent on fire scar studies. These studies suggest that the drier forests composed of lower elevation ponderosa pine and Douglas fir burned frequently and thus kept density low with “park-like” open stands of mostly larger trees. Keep in mind the discussion is focused on lower elevation forests since higher elevation forests like lodgepole pine, fir and spruce are characterized by much longer fire intervals and definitely were not affected to any significant degree by fire suppression.

So we often hear how such low elevation dry forests burned regularly at frequent intervals in “light, “cool” blazes that removed the litter and killed the small trees, but did little harm to the larger trees.

Like a lot of myths, there is some truth to this generalization, and no doubt in some areas this characterization is accurate. But more recent studies using different methods have started to question this well-established story-line. These alternative interpretations are finding that the intervals between fires is much longer than previously suspected, and that stand replacement blazes (where most of the trees are killed) were likely more common even among lower elevation dry forests than previously thought.

The major method for determining the fire history of an area is to find trees with scars created by fires. If the tree is not killed by the blaze, it will develop a scar that can be counted in the tree rings. This record of past fires is then used to determine the “fire rotation” or the time it takes to burn a specific area one time.

There are four major flaws with many fire scar studies. These methodical flaws contribute to a shorter fire rotation bias—in other words, they tend to over state the effect of fire suppression on forests. And if the fire rotation is longer, than much of what is being characterized as unhealthy forest may be perfectly normal and healthy.

The first flaw is targeted sampling. A researcher walks through the forest looking for areas with an abundance of fire scarred trees. The trees in this area are then sampled and used to determine the fire history for the area. In the 1930s the bank robber Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. Sutton is reputed to have replied with the self evident “because that is where the money is.” In a sense that is how fire researchers have gathered their data on fires—they sample in places with a lot of fire scars.

The problem with targeted sampling is that it’s non random. It’s like going into a brewery to poll people about whether they like beer. Places with an abundance of fire scars tend to have naturally low fuel loadings. But these sites may not be representative of the surrounding landscape such as north facing slopes or valley bottoms which may be wetter or have higher productivity—thus longer intervals between blazes.

The second flaw is composite fire scars. Most fire studies add up all the fire scars recorded into a “composite” timeline. The problem with this technique is that the more scars you find and count, the shorter the fire interval becomes. Since the majority of fires do not burn more than a single tree or a small group of trees, using these scars in the composite tends to bias the final count towards much more frequent intervals. Some fire researchers now try to counter this by only including fire scars recorded the same year on 3 or more trees. Nevertheless, even this may overstate the frequency of fire in a given study area.

In other words, your composite may suggest a fire burned within your study area once every 5 years or whatever, but most of these blazes only burned a few trees, then ecologically speaking they are insignificant. What are important are the fires that burn most or all of the study area. These larger blazes may be far less frequent and take 100 years to burn most or all of the study area. Since the critical issue for the forest is the occurrence of the occasional blaze or series of fires that burns most, if not all of the entire study area, the real fire rotation for such an area may be 100 years, not every 5 years.

The third flaw is fire distribution. If you read fire studies carefully they will usually note the longest interval without any recorded fire. Often this is a significant period of many decades. Why is this important? Because the average person hears that there were fires every 10 or 20 years and assumes that fires operate like clocks on a regular schedule. In reality fires come in episodic groups usually dictated by periodic droughts that are controlled by shifts in off shore currents like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, thus tend to be grouped together in certain drought prone decades.

Let me give a hypothetical example of how “averaging” fire intervals can skew interpretations. Let’s say a particular fire history study found a fire interval that averaged one blaze every 20 years. In a 100 years, this works out to 5 fires. However, since fires tend to burn only in drier decades, one could easily have 3 fires in the first decade, and two in the last decade and no fires for the 80 years in between.

Why is this important? Because the common assumption is that if the fire interval is 20 years, fires would keep tree density low and reduce fuel build up. However, if no fires burned in an area for 80 years or whatever the fire free interval may have been, then there may not be an “abnormal” build up of fuel or increase in tree density, when in fact, nothing is out of the ordinary at all.

Finally the fourth major flaw is assuming that stand replacement blazes are unusual in dry lower elevation forests. Because most fire scar studies are non-random, and target areas with fire scars, the other areas are not sampled. Often the reason these non-sampled areas lack significant numbers of fire scarred trees is because all trees may have been killed in a stand replacement fires—so are not there to be recorded.

Due to these flaws and errors in interpretation, many fire scar histories (but not all) may seriously misrepresent the fire rotation of an area. If the period between fires is considerably longer than previously thought, then our forests may not be far out of their historic variability and may be well within that variability. In either case, they do not require “restoration” because they are not out of balance.

The other major justification for logging is to reduce the perceived increase in fire occurrence and severity often blamed on past forest management including fire suppression. As pointed out above, most forests may not be that far outside of historic conditions.

The fact that we are seeing more and larger fires fits perfectly with the pattern that is expected under current climatic conditions. In other words, if you have drier weather conditions, with high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, you will get more fires. You will get larger fires.
The prevailing climatic conditions are driving most of the apparent change in fire frequency and severity. For instance, the Southwest is in the grips of a drought that hasn’t been seen in five hundred years. Not surprisingly, there are fires now burning across the region bigger and more intense than any seen in the past. However, Paleo fire studies confirm that such large fires may not be abnormal when compared to the fires that burned similar severe droughts occurred in the past centuries.

Finally there is too much emphasis on "restoring" stand structure (in other words the presumed appearance) of forests rather than on restoring ecological processes. It is more critical to accept and promote natural processes like beetle outbreaks, wildfires (including stand replacement blazes), and other natural ecological agents than simply trying to replicate some presumed historic forest structure. If these ecological processes are restored, than the forest will sort out the kind of appearance and structure that is appropriate for current climatic conditions.

This is not to suggest that all fire scar historical reconstructions are wrong—but it does raise the prospect that many of our assumptions about fire may be inaccurate or biased to some degree. Many of the logging proposals in the West are likely based on flawed assumptions about fire ecology and historic conditions. And before any “restoration” logging is accepted as necessarily, the underlying assumptions should be carefully evaluated to make sure they are not skewed towards a shorter rotation that actually does not characterize the area accurately.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lies about wolves

Recently I attended a hearing in Helena where I heard numerous people, including many in the state Legislature, asserting that wolves were "decimating" Montana's game herds. Unfortunately due to the widespread repetition of the lies and distortions, the only thing being decimated is the truth.

According to MDFWP in 1992, three years before wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho, there were an estimated 89,000 elk in Montana. By 2010, elk had been so "decimated" that MDFWP estimated that elk numbers had grown to 140,000-150,000 animals.

Indeed, in 2012, according to MDFWP statistics, out of 127 elk management units in the state, 68 are above objectives, 47 are at objectives, and only 12 are considered to be below objectives. And even among these 12 units, the causes for elk declines are often complex and involve more than wolf predation. In at least a few instances, overhunting by humans is the primary factor.

Beyond hunting, the presence of wolves has many other benefits. Wolves cull sick animals such as those with brucellosis and Chronic Wasting Disease from herds that could threaten both humans as well as livestock. Wolves shift ungulates away from riparian areas, resulting in greater growth of willows and other streamside vegetation. This, in turn, creates more habitat for wildlife including songbirds, and beaver. Healthier riparian areas also results in greater trout densities.

It is disturbing to me as a hunter and ecologist that MDFWP repeatedly fails to aggressively counter the distortions and misinformation.

Understanding Fire Scar Histories

I've been studying fire ecology for decades, an interest which led to the publication in 2006 of my book WIldfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. My interest in wildfire did not end with the book and I have continued to read and digest the fire-related literature, attend conferences, and most importantly visit and observe large blazes around the West.

What I began to question, even when I put together Wildfire, was the idea that low severity/high frequency fires were the dominant influence upon western dry forest landscapes
Yet the majority of forest service "restoration" is based upon the idea that somehow our forests are out of whack. That fire suppression has created dense stands that have allowed fuel buildup and thus we are experiencing abnormal fires. That the common story that everyone repeats. The problem is that it is probably not true.

Therefore, all the forest restoration work being done is likely not restoring anything, rather is more an excuse for logging than for anything.

Consider these points.

1. The majority, if not all, low severity/high frequency fires are small. There are tens of thousands of lightning caused fires that occur around the West. But the vast majority (like 99%) burn out before they can char more than a few trees. Even if you totaled up all the acreage burned by these thousands upon thousands of fires, the overall effect on the landscape would be very small because the geographical footprint of each blaze is tiny. I have probably traveled more of the West looking at fires than anyone I know, and I have yet to see a significant area burned as a low severity fire. The reason is that the major factor that determines fire spread, severity and size are burning conditions. You get low severity fires when the conditions for a burn are not favorable for fire spread.

2. The vast majority of the acreage burned in any year is due to a very small number of fires. These blazes occur under highly favorable climate/weather conditions of low humidity, high winds, high temperatures, and drought. They have little to do with fuels. Think of this for yourself--there's more fuel in the Olympic rainforest than anyplace else in the West, but the Olympic forests seldom burn. Why? Because they are too wet most of the time for a fire to get started and even if one does start, to burn much acreage.

3. Most larger landscape scale fires do not burn as a single type of blaze. Rather they are a mixture of low, mixed, and high severity burns. We call some of these "stand replacement" fires meaning that the majority of trees may be killed by fire--but even in stand replacement blazes, it is unusual to get more than a 50% kill of trees within the burn perimeter. Fires burn in a mosaic with patches of fire killed trees, other patches intermixed with live and dead trees, and still other patches where few if any of the trees are killed. So even in a “stand replacement” burn you can easily have 50% of the forest that is either mixed or low severity (or no burn at all).

4. I've been re-reading a lot of the fire scar studies that have been done around the West upon which "restoration" is based, and most of them (maybe all of them) are flawed. They all have several statistical and other errors that exaggerate the number of fires.

One flaw is targeted sampling. Basically one goes out and finds trees with fire scars and samples them. But these are not random samples. In other words, one is seeking out trees that are scarred by fire, which means you are ignoring the majority of all trees. But then people try to suggest these fire scar trees represent the condition of the landscape as a whole. It's like walking in a bar in Dillon Montana and noting that the majority of men sitting there have cowboy boots on, but then trying to suggest that the majority of all men in America wear cowboy boots. Obviously it may be true about bar patrons in Dillon, but not about men in general. Same is true about the results of fire scar reconstructions.

A second flaw is that most fire scar reconstructions use "composites" of the fire scars. In other words, they add all scars together to come up with the "fire interval". But this is highly biased in a number of ways.
As noted above, most fires affect only a few trees or small acreage. So should they have the same "weight" as say a fire that burns the entire study area? What you find is that the majority of small fires does not affect much area, and probably have little overall influence on the landscape. In other words, you have a thousand acre study area and lightning causes a single tree to burn—should you imply—as most studies do—that this is one “interval” in the forest burn cycle?
Worse yet, the larger the sample area, the more likely you are to pick up a lot of these single burn trees, so this tends to skew the fire interval to shorter and shorter time frames, giving a false picture of the burn frequency across the landscape. On the other hand, too small a sample size can also skew things since you might miss a large stand replacement event because the one plot you sampled for whatever reason might have been one of the no-burn or lightly burned sites in an otherwise more severe and widespread fire.
It is the relatively rare, but large fires that do the bulk of the ecological work. In addition, unless you cross date the fires, you can have a lot of single tree scarred trees, but each one due to a different lightning strike, and not related to any other fires in the area and all burning only a tiny fraction of the total landscape.

A third flaw is the way people think about the results. Fires are episodic much like floods on rivers. The vast majority of fires occur in series due to climate/weather conditions. Thus you can have 2-3 fires in one decade, followed by maybe 80 years without any fires, then another decade of drought where you have a series of very large blazes. In other words you could easily have 5 fires in a hundred years which would give you a fire return interval of every 20 years, but this would be deceptive. In reality you had 80 years without a single fire.
This is somewhat like river floods. Despite the name of "Hundred Year Floods" you can have two hundred year floods back to back, followed by 200-400 years without any significant floods. Same with fires. Such a fire temporal pattern would undoubtedly lead to dense forest stands that are occasionally "thinned" by fire, beetles, or disease.

We know from other methods including geo morphic, fire atlases, pollen and charcoal records, and other alternative means of deciphering fire patterns that fires are highly influenced by changing climatic conditions. And these conditions are largely influenced by factors like off shore currents, periodic shifts in solar input, and so on. These large global influences have a lot to do with how much forest burns and under what kinds of conditions. What these studies indicate is that large fires are quite normal--even in so called "dry forests" like ponderosa pine if you view things from the proper temporal and spatial scales. At least for many forest types we are not likely experiencing larger fires or fires that are outside of the 'historic" variability if you view them from the proper time and geographical scales.

The other factor is the cultural bias against dead trees. Dead trees are a sign of a healthy forest. We need beetle kill, wildfires and diseases like mistletoe to keep our forest ecosystems functioning. Most forest management is designed to reduce or eliminate these important factors. The way to think about beetles, fires, and disease is like predators. These are the predators that keep a forest healthy, just as wolves keep the elk herd healthy. Trying to limit these natural processes to a small part of the landscape is like saying it's OK for a few token wolves to kill a few elk, but we don't want them affecting elk across the state. However, if you have that attitude, than you are effectively eliminating wolf predations as a major ecological factor. Same thing applies to managing forests to reduce the occurrence of fires, disease and beetles. We need to embrace these forest processes for the critical role they play in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems.

The end result of all this is that the vast majority of forests now being "thinned" for restoration to "restore" their "historic variability" are likely not out of historic variability at all, thus do not need restoration. I would not suggest this applies to every forest stand, but I am willing to bet the vast majority of restoration projects are based on out of date interpretations of past historic conditions.

Monday, March 4, 2013

State Agency does not use Science to manage predators

Gov. Steve Bullock was recently quoted as supporting legislation that would increase the killing of wolves because the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks supports the legislation.
Bullock was quoted as saying: “... at the end of the day we need to base these decisions on science, not on politics …” Unfortunately, indiscriminate killing of wolves is largely about politics and ignores the best science.
Predator killing creates a self-fulfilling feedback mechanism, whereby more wolves (cougar, bears, coyotes) are indiscriminately killed, the greater social disruptions, resulting in additional conflicts, and more demand for additional killing.
We’ve seen this cycle for decades in our failed attempts to reduce coyote depredations. As Albert Einstein has said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
There are good scientific reasons why indiscriminate killing (which hunting and trapping are) fails to get the expected results.
The loss of experienced, older animals and their “cultural” knowledge of their territory may mean the remaining wolves will starve or seek out easy prey like livestock.
With wolves, the loss of pack members may result in an inability to hold on to territory, forcing the remaining pack members into new territory where they may not know wildlife use patterns – such as where elk calve or migration corridors. Again this may cause them to seek out livestock for food.
When there is heavy mortality and fragmented packs, populations are skewed toward younger animals. This ultimately leads to a greater number of breeding pairs, and even higher number of young pups.
The end result is a higher percentage of young inexperienced animals, which like human teenagers, are more inclined towards risky behavior and lack the skills to survive. This naturally predisposes them to seeking easy prey like livestock.
Another problem with indiscriminate predator killing is that it often removes the very animals that are the least likely to be involved in livestock depredations. The majority of hunting occurs on the larger blocks of public land. The wolf pack that is attacking cattle on private ranchlands are unlikely to be the animals removed by hunters and/or trappers.
Worse, current state policies ignore or devalue the multiple ecological benefits of predators – from reduction of disease transmission among other species such as elk and deer, to restoration of riparian areas and increases in both songbirds and trout.
Striving to keep predator numbers well below the number that actually influences ungulate populations seriously undermines the ecological function of predation, and contributes to ecological impoverishment.
Finally there is the ethical question. One continuously hears about fair chase and ethical behavior regarding hunting. What is ethical about killing animals you don’t eat? Is gratuitous killing ethical behavior? Most U.S. citizens no longer hunt. They only accept hunting if they believe hunters are involved in ethical hunting practices. Montana FWP’s backward and archaic policies are undermining ultimately public support for hunting in general.
There may be an occasional need to surgically remove a particularly troublesome animal, however that is entirely different from the indiscriminate slaughter Montana FWP gratuitously calls “hunting.”
The bottom line is Montana FWP does not use science to manage predators. Its predator policies are archaic, unethical and often self-defeating relics from the past. It’s time for Montana to enter the 21st century and manage predators with a scientific understanding of their social ecology and treating predators with the respect they deserve.

State Agency Game Farming Is Not Compatible with Ecosystem Integrity

By George Wuerthner On January 14, 2013 · 39 Comments · In Politics, Predator Control, Wildlife, Wolves

State Agency Game Farming Is Not Compatible with Ecosystem Integrity

With the delisting of wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act, management of wolves has been turned back to the individual states where wolves occur. In most of these states, we see state agencies adopting policies that treat wolves as persona no grata, rather than a valued member of their wildlife heritage. Nowhere do I see any attempt by these state agencies to educate hunters and the general public about the ecological benefits of predators. Nor is there any attempt to consider the social ecology of wolves and/or other predators in management policies. Wolves, like all predators, are seen as a “problem” rather than as a valuable asset to these states.

In recent years state agencies have increasingly adopted policies that are skewed towards preserving opportunities for recreational killing rather than preserving ecological integrity. State agencies charged with wildlife management are solidifying their perceived role as game farmers. Note the use of “harvest” as a euphemism for killing. Their primary management philosophy and policies are geared towards treating wildlife as a “resource” to kill. They tend to see their roles as facilitators that legalize the destruction of ecological integrity, rather than agencies dedicated to promoting a land ethic and a responsible wildlife ethic.

Want proof? Just look at the abusive and regressive policies states have adopted to “manage” (persecute) wolves and other predators.

Idaho Fish and Game, which already had an aggressive wolf killing program, has just announced that it will transfer money from coyote killing to pay trappers to kill more wolves in the state so it can presumably increase elk and deer numbers.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) which many had hoped might be a bit more progressive in its predator attitudes, supports new regulations that will expand the wolf killing season, number of tags (killing permits), and reduces the license fee (killing fee) charged to out of state hunters who want to shoot wolves.

Wyoming is even more regressive. Wolves are considered “predators” with no closed season in many parts of the state.

Alaska, perhaps displaying the ultimate in 19th Century attitudes that seem to guide state Game and Fish predator policies, already has extremely malicious policies towards wolves, and is now attempting to expand wolf killing even in national parks and wildlife refuges (it is already legal to hunt and trap in many national parks and refuges). For instance the Alaska Fish and Game is proposing [aerial?]-gunning of wolves in Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and wants to extend the hunting/trapping season on wolves in Lake Clark National Park, Katmai National Park, and Aniakchak National Preserve until June, long after pups have been born. Similar persecution of wolves to one degree or another is occurring in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, which have been given management authority for wolves in those states.

Although some states like Montana changed their name from “game” to wildlife, their attitudes and policies have not changed to reflect any greater enlightenment towards predators.

Montana recently increased the number of mountain lions that can be killed in some parts of the state to reduce predation on elk.

South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is on a vendetta against a newly established mountain lion population in that state, and greatly increased mountain lion kill in a small and recently established population of these animals.

The Wyoming Game and Fish is almost salivating at the prospect of grizzly delisting so hunters can kill “trophy” grizzly bears.

I could give more examples of state game agencies that have declared war on predators in one fashion or another.

The point is that these agencies are still thinking about predators with a 19th Century mindset when the basic attitude was the “only good predator is a dead predator” and the goal of “wildlife management” was to increase hunter opportunities to shoot elk, deer, moose and caribou. These ungulates are seen as desirable “wildlife” and predators are generally viewed as a “problem.”

Many state game farming agencies suggest that they have to kill these carnivores to garner “social acceptance” of predators. Killing wolves, bears, coyotes and mountain lions is suggested as a way to relieve the anger that some members of the ranching/hunting/trapping community have towards predators. Is giving people who need counseling a license to kill so they can relieve their frustrations a good idea? Maybe we should allow frustrated men who are wife beaters to legally pound their spouses as well?

Despite the fact that many of these same agencies like to quote Aldo Leopold, author of Sand County Almanac, and venerate him as the “father” of wildlife management, they fail to adopt Leopold’s concept of a land ethic based upon the ecological health of the land.

Aldo Leopold understood that ALL wildlife have an important role to play in ecosystem integrity. Decades ago back in the 1940s he wrote: “The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

To keep every cog and wheel means keeping not only species from going extinct, but maintaining the ecological processes that maintain ecosystem function. What makes state game farming policies so unacceptable is that there is no excuse for not understanding the ecological role of predators in ecosystem integrity. Recent research has demonstrated the critical importance of predators for shaping ecosystems, influencing the evolution of prey species, and maintaining ecosystem integrity. We also know that predators have intricate social relationships or social ecology that is disrupted or destroyed by indiscriminate hunting.

Yet state game farming agencies continuously ignore these ecological findings. At best the policies of game farming agencies demonstrates a lack professionalism, or worse, maybe they are just as ignorant of recent scientific findings as the hunters/trappers they serve.

Ironically these same state game farming agencies see that the numbers of hunters and anglers are declining, along with their budgets. Agencies depend upon the killing fees (licenses and tags) charged to hunters and anglers for the privilege of killing and privatizing public wildlife to run their operations. Yet instead of broadening their base of support from other wildlife watchers to those interested in maintaining ecological integrity, these agencies are circling the wagons, and adopting policies that reflect the worse behaviors and attitudes of the most ignorant and regressive hunting/trapping constituency. In the process, they are alienating more moderate hunters and anglers, as well as the general public.

The problem is that state game farming agencies have a conflict of interest. Their budgets depend on selling killing permits which depends upon the availability of elk, deer, moose and caribou to kill, not more predators. Any decline in the population of these “game” animals is seen as a potential financial loss to the agency. Therefore, these agencies tend to adopt policies that maintain low predator numbers. Yet these same agencies are never up front about their conflict of interest. They pretend they are using the “best available science” and “managing” predators to achieve a “balance” between game and predators.

Because of this conflict, game farming agencies turn a blind eye to ethical considerations as well. Most of the public supports hunting if one avoids unnecessary suffering of the animals—in other words, makes a clean kill. They also want to know the animal did not die in vain and the animals is captured and/or killed by generally recognized codes of ethical behavior. In other words, the animal is consumed rather than killed merely for “recreation” or worse as a vendetta and the wildlife has a reasonable chance of evading the hunter/trapper. But when the goal is persecution, ideas about ethics and “fair chase” are abandoned.

Personally I would rather see state agencies reform themselves and adopt more inclusive, informed and progressive attitudes towards all wildlife, especially predators. But judging from what I have seen, it appears these state game farming agencies are headed in the opposite direction.

If they continue down this path, it’s clear that they will lose legitimacy with the public at large. Efforts to take away management authority will only strengthen. For instance, voters in a number of states have already banned the recreational trapping of wildlife, always over the objections of state game farming agencies. Efforts are now afoot to ban trapping in Oregon and I suspect other states will soon follow suit.

The next step will be to take away any discretion for hunting of predators and perhaps ultimately hunting of all wildlife. The trend towards greater restrictions is seen as the only way to rein in the abusive policies of state game farming agencies. In California, the state’s voters banned hunting of mountain lions in 1991. Oregon banned hunting of mountain lion with dogs. In other states, there are increasing conflicts between those who love and appreciate the role of predators in healthy ecosystems, and state game farming agencies.

Bans on all hunting has even occurred in some countries. Costa Rica just banned hunting and Chile has so limited hunting that it is effectively banned.

I suggest that the negative and maltreatment of predators displayed by game farming agencies in the US, will ultimately hasten the same fate in the U.S.
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Sunday, January 6, 2013
Management of Predators: A need for changes in policies

By George Wuerthner (, May 2011
Commissioned by Big Wildlife (
ABSTRACT: Management of predators has historically been based on extirpation and/or a grudging
tolerance of low populations. While extirpation of predators is no longer the goal of wildlife agencies,
current state wildlife policies often maintain populations above extinction levels, but well below
maximum biological carrying capacity. Predator policy typically ignores the ecological influence of
predators in terms of their important influence upon ecosystem organization. Furthermore,
management for populations without considering the social organization of top predators can lead to
greater conflicts with humans, particularly livestock owners and hunters, the two groups who are often
hostile to predators.
Predators have always been a controversial subject in wildlife management. Traditionally predators were
viewed as competitors to hunters and a threat to the livelihood of livestock owners. Informally, the motto
“the only good predator’s a dead predator” historically represented the prevailing attitude of most
European Americans. Changing cultural values now give greater consideration to the ecological value of
wolves (Canis lupus) and have resulted in changes in public policies best represented by the attempt to
recover wolves within their historic range in the United States. Yet, negative attitudes towards predators
from hunters and ranchers still influence management policies of state wildlife agencies. Unfortunately,
current predator management policies of many state agencies tend to reinforce negative attitudes and
hostility to predators, both in how agencies frame the issue of predators, as well as by advocating
indiscriminate control that ignores predator ecology and disrupts social organization.
Historical Background
European settlers in North America brought negative attitudes towards predators with them when they
colonized the continent. Predator extirpation was one of the early activities of many colonial, territorial
and state governments. For instance, in 1630, just ten years after the Mayflower landed, the Massachusetts
Bay colonists enacted a bounty on wolves.1 One of the first political actions of settlers in Oregon Territory
were so-called “wolf meetings.” The first such meeting, held in 1843, levied a $5 assessment on each
settler to pay for bounties on predators.2 Similarly, some 80,730 wolves were killed for bounty in
Montana and $342,764 in bounties was paid between 1883 and 1918.3
In Montana, during the years 1902 to 1930, bounties on wolves and cougars were significantly reduced as
predators were extirpated. Bounty payments
declined from 4,116 in 1903 to zero by
Eventually the burden of paying for predator
bounties was transferred to the federal
government. In 1907, in exchange for
paying fees to graze their livestock on
federal lands, the US Forest Service entered
into agreements with ranchers to control
wolves on national forests. Authority for
predator control was later transferred to the
Bureau of Biological Survey in 1914.5 Professional hunters were hired by the Bureau to track down and
kill predators with as many as 200 men in the employ of the government at the height of predator
extermination efforts. As a consequence of government extirpation efforts – combined with on-going
unceasing slaughter by hunters, ranchers and settlers – both grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis) and wolves
were nearly extirpated from the West by the 1940s.6 Other species like mountain lion (Puma concolor)
fared slightly better, in part, because they were less vulnerable to poisoning efforts. Nevertheless, even
mountain lions were reduced to half of their natural geographic range as a result of persecution.7
Changes in attitudes towards predators came slowly. One of the first organizations to question the
pervasive notion “the only good predator is a dead one” was the American Society of Mammalogists who
issued a report in 1928 asserting that predators had scientific, economic and educational value. The
mammalogists called for protection of predators in national parks and other public lands.8
By the 1930s visionary biologists like George Wright and Adolph Murie were calling for an end to
predator control in the national parks.9 And ecologist Aldo Leopold, who wrote the first textbook on
game management, eventually came to see predators as an intrinsic part of nature. In 1949 he published
his book A Sand County Almanac which included his powerful essay “Thinking like a Mountain” where
he describes the changes in his ideas about the role of predators in nature.
In response to changing public attitudes towards predators, most states have given “game” animal status
to larger predators. For instance, mountain lions were nearly extirpated from Oregon by the 1960s. In
1967 Oregon listed mountain lions as “game animals,” enacting hunting seasons and attempting to
maintain viable populations of the animal. As a consequence, mountain lion populations rose from 214 in
1961 to 3,114 by 1994.10 Similar changes in the status of most predators, with the exception of coyotes
(Canis latrans), from “vermin” to “game,” occurred in other states throughout the West.
The ecological and philosophical value of predators was given greater legal status and protection when
Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. The Act provided protection to species that
were considered endangered or threatened and provided a mechanism for protection of habitat. Of the
species given early protection under the ESA, both the grizzly bear and the gray wolf were listed as
endangered in the lower 48 states, along with the Florida panther (mountain lion).
A transformation in public attitudes from utilitarian to more non-utilitarian values of wildlife has led to
some changes in how state and federal agencies manage wildlife with greater emphasis on restoring intact
ecosystems and slightly less importance on sustainable yield of trophies and/or meat.11 Yet hostile
attitudes towards predators among many hunters, outfitters and ranchers remain. For instance, Lynn
Madsen, owner of Yellowstone Outfitters in Wyoming was quoted at an anti-wolf rally in Jackson Hole,
Wyoming as saying: “They (wolves) have put people, literally, out of business,” he said. “The only thing
that keeps Wyoming in the running is the (elk) feedgrounds.”12 Similarly, Ron Gillette, an Idaho outfitter,
was quoted in a High Country News article suggesting wolves “are the most cruel, vicious animal in
North America...the only predator that eats its prey alive because they like the taste of warm blood!”
Gillette went on to say “Enviros – the ‘wolf-thug terrorist groups’– are full of crap and baloney when they
claim wolves have little impact. When they turned wolves loose, they were having toasts that hunting in
Idaho would soon be over!”13
State Control of Wildlife Management
Despite legal and philosophical changes, predators are still treated differently from other wildlife species
by state wildlife agencies. Unless a species is listed under the ESA, management of wildlife is under the
jurisdiction of state wildlife agencies. Most state agencies are required to manage for viable populations
of all wildlife species; however, there is no
requirement to manage for ecological health
and/or social stability.
Many pro-hunting organizations, though more
moderate in their rhetoric than some of the
outfitters quoted above, demand that agencies
manage predators the same as any other
wildlife. For instance, M. David Allen,
President of the Rocky Mountain Elk
Foundation, wrote in their publication, Bugle
Magazine, that “we should be actively
managing them (wolves) through regulated
hunting and other prescribed methods.”14 In
other newspaper editorials, Allan has stated
that “Every wildlife conservation agency, both
state and federal, working at ground zero of
wolf restoration – Idaho, Montana and
Wyoming – has abundant data to demonstrate
how undermanaged wolf populations can compromise local elk herds and local livestock production.
There’s just no dispute, and emotion-over-science is not the way to professionally manage wildlife.”15
The implied message is that a decline in elk (Cervus elaphus) herds – or any other game species sought by
hunters – as a result of predation is undesirable and unacceptable to hunters. The more moderate prohunting
organizations typically hold the stance that wolves are OK so long it doesn’t affect hunting
success; however, maintaining wolf populations at this level may reduce the ecological influence on prey
or ecosystems.
This strong pressure to reduce predation effects upon favored game species has a significant influence on
state wildlife agencies. Wildlife agencies have a direct conflict of interest when it comes to managing
predators since all state wildlife agencies depend on hunting license fees to fund their programs. Thus,
whether stated implicitly or not, the main goal of most wildlife management is to maximize species
considered desirable to hunters, like elk and deer, and often at the expense of other species, including
Since predators can limit populations of large ungulates, state agencies generally tend to manage
predators, particularly large predators like mountain lion (cougars), wolves and bears far below their
biological carrying capacity. As a result, their ecological influence upon ecosystems is limited. The union
of hunters with stockmen and state wildlife agencies – as well as other government agencies like Wildlife
Services, which kills predators – formed what one author termed a “diamond triangle” that dominates and
exercises disproportionate control over predator management policies.16
For instance, coyotes are treated as vermin by all wildlife agencies, with no closed season or limits on the
kill. Other predators like mountain lion, wolves and grizzlies are often managed to maintain populations
well below biological carrying capacity based upon perceptions of public acceptance, particularly among
hunters and livestock owners.
In response to the perception that wildlife agencies were overly biased against predators, citizens in some
states have taken management of some predators away from wildlife agencies. For instance, in 1990
California voters supported an initiative that banned sport hunting of mountain lion (cougar). Similar
Since predators can limit populations of large ungulates,
state agencies generally tend to manage predators far below
their biological carrying capacity. Photo: George Wuerthner.
legislation that sought to ban the use of hounds to hunt the animals so as to reduce the kill of mountain
lions was passed in both Oregon and Washington as well.
In 1994 three bills designed to reverse the ban on mountain lion hunting were introduced in the California
legislature, but defeated. In 1996 another referendum introduced by the legislature to rescind the ban on
mountain lion hunting was defeated by California voters. A similar attempt to reverse a voter-approved
referendum ban on mountain lion hunting by dogs was also placed before Oregon voters by hunters and
livestock owners. But Oregon citizens voted to maintain the ban. The Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
(ODFW) responded to this citizen ban on hound hunting of mountain lions by significantly reducing the
cost of mountain lion licenses and lengthening the hunting season in an effort to maximize the kill on
mountain lions by hunters. For instance in 2009, 42,000 mountain lion licenses were sold in Oregon.
In 2006 the Oregon Fish and Game Commission voted to allow federal agents to use dogs to track
mountain lions. The Commission also voted to permit private hound hunters to be appointed by the state
to “assist” federal agents in the tracking and killing of mountain lions.17
Not only animals that may have attacked livestock, but any animal deemed “potentially” a stock-killer can
be killed. As a consequence, the number of mountain lions killed in Oregon has actually increased since
the ban on hound hunting of mountain lion was implemented.
A similar citizen ban on use of dogs in mountain lion hunting passed in Washington in 1996. Just as in
Oregon, the Washington Fish and Game agency responded by increasing the length of the mountain lion
hunting season, bag limits and combined the mountain lion license with a general license to hunt elk and
deer, increasing greatly the potential legal number of mountain lion hunters. These changes led to
increased mortality for mountain lions, thereby nullifying the ban’s original purposes.
State agencies say they are responding to concerns about public safety, arguing that large predator
populations are a threat to humans. Agencies claim they are receiving more complaints from the public
about conflicts between mountain lion and the public and are merely responding to public safety
concerns.18 Agencies respond to hunters dismay over declines in huntable animals like elk, but frequently
fail to counter negative viewpoints by noting the positive ecological effects resulting from predation on
Critics of state wildlife agency predator management claim that fish and wildlife departments often feed
public fears about predators through indirect and subtle propaganda campaigns that exaggerate the threat
of predator attacks. They suggest agencies may be
contributing to the rise in complaints by increasing
outreach and making a greater efforts to seek and track
complaints. In addition, critics argue that agencies
sometimes attribute any decline of huntable species
like elk or deer to predators, without a corresponding
attempt to place such declines in historic perspective
(often prey numbers are historic highs and may decline
somewhat, but well within the normal carrying
capacity for a region).20 Agencies, critics suggest, also
do little to place a decline in ungulate numbers within
an ecological perspective (i.e. enumerating the
ecological and ecosystem services that predators
provide).21 Wolf (Canis lupus). Photo: George Wuerthner.
Proponents of predator control suggest that without hunting, predators become habituated to humans, and
thus pose a greater safety threat to humans. However, a study of mountain lion attacks on humans finds no
compelling evidence that hunting and population control reduces attacks on humans. Beiers notes that
mountain lion are heavily hunted and controlled on Vancouver Island, BC. In a paper on the topic, he
says “Compared to other North American cougar population, Vancouver’s cougar population may be the
least habituated to humans and the most subject to aversive conditioning. Nonetheless Vancouver Island
has by far the highest concentration of cougar attacks on humans. This fact seems difficult to reconcile
with the habituation hypothesis.” 22
A review by Tavaas, which looked at how effective hunting was in reducing human conflicts and
complaints of black bear, found that hunting had little overall effect on conflicts. In fact, states with
increases in hunting had increases in complaints and conflicts. By contrast, non-lethal measures such as
bear-proofing garbage cans and reducing access to human foods resulted in far greater reductions in
human/predator conflicts.23
Another study of black bear in Wisconsin found similar outcomes. Although hunters removed 356 bears
implicated in nuisance complaints, they took these bears in proportion to their availability. The authors
concluded that the Wisconsin bear hunting season did not show clear evidence of reducing nuisance
complaints during 1995–2004, probably because hunting was not effectively designed for that goal.24
Ecological Role of Predators
Many state wildlife agencies, because of their desire to maximize populations of ungulates such as elk,
moose, caribou and deer for hunters, do not emphasize the ecological benefits of predators in shaping
ecosystems. Predators are maintained at population levels so their ecological role as top down predators
and influence in trophic cascades (when predators suppress the abundance of their prey) are muted, and/or
Recent research on the ecological role of predators in exerting top-down influences upon prey populations
with long-term consequences for
vegetative communities demonstrates
that predator influence has significant
ecological consequences for
ecosystem health. Trophic cascades,
where “top down” controls on
herbivores by predators prevent
overexploitation of vegetation, has
been postulated and confirmed in
various places.
Terborgh et al. describe the ecological
consequences of loss of predators in
forest fragments created by
hydroelectric development in
Venezuela. There, predators of
vertebrates are absent and densities of
rodents, howler monkeys, iguanas and
leaf-cutter ants are 10 to 100 times
Wolves in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley feed on a young
elk while ravens wait their turn. Photo by Phil Knight.
greater than on the nearby mainland, suggesting that predators normally limit their populations. The
densities of seedlings and saplings of canopy trees were severely reduced on herbivore-affected islands,
providing evidence of a trophic cascade unleashed in the absence of top-down regulation.25
The presence of predators creates what some biologists are calling “ecology of fear” in prey species like
elk. Animals have the ability to learn and can respond to differing levels of predation risk and will
respond to fear of predation with measurable responses including changes in densities, vigilance
observations and foraging effects on plants.26
Robert L. Beschta and William J. Ripple describe how the absence of wolves in Olympic National Park
permitted elk browsing to influence plant communities. In Olympic National Park, where wolves were
extirpated in the early 1900s, Beschta and Ripple found significantly decreased recruitment of bigleaf
maple and cottonwood along riparian areas, which they attribute to heavy elk browsing in the absence of
wolves. 27
A study of the influence of wolves upon elk by Hebblewhite and colleagues in Banff National Park found
that the absence of wolves in one part of the Bow River Valley permitted elk numbers to increase an order
of magnitude. Annual survival of adult female elk was 62% in the high-wolf area vs. 89% in the low-wolf
area. Annual recruitment of calves was 15% in the high-wolf area vs. 27% without wolves. Wolf
exclusion decreased aspen recruitment, willow production, and increased willow and aspen browsing
intensity. Herbivory by elk negatively affected beaver lodge density.
Loss of beaver had several negative effects. Beaver dams help control flooding and provide water storage
that helps to maintain stream flow in late summer, benefiting fish and other aquatic life. Plus beaver and
their dams create wet meadows, which are utilized by many wildlife species. For instance, Hebblewhite
and colleagues found that elk herbivory had an indirect negative effect on riparian songbird diversity and
Ripple and Beschta found an increase in cottonwood recruitment in Yellowstone National Park after
restoration of wolves.29 And Ripple and Larson reported that aspen regeneration in Yellowstone National
Park essentially stopped by the 1920s once elk populations expanded with protection afforded by the park
and the concurrent extirpation of wolves from the park.30
Ripple and Beschta compiled information from five parks – Yellowstone, Olympic, Yosemite, Wind Cave
and Zion – and concluded the absence of large predators allowed herbivores to alter plant community
Another study just outside of Yellowstone in the Gallatin Range found similar results. In the absence of
large predators, elk herbivory significantly reduced aspen recruitment.32
Beschta and Ripple also found that riparian vegetation and hydrological function was influenced by the
elk browsing which they hypothesize is a consequence of wolf extirpation. In a study of the Gallatin River
northwest of Yellowstone National Park they compared channel cross-sections on three reaches of the
upper Gallatin River. Willow cover on floodplains averaged 85% on the transect that was outside of the
wintering range of elk, but only 26% and 5% for reaches dominated by wintering elk.33
Beyer and colleagues studying willow in Yellowstone National Park found a two-fold growth in the plants
after reintroduction of wolves that could not be explained by climate and/or other factors. The researchers
believe that wolf presence changed
habitat use by elk.34
Another consequence of the loss of
apex or top predators is meso predator
release where the loss of a top predator
allows smaller predators to increase in
numbers and distribution. Meso
predator release was coined by Michael
Soule in a paper published in 1988.35
This phenomena has been observed at
numerous levels.36 Meso predator
release, for instance, is blamed for
increased predation on ground nesting
birds in the eastern U.S. In this case, it
is the control and reduction in coyotes
which normally keep in check other
predators like raccoons (Procyon lotor)
and skunks (Mephitis sp.).37
The presence of wolves was found to limit and redistribute coyotes. Coyote densities declined by 33% in
Grand Teton National Park and 39% in Yellowstone National Park in wolf abundant sites after wolf
The changes in coyote population and distribution had indirect and direct effects. For instance, Kim
Berger and colleagues found four times higher pronghorn (Antilocapra Americana) fawn survival in areas
dominated by wolves because wolf presence led to a reduction in coyote predation on pronghorn fawns.39
The presence of wolves may even affect rodent populations. Miller and colleagues, studying vole
(Microtus sp.) populations near wolf dens and away from wolf dens, found greater numbers of voles near
dens. They were able to document that coyotes, a major predator on voles, avoided wolf activity centers
like wolf dens, hence this led to a reduction in predation on voles by coyotes. They were unable to
document, but speculated that more abundant vole populations near wolf dens may lead to greater
utilization by other vole predators from weasels to hawks.40
Top predators such as wolves also create carrion that is utilized by scavengers, including bears, ravens
(Corvus corax), magpies (Pica pica), wolverine (Gulo gulo) and coyotes, among others. Wilmers and
colleagues studying carrion use by scavengers found that wolves increased the time period over which
carrion is available.41 For example, grizzly bear coming out of hibernation have little vegetative food to
eat. Finding wolf-killed carrion can help bears through the late winter and early spring season of food
scarcity and may be important for bear survival.42
One study even suggests that top predators and their creation of carrion may ameliorate the effects of
climate change. Wilmers and Getz looked at the long-term climate data for Yellowstone National Park and
found that winters are warmer and shorter. As a consequence, they hypothesize this would result in less
winter-kill and thus carrion. However, the recent restoration of wolves to the park, which create carrion,
may provide scavengers with an on-going source of late winter food.43
The Druid wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park makes it way
across the valley. Research shows that wolves have had a positive
impact on both riparian vegetation and hydrological function in
Yellowstone. Photo by Phil Knight.
Another study on the interaction between climate and predators by Hebblewhite in Banff National Park in
Alberta found that the North Pacific Oscillation (NPO) influenced winter elk survival, with harsher winter
weather strongly reducing elk numbers. However, in areas where wolves were present, elk were even
more vulnerable and had greater population declines. Hebblewhite concluded that the effects of NPO
were weaker in the absence of wolf predation.44 This “predator effect” might serve to more quickly
balance herbivore numbers to the available forage base and may be important to plant communities by
providing vegetation with respite from heavy herbivory pressure.
Predator Influences on Prey Behavior
Many state wildlife agencies suggest that hunting can mimic the role of top predators. Recent research
demonstrates that predators have different influences on prey species than hunters.
Hunters tend to select different age and sex animals from predators. In a study comparing elk killed by
hunters with elk taken by predators, researchers found that hunters selected a large proportion of female
elk with the greatest reproductive values, whereas wolves killed a large proportion of elk calves and older
females with low reproductive values. The mean age of adult females killed by hunters throughout the
study period was 6.5 years, whereas the mean age of adult females killed by wolves was 13.9 years. They
concluded that hunting exerted a greater total reproductive impact on the elk herd than wolf predation.45
Another study of winter wolf predation on elk in Yellowstone by Smith et al. found that 43% of the elk
killed were calves, 28% were adult females (cows), 21% were adult males (bulls) and 9% were of
unknown age/sex. Comparing prey selection to prey availability, wolf packs residing on the northern
range (NR) of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem selected for elk calves, and against cows, but selected
bulls approximately proportional to availability.46 The selection for calves by wolves, in particular, is
considerably different from the typical selection made by human hunters.
There is also evidence to suggest that human hunters are causing rapid evolutionary changes in wildlife
species different from the influence exerted by native predators. A review of human-caused changes in
hunted species found average declines of almost 20% in size-related traits and shifts in life history traits
of nearly 25%.47
Another difference between human hunters and native predators is the seasonality of influence. While it’s
well documented that elk will seek out safety refugia like private ranches to avoid hunters during the
hunting season, such shifts in habitat are short-lived. By contrast, native predators like wolves can
influence elk and other prey behavior and habitat selection throughout the year.
And unlike human hunters, which may provide a seasonal input of carrion resulting from gut piles left by
hunters and/or the subsequent death of wounded animals, predation by large predators like wolves has a
different spatial and temporal influence on carrion abundance and thus availability to scavengers.48
A study in Yellowstone National Park comparing habitat use by elk before and after wolf restoration
demonstrated that in summer elk avoided wolves when wolf activity was centered around dens and
rendezvous sites by selecting higher elevations, less open habitat, more burned forest and, in areas of high
wolf density, steeper slopes than they had before wolf reintroduction.49
A study of wolf and cougar predation influence and effects on elk in the Madison Range of Montana
found that wolves preyed primarily on male elk in poor condition, the exact opposite of human hunters
who tend to kill mature bulls in prime condition.50
And the year-round presence of large predators, even in the absence of direct predation, may even
influence reproductive fitness, leading to reductions in prey populations.51
Hunting of ungulates, the prime prey of top predators, may actually lead to greater conflicts with livestock
productions. In some areas fish and wildlife agencies maintain ungulates like elk at their “political” rather
than biological carrying capacity – in other words the perceived tolerance of large landowners, typically
ranchers. According to research on wolves in Europe, this may actually increase predation by wolves on
In North America, the rural agricultural areas where wolves occur are often frequented by wild and
domestic ungulates, both of which the wolves prey upon. Managing for high densities of wild ungulates
could result in decreased livestock depredation by wolves.53
In addition, human hunting pressure can force elk to seek refuge on private ranchlands that may be
inaccessible and/or closed to public hunting.54 While human hunters may not be able to follow the elk on
to these ranchlands, wolves can and do, thus setting up a situation where predators may kill livestock.
Predator Social Interactions Ignored by State Agencies
Most of what we know about predators is by studying animal groups under duress. Nearly all predators
are trapped and hunted, thus much of what we assume about their behavior may be skewed or
Kathleen Green contends that social behavior needs to be incorporated into management of social species.
She argues that social predators have a greater risk of extinction due to “inverse density dependence” and
reproductive suppression.55 Yet these social aspects of predators are seldom considered by management
In a study of Washington mountain lions (cougars), Hilary Cooley found that cougars responded to
hunting pressure through emigration and immigration and that traditional survival/fecundity harvest
models did not accurately predict populations.56 The increased immigration and recruitment of younger
animals from adjacent areas resulted in no
reduction in local cougar densities, however,
there was a shift in population structure toward
younger animals. Thus cougar hunting may lead
to misinterpretation of population trends, since
immigration may mask population declines in the
sink and surrounding source areas.57
Robert Crabtree, studying coyotes in Yellowstone
National Park, found that unexploited coyotes
behaved much more like wolves, with a dominant
pair doing the breeding, while sub-dominant
adults helped with raising pups. Territories were
held for long periods of time, often decades. But
these behavioral traits are seldom seen in
exploited coyote populations.58
New research is finding that hunting of mountain lions
(cougars) may not actually control population levels as
much as it shifts population structure towards younger
animals. Photo by George Wuerthner.
Wolf biologist Gordon Haber, who studied wolves in Denali National Park for 40 years until his untimely
death in an airplane crash, argues that social behavior and social organization that emphasizes group
hunting and cooperate breeding requires a different response in management. According to Haber, family
groups are the preeminent functional units, not meta populations, and it is this behavior that predominates
and most defines wolves as a species. Haber claims at least one family lineage in Denali National Park
may have occupied the Toklat River drainage continuously since they were studied by Adolph Murie in
the 1930s. As a consequence, there is multi-generational learned behavior and “cultural” knowledge
transmitted from wolf to wolf about prey location, hunting opportunities and other information important
for survival.59
Writing in Conservation Biology, Haber argues the widespread assertion that wolves can maintain 25 to
50% mortality without biological consequences ignores the damage done to social interactions and longterm
degradation of predator social cohesion. Haber suggests that “true sustained-yield management
requires more emphasis on qualitative biological features to determine the extent to which wolves and
other species with evolutionary histories as predators, rather than as prey, should be harvested.” 60
There are studies of other animals that demonstrate that stable social structure contributes to long-term
viability and productivity of social members. Female elephants (Loxodonta africana), for instance, in well
established family groups have lower levels of stress hormones and higher reproductive output than those
in groups that have been socially disrupted by poaching.61
A study comparing a heavily hunted mountain lion population and a lightly hunted one in Washington
demonstrated that hunting did disrupt social relationships and demographics. Researchers found that
heavy harvest resulted in higher immigration, reduced kitten survival, reduced female population growth
and a younger overall age structure. Light harvest corresponded with increased emigration, higher kitten
survival, increased female population growth and an older overall age structure.62 The researchers
concluded that “contrary to accepted belief, our findings suggest that cougars in the Pacific Northwest are
currently declining.”
Lambert and colleagues hypothesized that among other factors, “increased conflicts between cougars and
humans in this area could be the result of the very young age structure of the population caused by heavy
hunting.” 63
A study of wolves near Algonquin Park in Ontario demonstrated clearly the negative impacts of hunting
on wolf social structure. Linda Rutledge and colleagues found that after a hunting ban outside the park
was instituted, human-caused mortality decreased, but was largely offset by natural mortality, such that
wolf density has remained relatively constant at approximately three wolves/100 km2. However, the
number of wolf packs with unrelated adopted animals decreased from 80% to 6%, indicating a much more
stable social organization.64
Disruption of social organization has important consequences for wolf management. A number of studies
have documented that increased prey demands are associated with the birth and growth of pups. If the
“cultural knowledge” of where to hunt and/or ability of a pack to effectively hunt is destroyed by loss of
key pack members, creating more unstable social systems, the remaining pack member may be more
prone to attack livestock and/or wander into new territories. Such social interactions are totally ignored
by “population” oriented wildlife management, which merely attempts to maintain population numbers
rather than social cohesiveness.
Plus indiscriminate hunting (i.e. the opportunistic killing of predators by hunters) can disrupt social
cohesion in predators, reduce the ability of an animal and/or pack to hold a territory, reduce its
effectiveness in hunting (thereby making it more likely to attack livestock) and can also skew overall
population towards a younger age cohort.
If livestock is available to wolves during this critical period, the likelihood of predator losses is
significantly increased. Thus the seasonality of grazing determined predator opportunity and conflicts
with livestock producers.65
A review by Karlsson and Johansson of predation on livestock in Europe demonstrated that once a farm or
ranch suffers a predation event, it is much more likely to experience additional predator losses. In their
study, depredated farms were approximately at 55 times higher risk for a repeat predation event within 12
months compared to other farms in the same area.66 The researchers believe predators, attracted by
carrion, are more likely to attack additional livestock, making clear that rapid removal of dead animals
may be a potential way to reduce predator opportunity.
However, the mere presence of livestock within wolf territory does not automatically result in predation.
Chavez and Gese, in a study of wolves in agricultural areas of Minnesota, found that radio-collared
wolves passed directly through a pasture containing cattle on 28% of the nights of tracking, and that 58%
and 95% of the wolf locations were within 1 km and 5 km from a pasture, respectively. Space use of
wolves in this study demonstrated that wolves visited livestock pastures during the 24-hour tracking
sessions; they apparently were passing through these pastures with cattle and not preying on livestock.67
Animal Husbandry Influences on Predation Losses
Not all wolves are inclined to kill livestock. Animal husbandry practices (such as lambing and calving
sheds, herders, guard dogs, night time corralling and barn use, as well as other methods) are effective at
discouraging predator opportunity.
One study in Africa found much lower predation losses for cattle that were corralled at night compared to
herds without night-time corralling.68 Research by Mordecail Ogada and colleagues in Africa found that
cattle, sheep, and goats experienced the lowest predation rates when attentively herded by day and
enclosed in traditional corrals (bomas) by night.69
One study of wolf predation on domestic sheep in the French Alps found that confining or simply
gathering sheep at night in the presence of five livestock-guarding dogs was predicted to prevent most
kills (94% and 79%, respectively) that would have occurred in similar conditions but with free-ranging
Another study in Poland also concluded that poor husbandry practices contributed to higher livestock
In an experiment in Montana, researchers put road-killed deer inside fenced enclosures amid active wolf
territories and used electric fladry to discourage wolves. They found electric fladry was 2 to 10 times
more effective than fladry at protecting food in captivity and that hunger increased the likelihood of
wolves testing fladry barriers, suggesting that electrified fladry could be one effective means of
discouraging predators.72
A Minnesota study found that trapping of depredating animals like wolves did not appear to reduce future
predation, though it may sometimes affect predation in certain situations. However, the authors speculate
that just the additional presence of people may contribute to fewer depredations.73
The presence of domestic livestock can contribute to conflicts between predators and ranchers. Domestic
livestock diets overlap with native species like elk and deer and is well documented, especially on poor
condition rangelands. Thus forage consumption by domestic animals can reduce the biological carrying
capacity of the land for native prey species.
In addition, social displacement of key prey species by livestock can also influence predation rates. Many
wildlife species, including elk and deer, are known to abandon pastures where livestock are present. Thus
if wolves den in an area in the spring where natural prey like elk are abundant, only to have the elk
abandon the area once livestock are moved on to a grazing allotment (as occurs on many public lands in
the West), it may leave predators, especially those with dependent young, little choice but to prey upon
domestic livestock.74
In effect, livestock producers over much of the West have been successful in externalizing one of their
operational costs – predator losses – by extirpation and/or reduction in predators. Opportunities to reduce
predator losses by changing grazing practices are not likely to be implemented as long as the public
continues to subsidize livestock operations with predator control.
Hayes and Harestad found evidence that compared to unexploited populations, packs experiencing control
and/or hunting had higher mortality rates as a direct consequence of reductions – pack sizes are smaller,
home ranges were less stable and occupied at variable times and more young are produced in the
Younger animals may breed earlier, and in exploited populations produce more young. Young growing
pups consume more biomass (meat) than adults, creating a greater need to obtain food. Typically in
exploited populations, pack size is smaller, with only the breeding adults to raise pups, putting greater
pressure on adults to obtain easily available meat. Plus young pups reduce the mobility of the pack,
limiting the area where adults can seek prey. Thus indiscriminate hunting puts increased pressure on the
few adults to obtain meat, and they often satisfy this need by attacking livestock.
The effects of lethal control and/or hunting on pack stability can lead to social disruptions and loss of
territory. A study, which pooled data on 148
breeding wolf packs, showed that the loss of adult
breeders (from any causes, including natural
mortality) often leads to the dissolution of the
pack and loss of pack territory and/or limited
breeding in the following season. For instance, in
47 of 123 cases (38.2%), groups dissolved and
abandoned their territories after breeder loss. Of
dissolved groups, territorial wolves became
reestablished in 25 cases (53.2%), and in an
additional 10 cases (21.3%) neighboring wolves
usurped vacant territories.76 Thus any increases in
mortality caused by human hunting and/or lethal
control may disrupt social interactions between
packs and lead to the loss of social/cultural
knowledge that long time residency by family
lineages may provide.
Simple animal husbandry techniques have been shown
to greatly reduce livestock losses from predators;
unfortunately, many ranchers don’t use them.
Photo by George Wuerthner.
An on-going study in Washington confirms this trend. According to Dr. Robert Wielgus, killing large
numbers of mountain lion (cougars) creates social chaos. Ironically, as cougar population declined due to
increased mortality from hunting, complaints about exploding cougar populations and human conflicts
increased. The incidence of cougar complaints, which averaged about 250 a year before Washington
increased cougar hunting effort, more than doubled the following year before peaking at 936 in 2000, all
the while cougar populations were declining as a consequence of hunter-caused mortality.77
Researchers attribute this increase in human conflicts to the social disruption created by hunting.
According to Wielgus, trophy hunters often target adult males, which act as a stabilizing force in cougar
populations. Loss of mature male cougars as a consequence of hunting permits young males to occupy
territory. “The adults police large territories and kill or drive out young males. With the grown-ups gone,
the ‘young hooligans’ run wild,” Wielgus says.
Evidence suggests cougars under two years of age, just learning to live on their own, account for the
majority of run-ins with people and domestic animals. “You don’t get to be an old cougar by doing stupid
stuff like hanging out in backyards and eating cats,” Wielgus says.78
Carroll et al. warn that social carnivores such as the wolf, which often require larger territories than
solitary species of similar size, may be more vulnerable to environmental stochasticity and landscape
fragmentation than their vagility and fecundity would suggest.79
Predator control by management agencies creates a vicious circle of self-fulfilling feedback mechanisms,
whereby livestock owners demand greater predator control, which state wildlife agencies provide
willingly since, in general, they want fewer predators preying on game animals, which hunters want to
shoot. Hunters are encouraged to kill more predators, disrupting social organization and skewing the
population to younger animals, which in turn are more likely to kill livestock, leading to ever more
demands for more “predator control.”
Predator control may be creating other conflicts with livestock producers as well. Artificial feeding of elk
that leads to winter congregations has been documented to increase the occurrence of brucellosis infection
in wildlife.80
There is evidence that wolf predation (as well as other predators) can reduce disease occurrence and thus
transmission from wildlife to livestock. For instance, researchers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
found that wolves helped to disperse elk and apparently kept brucellosis infection low under natural
conditions. Under more crowded conditions in feedlots, brucellosis infection rates are much higher.81
Brucellosis is a major concern to ranchers since it can cause abortion of fetuses in livestock and bison that
wander out of Yellowstone National Park are routinely killed by the Montana Department of Livestock to
prevent brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle. Recent occurrence of brucellosis in cattle due to elk
transmission is fueling fears that ranchers may soon demand elk control as well.
Livestock Losses to Predators Exaggerated
Perhaps one of the most perplexing aspects about predator management is the unrealistic and exaggerated
importance of livestock losses attributed to predators. Notwithstanding the fact that any loss to predators
can be significant to individual livestock producers, overall predators are not a threat to the livestock
industry as a whole.
For instance, in 2005 only 5% of all cattle losses in the continental U.S. were attributable to predators. In
addition, only 0.11% of all cattle losses in 2005 were due to predation by wolves. (However, it’s
important to note that wolf distribution is more limited than other predators like coyotes). Coyotes killed
more than 22 times more cattle, domestic dogs killed almost five times as many cattle and vultures killed
almost twice as many cattle as wolves did in 2005. Interestingly, theft was responsible for almost five
times as many cattle losses as were lost by wolf predation.82
Source: NASS
In 2009 wolves were responsible for 192 confirmed cattle losses in the northern Rockies. This was lower
than in 2008 when 214 were killed. However, confirmed sheep losses were 721, almost double the 355
reported in 2008, primarily due to the loss of more than a hundred sheep in one predation event.
A total of 478 wolves were killed by either hunters or agency personnel in 2009. Montana removed 145
wolves by agency control and 72 by hunting. Idaho removed 93 by agency control and 134 by hunting. In
Wyoming, 32 wolves were removed by agency control. In Oregon two wolves were removed by agency
These numbers could be expected to change as wolf numbers increase, but there are reasons to believe the
presence of wolves may actually reduce livestock losses. Since it is well documented that the presence of
wolves reduces the number of coyotes, and since coyotes are among the major predators on livestock
(particularly sheep), some have argued that restoration of wolves throughout the West would lead to a
reduction in predator losses.
A Case Study: Management of Wolves
The management of gray wolves in the northern Rockies provides a case study in the problems associated
with current management paradigms with regards to top predators. While there are differences in the
behavior, prey selection and resource allocations between top predators, most share some common
attributes with regards to how state agencies manage them, or perhaps mismanage them. The current
debate over wolf management demonstrates the conflicts that dominate wildlife agency policies.
The gray wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. Natural recolonization of the
northern Rockies near Glacier National Park began in the 1980s. In order to speed recovery efforts, the
US Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves into two other recovery zones – Central Idaho and the
Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Wolves were trapped in Canada and released in these zones in 1995 and
again in 1996. Wolves in these two areas were considered “experimental and non-essential” populations
and thus had reduced protections under the ESA. This permitted the US Fish and Wildlife Service to kill
any wolves that were deemed harmful to the long-term prospects of species recovery. Typically wolves
were killed after depredation on livestock. In reality, wolves both in the Glacier Park recovery area, as
well as other recovery zones, were treated essentially the same and were regularly killed by the US Fish
and Wildlife Service in response to documented predation upon livestock and/or pets.
From that start, the population has grown to more than 1,600 wolves in the three state area, so that by
2009 the government proposed delisting of wolves in Montana and Idaho and handing management over
to state wildlife agencies. The FWS retained management control over wolves in Wyoming because of
conflicts over management policies with that state, which proposed making wolves “predators” over most
of the state with year-round open season and no limits on hunting.84 Meanwhile environmental
organizations sued to reverse delisting based on several fine points of the law, including the requirement
by the Gray Wolf Recovery Plan that genetic exchange between all three recovery zones had to be
documented before delisting could occur and that under delisting rules, wolf populations could dip as low
as 300 animals.85 Despite significant long distance dispersal of wolves into adjacent states, as of 2010, no
genetic exchange has been documented between wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other
recovery zones.
Meanwhile, in response to delisting by the federal government, both Idaho and Montana, in an attempt to
control wolves, instituted hunting seasons. By March of 2010 hunters had killed 159 wolves in Idaho and
72 in Montana. Additional wolves were also killed by Wildlife Services in response to livestock
depredation. At the end of 2009 the northern Rockies gray wolf population was estimated to include 525
wolves in Montana, 320 wolves in Wyoming and at least 843 wolves in Idaho. Three packs are now
verified in Oregon and Washington.86
State wildlife agencies and the US Fish and Wildlife Service argue that hunting does not endanger wolf
recovery. In a narrow sense they are correct. It is unlikely that hunting, alone, would reduce wolf
populations to critical levels. However, indiscriminate hunting, along with livestock depredation control
deaths and disease, might jeopardize at least local populations. Most wildlife agencies maintain the
position that regional numbers, or meta populations, are the only valid consideration in evaluating
hunting, trapping and control programs on wolves. Such concerns are the crudest measure one can employ
in wildlife management and ignores much of the latest research on evolutionary behavior and the
ecological importance of predators in structuring ecosystem function.
More importantly, state agency management goals to maintain predators at populations lower than
biological carrying capacity does have other consequences. It is increasingly obvious that top predators
play an important role in ecosystem regulation. Plus indiscriminate hunting and killing of predators can
actually increase conflicts with humans – the opposite of what wildlife agencies profess is their goal.
Greater attention to the social interactions of predators, as well as appreciation of the ecological influence
of top predators, should lead to more enlightened management of predators that recognizes them as an
important ecological process that has significant evolutionary influence upon ecosystems.
In April 2011 a rider was attached to a federal budget bill at the behest of Congressman Mike Simpson of Idaho
and Senator Jon Tester of Montana, which legislatively returned management of wolves to state control in
Montana and Idaho, while maintaining federal protection for wolves in Wyoming. Wolf hunts are also being
planned for the 2011 fall general hunting season in both Montana and Idaho. On May 12, Montana Fish Wildlife
and Parks set the fall 2011 wolf hunt quota at 220, a quota number that Idaho is also considering.
George Wuerthner ( is the Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation for Deep
Ecology. He is a former Montana hunting guide, and previously worked as a biologist and botanist for several
federal agencies. He is also the author of 35 books dealing with natural history, conservation and environmental
issues. This report was commissioned by Big Wildlife (, a non-profit conservation group
working to ensure the longterm viability of top carnivore wildlife throughout the west.
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