Lindsey is a wildlife enthusiast, conservationist, and outdoor lover. He aims to tell stories about the intersection of society and nature with the goal of showcasing how conservation can help both live cohesively.
On Monday, February 15th, the Wisconsin board of natural resources committed to killing 200 wolves over the next two weeks to comply with a court order that was issued last week. The order comes from judge Bennett Brantmeier, a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge, who ruled that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must hold a wolf hunt during the hunting season if wolves are off the endangered species list.
Dave Macfarland, wildlife researcher for the DNR, said the quota for 200 wolves was devised using two previous studies on wolf mortality. The studies concluded that wolf populations can be stabilized by killing up to between 22% – 29%. The DNR estimates that there are almost 1200 wolves in Wisconsin, which means the number is approximately 16% of the population. However, non-hunting activities, like car accidents; poaching; and depredation control, account for around 14% of wolf mortality. These two percentages combined get the DNR to the upper limits of what the reviewed studies say is a healthy wolf mortality rate.
“There’s going to be uncertainty”, said Macfarland in today’s broadcast of the special meeting. “And so the outcomes of this quota could result in population decline. They could result in stabilization. They could result in some level of increase. And that’s just inherent in populations of this size.”
The state divided the state into six management areas. The northern parts account for the largest percentages of wolves killed. The DNR is hoping to kill 62 wolves in zone 1, where Douglas County is located. This is the most of any of the six areas. In zone 2, which is the northeastern part of the state, the DNR hopes to kill 33 wolves. And in zone 3, which is situated just under zone 1, they expect to kill 40.
The decision to start the wolf hunt at the end of the season is a complete about-face from last month’s decision to wait until the fall. This would have given the DNR staff time to assess the population, devise a new wolf management plan, and solicit public feedback. However, a group of hunting advocates filed a lawsuit last week because they felt the hunt should be held as soon as possible because they fear that wolves may be relisted by the fall. This goes against the will of the overwhelming number of tribes that spoke out against holding a hunt so soon. And it goes against the will of most Wisconsinites, who do not favor holding a wolf hunt at all.
This move is controversial for many reasons including rushed timing, lack of an updated wolf plan, and clear political push, but one of the biggest issues is that it takes place during the breeding season, which means pregnant wolves will likely be killed.
The concern for holding a wolf hunt so soon and without thoroughly updated science has not gone unnoticed. In fact, one day after last week’s court order directly the DNR to hold a hunt, the DNR and Natural Resources Board filed an appeal seeking a stay that would halt the hunt. A decision on that is expected by the end of today.
Last week, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported a 13% increase in the number of wolves in the state over the last year, bringing the estimated total to just over 1000.
The annual count, from April 2019 to April 2020, is primarily conducted over the winter when tracking is easier because of snow. However, summer howl surveys, observation reports, territory mapping, and telemetry techniques are also used to estimate populations.
This year, the DNR added a patch occupancy modelling technique to its methods for counting wolves. This strategy uses repeated detections to come up with a probable average. The signs include actual wolf sightings, markings of wolves like scat and paw prints, and photos.
Data is mostly gathered by DNR staff and volunteers. For decades, the DNR has partnered with the Timber Wolf Alliance and the Timber Wolf Information Network to include the public in wolf count surveys. In addition, outdoor enthusiasts also submit their findings to the DNR.
Out of 313 wolf observations, about a third were verified. And out of 328 photo sequences, a little more than half were verified. The DNR includes both verified and probable data sets to come up with its numbers. The total results in an average.
What the new technique lacks in preciseness it makes up for in ease and affordability. That may be great for the DNR but it might not play out well for wolves.
In states where this model is currently used like Idaho and Montana, large estimates are used to set aggressive hunting quotas that wipe out entire packs. The DNR will use these numbers to justify delisting, thus turning wolf management over to the states.
Rep. Tom Tiffany from Minocqua County is already doing just that. In theory, state management is good, but in practice it can be disastrous. In the three years that wolves were delisted in Wisconsin over 500 wolves were killed. In short, delisting is only appropriate if the state can resist the push to kill half its population.
Alas, state management and hunting have sadly been conflated to be almost symbolic of each other. They’re so entangled that Wisconsin is the only state the mandates a wolf hunt once federal protections are removed.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Yes, ranchers should be able to protect their property by killing individuals that threaten their livestock, but killing for population management is cruel and ineffective.
In fact, research by Adrian Treves has highlighted that indiscriminate killing can actually be counterintuitive. By killing experienced hunters like alphas, you leave young and inexperienced wolves to fend for themselves, which often means they turn to easy prey like livestock.
While knowing how many wolves are on the landscape is key to shaping policy and understanding wolf dynamics, the data is often used in nefarious ways to undermined wolf recovery under the guise of management, a term that’s hard to decouple from killing.
However, there is no biological reason that we need to hunt wolves. It serves no purpose other than to satisfy human bloodlust. Numerous studies, including one by Arian Wallach from Charles Darwin University, have shown that predators are capable of self-regulation. Things like habitat, available food, and environment all factor into population density.
The increase in wolves is worth celebrating for sure, but it’s what we do with those numbers that will really determine whether or not wolf recovery has been a success. If the numbers are used to justify killing lots of wolves, this isn’t a win, it’s a failure.
Delisting is appropriate when populations are healthy. Killing wolves based on a number count is not.
When federal protections are removed, hopefully the Wisconsin DNR will have a wolf recovery plan that reflects that.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is hosting three live virtual open houses this fall to solicit feedback on the future of the state’s wolf management plan. Starting on September 29th, each meeting will target a different area of the state, beginning with the northwest.
While location-based participation is preferred, people from all over are invited to join. However, you must register before the sessions begin. Registration opens on September 21st and submitting questions in advanced is encouraged.
The open houses come on the heels of a wolf public attitudes survey that was conducted this summer by the DNR and the University of Minnesota. The survey showed overwhelming support for having wolves on the landscape, but there is a small minority who see them in a less favorable light, mainly ranchers and hunters.
With wolves set to lose federal endangered species protections by the end of this year, the state of Minnesota is in the process of crafting an updated version of their wolf management plan, which they hope to unveil sometime early next year. Wolves mean so many things to different people, so getting feedback from all stakeholders is key to having a plan that works for as many groups as possible.
“Discussions about wolves bring out opinions from a broad range of interests,” said Dan Stark, DNR wolf management specialist, on the DNR website. “These public meetings are part of a broader process to update the plan and give people an opportunity to share their views.”
The second and third meetings will be held on October 6th and 8th and will focus on Central and southern Minnesota, including the Twin Cities metro area, and Northeastern Minnesota, respectively.
In addition to getting feedback from the public, the DNR is working with an advisory committee and a technical committee to help develop the new plan. Both groups include a diverse array of representatives ranging from advocacy groups to trapping associations.
These sessions will be another chance for the department to gauge interest and see where the public stands on wolves. More importantly, this will be a chance for the public to engage, in real time, with the folks who craft wolf policy in the state.
“We look forward to having a dialogue about wolves in Minnesota,” Stark said. “What people think about where and how many wolves we have, conflicts regarding livestock depredation, the interrelationship of wolf and prey species, and future wolf management options are all important topics.”
If you can’t make it, there will also be a public comment period from September 29th – November 1st.
For many wolf lovers, it is hoped that the increased opportunities for advocates and tribes to engage will mean a better outcome for wolves. The previous iteration leaned heavily on input from ranchers and hunters, which meant killing wolves for sport was the preferred management tool. Let’s hope this time they get it right.
If sheltering in place means you’ve exhausted all of your go-to streaming services maybe it’s time to switch things up a bit. Wolf movies offer a nice break from the usual fray of content while you’re honoring local stay at home orders.
With interest in nature programming at an all-time high, wolf-based programming is as varied as they come, letting viewers crisscross the globe to learn about this top predator. You can start close to home by exploring the unique cultural relevance of wolves here in our own backyard with Wolves in Wisconsin or maybe you’re looking to peek inside the realm of wolves from afar. The BBC series Seven Worlds, One Planet would be a great option for that.
Whatever strikes your fancy, one thing is for sure, with an internet connection, the world of wolves is literally at your fingertips. With this in mind, I’ve listed my top 11 wolf movies below that are all ready to watch, mostly for free.
This series rarely disappoints. And this episode on the dynamics between predator and prey in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park is a true gem. Here, filmmaker Jeff Turner gives us a front row seat to life inside the Delta pack. Their home is an 11 million acre park that is five times the size of Yellowstone. Here we get to see the ancient dance for survival between wolves and buffalo play out as it has for centuries.
This documentary first aired almost a decade ago but the story of the wolves in the state never gets old. Divided into three parts, the program tracks the history of wolves in the region, from their cultural significance to Native Americans, to their extirpation, and finally to their return. In the one hour film the narrator tracks the unique challenges of wolves in Wisconsin. Toward the second half, premiere wolf biologist, David Mech, offers insightful interviews on how the return of wolves is impacting the local communities.
This movie by filmmaker Colin Monda weaves the conflicts and challenges of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. While the slew of ranchers, biologists, and park visitors offer perspectives from opposing ends of the spectrum, the film feels cohesive and balanced. Appearances by legendary wolf biologist Doug Smith really make this film standout. His in depth knowledge on wolf recovery is unsurpassed. In addition, interviews with Fish and Game officials and ranchers lend stories that are often untold in the saga of wolf conservation in and around the park.
The BBC is an icon when it comes to nature documentaries. They are arguably the standard-bearer of what the genre should be – clear, insightful, and breathtaking. This series documents the unique ecosystems and species of each continent. I think the real treat is the European episode. In it a wolf family is filmed hunting throughout the night. This is thrilling because 1) I didn’t know Italy was such a wolf hotspot and 2) because the wolves are living literally in villagers’ backyards. To know that wildlife exist in such a densely populated area is uplifting and inspiring. If they can live here, surely they can live anywhere.
Another master of wildlife filmmaking, National Geographic offers an intimate portrait of wolves living in the Arctic in this three part series. These wolves are special because their remote location means they are one of the last wolf populations to live mostly free from human persecution. In this series National Geographic photographer Ronan Donovan sets out to document the trials and tribulations of a single wolf pack as they eke out a living in this hostile environment.
Elusive and shy, coastal wolves prove hard to find for field biologist Gudrun Pflüger. It takes her nearly two weeks to locate a pack. But once found, they offer her, and us, a look into their secret world among the conifers in this rugged terrain.
This hour and a half long film follows the life of husband and wife duo Jim and Jaime Dutcher as they live among a pack of wolves in Idaho’s Sawtooth Region. The documentary is filmed over a period of several years, tracking the Dutcher’s own life history. Instead of looking at wolves as vicious villains, the film paints an exquisite picture of kind, nurturing, and caring creatures whose family ties and emotional intelligence rivals our own.
One of the most recent of the features listed, the Yellowstone Facebook Live events aren’t what you would traditionally think of as wolf documentaries, but they are no less informative and entertaining. The series consist of four 30 minute live tapping’s with biologist from the Yellowstone Wolf program. As the name suggest, they are recorded in real time, but fear not if you’ve missed out. The recordings are saved on Yellowstone’s Facebook page. Here, you’ll be able to hear firsthand from wolf experts throughout the wolf program. One of them is Dan San. His knowledge of wolf genetics and morphology is outstanding. I enjoyed listening to him dispel the common myth that the wrong species was reintroduced. This series is a testament to how much easier it is to connect in 2020. A bonus Facebook Live feed to watch for is the Voyageurs Wolf Project’s videos page.
The iconic image of wolf reintroduction is often that of the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. But eight years before that, the red wolf reintroduction program in North Carolina was paving the way for this hands-on-approach to species recovery. Once thriving, the current wild red wolf population hovers around 30. This short documentary follows members of the US Fish and Wildlife’s Red Wolf Recovery program as they try to keep this most endangered of wolf species afloat.
Told by Sheryl Alexander, photographer and environmentalist, this documentary traces the remarkable journey of Takaya, a lone wolf that made the islands off of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, his home. Last year, it was hoped that a female wolf in the area would end Takaya’s loneliness. And that’s where this documentary ends, on a hopeful note in 2019. Last month, however, Takaya was killed by a hunter. While Takaya’s end is tragic, his near decade life is one of overcoming the odds and thriving in the unlikeliest of places. As an honorable mention to Takaya’s story, I also recommend Takaya: The Wolf That Waits, available on YouTube.
Narrated by ecologist Chris Morgan, this documentary explores the race to save another unique wolf population in the Southwestern US. Mexican gray wolves were nearly extinct before a team of US Fish and Wildlife biologists started a captive breeding program. This film follows scientists as they work to restore this iconic symbol of the southwest.
These are just a few of my favorites, but there are so many more wolf films and movies that I could have added to this list. There just isn’t enough room for them all. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in the comments.
As the reality of Covid-19 sets in, things have begun to feel a bit surreal.
Cities closed for business, entire States locked down, and grocery store shelves emptied – this is life during a pandemic. Suddenly self-isolating and social distancing are defacto bylaws and every company that has my email wants me to know how they’re handling the outbreak.
The sudden change is affecting us all, in many ways in which it’s too soon to know how. In the meantime, some of us are bewildered and others are scared. The virus seems to jump from city to city and country to country like a pinball in a machine, leaving dozens, hundreds, and in many countries, thousands of sick people in its wake.
While the enormity of coronavirus can be anxiety inducing, it doesn’t mean there aren’t steps that we can take to put our mind as ease.
Number one is putting health and safety first. This may seem like an odd recommendation for dealing with the stress of a pandemic, but healthy people are less stressed and in a better position to weather the storm. This means staying at home, washing your hands, and avoiding sick people. Cutting yourself off from the world may be frustrating but it’s also the most effective way to stay healthy.
In order to beat back cabin fever, I’ve taken to doing daily walks. This requires no interaction with people and also allows me to get some fresh air. Since walking requires no interaction, the risk of getting sick is very minimal.
Another tip I’ve picked up is keeping a schedule. Working at home means it’s easy to mix work and personal. For instance, it’s sometimes tempting to watch TV or talk on the phone while typing up that email. That’s, however, exactly what you shouldn’t do. I’ve found that treating my normal working hours as such helps me maintain a sense of time and place. In a way, I’m more productive at home than I am at the office, free from distraction.
With the basics out of the way, it becomes important to also look out for your mental wellbeing. All this isolation and distancing can be lonely. I’m a pretty introverted person but being held up in my house for weeks on end has revealed that I’m more social than I may have let on to be.
Social media, something I’m usually loath to engage in, has become an integral part of staying active and engaged with those closest to me. Virtual happy hours, conference calls and video chats are all on offer and make connecting easier than ever.
Another thing the extra time and solitude has given me is the space to dive into my hobbies – reading, writing, and drawing … Now is the best time to nerd out on all of the things you love and that bring you joy.
Speaking of indulgences, while it’s important to stay informed, I’ve found comfort in staying away from the news headlines to some extent. With developments happening so fast and every news story bearing the weight of the world, constantly consuming news can be depressing. To help beat the news blues, I stick with a handful of major newspapers and websites that I check occasionally throughout the day. Cable news is a hard no.
One headline I did not miss was last week’s announcement by the DC government that all non-essential businesses are to close until mid-April. And today, officials went one step further and announced that residents will soon be issued stay at home orders. All one can do is grocery shop and visit the doctors. On the plus side, pollution levels are down and the air smells cleaner.
While this new reality leaves us all in a perpetual state of flux, one thing is for sure – we will never be the same. Maybe this will leave us more prepared to handle the next pandemic. Maybe this, like many major world-wide threats, will leave us feeling more connected.
Whatever the lasting effects are, it’s important that we take some of the lessons learned with us into the future. Make no mistake – COVID-19 is an awful event that’s killing thousands, but thinking of how solutions are often forged in challenging times is one of the most comforting outlooks one can have. Like all catastrophes put before, we will come out of this thriving. But in order to do that we must recognize the root cause, which is the collision of the natural and human world.
The unabated trade and consumption of wildlife will only lead to more pandemics and in turn more suffering, for both people and animals. Thus, instead of just keeping us bound to our rooms for the foreseeable future, this outbreak should serve as a launch pad to banning the trade and consumption of wildlife. In the end, finding these sorts of silver linings might be the most comforting thing of all.
The days of industrial scale hunting might seem like something
from a bygone era. Surely, we’ve evolved as a nation? Think again. Odds are
there’s an event planned this weekend in a town near you where wildlife will be
slaughtered en masse.
Across the country, barbaric contests aptly called “killing
contest” are pegged as family fun where even Jr. can nab a defenseless critter
for the chance to win a prize, more often than not a trophy or ribbon not
unlike one you’d get at a county fair.
At these events, participants point, aim, and fire at anything
that moves to rack up the most, the heaviest, the smallest: the superlatives
are as endless as they are cruel. What’s worse is this isn’t the subsistence
hunting or fair chase associated with ethical sportsmen. It’s killing for no
other reason than slaughter.
One of the leaders in the effort to stop this unethical treatment
of native wildlife is Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project
Coyote, a predator education non-profit that seeks to teach the general public
about coexistence strategies for both predators and people.
For the past 10 years Camilla and her cohorts at Project Coyote
have fought for the rights of native species to live in peace alongside us. And
in doing so, a nascent movement to get states to ban wildlife killing contests
has gained traction. Allies include a diverse mix of ranchers, scientists,
conservationists, and everyday citizens who care about wildlife.
Through various programs that include community education,
partnerships with farmers, and wildlife advocacy in the halls of government,
Project Coyote has helped turn the tide against the unabated exploitation of
wildlife. But it’s not easy.
“The view that wildlife is here for our exploitation, for our
recreational and commercial use is at the base of practices like killing
contests,” Fox tells me over the phone. “And until we change that fundamental
perspective of viewing wild animals as something that we can kill in unlimited
numbers for fun and prizes, we won’t really be getting at the base core problem…”
Attacking that problem will require a mix of tactics, ranging
from advocacy to legal action, all of which Fox is poised to use in an effort
to bring awareness to how we as a country mismanage wildlife. One of her most
recent projects includes the production of an award winning documentary style
film called Killing Games, Wildlife in
The film is shot through the lens of those most affected by
predator contests – coyotes. While they are the focus, however, the film
employs a host of narratives from stakeholders, like ranchers Becky Weed and
Keli Hendricks, who want to see an end to killing contests.
With reason and raw emotion, storytellers give voice to the
voiceless through science-based data and personal anecdotes. The result is a
film that offers a compelling mix of stories that both pull at your heart
strings and offers an alternative way to view and live with predators.
“I look at killing contests as an exercise in cruelty”, says
Michael Soule, a Project Coyote science advisory board member, in the film.
“Why would you want to kill creatures just for the fun of it? We’re talking
about mammals, animals that have a pretty high level of consciousness. They’re
aware of what’s happening to them and that means they suffer.”
The victims are often some of our countries most important
species – coyotes, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and sometimes even wolves.
Proponents will tell you that they’re managing pests, helping
ungulate populations, and reducing conflicts with wildlife. But all of these reasons
have been debunked by peer reviewed studies. And some studies show that
indiscriminately killing coyotes can actually have the opposite effect.
But research and organizations like the Human Society of the United States say otherwise.
“Research suggests that when aggressively controlled, coyotes can increase their reproductive rate by breeding at an earlier age and having larger litters, with a higher survival rate among the young,” reports the HSUS website. “This allows coyote populations to quickly bounce back, even when as much as 70 percent of their numbers are removed.”
So in effect, wildlife killing contests may actually create more
problems than they purport to solve. In addition, by killing predators, the
participants are destroying ecosystems that predate our existence and time on
While wildlife killing contests have been happening in the
shadows of America since the late 50’s, the advent of social media has brought
them and their participants into the wider public view. And many aren’t pleased
by what they see.
“There’s no justification for this other than … the cheap
exploitation of human power and weaponry over defenseless animals”, says
Project Coyote advisory board member Peter Coyote in Killing Games. “That’s not
sport. That’s just massacre.”
By highlighting ethical ways to manage and live with wildlife,
the film shows how our current system is woefully lacking. Scenes are replete
with beautiful stories from ranchers and scientists who work with community
members to reshape the narrative around predator management. Their focus is on
one that includes a host of non-lethal techniques like using guard dogs,
fladry, and range riders to deter predation.
As the film also wonderfully captures how key native predators
are to the ecosystems in which they inhabit. They keep environments healthy by
managing rodent populations and keeping grazers in check.
“All of these carnivores, … they all have their particular niches
to maintain the health of ecosystems,” says veterinarian, bioethicist, and
author Michael W. Fox (also Camilla’s father). “When they are disrupted, when
they are exterminated, ecosystems change.”
This change often has a decremental impact on other species and
the environment overall and some states have taken notice. Project Coyote
scored a big win in 2014 when California, their home state, prohibited the
awarding of prizes or other inducements for the killing of non-game and
furbearing animals as part of a contest, derby or tournament. This ban covers
not just coyotes, but also bobcats, foxes and raccoons who are often targeted
in killing contests.
Since then, the momentum has only increased. Last year Vermont
banned coyote killing contests. New Mexico followed up this year by doing the
same. And most recently Arizona Game and Fish passed a rule that would ban
killing contests as well.
The goal of the film is to call attention to the shadowy business
of killing contests while building on the success of bans at the state level. But
the ultimate goal is to inspire grassroots action to ban this bloodsport
And this is where you come in. If you want to get involved, Fox
offers a number of suggestions to voice your concerns. One of the lowest
hanging fruits is commenting in the comments section online. If you’re really
looking to speak up, write letters to the editors of the major news outlets in
your area to express your opposition. And for those that are ready to role
their sleeves up, you can write letters to your state legislature, governor’s
office, and state fish and game commission encouraging a ban of wildlife
More than exposing wildlife killing contests for their cruelty and pointlessness, the film offers a chance for you to learn about what’s happening in your backyard.
If you’re in the Great Lakes area this week, come check out the Minnesota premier of Killing Games this Wednesday, July 24th at 7pm at the Landmark Edina Cinema, in Edina, Minnesota, just outside Minneapolis. The screening will be hosted by Rachel Tilseth, herself, and is a part of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Purchase tickets here .
Additionally, Camilla and colleagues from the National Coalition
to End Wildlife Killing Contests will be part of a post panel discussion to
answer questions, hear your thoughts, and talk to you directly about wildlife
killing contests and how to stop them.
There are over 4 million miles of
highways, roads, and other transportation arteries throughout the US and many
of them cut through the heart of vital habitat for endangered and threatened
species. While key to our mobility, they are often designed without
consideration for wildlife movement.
The impacts of these paved paths can be devastating for wildlife. On a basic level, isolated islands of biodiversity are formed that fragment wildlife populations, divide habitats, and degrade ecosystems. At its extreme, human development cuts off entire migration routes and blocks any chance of adapting to changing ecosystems.
Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Udall
(D-N.M.) and U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) introduced a bill that would make
movement safer and easier for wildlife. The impetus for the bill was the recent
report that found at least 1 million species are in danger of
extinction due to accelerated human activity.
Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019, as it’s
known, would help stem the tide of declining species and habitats by connecting
ecosystems with over crosses, underpasses, and culverts. They would create a
system of corridors that connect and extend habitats so that animals can move over
large areas, whether it be for daily foraging, seasonal migration, or finding a
“Widespread habitat destruction is
leaving scores of animal and plant species both homeless and helpless. We must
act now to conserve wildlife corridors that would save species and mitigate
against the mass extinction crisis we are rapidly hurtling toward,” said Sen.
Udall in a press
release. “In New Mexico, our millions
of acres of public lands are home to thousands of iconic species that could
vanish if we fail to take action that enable species to survive.”
There are approximately 1 – 2 million
wildlife vehicle collisions annually. A Federal Highways Administration study
found road mortality is one of the leading threats to at least 21 endangered
and threaten species. And according to the same study, accidents cost
Americans approximately eight billion dollars a year.
While the damage is mostly monetary for people, wildlife often end up squished
The idea for a unifying wildlife corridors framework is hardly new. Rep. Beyer sponsor a wildlife corridors bill back in 2016 and, most recently, a similar bill was sponsor by both Sen. Udall and Rep. Beyer in December 2018. Both proposals stalled in the House after being submitted to subcommittees.
Nevertheless, research on places like
Banff National Park have shown that building wildlife corridors can be a powerful
tool for protecting biodiversity. One
study found that the installation of wildlife crossings along
stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway reduced collisions on average by 80% over
a 24-year period.
Such success has spurred some states to
warm up to the idea of animal crossings. The Western Governors Association and several
New England states, along with south eastern Canadian provinces, have already drafted
agreements that recognize the importance of increasing wildlife connectivity. And
at least seven states have proposed legislation that would require Fish and
Wildlife departments to identify, study, or install wildlife corridors. In many
of them, linking habitats would protect some of our most iconic species like
big horn sheep, pronghorn, grizzly bears, wolves, and the Florida panther.
“With roughly one in five animal and
plant species in the U.S. at risk of extinction due to habitat loss and
fragmentation, one of the simplest yet most effective things we can do is to
provide them ample opportunity to move across lands and waters,” said Rep.
Beyer. “The U.N. report on accelerating extinctions makes it clear that the
window for action to protect the planet’s biodiversity is closing.”
Wildlife corridors are especially useful
for connecting national parks, which act as refuges, but are being pushed to
their limits as climates change and development erodes what habitat is left. As
such, the once vast areas degrade, reducing their ability to sustain the myriad
of species and plants that depend on them.
In practice, the bill would grant authority to key federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Interior, and Transportation to designate wildlife corridors on federal lands. And they would work with state, tribal, and voluntary private stakeholders to identify, build, and manage the corridors on non-federal land. Regional Wildlife Movement Councils will identify and rank non-federal projects and use money from the Wildlife Grant Program to incentivize land owners willing to participate. The goal would be to connect federal and non-federal lands to create an entire system that will traverse the entire country.
Despite the bill’s support among
conservation groups and bipartisan sponsors (one republican, Vern Buchanan
(R-FL), cosponsored it), it’s unclear whether it’ll pass the House,
let alone a Republican lead Senate. In all likelihood, more momentum is needed
across the aisle before there’s any further movement. Yet the bill’s sponsors
“The science is clear: human activity
is destroying and disrupting the habitats of wildlife around the world. If we
don’t change course, entire ecosystems will be lost and entire species will be
wiped out forever. It’s already happening,” said Sen. Wyden (D-OR), a cosponsor,
in a statement. “The United States needs to do its part in taking better
care of our planet and protecting the one million plant and animal species now
facing extinction before it’s too late.”
Long maligned in folklore, wolves have an image problem that has hindered conservation efforts since their recovery. Just last week, the Trump administration announced that it will move forward with delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law that affords legal safeguards for at risk species and their habitats.
Until 2011, congressional attempts to remove protections for wolves were blocked by the courts. That changed, however, when two Western Senators, from Montana and Idaho, slipped a provision into the Federal Spending Bill (a measure called a “rider”) that stripped wolves of federal protections. In doing so, they circumvented the courts and escaped judicial review. Since then, there have been over 350 legislative attacks that would undermine species specific laws or erode provisions of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) entirely.
As a conservation enthusiast, I wanted to know more about the plight of wolves and decided to visit Duffy’s district this past winter to learn about the dynamics affecting wolf policy in the area.
My timing was perfect. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) invites members of the public (citizen scientists) to join their volunteer tracking program every winter to help gather data about wolf populations, distribution, and breeding.
But only TWIN offered an immersive workshop, combined with a mini-tracking session, where I might have been able to see a wolf. Having fantasies of chasing wolves through the woods, I was sold and soon found myself booking a trip to Wisconsin’s Sandhill Wildlife Area where TWIN was hosting its third and last workshop of the season.
The workshops, led by veteran wolf biologist Dick Theil (Wisconsin’s first wolf biologist), his brother Scott Theil, and Bob Welch, are like Wolf 101 for non-scientists. Decked out in rugged style field coats, retro trapper caps, and snow boots, the trio of instructors looked more like explorers than teachers. For the past 30 years, they have brought the public closer to wolves from their Sandhill base.
I arrived exhausted from my journey, but excited to finally
be among the white pine and aspen trees for which this area is famous. The air
was crisp, and the sounds of the forest immediately made me feel more connected
Entering the main building, I was met by the glass-eyed gazes of what appeared to be every native species and then some. The taxidermy made me question whether I was in the right place, but I was relieved when I heard they were all victims of accidental or natural death.
The first day was a marathon of wolf history from the ice age up until European settlement, when Westward expansion pushed wolves to the brink of extinction. My group of two dozen was captivated by giant wolf skulls, tales of necropsies, and personal stories of wolf recovery in the area.
By the second day, we were eager to get into the field. We saw lots of critter signs, but wolf sightings were nil. We did, however, see other telltale signs that they were in the area. Our group was giddy with excitement when we saw the yellow staining of raised-leg urination and even more so after seeing the droplets of blood left by a female in heat, both clear indications that wolves had passed through.
As I listened to the instructors, two opposing views constantly butted against each other – one fighting for tradition and property rights, and the other for progress and the rights of wildlife. Opponents of endangered species protections for wolves want management returned to the states. Their argument is that wolves have recovered and thus no longer need federal protections. But wolf advocates counter that it’s these very protections that have allowed the fragile populations to bounce back. Without them, wolves are slaughtered, as witnessed in states where protection have been removed.
A good case study for state management is Wisconsin between 2012 – 2014. In those two years 528 wolves were legally killed. These harvests aren’t based on science and often hurt wolf populations by breaking up packs and orphaning young. Yet these forms of management are still considered standard practice for state wildlife agencies.
Beyond highlighting unethical management practices, the workshop drove home a constant theme – wolves are not the monsters we make them out to be. A lot of our fears about wolves are based on anachronist folklore that has no place in the 21st century. For instance, far from being rapacious killers who deplete game populations, wolves actually help keep herds healthy by preying on the sick, the old, and the weak. A graph documenting wolf predation reflected this, with the ages of kills being mostly very old and very young. Also, the impact on livestock is overblown. Of Wisconsin’s 1.5 million dairy cows and beef cattle, the WDNR confirmed 24 wolf kills in 2018.
The hysteria around wolves is largely pushed by farmers and hunters who loathe predators – wolves, coyotes, bears, lions – and that’s terrible for conservation efforts. These two groups pump millions of dollars into state wildlife management through hunting and trapping licenses, and hunting related sales taxes. This has lead to a prioritization of policies that favor these two groups at the expense of non-game species.
Such favoritism flies in the face of the public trust doctrine which states that federal agencies should protect our wild spaces for the enjoyment of all, not just a select few. Also, by catering to special interest groups, state wildlife management agencies exclude a large portion of the population who enjoy wildlife for its intrinsic value in a non-consumptive form – naturalists, scientists, wildlife enthusiasts, and photographers.
Because of this disparity in viewpoints, consensus on what wolf conservation should look is rare. From our discussions, it would seem that holistic approaches to management, where the interest of multiple stakeholders is considered, might be the only way forward. Wolves are thriving where ranchers have developed non-lethal forms of deterrents, conservationists have secured legal protections, and limited predator controls are allowed. This seems to be the sweet spot for wolf recovery today.
As I left Sandhill and headed towards the interstate, I reflected on how eye-opening the workshop was. It showed a world where wolves serve as guardians of the ecosystems they inhabit and are actually more like us than what I initially believed. They are highly social, sentient animals who value family structure, are devoted to each other, nurture their young, and mourn the loss of pack members. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity to visit this part of Wisconsin and to connect on some level with wolves.
I thought about their future and what that would look like without the protections that have afforded them a second chance. If the states that have delisted wolves are any indication, it’s not looking good.