Wolf Science Panel at the University of Washington

Wolf Science Panel at the University of Washington

Conservation Northwest / Dec 03, 2014 / Wolves

As wolves continue to recover in the Pacific Northwest, and as state agencies move towards the management phases of wolf recovery, Conservation Northwest, along with the Pacific Wolf Coalition and the University of Washington, had the opportunity to bring together some of North America’s leading wolf experts on October 29th, 2014 to discuss ways to recover and manage gray wolves using the best available science, as well as experience from other states.

“It was an important discussion to have considering where our state is in terms of wolf recovery and management,” said Alison Huyett, coordinator for the Pacific Wolf Coalition and a conservation associate with Conservation Northwest. “There was a lot of value in what was presented, some of which could have a significant impact on how we accomplish wolf recovery here in Washington, as well as how we view conflict surrounding wolves and people.

The Wolf Management Research Symposium was especially timely as new research has come out recently showing that killing wolves to prevent livestock depredations is ineffective, and may actually lead to increased conflicts. 

This science panel took place on October 29th at the UW’s Seattle campus. The goal was to learn from expert biologists, researchers and management officials as they presented current science that focuses on the different impacts wolf management may have on wolf ecology, pack structure, habitat connectivity, social acceptance, and population recovery.

“When you have such an emotional issue like wolves, science can play a very important role in helping create an ecologically sound framework for management,” said Jasmine Minbashian, communications director for Conservation Northwest and one of the event organizers.

Our Presenters Included:

Click the presenters names to watch full videos of their presentations. Click here to watch the Q & A that followed the presentations.
  • Doug Smith, Ph.D. (National Park Service) – Dr. Smith is a senior wildlife biologist for the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. He has spent 30 years studying wolf biology, first in Isle Royale and then in Yellowstone National Park at the time wolves were reintroduced to the area. Dr. Smith has co-authored multiple papers studying how human-induced mortality of individual wolves affects wolf social dynamics and connectivity. He also has spent the last 20 years researching what an untouched wolf population would look like using Yellowstone as a model. His more recent, unpublished, research looks at the impacts of wolf mortality on connectivity and shows that intact packs increase the amount of dispersal of individual wolves, which in turn may increase connectivity among packs and landscapes.
  • Scott Brainerd, Ph.D. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) – Dr. Brainerd is a regional research coordinator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game out of Fairbanks, Alaska. He has done extensive research on the impacts of breeder loss on wolf pack social structure in Alaska. His studies highlight the importance of wolves that are breeding in maintaining group unity at the pack level. The study also shows that at the population level, wolves may be resilient to the lethal removal of those wolves that are breeding.
  • Adrian Treves, Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin–Madison) – Dr. Treves is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in Madison. His research has focused primarily on public attitudes toward wolves and wolf policy in Wisconsin, behavioral ecology of carnivores and risk for people living near them, and methods for mitigating human-wildlife conflicts. Dr. Treves has found that as wolf populations recovered, over time Wisconsin residents increased in agreement with statements reflecting fear of wolves, the belief that wolves compete with hunters for deer, and inclination to poach a wolf. This highlights the need for education and interventions that improve attitudes and behavior toward wolves.
  • Jeremy Bruskotter, Ph.D. (Ohio State University) – Dr. Bruskotter is an associate professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. His research centers on the application of social and psychological theory to the study of fisheries and wildlife management. His particular focus is in how people make decisions related to fisheries and wildlife management, and the origins of resource-related conflicts, especially those that involve wildlife.
  • Rob Wielgus, Ph.D. (Washington State University) – Dr. Wielgus is an associate professor and director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University in Pullman. He is the author of a recent paper on the impacts of lethal wolf management on pack structure and livestock depredations. His other research has focused on the population, behavioral and habitat ecology of large carnivores, including cougars and wolves, and their prey. Dr. Wielgus’ current research is looking at livestock mortality rates in the wolf-occupied areas of Washington over a 15-year period, as well as the effects of non-lethal interventions on reducing wolf depredations and indirect effects on livestock in Washington.
  • Carter Niemeyer (author and former USFWS wolf recovery coordinator) – Carter Niemeyer retired in 2006 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where he was the wolf recovery coordinator for Idaho. As an expert government trapper, he was a key member of the federal wolf reintroduction team in Canada in the mid-1990s. Carter is an Iowa native, but adopted the West as his home in the early 1970s. He has two degrees from Iowa State University and is a Wildlife Society certified biologist.
  • Donny Martello (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) – Martello is a carnivore manage with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state agency tasked with managing and safeguarding gray wolf recovery in Washington state. Martello provided an update on Washington wolf populations, progress that’s been made towards state recovery goals, and recent wolf management decisions the agency has made. He also filled in on behalf of Russ Morgan from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to provide updates on Oregon’s wolf recovery.

Highlights and Take-Aways

The impacts of wolf recovery on humans, and the impacts of humans on wolves and their behavior, was at the center of the panel discussion. Perhaps no item was covered more deeply than scientific findings and experiences connected to the lethal removal of wolves.

Doctors Wielgus and Brainerd both reported on findings showing that the lethal removal of wolves could be responsible for actually increasing a pack’s likelihood of preying on livestock. Unless enough wolves are killed to keep wolf populations severely depressed, possibly even below Endangered Species recovery goals, lethal removals are ineffective at preventing depredations because shooting or trapping problem wolves, particularly the pack’s leaders, disrupts the pack’s social structure.

“If you kill the alpha male and female, the pack fractures,” said Wielgus. “Instead of one breeding pair, you may have two or three.”

In contrast to non-lethal conflict avoidance measures, such lethal actions may cause subordinate wolves to disperse and create new packs, or it may limit the wolves natural hunting ability and lead them to begin preying on sheep and cattle grazing within their territory.

As Dr. Smith put it, “we treat non-social species like we treat social species. But part of the complexity of and controversy around wolves is their social nature.”

Dr. Treves noted that in the northern Great Lakes, livestock depredation incidents, or series of incidents, were often related to a “problem farm” or producer, not  problem wolves. When such a producer began cleaning up boneyards, composting carcasses and keeping a careful watch over livestock with range riders or guard dogs, depredations were greatly reduced or eliminated without the lethal removal of wolves.

Niemeyer noted that such “problem” or high-risk areas should be identified, based on livestock or ranching practices and wolf proximity, and that agencies and conservationists should focus on them, heading off problems before they even start.

Trust, Respectful Dialogue Needed

Many of the panelists agreed that greater community engagement and respectful, cooperative dialogue were the keys for successful wolf recovery, as well as for ranchers, farmers, hunters and others to continue to be successful living, working and recreating in wolf country.

“You’re not going to have full acceptance across the board,” said Dr. Brainerd. “But you need to have local contacts (in wolf country) and include them directly in the discussion.”

As Niemeyer noted, wolf recovery and associated conflict has become almost a partisan issue in the American West. “Lack of trust is the real problem, trust from all groups,” he said. “But if you talk to normal folks, not extremists on either side, there’s great gains to be made if they trust you and are willing to listen.”

“You need to show that each wolf has value,” said Dr. Treves. He said people don’t understand why wolves are important for ecosystems or natural environments. And because they don’t understand the benefits, they don’t understand why they have to experience the problems sometimes associated with wolves. “When the government shows that wolves don’t have value (through lethal removals), the public get’s that message too.”

Noting his experiences studying people’s reactions and feelings toward bears, Dr. Bruskotter agreed. In his findings, the only scenarios that increased people’s acceptance of bears were public outreach, engagement and information sharing that included the animal’s benefits. The same will likely ring true of wolves, he said.

Dr. Wielgus shared a similar perspective, noting that conservationists invested in wolf recovery need to to convince local community leaders of the scientifically-sound benefits of responsible, sustainable wolf populations, and that such spokespeople would have a greater impact in many rural areas than would some environmental groups.

“Emotions related to wolves can often be summed up as ‘Identity Based Conflict’,” said Dr. Bruskotter, noting that in most cases people are more concerned with identifying with their current group and it’s positions than they are with listening to information from outsiders or opposing groups.

Despite entrenched opinions and conflicting views in the areas where wolves are recovering, Dr. Bruskotter reported that nationally there has been a strong increase in positive feelings towards wolves. “It’s part of a general positive movement in the values our society holds toward historically stigmatized species, including wolves,” said Dr. Bruskotter.

As Martello, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted during his updates, “a lot has changed in the last few years.” He noted that the Department is trying to move forward on wolf recovery using it’s new wolf management plan as a guide, a plan that wasn’t available during some past conflicts between wolves and livestock.

Looking back on the science panel, Huyett said she felt the research was both fascinating and timely, particularly the psychological and social science components of wolf recovery.

“It covered all areas of wolf management – from ecology to livestock interactions to social acceptability. I think we have a lot to think about and learn from our neighboring regions,” said Huyett.

Videos of each panelist’s presentation and the Q & A session are now available on our YouTube channel.