Of False Assumptions, Old Men, and Denning Wolves

By Bob Ferris
I do not often now days get the luxury of listening to scientists talk about wolves.  So I took great pleasure in sitting and listening to the recent wolf panel on the University of Washington campus in Seattle put on by the Pacific Wolf U of W Wolf ConferenceCoalition and their partners (at right).  It was great to listen to some of the best and the brightest wolf researchers talk about their current findings in the realm of wolves and also people.  
While there were many, many important revelations, three of them to me were most significant.  The first was the general and repeated conclusion that random wolf control or culling of wolves did little good and probably caused harm, unless you killed on a massive and publicly unacceptable scale.   We had known this for years about coyotes but this clarified and solidified what we suspected about wolves and also mountain lions as well.  It was good also that officials from Washington State were in the audience and heard this message too.  That should be helpful moving forward.
The second tidbit I picked up related to pack member age and to a certain degree gender.  Older males were very important—that perked me up.  The older males could not chase anything down like the younger males and smaller females, but they were important during the actual killing of bigger prey as they were considerably larger and stronger.  (Yes, let’s hear it for older males.)
The last critical point I garnered has been the one rolling around more and more in my mind: Breeding pairs are more likely to depredate on livestock than lone wolves or non-breeding wolves.  When I think about this it makes perfect sense particularly when we look at public lands and the way grazing leases are used and when.    
Wolves tend to select dens near water, with good cover and away from disturbances like roads, settlement and clearcuts.  This sounds a little like what we would also expect for elk and also deer which makes perfect sense as wolves during a time when they localize movements would likely want to be near a constant and reliable food source.  (Remember that one of the clues that indicated that OR-7 might have found a mate and had pups was that his GPS collar indicated that his movements were localized.)
2008937557So what happens to the above reasonable scenario when cattle or sheep are brought to a grazing lease near a denning site with growing pups that need to be feed?  Cattle tend to displace elk and sheep generally eat elk and deer out of house and home like some massive, woolly amoeba.  So what is left for the wolves to do?  Viewed in this context these depredations reflect much less the evil intent or nature of wolves but rather the poor judgment and practice of humans.  Wolves—as Dave Mech often points out—are not saints but given this knowledge we really have to rethink even those infrequent instances of depredation and reconsider whose behavior is really at fault.  
We also should consider this when designing grazing programs on federal lands—particularly when dealing with federally protected wolves—perhaps reserving some areas as alternative leases available for relocating animals away from active denning sites.  As the land management agencies should be already be reducing overall grazing pressure to address climate change related drought conditions in the West, perhaps this climate planning exercise could also allow for provisions for this purpose.
Thanks to the Pacific Wolf Coalition, presenters, and funders like the Wilburforce Foundation for this wonderful event.  It was a great chance for me to see old and dear friends as well as immerse my mind in the richness of science and thought.