Ecosystems Benefit from Predator Presence

We are entering the middle stages of the 6th mass extinction event of the world.

That line certainly grabbed my attention when I read “Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth” by James Estes, et al.  While mass extinctions are a natural phenomenon and are expected to continue, the upcoming 6th is considered different from previous events; scientists believe that 1) humans will be responsible for the next world-wide extinction, and 2) the next extinction will be characterized by the loss of apex consumers (those at the top of the food chain).  Why is this of particular interest to carnivore biologists?  The loss of important apex consumers results in trophic downgrading.  The theory of trophic downgrading suggests that predators ultimately control the health of their ecosystem: remove them, and a habitat’s flora and fauna will eventually fall out of balance and swing wildly from one extreme to the other, often resulting in ecosystem damage.

The downgrading process rests on the premise of another ecological phenomenon called trophic cascading.  Cascades are triggered by adding or removing predators from an ecosystem and result in changes to the predator/prey relationships within the food web.  The cascade process has been shown in every biome of the world, including highly managed ecosystems like Yellowstone National Park.  Studies have shown that the absence and presence of wolves in Yellowstone have had direct effects on the park’s plant and animal processes.  During 70 years of wolf absence from Yellowstone National park, a number of deciduous tree species quickly died out, which had a direct effect on soils, beaver and other ecosystem conditions.  Without wolves present to maintain their numbers, ungulates essentially overgrazed their environment.  Once wolves were reintroduced, ecosystem slowly found rebalance and changed ungulate feeding habits, decline in elk and coyote numbers, and an increase in beaver populations.

While very aware of the challenges ahead and the seemingly desperate state of parts of our biospheres, I am encouraged when I hear about increases in carnivore populations in some western states, like Washington’s recent wolf pack increases and recent Northern Cascade grizzly bear sighting.  Perhaps with a little assistance from their human neighbors, these and other important apex consumers can begin to refill their ecosystem niche.  If we can begin to accept predators’ necessary role in our ecosystem, we can then be more mindful of responsible and safe co-habitation with the animals upon which, we’re beginning to realize, we and our world greatly depend.

Read more on the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project’s website about how trophic downgrading influences human-caused impacts on nature such as climate change, habitat loss and more.  Watch a fun remote camera video showing how many different species (including humans!) utilize one piece of land over the course of one year – a great example of the basis for trophic cascading.

Fifth Washington Wolf Pack Confirmed


Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Press Release:


July 22, 2011
Contact: Harriet Allen, (360) 902-2694

State’s fifth wolf pack confirmed in Stevens County


wolf imageOLYMPIA—Washington’s fifth gray wolf pack has been confirmed in northeast Stevens County.

Earlier this month, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists caught, marked with an ear tag and released a 2-month-old wolf pup from the pack. Biologists have since been trying to capture one of the pack’s breeding adult wolves to radio-collar it for monitoring. The effort to document the pack began after local ranchers reported observing three wolf pups and hearing howling in late June.

The pack is believed to include a breeding-age male and female and at least three pups. The group has been named the Smackout Pack, in reference to geographic features in the area.

The Lookout Pack, confirmed in Okanogan and Chelan counties in 2008, was Washington’s first documented resident gray wolf pack since a breeding population of wolves was extirpated from the state in the 1930s. Two more packs have been documented in Pend Oreille County—the Diamond Pack was confirmed in 2009, and the Salmo Pack was confirmed in 2010.

Last month, the state’s fourth documented pack—dubbed the Teanaway Pack— was confirmed in Kittitas County. DNA analysis of that pack’s adult female wolf indicated she is likely a recent descendant of the Lookout Pack.

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is protected throughout Washington as a state endangered species. In the western two-thirds of Washington, the species is also federally protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is illegal to harm or harass a federal- or state-protected endangered species.

WDFW has been working since 2007 to develop a wolf conservation and management plan in anticipation of wolves re-entering Washington from other states or Canada.

A Final EIS/recommended plan—which was developed with a 17-member citizen group and included extensive public review and scientific peer review—will be presented to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in a special public meeting Aug. 4 in Olympia. Additional public workshops on the proposed plan are scheduled later this summer and in the fall.

“Wolves are re-establishing here on their own,” said Nate Pamplin, who heads WDFW’s Wildlife Program. “The confirmation of additional breeding wolf packs moves us closer to achieving a sustainable population, and also highlights the need to finalize a state wolf plan that sets recovery targets and management tools to address livestock and ungulate conflicts.”

More information on the draft plan and all Washington wolf packs.

Wolf sightings or activity should be reported through the joint federal-state toll-free wolf reporting hotline at 1(888) 584-9038. Joint federal-state Wolf Response Guidelines, including agency staff contact information, are available at here.

Fourth Washington Wolf Pack Confirmed

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed last week that a new pack of gray wolves are living near Teanaway River north of Cle Elum, about 90 miles east of Seattle.  The Teanaway Pack is the first pack to return to Kittitas County since wolves were exterminated over 50 years ago.

DNA tests confirmed that a trapped wolf near the Teanaway River is a lactating female, indicating she recently gave birth. Additional DNA test will help explain where the wolves came from (British Columbia or the Rocky Mountains), but the number of wolves in the Teanaway pack is still unknown.

Regardless of where the Washington wolves originated, they re-established themselves; they were not reintroduced by federal agencies as they were in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  It will be interesting to see if this fact makes a difference in local perceptions of wolves and their management in Washington, relative to other western states.

The Teanaway confirmation has occurred as Washington State finalizes its wolf management plan.  Currently, wolves in the western 1/3 of the state remain on the Federal Endangered Species List, while the western 2/3 remain on the State Endangered Species List.

See a map of current Washington wolf pack locations.

White family charged with killing up to five gray wolves

Bill and Tom White are alleged to have killed a total of five endangered gray wolves on or near their Twisp, Washington property in the area that the Lookout Pack had established residence.

One of the wolves shot by the Whites in 2008 was skinned and the hide attempted to be smuggled to Canada for processing. The package was intercepted when it started leaking blood at the FedEx office in Omak. This incident kicked off the federal investigation into the Whites, whose homes were searched by state and federal agents.

The U.S. District Court in Spokane indicted Bill White, his son Tom White and Tom’s wife, Erin White with conspiracy to take an endangered species, punishable by up to one year in prison and up to $100,000 in fines, and smuggling a wolf hide out of the country, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines.

The Lookout Pack is the first pack of gray wolves confirmed in Washington in more than 70 years. In July 2008 there were as many as nine animals in eastern Washington, but state wildlife officials fear that because of poachers as few as two animals have survived.

Read more about the killing of gray wolves in Methow Valley.

To learn more about gray wolves visit GBOP’s website

Grizzlies run amok at zoo’s Bear Affair and Big Howl for wolves

Come out to Woodland Park Zoo on Saturday June 4th to watch Keema and Denali, 900 pound grizzly bears, run amok a mock campsite and backyard as Chris Morgan, bear ecologist, narrates how intelligent, adaptive and important these awe-inspiring bears are to a healthy ecosystem.

The Bear Affair & Big Howl for Wolves is a full day of activities focused on bears and wolves and how humans can co-exist with them.

The schedule:

  • 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. Crafts for kids
  • 10 a.m. Keeper talk on wolves
  • 10:30 a.m. Keeper talk on sloth bears
  • 11 a.m. Mock campsite in grizzly exhibit with Chris Morgan
  • Noon – 1 p.m. Chris Morgan book signing
  • 1:30 p.m. Keeper talk on Malayan sun bears
  • 2 p.m. Home demonstration in grizzly exhibit with Chris Morgan
  • 3 p.m. Keeper talk on wolves

Fate of Methow’s “Lookout Pack” unclear

It was two and a half years ago that the gray wolf returned to the rolling hills of Washington’s Methow Valley, after a 70-year absence. Today it’s unclear if the Methow Lookout Pack still exists.

There has been one loss after another. The carcass of a dead gray wolf was found dumped near the highway. A FedEx worker uncovered the pelt of a wolf in a bloody, leaking box that an Okanogan County resident tried to ship to Canada. And since last summer, the alpha female suspiciously disappeared which caused the social structure of the pack to deteriorate.

A couple of sightings suggest there are two to three wolves left traveling together. There is hope that a Lookout wolf will find a new mate this spring. Read the entire Seattle Times article

Reducing conflict on public lands

While on a short trip to Idaho I came across this great article on grazing and endangered species and so I’ve written a brief synopsis of the article for those that may be interested.

In the Northern Rockies region the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has been compensating ranchers who give up their grazing rights on federal lands. “It’s a win-win for the ranchers and for the Grizzly Bears and Wolves and other wildlife” says one U.S. official.

Some ranchers have stopped using part of their grazing allotments and an innovative NWF program compensates the rancher for giving up the grazing rights which the public agency in charge then permanently retires. One rancher, who had an allotment on the Gallatin National Forest, recently took home a check for $50,000; the bison, grizzlies, and wolves got the land and both parties left the table satisfied with the end result. To date this program has taken cattle and sheep off more than 600,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

The program has won cautious acceptance from livestock groups. Errol Rice, executive vice president of the Montana Stock-Growers Association says that “If a rancher feels it is in his best interests to participate, we support that decision”.

The NWF program is not new and models a similar plan started by bighorn sheep hunters in the 1980’s. When bighorn numbers had dropped from 2 million to around 15,000 the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep began to buy up and retire grazing permits in bighorn habitat areas; they were the pioneers.

There are many benefits to this program: financial compensation to the ranchers, separates sheep and cattle from wolves and grizzlies diffuses controversy, and reduces the need to kill or remove animals preying on cattle and sheep. The innovative program has even reached out to private landowners and brokered a deal on National Wildlife Refuge land. There is still work to be done and new twists and angles to be explored but the success of the program is evident in its accomplishments.

Find out more about this NWF program and read the full story

David Moskowitz-Wolves of the Pacific Northwest

I had the opportunity to interview David Moskowitz last month while he was here in the Methow Valley working on his new book “Wolves of the Pacific Northwest”. David, a professional wildlife tracker, photographer, and outdoor educator, has been studying wildlife and tracking in the pacific northwest since 1995. I asked him about the scope of the book and what we could look forward to.

To that he responded with: “The range of my new book is similar to my field guide. What I took for the premise of both of these books is Washington and Oregon being the core of the Pacific Northwest, and northern California, southern B.C. and the Selkirks are peripheral areas. I am really curious what wolves will be like in the North Cascades compared to the deserts of Oregon. There is this great case study of looking at the biology of one animal and how it adapts to different environments and how the human elements of those different environments play into it.”

GBOP: What are two key things people should know about wolves?

David:  Number one, wolves are just animals on the landscape. They can get made into these super-animals or super-villains. Wolves are a highly interactive species so they do get their paws, so to speak, in lots of parts of the natural world. But, they’re just another part of the landscape. The amount of hype we give them is as much as we want to. Secondly, humans and wolves have a very large history. Ever since humans have been in the northern hemisphere we have been having interactions with wolves one way or another. The affinity, fear, hatred, love goes way back. While it seems novel here in the northwest we are really just relearning how to live with wolves.

Look for more from David as he continues the research for his book.


David Moskowitz

Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest available for purchase through David’s website at:

More ranchers giving wolf deterrence projects a try

As sheep graze in an Arizona pasture a wire fence keeps them from wandering into the road. All along the length of the electrified fence long slips of magenta plastic (termed fladry) flutter in the wind. Wolves tend to stay clear of the decorated electrified fences, and for the past three years, it has worked for Carey Dobson. He has not lost any sheep to wolf depredation.

A few miles away, a rancher hired a range rider, a cowboy or cowgirl who monitors the cattle herd, to make sure the herd stays safe. It has been two years, and so far it seems to be working. Read more in this New York Times article

It’s Wolf Awareness Week!

Like the North Cascades Grizzly Bear, gray wolves were once very common in Washington State. But, unlike our resident grizzly bears, of which an estimated less than 20 remain, the gray wolves were completely extirpated from the state by the 1930’s. This means that no breeding packs were documented in Washington from the 1930’s on.

That is, until the summer of 2008, when a confirmed pack was photographed via a remote camera in the Okanogan. Washington now has two confirmed packs of gray wolves: the Lookout Pack in W. Okanogan and N. Chelan Counties and the Diamond Pack in Pend Oreille County. There are also two possible, but not yet confirmed packs, one in the Salmo-Priest
Wilderness area of Colville and the other in SE WA near the Blue Mountains.

Wolves are returning to Washington from British Columbia and the neighboring states of Idaho and Oregon. In effort to see that these animals are not once again extirpated from their natural land, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is developing a management and recovery plan to address wolf conservation in Washington State.

For more information please visit our wolf page.

Some wolf facts:

• Canis lupus, the gray wolf, is the largest of the canines (55 to 130 pounds).

• Wolves have excellent hearing and super sense of smell. They hunt and socialize in packs.

• According to animal behaviorists, domestic dogs behave a lot like very young wolves.

• Sprawl and development spells loss of habitat for wolves and their prey.

• Overall, the greatest threat to wolves is people’s fear and misunderstanding about them.

• As a top carnivore, the gray wolf, along with other predators such as the bear and cougar, control prey populations so that a landscape may support a healthy ecosystem. Wolves play a vital role in maintaining the health of big game by culling sick animals, promoting stable ungulate populations. Biologists tell us that big game herds like bighorn sheep, elk, and deer are healthier with wolves.

In celebration of Wolf Awareness Week there are several events going on across the state:

Wednesday through Saturday, Oct. 20-23 10am-4pm Wolf Haven is offering tours, Cost: $9 Adult/ $8 Senior/ $7 Child/ Under 3 Free

Monday, Oct. 25 from 7:30-9pm, Wolves and their Critical Place in Nature, lecture by Cristina Eisenberg at the Seattle Town Hall (**see more information below)

• Also see wolf-themed display cases at these Timberland Regional Libraries throughout October: Lacey, Olympia, Tenino, Tumwater and Yelm.

**Wolves and their Critical Place in Nature, lecture by Cristina Eisenberg

After more than 70 years wolves have returned to the Cascade region. Residents have noticed howls and tracks, and now scientists have confirmation that wolves have reached Washington’s Okanogan Country. Now the question is how the return of the wolves will affect local ecosystems.

The reintroduction of wolf denning – and its impact on the Pacific Northwest region – is at the core of scientist Cristina Eisenberg’s new book, The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity. Eisenberg will speak on Monday, October 25, 2010, at Town Hall Seattle about her book, the role of top predators in regulating ecosystems, and trophic cascades. She will detail her experiences in the field where she has held wolves in her lap to attach radio collars, come face to face with grizzlies, and measured the height and diameter of thousands of Aspen trees.

After having been hunted to near extinction in the lower 48 states, wolves returning to their natural habitat have been greeted with both excitement and concern. As farmers and ranchers grow anxious about livestock losses, others like Eisenberg are hopeful this change will have unprecedented benefits for people and nature. For her, the story isn’t just about the wolf and livestock kills. It runs much deeper to the natural order of life and the roles that all creatures play in it.

Eisenberg is not a sentimentalist but a scientist who “listens to landscapes” for the stories they tell. She is a forensic detective piecing together DNA evidence, footprints, and dead carcasses to track the wolf’s range. She knows how the wolf operates, what it fears and hunts, and the coming conflict between resurgent wolves and people living and farming in their range. Though tranquility may have its place in nature, she finds that “the ecology of fear” is essential to natural balance: predators like wolves keep animals like deer and elk wary and on the move so that they seldom inflict damage on ecosystems by grazing too heavily in one spot.

Eisenberg believes her work on understanding wolves and trophic cascades can be used to create more resilient, adaptable ecosystems better prepared to deal with inevitable global change. With The Wolf’s Tooth, she offers a new way to look at humanity’s place in nature and a blueprint for restoring the natural order.

Cristina Eisenberg is a conservation biologist at Oregon State University, College of Forestry, and Boone and Crockett Fellow who studies how wolves affect forest ecosystems throughout the West.

Cristina Eisenberg’s lecture is part of the Soundings from Island Press Environmental Thought Leaders Lecture series presented by Island Press through the Town Hall Center for Civic Life. This series is produced in association with IslandWood and Elliott Bay Book Company.

Tickets are $5 at Brown Paper Tickets or 800-838-3006, or at the door. Visit for more information.