Through Reintroduction Programs, Predators Are Returning to the Wild, Challenging Our Ability to Co-Exist With Them
The pack of six gray wolves raise pointed noses to the wind, catching the scent of an intruder invading their frigid Wyoming territory. Up on a hill, behind a snow-capped boulder, a mountain lion crouches, whiskers raised, and growls in warning. Knowing her cubs are nearby, she lets out a piercing, defensive roar. The wolves, agitated, branch out and dart up the incline, paws kicking up snow and debris as they give chase, encircle, and bring the lioness down in a nearby clearing. Jumping on her back, the dominant or “alpha” male yelps as the lioness' claws open a vicious gash on his side. Others are injured too, but the lioness can't fight off an entire pack. She is killed, her body left to become carrion. A group howl resounds in the Lamar Valley at Yellowstone National Park, telling nearby intruders that these wolves have reclaimed their long-lost territory.
Such primal scenes are becoming more and more common in the northwest, where reintroduction programs beginning in 1995 have brought gray wolf numbers up to 90 in Yellowstone National Park alone. Now the park has a new hierarchy. Biologist Bob Crabtree and his team have documented 30 instances of coyotes chased off by wolves, and sometimes being killed. Wolves have also been on the receiving end of these new predator confrontations: One newly resident female wolf was killed by a mountain lion along Rock Creek, east of Missoula, Montana.
As some ranchers continue to resist the reintroductions—and a federal judge's ruling threatens to have the wolves removed—biologists are studying the effects these long-absent predators are having on the area. As wolves have moved in, mountain lions and coyotes have been driven out or killed. But because wolves leave carrion behind, foxes, raptors and others have made a swift comeback.
The lay of the land is also changing. Because of wolf threats, elk that once lingered in the open around stream beds now congregate in wooded copses. Such grazing shifts have altered the landscape, creating ideal habitat for animals like the black-hooded falcon and the kit fox, which feed on the field mice migrating to the taller brush grass. But will biologists' tampering with wildlife numbers cause greater, more devastating effects? And what about species already in trouble? Will these new predators be their undoing?
Though reintroductions continue to be hotly debated among conservationists and wildlife officials, American views towards wildlife—particularly towards large predators—are undergoing an historic metamorphosis. The Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife (see Conversations, this issue) says public appreciation and curiosity is at an all-time high concerning wolves and other large predators in North America. With the successful reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone (after their complete extermination by bounty hunters and predator control agencies in the 1920s), people are now supporting wolf programs from Arizona to North Carolina and New York to Washington State.
What had been a remarkably successful reintroduction process, however, is now clouded by legal complications. In December, U.S. District Judge William Downes ruled in a lawsuit brought by opponents of the Yellowstone program that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had violated the law by declaring the wolves an “experimental population.” That designation, he said, denies them—and any lone native wolves already in the park—the full protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). He was, in effect, siding with The National Audubon Society and the Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, which opposed the experimental designation.
Because the judge stayed his own order pending appeal, it will not have any immediate impact on the wolves, and both Defenders and its partner, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), are appealing. “We won't let a bad interpretation of the law take [the wolves] away again,” says NWF President Mark Van Putten. The ruling could become moot if USFWS redesignates the wolf population as fully protected under the ESA, but that would take a second rulemaking and a long and fractious public process. “That's not a good solution,” says Defenders President Rodger Schlickeisen. “Shoving wolves down the public's throat is not in the long range a winning strategy.” In the meantime, the wolves stay where they are.
The New Rules
“The clash of species has been very interesting to watch,” says John Varley, Yellowstone's scientific research director. There are now almost 80 and 100 wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Not a lot of animals, conservationists say, but a big impact, the ripple effect from what might be called “the circle of carrion.” When, for instance, the Druid Peak wolf pack brought down an elk below Jackson Ridge, they quickly ate their fill, then wandered off, leaving the kill for a succession of opportunists. First ravens and magpies, then coyotes get to feast on the wolves' leavings, completing a cycle of life that was interrupted for 70 years.
Bob Crabtree and his wife, Jennifer Sheldon, of Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies (YES) have been studying coyotes in Yellowstone since 1989, and they've counted almost 500 of these hardy predators divided into 60 packs. Yellowstone has become a unique living lab, where predators and prey are affected more by natural forces than human ones, giving biologists an historic opportunity to study why predators are so keenly important to ecosystems' health.
Crabtree and Sheldon liken Yellowstone's Northern Range to the plains of Africa, where large predators abound. Coyotes, wolves, mountain lions and grizzlies are at the top of the chain, and elk, bison, moose and mule deer supply an abundant food source. Crabtree says that when wolves were absent, coyotes exerted the greatest influence on the Yellowstone ecosystem. But their preeminent position was quickly toppled with the wolves' reappearance.
In 1995, when the first 14 Canadian wolves were introduced to Yellowstone's Rose Creek, coyotes—evidently sensing that something was up-stood and howled outside the pens. They had reason to be concerned. Within 18 months of the wolves' release, seven coyote packs disappeared. In the Lamar Valley alone, wolves killed 12 coyotes, and they now account for about 25 percent of coyote mortality. The wolves ignored the coyotes for much of the first year, but then they became acclimatized, growing increasingly aggressive and territorial. Indeed, they began acting like wolves.
The Howl Heard 'Round the World
Hundreds of thousands of wolves once roamed America's forests and plains, but populations were devastated by decades of relentless hunting and government bounty programs. Today, the reintroductions have led to modest population growth, but wolves still number only 9,000 in the U.S.—with about 6,000 in Alaska, 2,000 in Minnesota, and another 1,000 scattered from Washington to Michigan.
Most opposition to wolf reintroductions comes from people with no recent experience of living with them as neighbors. A case in point is Forks, Washington, whose city council recently voted against bringing wolves back to the nearby Olympic National Park, where they were once abundant. Mayor Phil Arbeiter, in a letter to Congressman Norman
Dicks, favorably compared the local eradication of wolves earlier in the century to the current African campaign to wipe out the deadly Ebola virus.
The folks in Forks get support for their position from the local Clallam Citizen's Coalition, which vigorously opposes wolf reintroductions in Olympic National Park. Marv Chastain, a coalition member, says, “We oppose the introduction of wolves because we live here. We have animals and kids which will be put at risk. Elk and deer populations have already been severely impacted by unlimited Indian hunting, a growing cougar population and logging restrictions. Wolves will only exacerbate this problem.”
Chastain charges that groups like Defenders of Wildlife-the primary national force behind wolf reintroductions—are discouraging public discussion of the issue. “In April this year,” he claims, “[Defenders] declared a 'wolf summit,' but it was by invitation only-the public was not invited.” The Coalition sees the wolf as the vanguard of a plan to eventually move people out of the area, and cites the case of Tricia Wyman, a 24-year-old worker killed by wolves last year at the Haliburton Wolf Refuge near Toronto, as proof of how dangerous these top predators can be. “Wolves have no business on the endangered species list,” Chastain says. “They are active, aggressive and can take care of themselves.”
While acknowledging that it has met with some citizen opposition, Defenders (which pays ranchers fair-market value for any livestock killed by reintroduced wolves) thinks the programs are going very well. Hank Fischer, Defenders' Northwest representative, says that the new wolf populations are becoming acclimatized. “It's gone pretty well,” he says. “We have 12 packs in Yellowstone, and they produced more than 50 pups this past year. It's exceeding everyone's expectations.”
Wolves being wolves, they have killed livestock, “but it hasn't been any more than anticipated,” Fischer says. “The livestock producers have been compensated for their losses. That program has doled out $35,000 to about 40 ranchers in the last decade.” He acknowledges, though, that the process could have been better. “There's got to be a better way of doing this,” he says, “where it doesn't take so long, cost so much and make so many people angry.”
Defenders and groups like it might want to study the model program run by the Nez Pierce tribe, which has introduced 35 wolves into central Idaho since 1995. All but seven of the wolves are accounted for, and they're producing a bumper crop of pups. What's more, the tribe has accomplished its good husbandry without arousing the emotions usually reserved for federal interference in local affairs. “If you remove the feds, you remove a lot of the anger,” Ed Bangs, a USFWS wolf recovery coordinator told Audubon magazine.
Defenders will be practicing its people skills in the planned reintroduction of the Mexican wolf to the Blue Range Recovery Area in Arizona next year, the plan for Olympic National Park, and an even more ambitious effort to reestablish wolves to the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Defenders' Schlickeisen says that restoring wolves to the six-million-acre Adirondack Park (the largest in the country outside of Alaska) would “help restore the park's ecological balance.” Though a recent poll of Adirondack Park residents found that 76 percent favor the wolf's return, a new study commissioned by the Wildlife Conservation Society says Maine is a better relocation spot because it offers more space with less human activity, and because it borders existing wolf habitat in Canada.
But Joseph Butera, president of Northeast Ecological Recovery Society, which is working with Defenders on the reintroduction plan, cites a $43 million annual increase in Yellowstone tourist dollars since wolves were brought back, and says that reintroducing about 150 of them into a 5,600-square-mile area of the New York wilds would “translate into dollars and cents for the people of the Adirondacks, and for the state of New York.” This is certainly likely to be a winning argument in an economically depressed area that otherwise may not have any great love—or any historical appreciation—for wolves.
The Lions' Roar
Wolves will probably never be abundant in the lower 48 states, but mountain lions—while still critically endangered in the east—have rebounded spectacularly in the west, their population growth spurred by hunting bans and abundant supplies of deer and elk. “From Patagonia to British Columbia, mountain lions are the most successful large predator in the western hemisphere,” says Howard Quigley of the Hornocker Wildlife Institute in Idaho. Some biologists even believe they've returned to the mountain ridges around the Tennessee-Alabama border, where mountain lions (also known as cougars) were last sighted in 1975.
The cougar's rebound raises cheers from some, shivers from others. Since 1890, according to Wildlife Sociology Bulletin, there have been 10 fatal mountain lion attacks on humans in the U.S. and Canada, and 44 non-fatal attacks.
California, which has about 5,000 mountain lions, banned the hunting of them in 1990 through a statewide ballot initiative. A similar 1996 initiative would have repealed the hunting ban, but it was easily defeated (58 to 42 percent) by California voters. The anti-hunting votes came despite the fact that human-lion encounters have risen sharply in recent years because of subdivision construction along the once-rural corridors favored by these wild cats.
The situation is even more highly charged in Colorado. Last July, a 10-year-old boy was fatally attacked by a pregnant cougar 50 miles northwest of Denver, at Rocky Mountain National Park. Just three days before, a four-year-old French boy was attacked while with his parents at Mesa Verde National Park nearby. While the four-year-old lost an ear—not his life-and Colorado has had only two fatalities in 150 years, the incidents have sparked national controversy over how safely we can learn to live with big cats.
Ranchers and conservationists alike are talking about the attacks. According to Paul Beier, a Northern Arizona University ecologist, Colorado now has 3,000 cougars, a tenfold increase since the 1890s. It also has seven times the human population it had then. Boulder foothills residents report lions studying their backyards, which wildlife experts say is a sure sign they are losing their wariness of humans.
Lynn Sadler of the California-based Mountain Lion Foundation says that ranchers have had to deal with sharply escalating predation. In Colorado, she notes, adult sheep kills by cougars rose from 60 a year between 1984 to 1993, to about 1,200 yearly, causing $500,000 in damage to sheep and lambs in 1996 alone (up from $3,000 in 1985). Not surprisingly, Colorado raised its legal hunting quota in 1997, as did Utah (see sidebar) and Wyoming.
With cougars making the headlines, North America's largest wild cat, the jaguar, may be making a quieter comeback—one claw at a time. In March of 1996, mountain lion tracker Warner Glenn made a definite sighting of a jaguar in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico. Jaguars hadn't been seen in the state since 1905, but in neighboring Arizona there have been seven confirmed reports of sightings in the last 40 years.
nce native to the southern U.S., jaguars were pushed out of their northernmost territory and across the border into semi-arid regions of Mexico by rapid human settlement and livestock grazing. Jaguars are listed as neither threatened nor endangered, because it was assumed they had already become extinct in the U.S. It's too early to tell if the border crossings are harbingers of a dramatic influx, or just isolated forays in search of food and water.
The Big, Bad Bear
No top predator excites human emotions quite like the grizzly bear, and that hasn't been good news for one of America's most potent symbols. Grizzly bears were among the first victims of predator control back in 1890, when ranchers who were losing livestock began to lobby the federal government. Since 1975, they've been listed as threatened in the lower 48, and now occupy less than two percent of their original range. Extinct in 13 states, the grizzly is still hunted in Alaska (where 1,200 are killed each year), and continues to suffer from habitat loss due to human population growth.
Biologists agree that bears especially need large areas of secure, unfragmented habitat to survive, and that rampant road-building, which puts them at risk from traffic accidents and decreases prey numbers, is a particular threat. The grizzly is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act primarily due to habitat loss. Recently, a lawsuit by a coalition of 38 conservation organizations challenged the 1993 Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan, which a U.S. District Court judge found to be “arbitrary and capricious.”
Despite the odds, grizzly bears have a fair chance to recover, particularly if a controversial plan to reintroduce them to the 15-million-acre Greater Salmon-Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem of western Montana and central Idaho—known as the region's “wild heart”—is realized. Researchers predict that a full-scale reintroduction on this largely roadless tract could increase lower 48 grizzly populations by one third.
From the beginning, Defenders and its partner, the NWF, wanted to avoid the kind of bitter opposition that the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction caused. As it does with wolves, Defenders maintains a Grizzly Compensation Fund, which it uses to reimburse ranchers for verified animal kills. Some $1,773 has been paid out so far for grizzly-related livestock losses in Montana.
Early on in its early Bitterroot campaign, Defenders set out to enlist the support of probable opponents—the timber industry and ranchers. “Our goal from the beginning was to build the broadest base of support rather than engage opposition,” says Tom France, National Wildlife Federation counsel.
John McCarthy of the Boise-based Idaho Conservation League says that the grizzly plan faced “tremendous opposition,” not only from industry, but also from politicians, including the governor and many state legislators. “We had people coming to the hearings and saying, 'Not just no, but hell, no. Bears eat people.' The truth is, though, that while people do get attacked and killed, a lot more get kicked to death by horses.”
But forging a plan that all sides could live with has not been easy, and has led to a major split in the environmental community, with Defenders and NWF on one side and less-compromising grizzly supporters on the other. The Moscow, Idaho-based Friends of the Clearwater, for instance, blasts the NWF/Defenders ROOTS plan (also known as Alternative 1) as a “back room deal” cooked up with timber industry bigwigs. It instead backs the much-stronger Alternative 4, submitted by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Salmon-Selway Grizzly Coalition. Alternative 4, say its supporters, provides the bears with full legal protection, blocks roadbuilding (and, in fact, rips out existing logging roads), and establishes viable habitat corridors. The bear-friendlier Alternative 4 won 40 percent public support in a recent poll, compared to 30 percent support for no bears at all, and only nine percent for the more restrictive ROOTS plan (which would put bear management in the hands of a politically appointed Citizen Management Committee, not USFWS). Defenders' Schlickeisen contends, however, that Alternative 4 “is not going to happen. We'll be lucky to get the bears in with [the ROOTS plan].”
Some local politicians, like Salmon, Idaho Mayor Stan Davis, are opposed to any grizzly plan. “People have never had to deal with grizzlies here,” he says. “And there's a fear factor. We're the poorest county in the state, and area residents don't believe there will be an economic boost. There'll be fewer people camping, so less tourism.”
The USFWS has released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the proposed grizzly reintroduction, and a final plan is expected this spring, but McCarthy says that 1999 release targets will probably not be met. It's not likely the plan could succeed without a public education campaign, and that campaign has not even been funded yet.
Bringing back the grizzly will be a slow process. The USFWS plan would introduce three to five bears annually for five years, but because females only reproduce every three years, it could take a century to get a healthy population established in the Bitterroot. Meanwhile, public sentiment is building for bears elsewhere. A recent poll in Washington State indicates 77 percent support for grizzly bear recovery in the North Cascades, and plans to reintroduce grizzlies to the Southwest are underway.
The Last of the Lynx?
“Grizzly bears and wolves aren't the only charismatic megafauna in biological trouble,” says Tom Skeele of the Predator Project, who says that widespread clearcutting, increased road building and habitat loss also threatens such relatively obscure animals as fishers (small, brown cat-sized weasels prized by fur trappers), martens (a close fisher relative) and wolverines (the largest member of the weasel family).
Even more troubling is the fate of the North American lynx, a cousin of the bobcat. Resembling exotic snow leopards, and sporting stubby legs and tufted ears, the elusive lynx has been wiped out of much of its range, which includes rapidly vanishing old growth and boreal forests. With less than 1,000 remaining in the U.S., wildlife groups have joined forces to convince USFWS to do something about its protection. The agency recently overruled three of its regional offices and numerous biologists to deny the endangered listing of the lynx, contending that lynx populations are Canada's problem, where the majority of the species resides. In a 1995 letter, USFWS Regional Director Terry Terrell argued that the lynx was little more than a transient resident of the U.S., migrating south across the border “during periods of increased snowshoe hare populations [its favorite food].”
Still, the lynx was once found in 21 states, and now struggles to survive in four. A major victim of overtrapping in the 1980s, lynx populations have steadily declined. The lynx used to occupy forestlands from Alaska to New England. Today, its habitat includes a few roadless patches of mountainous terrain, scattered in Washington, Montana, Colorado and Maine. Colorado's population is threatened by the planned expansion of the Vail ski resort, which would obliterate 4,000 acres of prime lynx territory. Most predator experts oppose a resort-backed plan to offset th
e habitat loss with a largely unscientific lynx release in the state. They point to an early 1990s project run by the State University of New York's College of Environmental Science and Forestry that attempted to reintroduce 88 lynx to the Adirondack Mountains. Because of inadequate preparation, the program ended in failure with at least a quarter of the animals killed in road accidents and few, if any, surviving today.
Led by Defenders, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation and the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, 13 environmental groups are pursuing USFWS in court to list the lynx as endangered. The lynx, says Mitch Friedman of the Alliance, has been confined to “the black hole of the controversial species round file.” Last March, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the USFWS' failure to list the species after two decades of knowing that it was biologically imperiled was illegal, but the USFWS is being pressured by even stronger forces: logging companies that want access to national forest land in lynx habitat.
This year, lynx in the Okanogan region of the Cascadian Mountain range in Washington state are being further threatened: The U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources are gearing up for some major logging and road building. Down to only 15 to 23 individuals, some wildlife researchers believe this is the last healthy breeding lynx population left in the lower 48. In the Loomis State Forest, logging is the primary threat to the lynx in the Okanogan region: This year alone, six of the seven timber sales are in roadless areas, where clearcutting will remove over 2,000 acres of prime lynx habitat. “The sad part is seeing lynx tracks and knowing what's going to happen,” says Mark Skatrud of Friends of the Loomis Forest.
While government agencies like USFWS are working to reintroduce endangered animals, the Department of Interior's Animal Damage Control program, now known as Wildlife Services (WS), spent $36 million in 1996 killing them. Between 1990 and 1994, WS amassed a horrific death toll of 7.8 million animals, including 500,000 coyotes and some 1,200 mountain lions.
Ironically, all that killing has failed to produce the desired result. Intensive cullings have actually spurred coyote populations to rebound; breeding now occurs at an earlier age, and litters are often triple in size. What does control coyotes, then? Wolves. Biologists say wolf reintroductions in areas where coyotes have become problematic brings the species back to a natural balance.
The reintroduction programs now occurring around the country are restoring predators to their rightful place in nature's hierarchy, proving once again-if more evidence was needed—that Mother Nature needs no human help in keeping things in balance.
TRACEY C. REMBERT and JIM MOTAVALLI are Managing Editor and Editor of E.