Living With Wolves: A Management Dilemma
Wolves. Now here’s a subject almost guaranteed to ignite the emotions of most people I know. I’m a wolf biologist in northwest Montana and have studied the Fishtrap pack since 2001. I am constantly asked my opinion about the current issues of removing wolves from the Endangered Species List and the proposed hunting of these animals in Montana sometime this fall. Although I have my emotions and views of these subjects, I still try and stick with the facts.
After seven years of studying the Fishtrap pack, I have accumulated reams of data about their locations, travel routes, and behavior. During this time there was a two year period in which I surveyed almost everyday, under all conditions and seasons. This allowed me to find something new about wolf packs which was recently published in The Journal of American Science. While preparing the manuscript, I reviewed the scientific literature and found that somewhere along the line, science had made the assumption that the individuals who make up a wolf pack do most everything together. However, I never found a study which proved this to be true. In fact, the Fishtrap pack was fully assembled in no more than 31 percent of the surveys during the study period, indicating the pack spent a minority of time together. The remainder of my data demonstrated that pack members were constantly traveling their territory, most often as individuals or in small groups rather than the entire pack. So what were they doing?
An abundance of studies have demonstrated wolves appear to have tight bonds and social relationships within the pack, yet the Fishtrap wolves demonstrated they were like perpetual motion. Their constant movements precluded a fully assembled pack most of the time. Monitoring, hunting, and marking their territory were full time jobs and the work load was apparently shared by all members – like a large, extended family in which everyone contributed to the greater good. This view of wolves, however, still needs further evaluation. But clearly, they were constantly on the go. Perhaps all packs are different, but if the Fishtrap wolves move around like this then others probably do so too. How then is one to manage a species that behaves like this? Even with radio collars, it is virtually impossible to follow them constantly and know what all individuals are doing at any given moment. My results were deduced from the data of three collared wolves, but I’m not responsible for the pack’s management.
On the web site for U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service are the annual reports this agency is required to post for public viewing. After all, this is the data we have all paid for via our taxes and is ours to do with as we wish. So I pulled out my calculator, crunched some of the numbers, and found the following pattern: from 2002 through 2006, Montana lost from 24 – 41 percent of its wolves each year, for an average of 31 percent. Data found in the scientific literature have suggested an annual mortality rate in excess of 34 percent may produce unsustainable wolf populations in the future. This could be a potential problem when Montana's wolves are eventually taken off the Endangered Species List and no longer under federal protection. On the other hand, we are already approaching this number even when the wolves are under federal jurisdiction. The scenario is different in the reintroduction areas.
Yellowstone is a national park and central Idaho is a wilderness area, the top two classifications of federal protection afforded to natural areas in the United States. The wolves will be protected in these areas whether they are removed from the Endangered Species List or not. As an example, the 2003 report demonstrated the areas just outside of Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, which are unprotected, have the same mortality rates as Montana. In summary, the data from the Annual Reports indicates unless wolf areas are protected in some manner, public attitude and current management techniques are responsible for the majority of wolf deaths in Montana each year.
Given the annual reports, one can conclude that killing is the number one management tool. This would be consistent with the usual data collection methods of using aircraft to find the signals of the collared wolves, with very little work coordinated on the ground. Therefore, wildlife managers do not know the usual travel routes of packs, most of the rendezvous site areas where pups are trained, areas of concentrated hunting, or interaction among pack members and the surrounding wildlife. In other words, little is known about the behavior of wolf packs, which apparently is not necessary for their management. It is no surprise, therefore, that hunting will become the state’s management tool when the wolves are de-listed. This will just be the continuation of the usual policy.
The purpose here is only to report such patterns, and the killing of wolves can be seen as good or bad depending on the perspective. Hunters and wolf haters will most likely applaud the idea of eliminating wolves as sport, while conservation groups have already filed lawsuits to keep wolves on the Endangered Species List. But what about the environment itself? What kind of imbalances are we producing by managing the numbers of wolves and other wildlife. Wolves are well known for controlling their own population, but clearly this number of wolves is not within our society’s comfort zone. Perhaps at some point we’ll just have to accept what the data ultimately indicates: learn to live with wildlife rather than control it.