As wolves begin to reclaim their historic distribution across the Pacific West, people are learning more and more about these complex and intelligent predators. Many myths and stories surround this often-misunderstood species. Perceptions of wolves range from fear to reverence and are often based on misinformation, emotion, and tradition. However, other states who have seen wolves return provide the Pacific West with an informed platform to welcome wolves.
Wolves & Humans
The lives of humans and wolves have been intricately linked for centuries. Once long ago, wolves roamed over most of the United States and lived in harmony with many indigenous peoples. In fact, wolves were a part of myths and spirituality for many indigenous tribes and were often depicted in art and stories. For centuries, wolves and humans coexisted in the United States.
As the shift from hunter-gather societies to agricultural and pastoral societies occurred, wolves became targets for extermination campaigns led by the U.S. government. By the 1960’s, wolves were virtually extinct from the lower 48 states, including the Pacific West. Until 2008, wolves remained absent from the Pacific West.
Now more than 100 wolves are documented in Oregon and Washington and California has seen its first wolf in nearly 90 years. Pacific West residents are again sharing the landscape with wolves. As habitat generalists, wolves can live in a variety of habitats. Human intolerance poses the largest threat to wolves’ survival.
Recent polling done by Tulchin Research showed that two-thirds of California, Oregon, and Washington survey respondents support wolf recovery in the Pacific West. In fact, more than two-thirds of respondents in each state:
- Agree that wolves are a vital part of the America’s wilderness and natural heritage and should be protected in their state (OR – 68%; WA – 75%; CA – 83%);
- Agree that wolves play an important role in maintaining deer and elk populations, bringing a healthier balance to ecosystems (OR – 69%; WA – 74%; CA – 73%);
- Support restoring wolves to suitable habitat in their states (OR – 66%; WA – 71%; CA – 69%);
- And, agree that wolves should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act until they are fully recovered (OR – 63%; WA – 72%; CA – 80%).
To many, wolves represent the wild American frontier and wilderness. This polling shows that Pacific West residents are ready for wolves to reclaim their once widespread distribution. As wolves reclaim territories, it will remain important to combat misinformation and learn how to share the landscape with this apex predator.
Ranching is an important industry in Washington, Oregon, and California. The same lands used by ranchers for their livestock are often the same lands that provide habitat for a wide range of wildlife, including wolves. Like many carnivores, wolves are opportunistic feeders and will, on occasion, kill livestock for food. However, wolves account for a small percentage of livestock losses compared to other sources.
Despite this small percentage, livestock losses to individual ranchers can significantly impact that rancher’s livelihood. Non-governmental organizations and government agencies have partnered together to create preventative and reactive measures to mitigate conflict between ranchers and wolves.
To help lessen the financial impact of killed livestock, government agencies provide funds to compensate ranchers for their loss. In addition to these reactive mitigation programs, agencies and other partners have developed proactive, nonlethal techniques to prevent conflict with wolves. These techniques are used to prevent the occurrence of depredation and include:
- Disposing of dead animals within the vicinity of livestock to reduce the attraction of scavengers.
- Erecting regular or electric fencing during calving and lambing season, as well as at night. Fladry, bright colored flagging, is also used to deter predators from entering livestock enclosures and can be especially effective if used with electric fencing (called turbo-fladry).
- Improving the frequency and intensity of livestock guarding practices with the use of additional herders or guard dogs. The Range Rider program implemented in Washington employs someone to ride horseback near areas where cattle are grazing to discourage wolves from approaching and to encourage the cattle to stay closer together.
- Using light or noise devices to scare wolves and predators away from livestock enclosures. These can also include nonlethal munitions, where legal (propane cannons, cracker shells, rubber bullets, paintballs, and beanbags).
Wolves are carnivores and feed primarily on large, hoofed species (ungulates) such as deer, elk, moose, caribou, and rarely on mountain goats and bighorn sheep. However, despite their preference for these larger species, wolves are also known to prey on small mammals like beavers, rabbits, snowshoe hare, and others. Wolves are also scavengers and will feed off of dead carcasses they find.
Wolves alter the behavior of their prey, depending on a number of factors. Large ungulates have adapted over centuries of predator prey interaction to defend themselves against predators such as wolves. Thus wolves often feed upon vulnerable and sick individuals. By selecting weak individuals, wolves can help naturally maintain ungulate populations to create healthier herds. Due to a lack of a top predator, elk and deer populations have exploded in some regions.
In some Western states, deer and elk populations are above sustainable populations and have caused damage to ecosystems. Overpopulated deer and elk can cause over-grazing in open meadows and riparian areas. Studies conducted in Yellowstone National Park have seen changes in the foraging behavior of elk. Elk were seen frequenting thick, forested cover and spent more time on the move. As a result of this, Yellowstone National Park has seen aspen groves and riparian areas regenerate providing important habitat for beavers, songbirds, and other species that rely on healthy riparian habitats.
In addition to restoring health to deer and elk populations, research conducted by Berger et al. shows that wolves may have a positive indirect effect on other important species. Pronghorn antelope populations have increased in areas where wolves have established territories as a result of decreased coyote populations. In fact, their study found a fourfold increase in the survival rate of pronghorn fawns due to wolves reducing coyote numbers.
Though the return of wolves to the Pacific West may change ungulate populations that have lived without wolves for the last 70 years, wolves are just one of many factors that will affect ungulate behavior and population size in the future.