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Know the West

Charismatic pest control


First, check out Michelle Nijhuis’ new HCN story “Prodigal Dogs”, about the likelihood that gray wolves have returned to Colorado of their own volition, finding space to exist, or even breed, on a private ranch in the northwest part of the state. Then, get a load of this lupine scenario:

In the February issue of BioScience (see also the Associated Press' coverage), scientists suggest “using” wolves to restore ecological integrity to limited swaths of wild lands — an idea entertained, and then shelved, recently, at Rocky Mountain National Park. Since the wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1973, conservation has focused on the reintroduction of viable, free populations on grand plots of land, most famously Yellowstone. But what if we were to create, and then heavily manage, modestly-sized wolf packs in places where un-harried ungulate populations have overwhelmed the land, mouthful by mouthful? 

As the authors of the BioScience paper (and also Nijhuis) explain, wolves not only devour the proverbial weakest links among prey like elk, they also generate an “ecology of fear” that keeps herds on the move, preventing them from becoming hoofed locusts. In turn, vegetation abundance and diversity springs back, and the dynamics and populations of lower-order predators (coyotes) and scavengers (grizzlies) return to a more natural state — a domino effect known as “trophic cascade.” The authors point to Isle Royale in Lake Superior as a prime example of a landscape that, if not for a colony of wolves, would be inundated with moose. They also note that this waterfall extends in cultural directions: Planting wolves in new places would provide awe-inspiring educational opportunities for more people, bolster ecotourism, and provide opportunities for research.

But if we plant wolves on small plots of land, we also will have to tend to them more carefully. We’ll have thin them out occasionally, as we already do in Idaho and Montana. Some of the systems imagined for controlling these wolves include real-time satellite tracking (“an animal approaches or crosses a predetermined boundary, an alert message is sent to a manager”); reproductive control (“Immunocontraceptives, pharmaceuticals, and surgery”); actual barriers (“wolf observation . . . within fenced protected areas can become ‘authentic’”); and virtual barriers (“the biggest remaining challenge . . . is to develop a collar that maintains contact between electrodes and skin”).

In the end, the paper’s authors stress that the ethics of deploying highly-manipulated wolves is debatable and that, above all, “managing the symbolism (of the wolf) remains the challenge.” Wolves’ intrinsic or iconic value might make us leery of installing them as ecological, but also expendable, stewards.  Yet it’s true that wolves “will move . . . areas closer to true and meaningful biodiversity conservation.” So ecologists and environmental managers, and the readers of HCN, should continue to hash it out: To what extent should we handle wolves?