Thursday, February 19, 2015

Where Wolves and Coyotes Are Concerned Be Careful of Your Wishes Three

By Bob Ferris

I grew up hearing various versions of the three wishes fable—some not suitable for all audiences.  In these tales the magical figure nearly always left the wisher sadder but wiser with the last wish or before.  The same is true when you go messing with natural systems: You may think that your wished for action will yield one result, but then you find that you have not fully considered all the factors or ramifications.

Along these lines when I hear ranchers complain too loudly about coyotes, I sometimes offer up that the coyote—a smaller, more reproductively responsive canid—is what ranchers and others earned as karmic payback for blindly wiping out the wolf.  There is some tongue and cheek in this, but a “three wishes” core truth also.

Am I saying the above to denigrate coyotes?  No, because we have seen that culling coyotes can lead to increases in rabbits and rodents that impact ranchers in other and possibly worse ways.  So what am I saying? It is not so much what I am saying, but rather what I am trying to do and that is open up dialogues about the complexity and interconnectedness of ecological systems.

Seeking and engaging in these dialogues is a worthwhile exercise, but it is an uphill climb as well.  I find these ecological interrelationships and interactions compellingly fascinating—like reading a mystery or thriller that one cannot put down—but I fully understand that others do not see it similarly.  Yet, if you are one who either is taking a position on lethal control or just trying to figure out these dynamics, it is really in your best interest to take a little time to understand that these relationships are frequently not all that straight-forward.

A good illustration of the complexity of “three wishing” predators gone or reduced comes from "wolf culling."   Culling is the random killing of wolves through actions like hunting and trapping rather than by controlling or targeting offending animals.  There have been a range of results from these actions that tend to reduce numbers rather problems, with many of them seemingly counter-intuitive.

My sense from watching this for more than 20 years is that a lot of the confusing results have to do with pack size and dynamics.  Wolf packs tend to function a little like a “super-organism”  with restricted breeding and shared care of the pack’s young as part of the collective package.  Under this system, larger packs would then tend to reproduce less per wolf than smaller packs where the ratios are higher.  Thinking of it as a wolf-to-coyote spectrum is helpful in this regard with larger packs functioning more like classic wolves and smaller packs reproducing more along the lines of coyotes.

But there is more.  Observations in the US  and Canada  have also found that smaller packs tend to have to kill more prey per individual wolf because they are less able to protect their kills from other predators or scavengers like ravens.  Larger packs can protect and therefore consume more of the prey they have taken.

And larger packs are able to defend larger territories.  This factor along with the other two likely means that a certain region with fewer but larger packs could have lower overall per capita predation and reproduction rates.  Stated differently the ecological implications of 50 wolves in five packs will be different than 50 wolves in 10 packs.

We are now seeing reports out of Idaho that their wolf hunting and control actions (culling) have produced smaller packs.  There seems to be some elation over this.  My sense in consideration of the above is that this is probably not exactly what they wished.  But it is likely what you get when wildlife policies are driven by folks with a GI-Joe Kung Fu grip on old and discounted ideas about predator-prey relationships. They have clearly not learned the lesson of the three wishes.

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