Tag Archives: eastern gray wolf

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Reports Increased Gray Wolf Numbers but Threats to Recovery Loom Ahead

Photo by John E. Marriott

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.

Wolves should remain protected according to a new study from Princeton-UCLA 

Princeton-UCLA study finds gray wolves should remain protected. Researchers from Princeton University and the University of California-Los Angeles who investigated the genetic ancestry of North America’s wild canines have concluded that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s scientific arguments for removing gray wolves from endangered species protection are incorrect.
The study, which contradicts conventional thinking, finds that all of the continent’s canids diverged from a common ancestor relatively recently and that eastern and red wolves are not evolutionarily distinct species but a hybrid of gray wolf and coyote ancestry. The study will appear in the journal Science Advances.

Gray wolves once ranged across much of the United States but were hunted to near-extinction in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act, in part, because its geographic range once included the Great Lakes Gray wolves once ranged across much of the United States but were hunted to near-extinction in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act, in part, because its geographic range once included the Great Lakes region and 29 eastern states. Since then, gray wolves have rebounded due to protections, reintroduction and natural repopulation, making wolf recovery in the West one of the most successful efforts under the ESA. Gray wolves also still live in the Great lakes area but not in the 29 eastern states. The red wolf also was protected under the ESA as a distinct species in 1973, but the eastern wolf, which was only recently recognized as a distinct species, is not protected.

The Fish and Wildlife Service will decide this fall whether to remove the gray wolf from protection, drawing renewed attention to the conflict between conservationists, ranchers, hunters and others who see the iconic predator either as a threat or as part of a healthy ecosystem. The agency says the gray wolf should be delisted because the eastern wolf – not the gray wolf – lived in the Great Lakes region and eastern states. Essentially, the presence of the eastern wolf, rather than the gray wolf, in the eastern United States would cause the gray wolf’s original listing to be annulled. With the exception of the Mexican wolf, the gray wolf would lose protection from its entire North American range under the proposed rule change.
In their new study, lead author Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, and her colleagues analyzed the complete genomes of 12 pure gray wolves (from areas where there are no coyotes), three pure coyotes (from areas where there are no gray wolves), six eastern wolves (which the researchers call Great Lakes wolves) and three red wolves.

Results showed that eastern and red wolves are not evolutionary distinct species but the result of a relatively recent interbreeding: Eastern wolves are about 75 percent gray wolf and 25 percent coyote, while red wolves are about 25 percent gray wolf and 75 percent coyote.
“We found no evidence for an eastern or red wolf that has a separate evolutionary legacy,” vonHoldt says. “These results suggest that arguments for delisting the gray wolf are not valid.”
The researchers also conclude that the ESA should protect hybrid species because interbreeding in the wild, thought to be uncommon when the ESA was passed in 1973, has been shown to be common and may not be harmful.

“Our findings demonstrate how a strict designation of a species under the ESA that does not consider genetic admixture can threaten the protection of endangered species,” vonHoldt says. “We argue for a more balanced approach that focuses on the ecological context of genetic admixture and allows for evolutionary processes to potentially restore historical patterns of genetic variation.”

The study, “Whole-genome sequence analysis shows that two endemic species of North American wolf are admixtures of the coyote and gray wolf,” was published July 27 by Science Advances. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

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Featured image John E Marriott Photography