Wildlife Conservation Science & Policy

Dedicated to the social and political aspects–the so-called "human dimensions"–of wildlife management

Monthly Archives: December 2010

Dave Mech on Wolves at the Midwest F&W Conference

Dr. L. David Mech was one of the plenary session speakers at the Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference, held on 11 – 15 December in Minneapolis, MN.  Dr. Mech gave a thought-proving presentation on the science related to wolves, with a special focus on wolf effects on ungulates, scavengers, and the so-called “trophic cascade” in Yellowstone that has been attributed to the presence of wolves.

Mech reviewed the research on these subjects and essentially concluded that the science is far from settled.  He emphasized the tentative nature of these findings and noted that there was often conflicting evidence from competing labs.

One area where he felt the science was very robust concerned wolves’ tendency to kill weak and vulnerable animals with greater frequency then would be expected by chance.  He played a very interesting video from wildlife photographer Bob Landis that appeared to show wolves specifically targeting an elk with a visible limp (later confirmed to be arthetritis) after “testing” other animals in the herd.  He suggested this was the first really solid evidence that wolves’ disproportionate take of vulnerable animals was not just due to these animals’ vulnerability, but also a function of wolves’ behavior–that is, that wolves specifically target more vulnerable animals.  Folks that want to learn more can visit http://www.davemech.org.

Q & A

I was particularly interested in a couple of questions Mech fielded at the end of his presentation.  When asked how managers should respond to recent comments from northern Minnesotans that wolves “were decimating deer populations”, Mech quipped that they had been saying the same thing since he started studying wolves (back in the late 1950s).

Mech was also asked to predict the geographic extent of wolf recovery (i.e., where will wolves be 20 years from now).  He opined that wolves would continue to occupy some new territory in southern Wisconsin and Michigan and probably the Dakotas as well, but would probably never be able to survive in states like Illinois and Indiana.  He felt the Rocky Mountain population would do better, expressing confidence that wolves would make it into Utah and Colorado and even northern California.

Another questioner asked how hunting wolves was going to build tolerance for the species if, as Mech had maintained, hunting would have little effect on wolf populations.  Rather than address this directly, Mech pointed to Poland where he asserted that wolves had gone through three cycles of “overprotection” followed by wolf eradication, implying that the same could happen here in the U.S.  While I would concede Mech’s point, I would argue that, given the differences in our culture and system of government here in the U.S., one cannot assume that the same events will transpire–in fact, the science on the matter is certainly less clear than it is on any of the issues Mech had argued were far from settled. Personally, I happen to agree with Mech’s assessment that this is a legitimate risk; in fact, that was essentially the argument we made in a recent paper.  However, I think it is important to note that our collective understanding of the social and political systems that will decide whether similar events transpire here in the U.S. is no better than our understanding of trophic cascades–the science is far from settled.

Are wolves endangered in the northern Rockies?

Update Jan 2010 – Clarifying comments on Utah Public Radio (MP3 Audio)

In the December issue of BioScience, my colleagues and I use the US Fish & Wildlife Services 2009 decision to remove wolves in the northern Rockies from endangered species protections to illustrate how the social sciences can contribute meaningfully to listing determinations.  Essentially, this paper asserts that, when threats to a species are primarily anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) the Endangered Species Act’s mandate that listing decisions be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available” applies not just to biophysical sciences, but also relevant social science data.

In the 2009 Final Rule removing protections for wolves, the FWS asserted that attitudes toward wolves are a potential threat to the species.  We summarized their analysis of this threat as follows:

“(1) human attitudes are a potential threat to wolves because human-caused wolf mortality, driven by human attitudes, extirpated wolves from this region in the first place;

(2) the threat posed by human attitudes has lessened substantially because public attitudes have improved in recent decades;

(3) state management of wolves will foster local support of wolves and wolf recovery; and

(4) existing state regulatory mechanisms will “balance negative attitudes” and ensure recovery…” (p. 943).

We assert that numerous studies exist that can help with the evaluations of these assumptions, but these studies do not appear in the 2009 Final Rule.  In particular, existing social science evidence conflicts with arguments #2 and #3–we discuss this in detail in the BioScience article. However, it is important to point out that it was not our intent to affect the listing status of wolves.  In fact, the decision to relist wolves was made long ago.  Rather, our intent was to use the case of wolves in the northern Rockies to illustrate how social science information can contribute meaningfully to listing status determinations and provide a “roadmap” of some important considerations for future listing status determinations regarding wolves.

As to the question of whether wolves are endangered, we note that, ultimately, listing determinations require agencies to answer two important questions: what is the risk posed to a species, and is this risk acceptable?  While our analysis clearly suggests the risks posed by society are greater than FWS estimated, they cannot speak to the second question.  Thus, we leave it to readers to formulate their own views on the matter.

Bruskotter, J.T., Toman, E., Enzler, S.A., & Schmidt, R.H. 2010. Are gray wolves endangered in the northern Rocky Mountains? A role for social science in listing determinations. BioScience 60(11):941-947.