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.

Western Wildlife Outreach Attends Black Bear Release

This week Western Wildlife Outreach staff accompanied Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Officers and the Karelian Bear Dog Team into the field to release four black bear cubs.  A shout out to the folks at PAWS in Lynnwood, WA who do such great work with black bear rehabilitation and making this day possible. And a huge WWOOF! to WDFW’s KBD Team, human and canine!

Deterring Cougars

Deterring Cougars

by RDean, Humboldt County, California

It was that kind of moment, one that left us shocked and stunned into a state of questioning our own sanity. Over almost 40 years of living in our cabin-like little-house on the edge of the Redwood forest in far-north coastal California, we had dismissed occasional accounts of cougar sightings as very possibly “someone had smoked a little too much of something that maybe they shouldn’t have.”

We had worked and played in the woods on almost a daily basis without seeing any sign yet, in less than a heartbeat, a cougar had stolen our old housecat, Little Boy, off our front porch one cold January evening–right in front of our eyes–and disappeared into the dark of night so quickly we could do nothing. Flashlight and shotgun in hand, I followed into the night, blasting away at old growth redwood stumps in the backyard to let the big cat know it had crossed the line of our tolerance. I could empathize with challenges of living the life of a predator, but when they preyed on me and mine–I could become a predator, too.

We were sad and angry for a time, but my wife (a Japanese Buddhist) came to view the incident as Karma that had finally caught up with our beloved old house cat for all the little rodents he had dispatched in a similar manner over his 23 year lifetime. We still had two other members of the family, house cats, who needed protection lest the cougar returned to try a repeat performance.

Deterring wildlife predators from poaching domestic stock and pets was not a new issue, so I reached out to farmers and ranchers for their knowledge of what measures had proved effective in their experience. One very savvy old rancher recommended we get a mule. “Mules hate cats, and will kick ‘em into next week given half a chance,” says he. Adopting and responsibly caring for a mule had its own complications, so I kept looking. It seemed like most resources agreed on a few measures that were at least helpful:

First, you CANNOT keep predators out of a protected perimeter if you entice their prey inside that perimeter by feeding your pets outdoors, having open compost piles, or allowing DEER to forage in your yard!

Learn to think like a predator. They have senses that are exponentially better than ours, and predators will accept your open invitations to dinner without your awareness. When you treat opossums and raccoons to snacks, you are also gathering them up as delectable snacks for the upper end of the food chain. Do the little critters a favor—do NOT make them dependent on you for food.

Second, BRIGHT LIGHTS and SOUND help deter wildlife.

On various outbuildings we mounted motion-sensor floodlights and also wired an old flea-market radio into their circuits. When a floodlight goes on, so does the radio. We tuned the radio to a strong 24-hour station. Sound doesn’t have to be loud to be effective. We mounted the lights lower than normal to shine more directly into an approaching critter’s eyes. We set the lights to their “TEST” setting, so the lights and the radio come on for 10 seconds, and then go off. The lights and sounds stop critters in their tracks, and makes their night-vision temporarily useless. The moment the animals make another move, another cycle of blinding light and mysterious sound hammers them. Nearby resident critters, such as foxes, will eventually figure out this puzzle, and come up with a “work around” solution, but big cats, and even resident bears who are just passing thru the area, will say “screw it,” and wander on down the trail for easier pickings.

Third, as backup for the above, we use MOTION-SENSOR rain-bird type SPRINKLERS that come on for a few seconds when triggered. These work really well for scaring off deer. Wandering wild dogs, however, will attack and destroy the sprinklers if they are at, or near, ground level.

And finally, GAME / TRAIL CAMERAS have given us valuable information about when and where predators and prey come and go. Cameras have removed a lot of the mystery and apprehension, and replaced them with appreciation and empathy for the obligatory lifestyle of these (dare I say it) totally AWESOME critters.

We feel honored to share the local forest with cougars and continue our quest to find more and better ways to coexist with them.

What John Belushi Didn’t Teach Us About Mountain Lions

by Dr. Jordan Schaul, First published in Huffington Post January 5, 2016. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

What may be comical, perhaps endearing and speaks to the elusive nature of the cougar (AKA mountain lion) is one of my earliest visuals of North America’s largest cat. Outside of a visit to a zoo, I recall first seeing a mountain lion in the critically acclaimed movie Continental Divide starring John Belushi. I was only eight when the Spielberg-produced comedy was released, but it served as an early and remarkable introduction for me in regard to the largest non-pantherine cat in the world and one of North America’s most iconic large predators.

Although I don’t remember the plot particularly well, I vividly remember the specific scene where human meets cougar. Unfortunately, the cinematic treatment of the run-in with the big cat not only left a lasting and erroneous impression on me, and likely my contemporaries, but it probably created many misperceptions of the big cat for a wide audience. With that said, I remember that it was a very entertaining feature film.

In the superbly directed or at least well-edited scene, a cougar wanders unceremoniously and unannounced into a cabin to the dismay of Belushi’s character and proceeds to shred him after the two exchange a few pleasantries. As a naïve and intensely urbanized cub scout with an already skewed perception of large predators and their habitat preferences, I was convinced from watching the film that cougars were common, bold and cavalier around people and commonly seen. I also gathered from the movie that these wild cats were strongly associated with rugged terrain. They do like rugged landscapes because they can seek refuge in such habitat, but before they were intensely hunted they were commonly found in a diversity of wild places, which supported ungulate prey species. Today, cougars have a restricted range in North America, having been extirpated from the Midwestern and Eastern states. But they have the most extensive north-south distribution of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere and may be recolonizing former range states in the US.

Cougars occur in range of habitats, provided there is ample vegetative cover or rocky outcrops that provide refuge. Within temperate zones of North America and tropical and subtropical rainforests of Central and South America, the cougar inhabits a diversity of landscapes. They are not simply residents of the Northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.

These big cats are most closely related to the cheetah and the jaguarundi, a small wild cat species with a historic range in the Southwestern United States. Although male cougars can attain weights of 140 lbs they are considered by biologists to be small cats in a big cat body. They don’t roar, but they can purr and they are quite agile and capable of jumping to considerable heights.

Although cougars can live in proximity to humans, they are exceedingly fearful of people and often retreat before a person can catch a glimpse of their presence. They typically avoid open habitats and human modified environments. A common myth is that cougars jump out of trees or off cliff ledges to attack prey. They do ambush unsuspecting animals from behind cover, but they only jump to lower elevations to build up momentum when in pursuit of prey.

Cougar-related human fatalities are far fewer than dog-related human fatalities, but perception is everything and people still perceive cougars to be dangerous to humans, pets and livestock. In North America they prey predominantly on large ungulates. Cervids (i.e. moose, elk and deer) are a mainstay and bison really represent the only exception in terms of potential prey that they won’t consider. As generalists, mountain lions forage on a very wide range of species including many large and small mammals and birds. In fact, six smaller cat species, including Canada lynx and bobcat have been reported as prey items across the mountain lion’s entire geographic range.

Although a regulated game animal in Washington State, trophy hunting has placed significant pressure on cougars and the population trend is likely in decline, at least in the Eastern part of the state. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates, there may be as many as 2500 cougars in Washington State, although it is not possible to know real population numbers for sure.

According to Lorna Smith, the Executive Director of Western Wildlife Outreach, “Conflict with people, pets and livestock primarily occurs where hunting pressure has been intense, and large dominant males have been killed, causing disruption in localized cougar populations. Young males vie for that dominant position, and chaos can ensue for a while. In the words of Dr. Rob Weilgus whose research team has conducted many years of research on Washington’s cougar populations and their behavior, ‘When one old guy dies, three young guys come to the funeral’. All of a sudden young cougars are vying for dominance in the vacated territory, competing for resources for food and mating. The losers may venture onto ranches or farms in search of any kind of prey. So, we now know that the role of older dominant toms is very important in reducing conflicts with humans and their domestic animals.”

WWO has produced a video on staying safe in Cougar Country, which can be viewed here on our Vimeo channel.

Rivers, Salmon, Bears and Healthy Forests

What if I told you that the trees are here, in part, because of the salmon? That the trees that shelter and feed the fish, that help build the fish, are themselves built by the fish?” ~ Carl Safina, essayist for Salmon in the Trees

Under the cover of darkness, black bears prowl the banks of the stream, wading out among moss-covered rocks below overhanging branches festooned with drooping lichen. The bears are waiting for the return of their favorite feast, spawning salmon. The salmon are returning guided by mysterious forces that have inexorably drawn them from their ocean home back to the streams where they were born and where they will spawn and die, completing the circle of life. But there is a bigger story that goes beyond the salmon, the river and the bears. It’s a story about the intricate connection between the towering conifer giants of the temperate west-coast rainforests, the hungry bears and the returning salmon.

While it might seem somewhat intuitive that the nutrients and nitrogen provided by salmon are beneficial to aquatic plants and plants growing on the stream banks, it has only been in the last decade that the critical role played by bears, both black bears and grizzlies, in dispersing nutrients from salmon throughout the riparian forest has been identified and recognized as an essential component in maintaining the health of riparian forests.

Beginning with early studies by Tom Reichman in 2000, and continued by Gende, Quinn and other prominent researchers, primarily in British Columbia and Alaska, the ultimate “fate” of salmon carcasses removed from the river by bears has been tracked. One such study examined the transport of the salmon into the forests in three watersheds in Southeastern Alaska over three seasons using tagged sockeye salmon and the ultimate location of the recovered tags to tell the story. The results were surprising: up to 50% of the fish caught and killed by bears, both brown bear and black bear, were transported away from the streams and into the surrounding temperate rainforest. Once the bears have successfully landed a protein-rich fish, they often disappear with the prize deep into the trees in order to avoid competition from other bears or scavengers. Once there, the remains of the fish are scattered through the forest,  along with bear scat.

And now the story really gets interesting. Following up on this initial research regarding nutrient transport into forests, a team of researchers headed up by James Helfield and Robert Naiman of the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources devised a method to measure the actual amount of marine-derived nitrogen in trees through coring the trees and examining the stable nitrogen isotope ratios of annual growth rings.

Nitrogen availability has been identified as the limiting factor for terrestrial plant growth in riparian ecosystems. The study concluded that trees and shrubs near spawning streams grew three times faster than other control stands, and that salmon-borne, marine-derived nitrogen is the reason why. As riparian forests affect the quality of in-stream habitat through shading, sediment and nutrient filtration, and production of large woody debris (LWD), this fertilization process serves not only to enhance riparian production, but may also act as a positive feedback mechanism by which salmon- borne nutrients improve spawning and rearing habitat for subsequent salmon generations and maintain the long-term productivity of river corridors along the Pacific coast of North America.  And all of this marine-derived nitrogen from salmon is transported and made available to the trees by bears!  

Over millenia bears have been fulfilling this age-old critical role of salmon carcass dispersers, moving nutrients from the stream to the forest, so that riparian trees grow tall and strong, eventually contributing large woody debris to streams, improving spawning and rearing habitat for subsequent salmon generations and maintaining the long-term productivity of river corridors along the Pacific Coast of North America. Its time to give bears there due in the watersheds of the Pacific Northwest as the real kings of the forest.

The Iconic Grizzly Bear Returns

by Dr. Jordan Schaul. First posted in Huffington Post. Reprinted here with permission from the author.

Posted: 12/04/2015 12:13 pm EST

Acclaimed photographer Tom Mangelsen and noted journalist Todd Wilkinson just released the book Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, which is a memoir of sorts of one of the most famous grizzly bears in the Lower 48. Her name is 399 and she is a star among bears.

Bear 399 was first fitted with a tracking collar back in 2001, as a 5-year-old sow living in Grand Teton National Park. Studies of 399 and her cubs’ movements and interactions with people near Jackson Hole have recently enlightened researchers about the behavior of habituated bears, not to be confused with food conditioned bears.

Pioneering radio telemetry studies were conducted by the Craigheads in the late 1950’s, when they researched the behavior and ecology of the grizzly bears of Yellowstone. Although the technology is now more sophisticated with the advent of GPS collars, conceptually the telemetric study of bears and other carnivores as they move across the landscape remains fundamentally the same. The collar emits a signal, which enables researchers to remotely monitor the movements of wildlife and their use of habitat.

In her 19 years, 399 has produced 15 cubs and her legacy will be continued by her surviving offspring. Bear 399 has garnered an immense amount of media attention around the world and has turned Jackson Hole into a mecca for bear viewing. Most importantly, bear 399 is a testament to bear conservation management programs adopted in the contiguous US.

Grizzlies, which are North America’s version of the brown bear have made an astonishing comeback from the mid-1970’s when they were federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Although they must endure emerging threats from the likes of climate change, humans continue to pose the biggest threat through more direct influences.

Rebounding grizzly populations in the Lower 48 translate into more than just the restoration of a wildlife icon. The presence of grizzlies speaks to the health of ecosystems. Grizzlies are both umbrella and keystone species. Conserving these majestic mammals serves to facilitate preservation efforts for a multitude of other species that also occur in habitats where grizzly bears exist.

As eminent ecologist David Suzuki said, “Scientists believe that grizzly bears are an essential part of healthy, fully functioning ecosystems in western North America. Known as a “keystone” species, grizzlies are “ecosystem engineers” that help to regulate prey species and disperse the seeds of many plant species, such as blueberry and buffaloberry. They also help to maintain plant and forest health, both by aerating the soil as they dig for roots, pine nuts and ground squirrels, and by moving thousands of kilograms of spawning salmon carcasses into the forest, where trees and other plants absorb their high levels of nitrogen.”

According to the IUCN Red List, the world’s most comprehensive database on the conservation status of imperiled species, the total population of brown bears on Earth exceeds 200,000 individuals. Indeed, there are healthy and rebounding populations of brown bears around the world, with strongholds persisting in Russia, Canada and Alaska. Some of these populations are in decline, as a consequence of human-induced stressors like poaching, and encroachment and development of habitat. In addition, climate change and rapid human population growth continue to place pressure on these robust carnivores, which rival the polar bear as the largest terrestrial carnivore on the planet.

The brown bear is regionally extinct in Mexico and in Northern and Central Europe and in parts of Africa and Asia where it once flourished as an opportunistic omnivore and apex predator. Many of these regions on the planet will never be restored with brown bears, as habitat is not available nor is it suitable for reintroduction efforts. But as I mentioned in a recent article, some European brown bear populations are also making a comeback. This strongly suggests that human-brown bear coexistence is possible even in human-dominated landscapes. While some populations remain critically endangered, albeit stable (neither decreasing or increasing in numbers), others are actually increasing in size.

Critically endangered populations of brown bears face a high risk of extinction by definition. They are exceedingly vulnerable merely because their numbers are so low that they are susceptible to stochastic events. Lower reproductive rates and higher mortality rates in these small populations dictate that these bears receive as much protection as possible by wildlife management agencies. This is one reason that although grizzly bear recovery efforts have been deemed successful in restoring the North American brown bear to parts of their historic range in the Lower 48, efforts to delist the grizzly remain controversial and continue to be challenged by some in the conservation community.

The regionally “endangered” populations in both the contiguous US and Western Europe total under 20,000 bears with under 2,000 in the Lower 48 . Increasing development continues to threaten the 45-50 grizzly bears that inhabit the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem and other recovery zones in the Western US.

The Vital Ground Foundation is working to safeguard this population and bears in other recovery zones. The Montana-based land trust has launched an initiative to secure unprotected private land in the region so that bears can move undisturbed from protected public lands via linkage zones. The nonprofit conservation entity secures these properties through fee title acquisitions and conservation easements.

Vital Ground’s Executive Director Ryan Lutey provides a status report on grizzly bears in the Lower 48 for this year.

“During 2015, unusually warm, dry weather throughout western Montana and North Idaho diminished the availability of natural foods for bears, which has resulted in a dramatic increase in conflicts between bears and humans. Bears are being forced to roam farther in search of a meal, which offers many more opportunities for wandering bears to be hit crossing a highway or relocated or removed as part of a wildlife management action to mitigate a conflict. For a population as tenuous as the one in and around the Cabinet-Yaak, every single grizzly mortality carries implications for long-term recovery. and that’s why preventing additional human intrusion into wildlife habitat is so important. Collaborative approaches like helping private landowners tap into tax incentives associated with conservation easements protects wildlife habitat from inappropriate subdivision and development and helps make these teetering grizzly populations more resilient to both acute seasonal events and to the extended effects of climate change.”

In North America alone, there are nearly 58,000 brown bears (AKA grizzly bears). Most of these iconic mammals live in mountainous regions of Alaska and Western Canada. The recovery of the grizzly bear in the Lower 48 is an important restoration effort beyond just the conservation of one well-known and beloved species. Securing the future of these bears may be our most significant contribution to the conservation of North America’s natural heritage.

Our Summer Internship with WWO

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At the end of  their summer internships, WWO asked Elliot Harris, Matthew Chang and Nick Ward to write about their experiences.  WWO is very thankful to these three stalwarts for all the amazing things they accomplished on behalf of WWO and large carnivore awareness in Washington State!  Here it is in their own words:

I met Lorna and Darrell Smith in February of 2015 at an open house that was part of the public scoping phase of the North Cascades Grizzly Bear Environmental Impact Statement. After volunteering at Western Wildlife Outreach events in the spring of 2015, Lorna and Darrell gave me the opportunity to intern with Western Wildlife Outreach for the summer of 2015 and help with presentations and booths throughout Western Washington.

Two of my friends and I created a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation, and compiled information about grizzly bears in the contiguous 48 states, and Washington’s North Cascades and Selkirk Mountain Ecosystems specifically. We worked with State Parks, National Forest Visitor Centers, and Summer Camps, to orchestrate informational presentations and booths for groups of all ages. I not only learned a great deal about Washington State’s large carnivores (bears, cougars, and wolves) throughout the internship, but I also learned about some of the central issues that undercut progress on wildlife restoration efforts.

The most notable issue that I learned about was the vast amount of misinformation surrounding conservation projects such as grizzly bear restoration. There were two primary forms of misinformation that I learned to be most detrimental to restoration efforts.

Firstly and most obvious was the vast amount of misinformation about basic wildlife biology and behavior. This is particularly harmful in the case of carnivores because without an understanding of carnivore biology and behavior, people attribute adverse encounters with carnivores to the inherent biology of the carnivores rather than to human behavior that attracts carnivores into close proximity with humans, the most common form of human behavior being poor odor prevention practices. After working at booths this past summer, it quickly became clear that people love to tell stories about potentially dangerous encounters with bears (I am one of these people, as my family has had its share of bear encounters). It is no surprise that as these stories are told and retold, there is a certain amount of embellishment that tends to denounce the behavior of bears and glorify the survival of humans. In the case of many visitors to our booths, there was an ingrained sense of blame towards bears for such encounters, rather than attributing the encounters to human behavior. While it was often difficult to sway the opinions of audiences that firmly adhere to their beliefs, it also provided an opportunity to talk to people about bear safety and bear biology and behavior in an effort to prevent future adverse encounters. This form of basic misinformation proved to be particularly detrimental because it quickly became clear that people were forming their opinions about grizzly bear restoration based off of false information. Once basic facts were clarified, opponents of restoration often left the booth much more receptive to a restored grizzly bear population in Washington. Misinformation about wildlife biology and behavior must be countered by the distribution of accurate, scientific information so that people are able to make informed decisions about their support of conservation projects.

Secondly, there was a lack of understanding about the implications of grizzly bear restoration in Washington’s North Cascades. This was most clearly evidenced by the expectation that a restored grizzly bear population would somehow vastly change life in Washington. However, visitors to our booths often had no clear denotation of a “restored population.” This was a much easier hurtle to overcome because it was as simple as explaining that “a restored population will be a self-sustaining, genetically viable, and disaster-resilient population of 200-400 grizzly bears spread across the 10,000 square mile North Cascades Ecosystem.” For those still skeptical, we simply had to explain that “bear safety practices are the same for black bears and grizzly bears, and the state already has about 25,000 black bears living in habitats closer to humans than grizzly bears, so grizzly bear restoration will not change day-to-day life at all.” Once people realized that having a restored population has no negative consequences, they generally viewed the conservation effort much more favorably. This is, however, only one of many examples of how people did not understand the implications of grizzly bear restoration. It became imperative to offer clear explanations of the implications of grizzly bear restoration in order to allow people to make an informed decision about restoration.

Upon realizing how pervasive misinformation is in wildlife conservation efforts, the importance of Western Wildlife Outreach became much more clear. By “promoting an accurate understanding of large carnivore heritage through education and community outreach in Washington and Idaho,” Western Wildlife is providing the public with the information necessary to make an informed decision about grizzly bear restoration. More so, they are not only providing people with appropriate information, but are also inspiring people to change their behavior when living in proximity to carnivores. This allows humans and carnivores to coexist safely in a wholesome environment. The work of Western Wildlife Outreach is invaluable to the conservation of the Pacific Northwest’s unique ecosystems.

__Elliot Harris, Intern, WWO 2015

Working with Western Wildlife Outreach this summer has been an eye-opening experience. As an organismal biology and ecology major, I’ve always been interested in wildlife ecology and learning about how ecosystems are most effectively managed not by humans, but by the creatures that inhabit them. This summer, we focused on the ecological role of large carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem. By educating ourselves about these animals, we were able to discuss the current effort to restore the grizzly bear population to the North Cascades Ecosystem with the general public. Our outreach was done both by visiting summer camps and answering questions at Western Wildlife Outreach booths. At Tall Timber Ranch alone, we were able to present to about 150 people during two separate sessions (one for high school students, one for junior high students). We were also able to spend time answering individual questions and addressing personal concerns about the current status of bears, wolves, and cougars while working at Western Wildlife Outreach booths. The booths helped attract people with hands-on displays such as skulls, teeth, claws, pelts, and even full grizzly and black bear mounts.  We answered a variety of questions, and addressed a lot of the myths and misinformation surrounding grizzlies in the North Cascades.

It’s been a pleasure to have worked with Lorna and Darrell Smith this summer. Their obvious passion and dedication to all the large carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem is what drives projects and improves the natural areas they love. They also were able to give us some experience and insight as to the life of a wildlife biologist; an invaluable experience for me as that’s a career path I’m considering taking in the future. I’ve learned a lot this summer, and not just about grizzlies but also about how the relationships from USDFW and WDFW exist between non-governmental organizations such as Western Wildlife Outreach.

__Matthew Chang, WWO Intern, 2015

I have found a great deal of pleasure in delivering presentations and spreading the word about the status of grizzly bears and the pressing ecological issues surrounding them. The negative effects to the North Cascades ecosystem (NCE) that will result from the absence of these keystone predators will effect younger generations. Our focus this summer was to involve these younger audiences in the restoration process of grizzly bears in the NCE, so that they may not have to experience the future degradation of this ecosystem. I look forward to seeing the environmental improvement that results from our outreach.

Working with and getting to know Lorna and Darryl Smith on a personal level has been a real pleasure of this internship. I have learned a lot about bears and other large carnivores over these summer months through them. My knowledge of bears prior to this internship was enough to realize how fascinating and impressive these animals are. Now, I truly understand not only how intelligent bears are, but how essential these giant creatures are in their ecosystems. Although my career aspirations as a fine woodworker are somewhat irrelevant when considering this internship, my moral framework and personal interests as an outdoorsman fully support this essential restoration movement as well as Western Wildlife Outreach.

__Nicholas Ward, WWO Intern, 2015

The Insanity of Not Respecting Nature

by Mike Cavaroc, Free Roaming Photography. Reprinted with permission, September 15, 2015

2015 has so far seen a number of increased bison attacks on people in Yellowstone National Park, but despite what many visitors think, rarely, if ever, is it the animal’s fault.

Most people are surprised to hear that bison are responsible for the most injuries in the park. The cause is almost always the same. Someone who thinks of them as big, dumb and slow animals walks up to one to take a picture with it, ignoring the warning signs the animal is showing, and the bison is forced to its last resort: tossing the person up in the air and breaking several bones in the flight, at the very least. After all, they can sprint over 30mph and are anything but docile.

There have also been multiple bear fatalities in recent years just in Yellowstone. Two completely separate incidents were the result of someone hiking into dense bear areas defiantly leaving bear spray behind, claiming they’ve lived here long enough to know how to behave around a bear. Of course if you know what you’re doing around a bear, you don’t need bear spray, but spray isn’t for people that don’t know what they’re doing around a bear. Bear spray is intended for those rare close encounters that you don’t see coming, what’s ultimately suspected of claiming the lives of those two people.

You would think the increased wildlife-human interactions would lead to more education and understanding about our natural world, but sadly, dangerous narcissism (in more than one way) remains high in wild areas. Just recently, a section of the Colorado Trail was closed because too many people were taking selfies with bears. That’s literally telling the world, the animal included, that you have absolutely no respect for the animal or the environment you’re in. Trying to get as close as you can to a wild animal to make sure it’s visible within the picture is for one reason only: to show your friends that you saw something they didn’t. In that moment, you’re completely detached from the magic of the encounter and reverting to completely unnatural behavior in a vain and futile attempt to 1-up your connections online, and everyone they’re connected to hoping they’ll see as well, thereby putting you in the spotlight. The entire point of the encounter is lost entirely. This is not why wild animals are out there. They’re there to keep ecosystems healthy so that we can hopefully continue to have fresh food and water for decades to come.

What’s missed by blatantly disrespecting nature is a chance to understand yourself better which leads to a more rewarding and fulfilling life. Despite our best efforts to deny it, humans are still animals, and humans need a healthy amount of nature. In fact, multiple studies are beginning to show that children need outdoor exposure to properly develop. This is because our mind and bodies still depend on the natural environment for rest and relaxation. Trying to briefly “escape” to nature only carries the burden of trying to escape, so a true immersion into nature isn’t fully possible. Then, when a wild animal is encountered, the competitiveness to outdo friends is still there, leading to unnatural and dangerous behavior in nature. In fact it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that taking a selfie with a bear, or any wild animal, is a form of insanity. The etymology of the word insanity points to two origins that sum up that behavior quite accurately: “unhealthfullness” and “extreme folly.” I don’t think anyone who actually understands what nature is would argue against that at all.

The narcissism of trying outdo other people is completely misplaced in nature. It’s dangerous not just because you’re putting your own life at risk, but should a bear attack you, no matter how idiotic you were behaving, rules dictate that park or forest officials have to kill the bear. To put another life at risk so you can potentially outdo people you know is unquestionably insanity. Of course they probably don’t know that, but to be so disconnected from nature as to have your main goal be to satisfy narcissism at the sight of such a majestic creature would also qualify. Besides the obvious danger of it here, there’s also the danger of getting completely absorbed in the lifeless circle of not getting to understand or truly experience nature, and therefore yourself. This ultimately leads to a bland and unsatisfying life where the absence of nature is artificially and inadequately compensated for through other means, though never achieving the same result.

People often (semi-)joke that there should be a test before admitting people into wild areas. The sad and ironic truth is that most people would fail that test horribly,but raw and wild nature is exactly what they need to be cured of not understanding the natural world, and therefore, themselves.

Be Coyote Wise

Courtesy of WDFW “Crossings Paths” Newsletter, February 2015

It’s good to be wise about wildlife year round to avoid problems, but it’s especially important at this time of year to be “coyote wise”.

Coyotes, which are abundant throughout Washington’s rural and urban areas, are paring up and breeding now in late winter to produce pups in April and early May. And coyotes that were born eight or nine months ago are striking out on their own at this time. That means there’s lots of coyotes moving about and making noise, yipping and howling to communicate with each other.

Like most wildlife, coyotes usually avoid people and don’t cause trouble. But coyotes are extremely opportunistic and adaptable to our ways and will take advantage of easy access to food sources. As a canine species, they also view domestic dogs as competitors. These two factors can lead to problems with coyotes now and through summer as young are reared.

Finding food is critical for all wildlife. But mature animals that are reproducing, and young animals that are learning independence, are really driven to feed.

Coyotes are actually omnivores – they’ll eat everything from fruit to large animals. Hungry coyotes will try almost anything.

NEVER intentionally feed coyotes. And think about how you might be unintentionally providing access to food, like unsecured garbage, uncovered compost piles, spilled seed from backyard bird feeders, pet food left outdoors, or even small pets like cats or toy breed dogs left to roam, especially from dusk to dawn.

Don’t feed feral cats (domestic cats gone wild). Coyotes prey on these cats as well as any feed you leave out for the feral cats.

If a coyote finds an easy food source close to people, it can easily become habituated, or so accustomed to people that it becomes abnormally bold. Coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare. Only two such attacks have been documented in Washington – in 2006 a habituated coyote bit two young children in Bellevue and was later euthanized.

Finding mates and producing and rearing young can make adult coyotes more territorial and less tolerant of free-running domestic dogs. Learning how to make a living in the world, independent of a family unit, can make juvenile non-breeding coyotes more competitive with free-ranging dogs.

Avoid running dogs off-leash in areas where you have heard or seen coyotes, especially now through May. Coyotes might aggressively confront dogs running through their denning area, and some dogs are just as likely to curiously sniff out coyotes and end up in nasty encounters.

Coyotes carry parasites and canine diseases, like distemper and parvovirus, that are rarely a risk to humans but could be deadly for domestic dogs. Be sure to keep dogs current on vaccinations and consult your veterinarian if you know of or even suspect a coyote encounter.

More information on becoming “coyote wise” is available at https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/species/canis-latrans

Doug Smith, Yellowstone Wolf Lead Project Biologist: Laying out the Facts

Originally published January 5, 2014. Reprinted with permission of the Montana Pioneer

Interview conducted by Quincy Orhai

Recently, the Montana Pioneer spoke with Doug Smith, Yellowstone National Park Wolf Project Leader and Senior Biologist at the Yellowstone Center for Resources, about the nature of the wolves introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, including the “non native subspecies” charge advanced by critics, and about ongoing research on wolves in the park.

MP: What were the genetic sources of wolves introduced into YNP—where did the existing wolf population originate?

DS: Forty one wolves were introduced to YNP in 1995. There were 14 in 1995 from Alberta, and 17 in 1996 from British Columbia, and 10 in 1997 from near Choteau, Montana. We have genetic evidence that some of those wolves went on to breed. So, 10 of the wolves that were introduced were from Montana, and 31 were from Canada.

MP: What were the main characteristics that were different between the wolves from Canada and the wolves that pre-existed here in Yellowstone, say 150 years ago? Is that known?

DS: Not really. All we have are skulls to judge it from. What we know from studying the skulls are that the wolves are essentially the same. The Canadian wolves were about 7 to 8 percent larger than the pre-existing wolves of Yellowstone. Seven to eight percent is within the variation of size difference found in wolf skulls all over North America, so the difference is statistically insignificant. It is important to compare apples to apples, so-to-speak. Pups and immature animals are smaller, and males are about 20 percent larger than females, at full size. It is important to compare similar age and gender skulls to each other. So comparing the handful of skulls that were preserved here as museum samples with over 150 skulls of wolves that have died here since they were introduced, the skulls are essentially the same, but the ones from Canada are slightly bigger.

Taxonomically (classifying in categories such as genus, species, and subspecies), you get differences between species when there are limitations on their ability to mix genetically. Wolves are stopped by nothing. They will cross mountain ranges, rivers, even pack ice. That’s how good this animal is at moving around. So what we have is this constant intermixing of genes that prevents them from becoming really different subspecies. Wolves origin-ated in North America a couple of million years ago. When glaciers connected Alaska and Russia, they crossed over into Russia. They got bigger over there. In the last 600,000 to 700,000 years differently evolved wolves have crossed back to North America in three waves. The remnants of the oldest wave of wolves returning to North America are now the most southern species, and also the smallest, Canis lupus baileyi, the Mexican wolf. The middle wave of evolved wolves returning to this continent from Asia are the gray  wolves we have here now, and the most recent are the largest, the arctic wolves.

MP: Were the wolves introduced into YNP significantly different physically or behaviorally from the wolves that were here?

DS: The short answer is no. Wolves are ecological generalists. They can live on a variety of things. We looked for wolves that were previously exposed to bison and elk. The Canadian wolves had a small percentage of bison hair in their scat, but primarily elk and deer hair. We thought that was ideal, as that is the same diet—primarily elk and deer—as we have here. The available wolves from Minnesota had no experience with mountainous terrain or herds of elk or bison. We selected wolves from the same Rocky Mountain ecosystem, with the same kind of prey, to enhance the likelihood of the introduced wolves surviving. I want to clarify the misconception that larger Canadian wolves were preying on smaller American elk [thereby reducing the elk population inordinately]. In fact, the much smaller southwestern Mexican wolf brings down elk. The elk the Mexican wolves prey on in Arizona and New Mexico originally came from Yellowstone, as did the elk in Canada. The optimal number of adult wolves necessary to bring down an elk is only four, but a pair of wolves can also kill an elk.

MP: We hear reports that there were wolves already in Yellowstone that could have multiplied without reintroduction.

DS: There were no wolves here when we introduced the current wolves in 1995. There were no specially adapted wolves [as critics have claimed] in Yellowstone that did not run in packs, or use trails or roads, that didn’t howl, and that preyed on small prey, unlike the wolves we have now. There has simply never been a wolf recorded anywhere that lives like that. Furthermore, there is no better bird dog for a wolf than a wolf itself. We had radio collars on all 41 wolves we released over a 3-year period. If there were extant wolves already on the landscape, they would have found them. The wolves we released never turned up any other wolves, dead or alive. And by the way, they rarely eat other wolves that they kill.

MP: Wolves killing other wolves is the main cause of wolf deaths in the park, correct?

DS: Yes, almost half of the 15 YNP wolves that died in 2012 were killed by other wolves. However, for wolves living outside the park, 80 percent of the wolf deaths are caused by humans, mostly by shooting them.

MP: How many wolves are in YNP now?

DS: Last year at the end of 2012 there were at least 83 wolves occupying YNP in 10 packs (6 breeding pairs). This is approximately a 15 percent decline from the previous three years when the numbers had stabilized at around 100 wolves. Wolf numbers have declined by about 50 percent since 2007, mostly because of a smaller elk population.

MP: Would the 1994 population of gray wolves that lived in Montana have naturally recovered, given the protection of the Endangered Species Act?

DS: That was a big opinion-based debate by wolf biologists at the time, led by Bob Ream of the University of Montana. In his opinion, wolves would have recovered given enough time—50, 60 or 70 years. Other people think they would not have made it. Yellowstone National Park and the five National Forests around it can be likened to a huge island. It’s the most impressive wild land we have got in the lower 48, and some people say it’s the most impressive temperate zone wild land in the world. But it’s got an abrupt boundary to it. I frequently fly over here in an airplane, and at the boundary of a National Forest, it turns into a sea of humanity. And wolves are notoriously bad at getting through seas of humanity. Wolves get shot a lot. When we were dealing with a handful of wolves, maybe 40 to 60, how many of those would have been heading this way? So far, we have not yet documented a wolf coming from northwest Montana into Yellowstone. We have documented them coming from Idaho, but that’s a lot closer and the linkages are better, primarily in the Centennial Mountains. Wolves don’t do well over huge landscapes dominated by people. By introducing wolves they were legally not a fully protected species under the Endangered Species Act. People wanted to be able to shoot them when they got into livestock, which they could not have done if they were a fully protected species.

MP: Wolves from Idaho have now invaded the original Glacier National Park wolves, right?

DS: The Idaho wolf population is now fully connected to the northwest Montana wolf population. Interest-ingly, a study of historic wolf DNA from pelts and skulls shows that over 50 percent of wolf genetic diversity was lost when the continental United States population was reduced to a few hundred wolves in Minnesota. Wolves were the top carnivores in North America. Wolves evolved to adapt to the local conditions, and they will do so again.

MP: The tapeworm cysts spread by wolves that critics rail about, what risk to humans does this pose?

DS: The Echinococcus granulo sus tapeworm was already here. Wolves didn’t bring it in. The coyotes, foxes and domestic dogs likely had it before wolves. The human health risk from tapeworms is almost nil. If anyone should have Echinococcus tapeworm it’s me. I’ve handled over 500 wolves in my career. I take their temperature with a rectal thermometer. That’s where the tapeworm eggs come out. I now wear rubber gloves, but I wash my hands in snow, then eat my lunch. I wouldn’t worry much about it.

MP: What are the primary benefits and disadvantages of having wild ranging wolf packs in the Northern Rockies?

DS: The simplest way to answer that is that there is no question that wolves made people’s lives more complicated, and that’s a good reason not to have them. Some people love them, some people hate them, and wolves are a polarizing animal. People have to spend a lot of time dealing with the controversy that comes with wolves. Life is simpler without wolves. I admit that if you are a rancher, having wolves around is worrisome. I understand that it’s not just the cows they kill; it’s the sleepless nights. I think that’s the best argument to not have them.
What’s the ecological value of wolves? I don’t know. It’s a human dominated world. We control everything. So why do we need wolves? Landscapes look the way they do because of agriculture, forestry, hunting, mining, development—all those things trump things like wolves. So you really don’t get huge ecological benefits of wolves outside of National Parks. In National Parks you do. So why have wolves on these huge landscapes where there are people? Good question. The best answer is, because people want them there. You know, there are a lot of people that don’t like wolves. There is an equally large number that do like them, because living in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming is unique and different than living in places like Illinois, Iowa and Arkansas. You have grizzly bears, you have wolves, you have cougars. And that brings in a lot of tourism dollars. Wolves and grizzly bears are the two top attractions to Yellowstone. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are perceived as being pristine, just because of the mere existence of the three large, toothy carnivores. It makes visiting or living here more valuable and a better experience. Economics are more important than ecology when it comes to carnivore populations in Yellowstone National Park.

Right now, it’s as natural as it’s ever been in Yellowstone Park. Now we have more predators than we have ever had, which means we have fewer elk, and fewer elk means we have all these other ecological benefits, like beavers and songbirds and fishes, and generally enhanced riparian habitat, because fewer elk means less browsing of riparian habitat. So it’s a more balanced ecosystem. We only get that because we have natural densities of carnivores. As soon as you cross the park line, all the densities of those carnivores go down because humans manage them. And that is fine; it’s not a criticism. The carnivores are on the landscape. That’s the thing that the tourists like, but they are not at their normal densities that would occur if people didn’t manage them.

MP: What about surplus killing by wolves [where, for example, ranchers report wolves killing or maiming a dozen sheep in one night]?

DS: Surplus killing by wolves doesn’t really exist, per-se. We have watched wolves when they have killed more meat than they can immediately consume, and they always come back to finish the carcass unless they are spooked off by people. Hunting success rates for wolves are in the 5 percent to 15 percent range with elk. So they actually get about one in ten of the elk they go after. Eighty five percent to 95 percent of the time, the elk wins, and the wolves get nothing to eat. So, from an evolutionary perspective, if the wolves are not highly motivated to kill whenever they can, they will lose out. Of the 500 wolves I have handled, all across America, in the Midwest, Canada, Alaska, Yellowstone and Idaho, most of them are skinny beneath their beautiful fur. When I have felt their backbones and their pelvises, they usually are skinny. They are just getting by. The prey is better at getting away than the wolves are at killing the prey. So it is so hard to get dinner and when they do get a chance to kill, they kill. That’s how you get so-called surplus killing, when the elk are weak and in deep snow, wolves will kill more than they can eat. Also, defenseless sheep will be killed in large numbers because the wolves can do so. But I would argue that if the rancher didn’t come out the next day with a rifle, the wolves would eat all those sheep, even if it took them weeks to do so.

Wolves don’t kill for the fun of it, when they are likely to get their head bashed in getting dinner. We have seen 15 or more wolves that have been killed by elk, bison, deer and moose. Wolves are risk averse. They don’t want to try to kill something that’s going to get their head bashed in or their stomach kicked in, but when it’s easy, they will kill more than they can immediately eat, but those circumstances crop up pretty rarely. The wolves always cycle back to finish the carcass.

MP: What is the effect of wolves on the coyote population?

DS: Wolves kill coyotes when they approach wolf kills. Pre wolf-introduction, coyotes were living in packs in YNP, and that’s something that’s unusual. When there are wolves around, the coyotes pretty much live in pairs. Coyotes love coming in and stealing from wolves, and that got them killed. According to unpublished research, supposedly the coyote population dropped in half after the wolf introduction. Over 90 percent of the coyotes that are documented as being killed by wolves have been killed at wolf kill sites—they over estimated the wolves being meat drunk. So the coyotes quit running in packs, and went back to living in pairs, and became more wary around carcasses. The coyotes supposedly socially adapted to wolves, and their population went back to pre-wolf levels. This research is incomplete and inconclusive, but fascinating.

MP: Thank you, Doug. We appreciate this opportunity to present knowledge you have gained over the years about wolves, and at the same time address some of the contro-versies.

DS: Wolves are troublesome and controversial. I understand that. A lot of people don’t like them, but a lot of people do like them, and they make money for a lot of people. What I am really after is to get as good a quality of information out there as possible, to help the debate to be a little bit better.  The extreme anti-wolf person and the extreme pro-wolf person are always going to be problematic; they are never going to be happy. But this big group of people in the middle can come together on more than they think. If we can get an established group of facts about wolves correctly understood, I do think we can make progress in treating wolves just like any other animal, like a cougar, like a bear, like an elk. Sometimes and in some places their numbers need to be cut back, and just like any other form of wildlife, they need to be scientifically managed..