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Some Biologists Envision Wolves Controlling Elk in More National Parks, Others Say That's Impractical


Is it realistic to think small packs of wolves could be used to control elk and deer numbers in national parks outside of Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, and Isle Royale? U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Tracy Brooks.

Though it's been well over a year since a wolf's howl awoke me in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, it was a sound so rich, so piercing, and so symbolic that I'll carry it with me always. Rising and falling on the predawn air currents, the howl was not mournful nor baleful but a pulse-racing page out of a Jack London novel, truly a call of the wild.

Each year, tens of thousands of people enter Yellowstone with hopes of hearing such a howl, or spying one of the park's wolves, tangible symbols of wilderness in motion.

Imagine if one didn't have to head to Yellowstone, or Glacier, Grand Teton, Isle Royale or farther still to Alaska to witness wolves in the wild? There is at least a handful of wildlife biologists who believe there could be pockets of these predators scattered about the National Park System in the Lower 48 states where their main job would be tamping down burgeoning elk and deer herds, though certainly a sidelight would be their tourism value, something not to be understated.

Their proposal zoomed around cyberspace a couple weeks ago, roaming far and wide, not unlike a young wolf seeking a territory of its own. It gathered speed as it was flicked around the Twittersphere because it focused on two subjects that captivate more than a few people -- national parks, and wolves. The gist was that wolf packs small in number could be strategically inserted into some national parks to control burgeoning herds of elk.

In theory it all sounded well and good. But could it actually work?

The short, quick answer is "no" because the places those who wrote the paper envisioned wolves at work -- they used Rocky Mountain National Park and Wind Cave National Park as two case studies -- simply are too small to realistically contain packs of wolves that might naturally cull elk herds without intensive managing themselves.

"Some (most ) would say this is not a good idea as it creates more problems than it solves," says Doug Smith, who has spent the past 15 years monitoring Yellowstone's wolf recovery program and knows a little something about wolf behavior and predation. "Wolf recovery is a good thing, a very good thing, but only where it is feasible and suitable."

At 2.2 million acres, Yellowstone is not only one of the largest parks in the Lower 48 states, but it is more than eight times larger than 265,770-acre Rocky Mountain and about 80 times larger than 28,295-acre Wind Cave. And not even Yellowstone can contain its wolves, as some young adults in search of their own territories have made it as far south as Utah and Colorado, where one or two might even have set paw into Rocky Mountain.

In their paper, Using Small Populations of Wolves For Ecosystem Restoration and Stewardship, the authors readily acknowledge that their proposal wouldn't be easily accomplished. And yet, Daniel S. Licht, a National Park Service biologist in Rapid City, South Dakota; Johsua J. Millspaugh at the University of Missouri; Kyran E. Kunkel with the World Wildlife Fund; Christopher O. Kochanny with SirTrack in North Liberty, Iowa, and; Rolf O. Peterson, with the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, believe it's not entirely outside the realm of possibility, either.

The key, they suggest, are "small and non–self-sustaining populations of wolves" used specifically for "ecosystem restoration and stewardship." Wolf populations could be kept at bay through such options as sterilization and physical barriers such as fences, both structural and electrical.

"Such an approach would have ecological, educational, recreational, scientific, and economic benefits. The sum of these benefits could, in some cases, outweigh the cost of managing small wolf populations on comparatively small sites. We are not naive about the biological, political, cultural, administrative, aesthetic, and ethical challenges of managing small populations of wolves for purposes of ecosystem restoration and stewardship," they wrote in the article that appeared in the February edition of BioScience. "We acknowledge that wolves are a symbol of wilderness to many people, and that intensively managed populations may be viewed as inconsistent with that symbolism. Yet our proposed paradigm still allows for conventional wolf recovery, and the comparatively less-intensive management of those populations.

"Furthermore, we believe that our paradigm may actually enhance public understanding and appreciation of wolves. Our paradigm may also elevate the prestige of the natural areas where wolves are restored. National parks are especially well-suited to the new paradigm because of their protected status, agency policies to conserve all native species and natural processes, prohibitions against hunting, potential for overabundant ungulates, and public expectations for the sites."

But the sizable hurdles -- both natural, political, and possibly even mythical -- argue against the success of such a program. Even though it's now 15 years into its recovery program, the Yellowstone effort to restore an ecosystem continues to draw condemnation from more than a few. And within its borders in northwestern Wyoming the park holds tens of thousands of elk and several thousand bison to go along with other prey for wolves. Neither Wind Cave nor Rocky Mountain can claim anywhere near the acreage, prey base, or remoteness of Yellowstone.

Wolf recovery "was one of the alternatives considered, but then dropped without further analysis," Ken Hyde, chief of resource management at Wind Cave, replies when asked about inserting wolves into his park. "We were looking at that because, especially with the success up in the Yellowstone area, we know wolves do very well with the elk. We have also deer. We have an antelope population that already has a hard time with just coyotes, and so that was one concern that we had at least on our side of the fence. And then, of course, we were doing all of this elk planning in partnership with the state, and they expressed some pretty strong concerns with trying anything with wolves. And we also were in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they didn’t feel that that was a good alternative either.”

Chief Hyde says that during those early discussions there even was talk of sterilizing any wolves that might be brought into Wind Cave, but there simply was no interest outside the park for using the predators to control elk numbers. "It wasn’t feasible, and without partner support there was no way we could push this through," he says. "And so in agreement with everyone else we dropped it as an alternative that we had at least considered.”

In the end, Wind Cave officials will try to reduce their current elk numbers of 850-950 to 275-350 through hunting over the next few years. The park long has been fenced owing to its early 20th century role as a game preserve, notes the chief, and crews will install "drop-down gates" that will be used to let elk migrate out of the park during summer and then be locked in the closed position through the fall hunting season. At season's end, the gates will be lowered back down, "and any elk that are still of a mind to migrate back into the park will do so," says the chief.

At Rocky Mountain National Park, officials shared many of the same concerns Wind Cave officials voiced about wolves as four-legged population control agents.

"I think it’s possible, but it’s not probable right now," Ben Bobowski, chief of resource stewardship, tells me when asked whether small numbers of wolves would work in his park. "And even if it becomes more likely to happen, it’s not going to happen without a lot of regional support. The geography of Rocky is such that we’re very high-elevation, and have limited area for wintering herds of elk. Many of the elk, although we do have a resident population that seems to stay all year long, a good proportion do leave the park (in winter). And we’d expect the predators to follow them outside of the park. So without a tremendous amount of support by all of our neighbors, going all the way down to the Denver area, because wolves have large home ranges, it’s not likely right away."

Too, managing wolves to manage elk would be costly and labor-intensive, he says.

“I think if the expectation is to keep a population at a certain number it’s going to be intensive," says Chief Bobowski. "Either you’re going to have to manage them upfront, through fertility control, or you’re going to have to manage them on the back end, with population control, either through relocation and trapping, or extirpation. So it becomes very intensive and very costly”

Still, Rocky Mountain officials thought enough of wolves as a population control to keep that option within the elk and vegetation management plan adopted a couple of years ago. "So for the next 20 years it’s an option, but it’s not a likely one with current conditions," the chief says.

In the BioScience article, the authors indicated that 14-20 wolves might be capable of controlling Rocky Mountain's elk numbers, which currently range from about 600 inside the park during the winter months to maybe as many as 2,200 in the summer during high population years. They also noted that one researcher "developed a model" that indicated 20 wolves would "eradicate chronic wasting disease" in the park's herds. That last aspect remains "speculative," says Chief Bobowski, adding that, "It's based upon our best sense of how they would impact the area. But as with most models, it’s a best guess right now.”

At Wind Cave, the study proposed that nine wolves could contain the elk population. Park officials never fully considered the possibility, the authors said, because of the Fish and Wildlife Service opposition.

"Early in the planning process the park considered developing an alternative that used intensively managed wolves as a stewardship tool. However, the alternative was not fully evaluated, in part because of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s position that the park was not large enough to sustain a viable wolf population and therefore would not contribute to wolf recovery, even though the stated purpose of the action was reducing elk overabundance and providing other ecosystem services," the authors wrote, adding, with a measure of irony, that, "In other words, the ESA was used to stop the evaluation of using wolves for purposes of ecosystem stewardship."

Despite this setback, the authors remain convinced that small packs of wolves can be successful in some parks.

From a biological, technological, and logistical perspective, the new paradigm appears workable; in fact, variations of it are regularly and successfully used throughout the world with large predators such as lions and African wild dogs. However, wolf management in North America transcends simple precedents, technology, and science. The wolf is a passion-inspiring symbol to many people, but the symbolism varies and is polarizing. Restoring and managing the animal under our proposed paradigm appears doable; managing the symbolism remains the challenge.

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I prefer my wolves to be wild, thank you very much.

The authors of the BioScience Forum opinion piece posit that radio-collared, tracked, electronic-fence-controlled, artificially sterilized, wolves will "...foster more public tolerance and appreciation of the species..." We wildlife biologists have already tamed that one-time-symbol of wildness - the Canada goose - to an urban/suburban caricature of its former self. Did we really improve public appreciation for the species?

I think it just as likely, or moreso, that the presence of "robo-wolves" will give our society an "easy out" from a sense of responsibillity in depriving wild wolves of their ability to make a living wild and free, and will lessen society's motivation to find ways for humans and wolves to coexist. And - just as styrofoam and cellophane insulate us carnivores from the ugliness of the slaughterhouse - we'd not have to come face-to-face with the consequences of our land-use and wildlife management actions -- we'd have the robo-wolves do it for us.

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