Wildlife Habitat & Climate Change

Cougar in snow
Photo by Maurice Hornocker

Being at the top of the food chain means that apex predators such as bears, wolves and cougars can be easily toppled when the biological foundations of their ecosystems collapse. Maintaining healthy habitats for these keystone species protects countless other species that share the landscape with them.

While the full long-term impacts of climate change on different ecosystems are difficult to predict, there are a number of likely scenarios that we can be aware of and manage for today:

  • Rainfall and the availability of water will shift. Rising temperatures will result in smaller snowpacks and earlier snowmelt. This will result in shortages of mid- to late-summer water supplies and shifts in the availability of carrion.
  • Vegetation patterns are already shifting, resulting in migration of prey to new areas and the local elimination of various plants that carnivores and their prey rely on for food.
  • Warmer temperatures will allow diseases to spread into new areas where the resident wildlife has not had the opportunity to develop resistance. This is already occurring with blister rust and other vegetative diseases attacking many northern tree species, and a spread of dangerous nematodes among muskoxen in northern Canada.
  • The speed of temperature changes will stress many species before they are able to adapt to the new conditions. This will weaken species that are not able to move to newly created, more suitable habitat and will reduce biodiversity, thus reducing resilience in many ecosystems.

What is Landscape Connectivity?

The more diverse an ecosystem, the better equipped it is to deal with environmental changes in the environment. Reducing human impacts such as roads and other developments in wilderness areas keeps habitat from getting fragmented into unusable parcels, slows the incursion of invasive species, and more.  Scientists have found that large carnivores do better when they have expansive ranges for finding food and are able to move freely between landscapes to follow prey and other food sources.

For large carnivores to overcome climate-related challenges, they need big, connected tracts of suitable habitat. This will become even more critical as climate change progresses and the alterations in landscapes become more extreme. In fact, according to the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group, “maintaining connectivity is the single most frequently recommended strategy to reduce the threat of climate change to biodiversity.”

Animals, particularly large ones, need two types of movement. As individuals, they need to be able to move freely within their home range in order to meet the needs for their daily survival – finding food, shelter and a mate. As a species, they also need movement outside of that home range and into other suitable habitat to share genes with other populations to avoid inbreeding and for young males to disperse and create new home ranges.

Human impacts have already made both types of movement more difficult for large carnivores such as bears, cougars, and wolves. Roads, housing developments and forest clear-cuts have fragmented once-intact habitat for wildlife. These incursions into wild lands have also increased human-wildlife conflict, causing an increase in lethal control measures used on predators.

Even if an animal’s core habitat is still intact and allows movement within a home range, human development surrounding the habitat can create an “island effect.” This means that the animal or its offspring can’t reach another area to establish new territory or share genes with another population, or travel to find food if climate change makes its current range uninhabitable. Therefore, it is critical that we preserve corridors between wild landscapes that will allow large predators to seek out suitable habitat if their old ranges stop meeting their needs.

Large Carnivores Mitigate Climate Change

The snowpack in mountainous areas is already melting earlier every year as a result of climate change. This, combined with warmer air temperatures, allows plants to begin sprouting earlier in the spring. While this is great news for the elk and deer that feed on those plants, it is not so great for the scavengers.

Longer winters are more stressful for wildlife, and as the winter lingers on, more animals succumb to starvation. This means that in late winter and early spring, there is an abundance of carcasses for the scavengers to feed on. Earlier sprouting and earlier exposure of plants provides food to browsers and grazers before they reach this critical point.

In the absence of predators, earlier melt will cause fewer carcasses to be available, and scavengers such as bald eagles, ravens and coyotes that rely on that source of meat to make it through the last bit of winter will go hungry. Wolves and cougars continue to provide those carcasses through their hunting, and provide a bridge to late spring and summer when more food is available.

Wolf kills have also been found to provide nutrient “hot spots” on the landscape in studies done on Isle Royale in Minnesota. The soil at these kill sites have 100 – 600% more nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus than surrounding areas, and plants growing on these sites have as much as 47% more nitrogen in their leaves. It can be expected that kills by other predators have the same benefits to the surrounding ecosystem, creating more robust plant communities that will be able to withstand climate-related changes in the environment.

Looking to the Future

Climate change is forcing a whole new approach to wildlife management. Whereas past practice was to try to maintain or restore some historical baseline, that approach is no longer relevant. An area that has provided ideal habitat for wolves or grizzly bears for thousands of years may never be able to support them again, and landscapes that have never held these species may suddenly become critical habitat for them.

Even our national park boundaries may soon be irrelevant in terms of maintaining the mix of species they are currently protecting. What this means is that we need to look beyond single management units. We need to maintain many healthy, functioning ecosystems, and provide good connectivity between them to allow flora and fauna to redistribute to suitable locations.

The future of wildlife management is going to require nimble strategies that can adapt to unforeseen changes. It will be necessary to regularly monitor wildlife populations, track the movements of prey species and the vegetation they feed on, and adjust management regimes to new realities. By using a flexible approach to the management of large carnivores and their habitats, we can lay the foundation for sustainable populations of these species to thrive through a changing climate.

Coyote Conundrum: Rebranding the ‘Cat Consumer’

By Jordan Schaul, Associate Conservation Biologist, WWO

Coyote howling near Jasper, Alberta

coyote photo:  Darrell Smith, WWO photographer/Project Biologist


As gray wolves return to the lower 48 States after an absence of 100 years, many champions have rallied to their cause. Except for Minnesota, all gray wolf subspecies were federally listed as endangered in the lower 48 states as long ago as 1978. In the mid-1990’s federal efforts were initiated to restore wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho, which became conservation success stories for the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other federal and state agencies.

During the wolf’s prolonged absence, his smaller cousin, the coyote greatly expanded its range due to the extermination of gray wolves and because coyotes tend to adapt so readily to the presence of humans in both rural and urban settings. According to the IUCN, the coyote, a species listed under the conservation-sensitive category of Least Concern was “believed to have been restricted to the south-west and plains regions of the U.S. and Canada, and northern and central Mexico, prior to European settlement (Moore and Parker 1992).” Today, coyotes have successful populated every state in the US and many Canadian provinces. While the gray wolf is possibly the most studied wild carnivore on the planet, and certainly the most studied canid, the coyote remains largely misunderstood and unappreciated and certainly understudied relative to its numbers.  Yet the coyote is the canid who lives among us.

The wolf,was once universally hated and ultimately extirpated from much of its historic range out of wide-spread fear for human safety and loss of livestock. However, The wolf today, an iconic carnivore of the West, much like the grizzly bear has assumed a symbolic role as an indicator species of wildness and intact ecosystems and draws particular attention to a growing demographic of environmentalists. However, the same audience has not demanded that the same scientific principles of wildlife management be applied to coyotes. Is it time to rebrand their image?  Efforts to rebrand other victimized species of wild canids, like African wild dogs, which, like the coyote, have largely been regarded as vermin, have met with some success.

Although data suggests that coyotes are frequently not the culprits responsible for losses to the companion pet population, the reputation of coyotes precedes them.  A 2009 study by Grubbs and Krausman suggested that coyotes are “cat killers” and unfortunately the media has successfully blown this notion out of proportion to the great detriment of this valuable meso-predator.

Although coyotes are known to take feral cats and house cats permitted out of doors, (bad for cats and native birds alike) the interpretation of the study was a bit shortsighted. Not only was the sample size of radio-collared coyotes in the study, very small, but in close critique it would appear that consuming cats was a learned specialty of certain individuals and it is not a behavior common to coyotes, which are skilled opportunists capable of preying on a vast array of small wild mammals and other vertebrate species.  Hence, it is not the affinity for cats that have drawn coyotes into suburbia, but rather their role as uber-opportunists that make them so adept at living just about anywhere. Although many coyotes occupy home ranges of many square miles and incorporate forest- lands or preserves, other coyotes have been documented to make use of broken patches of habitat intercepted by roads and other human structures. They have proven exceptionally good at finding small openings and corridors, which allow them to navigate around human habitations, rarely detected.

Perhaps its time for more focus to be placed on the ecological services they provide: the ability to control populations of small mammals inside and beyond urban areas, especially at a time when resources of animal control and wildlife agencies are so few and far between and when the poisons in commonly-used rodenticides are coming increasingly under fire for their long-term damage to humans, wildlife, pets and the environment.

Many North American Tribes respected “Coyote” as the great teacher, admired for a great ability to adapt, to live as a generalist, to out-smart humans, to protect and raise pups in the context of a larger family unit, and for tolerance of the proximity of humans. Coyote is a survivor. Coyotes fills an important ecological niche in rural, urban and suburban settings alike and should be recognized for the important role they play in controlling true human pests, like species of rats and mice introduced from Asia and Europe which are especially prolific around and in human-occupied areas and can be vectors for human diseases.

Want to know more about coyotes in suburbia? We recommend the book, Suburban Howls by eminent coyote researcher Dr. Johnathan Way, or Hope Ryden’s classic, God’s Dog.  Also, watch for “Coexisting with Coyote—Tips for Avoiding Conflicts” in an upcoming blog on this page.

8th Wolf Pack Confirmed in Washington State

Many of Washington’s residents are thrilled to see that our native gray wolf population is showing signs of recovering and expanding their range. For the most part, it has been a peaceful return and the wolves are finding natural prey and keeping away from humans. But what should we do when ranchers in remote areas find predation has occurred on their animals as was reported to occur at a ranch in “The Wedge,”  an area of recent wolf activity in Stevens County near the Canadian border between the Columbia and Kettle Rivers, the same area occupied by Washington’s newest wolf pack?  Even though wolf recovery is very popular with a majority of Washington residents, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a fine line to walk in implementing the State’s new Wolf Conservation and Management Plan adopted by the State’s Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Department last December. Local staff from the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project who live and work in the ranching communities will be listening to concerns voiced by the community and cooperating in efforts to find enduring solutions.  The story below from the Seattle Times discusses Washington’s newest wolf pack–one they will be monitoring now that they have collared an adult male. Department personnel hope that non-lethal means can be employed to harass any wolves approaching livestock.  However,  one Stevens County rancher has been issued a kill permit if he sees a wolf approaching or harming his cattle.  For more information on the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, please visit http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf/ or our own information at  https://westernwildlife.org/gray_wolf/gray-wolf-canis-lupus/
SPOKANE, Wash. —
Wash. wildlife officials: 8th wolf pack confirmed
Washington Fish and Wildlife officials say they’ve confirmed an eighth wolf pack in the state.  An adult wolf believed to be the pack’s alpha male and a pup were caught Monday in northwestern Stevens County near the Canadian border. The adult got a monitoring collar and the pup got an ear tag.

Wildlife officials say this is being called the “Wedge” pack, named for the wedge-shaped part of Stevens County between the Kettle River and the Columbia River.

Just last month, officials said the agency had confirmed a seventh Washington wolf pack, this one in southern Stevens County, north of the Spokane Indian Reservation. They’re calling that one the Huckleberry pack.

Busy interstate highway through critical habitat: wildlife crossings and monitoring

Have you ever traveled by car in the Pacific Northwest? Interstate-90 intersects the rugged Cascade Mountains in Washington State’s Snoqualmie Pass region, which has been identified as a critical link in the north-south movement of wildlife. I-90 Wildlife Watch is a citizen-based wildlife monitoring project that invites motorists to report wildlife sightings along I-90 in the Snoqualmie Pass region of Washington, and to bring awareness to the region. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, “Wildlife habitat on either side of I-90 will be reconnected with the installation of new bridges and culverts, protecting both animals and the traveling public.” I-90 Wildlife Watch is gathering this information to help inform highway planning. 

Read more: I-90 Wildlife Watch and  Washington State Department of Transportation

I-90 Wildlife Watch poster.

An Interview with Rose Oliver, GBOP Field Coordinator

Interview with Rose Olvier, Skagit and Whatcom County Field Coordinator for the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project, for Bellingham WA’s Co-op Community News

Hiking in the North Cascades some time in the late 1990s, I met a momma bear and her cub on the trail. They were extremely beautiful, with the sun shining through their long fur as the wind ruffled it. My response at the time, however, was to say “B-B-B- Baby Bear!” in a tone of deep distress. Then I ran rapidly back down the trail for several miles.

So when I had a chance to talk with Rose Oliver, the Skagit and Whatcom County Field Coordinator for the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project (GBOP), I asked for some pointers, in case I ever meet more bears on the trail.

“Well,” she said diplomatically, “You did do a good job putting distance between the bears and you. Generally, though, backing away slowly is much better than running.”

As their name suggests, the Grizzly Bear Outreach Project knows about bears, and about human-bear interactions. However their work has grown beyond just black bears and grizzly bears to include wolves and cougars. The organization works across the state, focusing primarily on areas where people and other large carnivores overlap. Rose provided more detail about the collective importance of those species.

“We focus on a few species we call ‘keystone species.’ If you think of an ecosystem as shaped like an arch, large predators are the keystone block in the center; they may be small in number, but without that block, the whole structure collapses. The same is true with our ecosystems.”

Specifically in the case of cougars and wolves, it is proven that when they have been removed from an ecosystem, over-browsing by deer and elk can occur, who love to eat tree saplings before they’ve had a chance to mature. However, songbirds, fish, and small mammal communities rely on these trees growing to full maturity. The presence of cougars and wolves creates more biologically diverse plant and animal communities.”

GBOP’s insistence on the importance of science reflects their mission; they’re an educational organization. They spend a lot of time meeting with businesses, individuals, park and forest service staff, as well as tabling at community events. In a region where political tensions characterize a lot of opinion about large carnivores, they describe themselves like this: “We are unique because we meet with community members and listen to their opinions, concerns, and ideas, and we partner with government agencies, non-government organizations, and the public to create wildlife-safe communities.”

Rose lives in Marblemount, not too distant from where the first confirmed North Cascades Grizzly sighting in more than a decade happened last year. Given the potential for urban/ rural divisions of opinion about bears, wolves, and cougars, I was happy to hear that the group’s field staff generally live in communities directly affected by what Rose calls “the human-wildlife interface.”

“We have field staff in Twisp,  Issaquah, and along the Washington-Idaho border,” she explained. “While education is important for everyone, we really focus our work on the areas where these animals and people are sharing territory.

“It’s important to be prepared for an encounter with a bear when you’re in bear country, but it’s also important to dispel some of the common myths and misconceptions people have. For instance, you are more likely to be struck by lightning or killed in a car wreck on the way to a trailhead than attacked by a grizzly bear. All in all, bears are far more likely to enhance your wilderness experience than spoil it.”

As part of their educational efforts, GBOP has created some luggage-tag-style checklists to attach to hiking packs. The tag lists how to respond to encounters with wildlife. You can pick one up, along with lots of other educational materials, at the Community Food Co-op during their Community Shopping Day on May 19. That way, if you meet a bear like I did, you’ll have the correct response close at hand. Creating a critical mass of science-based knowledge about keystone predators is at the heart of GBOP’s mission.

Bears, wolves, and cougars were all more or less extirpated from Washington State by the 1930s as a result of attitudes of the time and government bounties for killing them. So the re-emergence of large predator species and new government protections for them represent a huge cultural shift. Rose and I talked about the five new wolf packs that have naturally returned to Washington, and the recent illegal poaching of some of them.

Despite the conflicts, Rose finished our conversation with some words of appreciation for our unique historical moment. “It’s amazing to live in a time when we can experience eagles returning to our rivers, swans to the fields, and even see wolverines and wolves making Washington their home once again. I’m proud to live in a state wild enough to provide suitable habitat for all of these creatures.”

by Robin Elwood, Co-op Community News Staff

Page 4 of the Co-Op Community News and GBOP Interview with Rose Oliver

Governor Gregoire Declares May 20-26, 2012 Bear Awareness Week

Washington State’s Governor Gregoire declares May 20-26, 2012 “Bear Awareness Week”
Special resources celebrate state’s grizzly and black bears and educate the public on how to co-exist

Black bears and grizzlies are an important part of our state’s natural heritage. Today, Washington has one of the healthiest black bear populations in the U.S.  It is also one of just five states in the lower 48 still wild enough for a small number of federally-listed threatened grizzly bears.

Recognizing the value of bears and the need to educate the public on how to live and recreate safely with them, Governor Christine Gregoire recently declared May 20-26 “Bear Awareness Week.”  Among other points, the Governor’s proclamation notes, “Whereas, by educating the public on the ecology, behavior, and conservation of bears, it is possible for people and bears to coexist peacefully…” 

New Food Storage Orders Put in Place in the Selkirk Mountain Ecosystem

The Idaho Panhandle National Forest recently put into place a new Food Storage Order of the Priest Lake, Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry Ranger Districts. This Forest Service Order will deal with human food and pet food, garbage and bird seed, deer carcasses, fish entrails and anything else that might lure wildlife into trouble especially bears. This has been done to reduce conflicts and potential conflict between wildlife and humans. The Colville National Forest, which also manages lands within this ecosystem, has had a similar food storage order in place since 1987 when its forest plan was revised. The new food storage requirements are intended to be permanent, effective each year from April 1 through Dec. 1. The rules applying to the “front country,” such as around Priest Lake, have been encouraged for years. They include keeping food in a vehicle or hard-sided shelter when not being consumed at meals. The new rules specifically prohibit feeding wildlife and putting up bird feeders – liquid, suet or seed – in certain areas. Bear-resistant garbage containers will be required in designated areas and camp food and leftovers, such as bacon grease, must be hauled out and not buried on site. Within most other grizzly bear ecosystems, the National Forests and Parks have had similar rules for years. The conditions of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests new food storage order only pertain to activities on national forest system lands within this ecosystem.

For more information on this Food Storage Order visit the Idaho Panhandle National Forests 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



North Cascades rare carnivore survey

The Cascade Rare Carnivore Survey sampled for rare carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem (NCE)this last summer from July to October 2010. The sampling survey focused on grizzly bear, gray wolf, Canada lynx and wolverine using hair snare corrals and some remote digital cameras. Over 1,196 hair samples were collected for DNA analysis from 191 total sites sampled with corrals.

The North Cascades Ecosystem (including parts of Canada) is one of the largest contiguous blocks of federal land remaining in the lower 48 states. As stated in the report, carnivores are very difficult to study given their large area requirements, low densities and elusive behavior. The researchers felt their best method for detecting the sample species was by using non-invasive hair snagging and remote cameras. The specific areas sampled were the Pasayten Wilderness and the North Cascades National Park, the mountainous area North and South of Highway 2, the Glacier Peak and Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and the area North of the I-90 corridor.

The hair-snare corrals are composed of a single strand of barbed wire strecthed around four or more trees at a height of about two feet. A liquid scent lure was left in the center of the corral as an attractant and animals climbing over or under the wire to enter the corral generally left a hair sample on one or more strands or barbs. When found In the field, hair samples were immediately collected and stored in plastic containers for later DNA analysis. In addition, 47 remote cameras were deployed in the study area and served as a useful tool in validating the effectiveness of the hair sampling. The researchers found that when a bear photo was captured at a site on a remote camera, 98% of the time a hair sample was also captured on a strand of wire at the same site.

Results from this study will be used to further the mission of state and federal agencies to recover or maintain viable populations of carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem. The results of the DNA analysis of the hair samples collected will be available sometime in the summer of 2011. Understanding the affects of highways on gene-flow among carnivores, and determining the distribution and population status of grizzly bears in the NCE are some of the important questions this study may answer.

For a full copy of the Cascade Rare Carnivore Survey Report contact the Okanogan-Wenatchee NF or the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Wenatchee climate change workshop

The Okanogan-Wenatchee NF hosted the most recent climate change workshop for the North Cascadia Adaptation Partnership (NCAP) on February 23, 2011 in Wenatchee. NCAP is a Forest Service (FS) and National Park Service (NPS) collaboration on climate change adaptation. NCAP is also a science/management partnership which includes the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie NF, the North Cascades National Park complex, the Okanogan-Wenatchee NF, and Mt. Rainier National Park; an area encompassing roughly six million acres. The primary science providers for the partnership are the Climate Impacts Group from the University of Washington and the USFS Pacific Northwest Research Station.

I attended the one day workshop in Wenatchee and wanted to share with you some of the key points I learned about climate change and affects on area ecosystems.

The science of climate change is based on THOUSANDS of peer-reviewed papers which show or point to a warming world. In the last fifty years most of the climate change affects can be attributed to human activity and in the Pacific Northwest 35-60% of observed hydrologic trends from 1950-1999 are a consequence of human caused global warming.

The Whitebark Pine was identified in a 2008 climate change workshop as a key forest species of concern. The NCAP is looking at Whitebark Pine habitat and wants to make sure it is in the best possible shape for future climate change; this is part of the science-management collaboration talked about during the workshop. Whitebark Pine is important because the seeds are a key food source for Grizzly Bears in the North Cascades ecosystem.

Mountain Pine Beetle which over-winter in the cambium layer of many coniferous tree species of the Pacific Northwest are very sensitive to climate effects. Very cold winters can kill the larvae of the beetle which would normally emerge in the spring to feed on their hosts. The Rocky Mountains used to be a “cold barrier” preventing the Mountain Pine Beetle from crossing over to the West, this is no longer the case. The warming climate favors more frequent and larger outbreaks of beetle infestations in our Western forests.