wolves deserve our best science, not vilification

In the last several years, the hunting and trapping of grey wolves has increased dramatically in the “lower 48” states of the United States. A recently published paper (see Further Reading section at the end) authored by several of the nation’s leading biologists and wildlife advocates, found that there is a lack of data to justify this recent wave of lethal wolf management. This is the first peer-reviewed research of its kind since wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List in the Northern Rockies in 2020. 

Below is an interview with authors Dr. Peter Kareiva, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and President and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, and Elishebah Tate-Pulliam, a research assistant at the Aquarium of the Pacific and a previous recipient of the Aquarium’s African American Scholars award.

Q: Stepping back a bit, why did you personally get involved with the wolf issue? Running the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, what led you to author a peer-reviewed analysis on an issue that is most central to the Northern Rocky Mountain States?

A, Peter: I joined the Aquarium of the Pacific because I love animals, am committed to conservation, and believe that our planet will thrive only if the public better understands and appreciates wild nature. Our current wolf management conundrum is a trenchant example of three factors: poor treatment of animals, poor conservation, and poor information. Of course I got involved—I used to call my beloved family dog “little wolf” as a puppy. And then there is the science. In 1997 I served on a National Academy Committee that examined the hunting of wolves in Alaska. What we found in Alaska foreshadows what is happening now in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—the Alaskan wolves were being unfairly blamed for doing much more damage to moose populations than the actual data revealed. Conservation, compassion, and a commitment to data drew me to the #RelistWolves Campaign—a grassroots coalition of conservationists, environmental nonprofit organisations, wildlife advocates, Native American tribes, and scientists. The campaign and its members have dedicated themselves to enhancing public understanding of wolves and ensuring their survival by advocating for one common goal: to restore the grey wolf to the Endangered Species List.

A, Elishebah: My undergraduate and graduate work included nothing about wolves or terrestrial conservation, but I did conduct research on ecosystem restoration in marine coastal systems. The reintroduction of wolves to western North America is one of the greatest successes of species reintroduction and ecosystem recovery. That caught my attention. So, when Dr. Kareiva invited me to join the wolf team, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Like many people, I had my own view of wolves, but as a scientist, I wanted to learn more about their ecology and interaction with humans. In some way, wolves remind me of great white sharks, which I think of as wolves of the ocean—feared and vilified, yet magnificent animals.

Q: What are some of the benefits of wolves? Why are wolves so vital for our society and for nature?

A, Elishebah: As a keystone species, grey wolves are critical for maintaining healthy, resilient ecosystems and preserving biodiversity. We depend on these amazing animals to serve as ecosystem guardians. For example, wolves help keep herbivore populations, like deer and elk in check. Without predators, elk and deer can become so abundant that they overgraze, which in turn exacerbates soil erosion and produces heavy loads of sediment in streams.

A, Peter: Elishebah is exactly right. The best documented case study comes from Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995. The return of wolves changed elk behaviour, keeping them on the move, which in turn allowed young willow and aspen plants to survive when previously they would have been browsed by elk. The return of these plants then helped beaver populations recover, and helped reduce sediments in streams. A less commonly appreciated benefit of wolves is their prudent predation of sick and diseased animals.

For example, chronic wasting disease has been spreading among elk and deer populations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and wildlife biologists hypothesise that wolves could play a valuable role in removing sick and infectious animals, thereby slowing the spread of this deadly brain disease.

Q: What is wrong with current wolf management policies?

A, Peter: Extreme wolf hunts in states like Idaho, Montana, and Wisconsin have shocked many wildlife biologists because of how many wolves were killed in such a short period of time. In only six months of the 2021–2022 hunting season in Montana, at least 25 wolves from Yellowstone were killed when they wandered outside the park boundary—a number that represents one-fifth of the federally protected Yellowstone wolf population. Even more dramatic is the killing spree in early 2021 of at least 216 wolves in Wisconsin over a three-day period. The zeal with which hunters killed wolves clearly overwhelmed Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. By the time the hunt was shut down, at least 97 more wolves had been killed than the state-mandated quota of 119 wolves. More generally, we found that data surrounding the benefits of wolves typically has not been incorporated into state-level wolf management decisions. Also, when state agencies formulate their wolf policies, it does not appear that they gave much weight to the collateral damage associated with rampant trapping and hunting of wolves.

A, Elishebah: Creating effective management policies for wolves is complicated. Firstly, wolves are predators and there’s no denying that wolves kill both wild and domesticated animals as they go about their business of being a wolf. That said, data indicate wolves much prefer wild prey to domesticated cattle and sheep. Human societies have a long history of treating predators like wolves as vermin. Before the arrival of European colonists, wild nature thrived in harmony with Native Americans, and wolves were abundant throughout North America. That all changed as western colonists spread across the continent hunting, trapping, and poisoning wolves to near extinction. But now as wolves make a comeback, they encounter a landscape filled with human activities. This renews opportunities for wolf-human conflict and in turn has created the threat of a second round of persecution and wolf slaughter. Unfortunately, our protest of the wolf slaughter is seen by some as an attack on hunters. It is not an attack on hunters. We know that hunters are often great conservationists. We also recognize that hunting is a cultural legacy for many westerners, and any ban on hunting might be interpreted as an infringement on the rights of hunters. I certainly agree that hunters have rights. But animals also have rights. Ethical hunters respect animal rights when they embrace the principle of fair chase. However, no one would call baiting, trapping, running wolves down with packs of dogs and ATVs, and night-vision hunting a fair chase.

Q: You have mentioned poor information—what did you mean by that?

A, Peter: That’s a great question. First, there is huge uncertainty about how many wolves there are, how many have been killed in the recent hunting spree, and how frequently wolves have preyed on livestock. We think there are around 6,000 wolves left in the lower 48 states as of last year, but credible analyses of the uncertainty of this estimate have not appeared in the scientific literature. We are not even sure how many wolves have been killed over the last two years—we think it is around 1200. However, because of poor data transparency, under-reporting, and poaching, we worry the 1200 number is an underestimate. Finally, when we attempted to quantify wolf impact on livestock, we ran into difficulties. We examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s data on livestock killings in our analysis and found that it’s only published about every five years and includes livestock deaths that are only presumed wolf kills, not necessarily confirmed wolf kills. The bottom line is this: the current justification for wolf hunts is based on data that is inconsistent and unevenly reported. It is my strong belief that given the precarious status of wolves, no hunting should be allowed until we have more transparent and accurate data. In the absence of such data, prudence tells us to be cautious before we sanction such widespread slaughter of wolves.

Q: What do you say to the tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers throughout the U.S. who claim that they must kill wolves, In certain instances, to protect the well-being of themselves and their livestock?

A, Elishebah: Firstly, I understand the desire to protect one’s livelihood. Ranching is a tough business: droughts, fires, diseases, extreme temperatures, and predators can cause a rancher to lose income. At a more personal level, I am sure ranchers are upset whenever one of their cattle or sheep are killed. For this reason, ranchers should have their concerns heard and addressed—and they are. I wonder, however, if the ranching community has an accurate view of the deaths caused by wolves in the context of all the undesired deaths that their livestock suffer? To provide some context regarding this concern: the number of sheep and cattle killed by wolves never exceeded 0.21% and 0.05% of unwanted deaths in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and Wisconsin, according to the 2020 USDA report on sheep and 2015 report on cattle. Causes other than wolves made up the vast majority of unwanted livestock deaths. Why are we vilifying wolves for their attacks on livestock, when in fact their predation on livestock is minor compared to all the other factors?

A, Peter: We understand the challenge that independent ranchers have, which is why we advocate for conflict reduction (which has proven effective) and reimbursement programs. Our point is simply that killing wolves should be a last resort, not the first option.

Q: You mentioned conflict reduction, what can this look like in practice?

A, Peter: There are a wide variety of effective non-lethal wolf management techniques. Ancient techniques like fladry, which entails creating a perimeter of colourful flags around livestock, combined with contemporary techniques like strobe lights and loud noises have proven effective at deterring wolves. In addition to these tried and true methods, some recent non-lethal innovations promise even greater success going forward. I just learned about this idea of infusing carcasses of cattle with cocktails of nauseating chemicals. When the wolf eats this cattle carcass, it feels sick and develops a learned aversion to cattle. That clever innovation is exemplary of the creative ideas we should be exploring in order to avoid primitive lethal approaches.

A, Elishebah: One idea is establishing programs that reward ranchers who invest in conflict reduction. This can complement programs that compensate ranchers who have lost livestock to wolves.

Q: Does the killing of wolves ever evolve into the killing of other, non-targeted species so to speak? If so, can you explain?

A, Elishebah: Attempts to deplete wolf populations often result in wolf hunters and trappers accidentally shooting and trapping dogs and other “non-target” species. Nearly one non-target animal was accidentally trapped for every wolf trapped in Idaho from 2012 to 2019, including threatened and endangered species. In Montana during the hunting seasons of 2018–2020, half of all non-target species accidentally caught in traps were domestic dogs.

Q: Is there anything being done to advocate for wolf protection? What can readers do to get involved?

A, Peter: The Biden Administration is conducting a status review with the chance to restore federal protections to ALL grey wolves. Relisting wolves is the only way to stop brutal state-led hunts before it is too late. In the long term, we need to pursue coexistence with wolves, as well as coexistence with the many other “dangerous” animals that were once endangered but are now recovering. We have learned how to save and restore wildlife—now we need to learn how to live with wildlife. Write your congressional representatives and encourage them to pay attention and care. Support organisations that strive to protect wolves and other wildlife.

A, Elishebah: Dr. Kareiva mentions what amounts to advocacy. As a recently graduated student, I think education and communication are key. We need to escape the tyranny of an “us versus wolves” mentality to an “us and wolves” mindset. Moving toward this change in mentality is what we are working towards with the #RelistWolves Campaign. I’d encourage folks to visit RelistWolves.org for more information on the campaign and how they can take action.

Keystone species

The concept of “keystone species” can be traced to R.T. Paine, who introduced the idea after conducting field experiments in which the removal of starfish from rocky intertidal communities in Washington State, USA, led to a transformed intertidal zone—blanketed with mussels, whereas in the presence of starfish intertidal rocks were covered with barnacles, sea palms, mussels, anemones, and other “space-holders”. “Keystone” is a metaphor for a species that holds the ecosystem together, much like the keystone at the top of a stone arch. Some species are more equal than others, and keystone species are those organisms which, if deleted from an ecosystem, the ecosystem shifts to a totally different state with a cascade of impacts that dramatically alter the abundances of other species. Without its “keystone”, a stone arch collapses into rubble. The elimination of these species in nature can prompt surprising and far-reaching changes or collapses in the local environment. Examples of keystone species include sea otters, elephants, sharks, certain diseases, and of course humans! Unfortunately, human activities have tended to deplete and in some cases locally extinguish keystone species throughout the world, largely because keystone species are most often predators at the top of food chains and are thus viewed by humans as dangerous or as competition. 

Further Reading:

Estes, J. A., J. Terborgh, J. S. Brashares, M. E. Power, J. Berger, W. J. Bond, W. J. Carpenter et al.  2011. Trophic downgrading of planet Earth. Science 333(6040): 301–306. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1205106 

Eisenberg, C. 2013. The wolf’s tooth: keystone predators, trophic cascades, and biodiversity. Washington DC: Island Press.

Kareiva, P., S. K. Attwood, K. Bean, D. Felix, M. Marvier, M. L. Miketa and E. Tate-Pulliam. 2022. A new era of wolf management demands better data and a more inclusive process. Conservation Science and Practice: e12821. https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.12821