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Archive for the ‘wolves’ Category

coyotes

Humans and the various canids belonging to gray wolf species complex possess the most complex relationship of any two beings currently living on this earth.  At one point, they are our cherished companions, often closer to us than we ever could be with other people, and on another point, they are the reviled predators that might take a child in the night.

We have clearly defined relationships with other predators. Leopards and cougars, well, we might hunt them for sport or photograph them in the wild. But we never become closely aligned with them, except for those eccentrics who dare to keep such dangerous predators as pets.

People living in the Eurasian Pleistocene brought some wolves into their societies.  Wolves and humans should have been competitors. We should have had the same relationship with each other as spotted hyenas and lions do in Africa now.  But at some point, humans allowed wolves in.

Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg demonstrate that many humans throughout the world have had some kind of relationship with wolves. In some cases, it is or was a hunting symbiosis. In others, they were totemic animals.

In their work, Pierotti and Fogg contend that the relationship between humans and wolves broke down with the rise of Christianity in the West. I don’t think that’s when it broke down. It started to become complex when humans began to herd sheep and goats.

In Kazakhstan, wolves are hunted and revered at the same time. The Kazakh people herd  livestock, so they must always worry about wolf predation. Stephen Bodio documents this complex understanding of wolves in his The Hounds of Heaven.

“They hunt them, kill them, chase them with hounds and even eagles, take puppies and rear them live, identify with them, make war on them, and claim descent from them,” writes Bodio. This description sort of fits modern humanity’s entire relationship with this gray wolf complex. We pretty much have done and continue do almost all of these things.

Wolves, coyotes, and dingoes have killed people. So have domestic dogs. In the French countryside, wolf hunts were considered a necessity to protect human life, largely because has the longest and best documented history of wolves hunting people. The dispossession of rural peasants and the depletion of game in the forests created conditions where wolves would consider humans easy prey.  Lots of European countries have similar stories. And when Europeans came to North America, they knew about the dangerous nature of wolves, even if they had never even seen one themselves.

Humans have declared war on wolves in Eurasia and in North America. The wolf is extirpated from much of its former range in Europe. They live only over a limited range in the lower 48 of the United States.

Man fought the coyote with the same venom and lead he threw at the wolf. The coyote’s flexible biology and social behavior meant that all that effort would come for naught.  The coyotes got slaughtered, but they rebounded. And then some. And the excess coyote pups found new habitat opened up with big ol’ wolves gone, and they have conquered a continent, while we continue our flinging of lead and setting of traps.

In Victorian times, Western man elevated the domestic dog to levels not seen for a domestic animals. They became sentient servants, beloved friends, animals that deserve humanity’s best treatment.

And in the modern era, where fewer and fewer Westerners are having children, the dog has come to replace the child in the household. Billions of dollars are spent on dog accessories and food in the West.  Large sectors of our agriculture are ultimately being used to feed our sacred creatures.

A vast cultural divide has come to the fore as humans realize that wolves and coyotes are the dog’s wild kin. Wolves have become avatars for wilderness and conservation, and coyotes have become the wolves you might see out your front window.

Millions of Americans want to see the wolf and the coyote protected in some way. Dogs of nature, that’s the way they see them.

The rancher and the big game hunter see both as robbers taking away a bit of their livelihood. Humans are lions. The canids are the spotted hyenas. And their only natural state is at enmity.

Mankind’s relationship to these beings is so strangely complex. It greatly mirrors our relationship towards each other. We can be loving and generous with members of our own species. We can also be racist and bigoted and hateful. We can make death camps as easily as we can make functioning welfare states.

And these animals relationships with each other are just as complex. Wolves usually kill dogs and coyotes they find roaming their territories. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, they become friends, even mates.  Hounds can be trained to run down a coyote, but sometimes, the coyote and the dog become lovers in the forest.

Social, opportunistic predators that exist at this level of success are going to be a series of contradictions. Dogs, wolves, and coyotes certainly are. And so are we.

It is what we both do. And always will.

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Diosbud pack

According the Seattle Times, a pack of wolves has been established west of the Cascade Range:

Western Washington has its first wolf pack in decades, an indication that wolf recovery is on track and a sign that the canines are expanding their range in a healthier ecosystem, wildlife officials say.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) announced Thursday that biologists had documented a pack of the animals living in Skagit County, west of the Cascade crest.

A male wolf, which had been captured in the county and given a radio collar in 2017, was joined this winter by a female wolf, according to according to wildlife officials.

Biologists named the pair the Diobsud Creek Pack. The two have been spending their time near Diobsud Creek, in an area south of Baker Lake and north of Highway 20 near the town of Marblemount.

These wolves are moving into what most Easterners think of as classic Washington State with big wet forests and rumors of sasquatch behind every bush.

The article points to a real political and cultural divide in Washington. The eastern part of the state is very much ranching country, and wolves filling in from Idaho and British Columbia are not celebrated where livelihoods are dependent upon cattle prices and elk outfitting fees. This is the “Red Washington.”

Now, the wolves are inching closer to the “Blue Washington,” where they will likely cause some conflicts, and there will be less romanticism about living wolves.

However, the wolves certainly do deserve to be there, and as they become established in the forests near the Pacific Coast, there will be growing pains.

But it is a chance to see what wolves will do in these ecosystems. As they move towards the coast, will they begin to take up a littoral lifestyle as those in coastal British Columbia have?

Wolf “self-reintroduction” is going to be an interesting story in next couple of decades. Politically, it is impossible for us to go all the way back to wolf eradication as a federal policy, but there are forces that would like to get as near to that policy as possible. However, no state wants to the wolf to go back on the Endangered Species List, simply because the state loses virtually all control over the species once that happens.

So humans and wolves are still working it out, and the wolves keep spreading back into their former range.

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jan fyt wolf

The Revierjäger’s daughter wore a red hood when she went flower-picking in the forest. It kept the sun and rain off her freckled face.

And every day, she’d ask her father if she could walk to see Oma.

But Revierjäger knew there was danger about the forest. Two years ago, there had been a big peasant rising in the land, and when the king’s men crushed the rebellion, renegades hid out in the forest. They poached the deer and wild boar. Even after the rebels were starved out of their sylvan retreats, the game remained scarce.

The wolves of the forest found themselves without much to eat, so they slipped among the villages, lifting suckling pigs from the sows and running amok among the flocks.

The Revierjäger spent much of his time hunting down predatory wolves. He knew as well as anyone that wolves could hold back the recovery of the red stags that once roared in the rut in the green oak wood. But he also knew that wolves were a constant menace of the peasants, and their killings could spark another rising. Wolves take meat that could be sold or butchered, and bare peasant larders and coffers are the makings of revolution.

But what was worse was that a few wolves had taken to hunting people. No peasant legally owned a gun. Guns were instruments of the state only. Armed peasants could easily turn rebellious, and guns would be the perfect tools of poacher-fed revolt. They could off the margaves and the militiamen, then go deep in the beeches and drop a hind for a bit of supper.

So the wolves learned that peasants, especially young children and women, were easy prey. Every month or so, a story would spread through the villages about some child who disappeared while tending sheep or swine. Bandits or Roma were often branded as the culprits, but virtually every time, the child would disappear along a trail heavily marked by wolf tracks.

So the Revierjäger could not let his daughter go alone to see her Oma, but every sunny morning, the girl would ask her father. And every time, he turned her down. He could not risk his beautiful child’s life in a forest where wolves hunted people. Her mother had died at the hands of rebels, and their daughter was the only family he had left in this world.

Yet his guilt burned within him. Every other Sunday, he would take her to see Oma, and they would eat a fine feast of roast pork. They would visit a bit, but as the afternoon shadows grew longer, Revierjäger would summon the muster to tell the little girl that it was time to go, and they would cut back through the forest to his home cottage. Most times, she would cry piteously about the decision to leave. Great gushing tears would rush down her cheeks, which would flush as red as her hood from her anguish.

Every other Sunday was a great joy followed by a great sorrow, but he knew he had to let his daughter see her mother’s mother. She was the last remnant of his late wife’s side of the family, and he knew he must keep the family ties connected, even if he had to see his little girl cry.

So after one Sunday afternoon visit came to an end, the Revierjäger realized that he could no longer refuse his daughter her requests. As they rode home through the green wood, he knew that if the little girl asked him in the morning, he would grant her that wish to go see Oma.

He knew that there was risk involved, but he could no longer stand to see the little girl cry so much. He had to put her at risk just so that she could be happy.

Plus, no one had seen even a wolf track along that forest road to Oma’s house. It wasn’t that much of a risk, the Revierjäger reasoned to himself.

And so he made his decision. He slept little that night, but when his daughter asked that glorious Monday morning, he gave the answer that he knew he had to give. But he had some regulations:

2″You shall stay on the forest road. You must not wander from it. You will walk to Oma’s house and nowhere else. You will not speak to /strangers. And above all, if a wolf shows up, make yourself look big and tall. Lift up your red hood to make you look like a giant and shout at it. Do not run. The wolf will be on you in seconds if you do.”

The little girl stared up with her father. He expected fear to rise across her face, but instead, he saw hard resolve.

“Yes, father, I will stay on the road. I will not speak to strangers. I will go right to Oma’s house, and I will make myself look big if I see a wolf. I will be safe.”

“You must wear your hood. I feel a hint of rain in the air.”

He handed her a basket full of bread to carry on her way.

“If you get hungry, eat some this bread, but keep most of it for Oma. She will be thrilled to see you arrive with such a nice bit of food.”

In the basket, the Revierjäger placed a note to Oma. It was a note expressing his permission for the little girl to make such a journey and instructions on what to do with that bread in the basket.

And so the little girl headed down that forest road on the way Oma’s house. The Revierjäger fretted the whole time, and he was sorely tempted to follow the girl down the road. But something made him stand still, something that he could not explain.

But when he made the decision to follow her, a local blacksmith came rushing up to the cottage. The blacksmith said he’d found a poacher’s camp in the far end of the forest. and any Revierjäger worth his salt knew he had to check it out. And so the Revierjäger rode off in the opposite direction to inspect the poacher’s camp.

The daughter made her way down the road until she got to the point where the trees grow thick along both sides of the road. They shaded this whole bit of land, making the whole scene dark as if it were dusk even in the sunny days of July.

A raven croaked in the canopy of the trees. The wind was still, but the air was dank even for summer.

The little girl drew her hood in more tightly to keep out the chill, and as she proceeded down the road, the sounds of the forest seemed to dissipate. It was an eerie silence that now befell the forest road

She walked on and on. Her face showing strong resolve as she marched along the forest road.

But at that point, the leaves on the right side of the road began to rustle. She stopped and stared into the forest, but the growth was so thick she could see nothing. She told herself it was nothing and continued down the road.

At various points along the trail, shadows would move in the gloom, but she could not make out their shape. She told herself it was just her imagination.

She continued on and on until she came to where a massive boulder had rolled down to the edge of the road. As she came upon the boulder, a wolf leaped upon the boulder then bounded off it, landed in the middle of the forest road, and loped toward the girl. 

The wolf’s left ear was hanging down, an old injury from an errant boar tusk, and his face was all scarred from the fighting he did with his pack-mates over the last scraps of meat they could scavenge from forest.He.

He was a ghastly, demonic sort of wolf. And his amber eyes were fixed upon the girl. She was now his prey, and an easy kill at that.

But as the wolf approached with such menace in his eyes, the girl remembered her father’s words, and she lifted up the red hood off her shoulders. She made herself look tall and powerful, and she shouted at the wolf. She marched toward him with the swagger of a sailor, and the wolf was taken aback by such a display. He tucked his tail between his legs and scurried back into the thick brush.

The girl knew she had done something powerful. She had made the wolf back down. She now marched down the forest road, confident that she had stood up to such a terrible beast.

She continued down the path to Oma’s house, but what she could not know is that the night before, a pair of wolves slipped into Oma’s bedroom. They were skilled man-eaters, and they made short work of her corpse. 

The two wolves were resting in the front room of Oma’s cottage. They growled when they heard the approaching footsteps, but their bellies were too full of meat to get them that excited. 

When the girl walked up to the house, the wolves stood and stared at her. She was shocked to see them standing there. She noticed that their muzzles were covered in blood, and they stared at her so hard and intently, that fear took over and she ran. Her decision to run was not wise, for it stimulated the wolves’ predatory instinct. They chased after her, and after only short run, they were on her. They easily tore the girl apart, but because they weren’t particularly hungry, they just rolled around a bit and moved into the shade of an oak tree that lay just beyond Oma’s cottage. 

As the pair of wolves rested beneath the oak,  a man’s form appeared along the edge of the wood.  It was Revierjäger. He had tried to track down the poachers’ camp, but he then began to worry about the fate of his daughter, he decided to walk over to make sure everything was okay. 

He saw wolf tracks in the dirt in the road. So he loaded his musket.  His years of forest experience had honed his instincts. He seemed to know that fresh wolf tracks could mean something bad had happened. He was ready for the worst.

As he came upon Oma’s cottage, he saw the mutilated form of his daughter in the lawn.  Tears shot down his face. He dropped to his knees and wept, but as he wept he saw movement below the oak at the far edge of the lawn.  There were two wolves. 

Feeling horrific rage, the Revierjäger fired his gun. One wolf fell, but the other ran before he could load again. 

The wolf fell dead and hard on the ground.  The Revierjäger had the last of his family to bury.  

But in a few days, every villager within miles would be out with every barking dog, beating the forest for wolves.

Revierjägers from all around would fill the wood with firing guns. The wolves fell hard on the ground.  Wolves were trapped with iron footholds and with pit traps.  Dogs tore them apart.

And after four months of revenge, scarcely a wolf existed in that wood.  The peasants could graze their sheep and allow their swine pannage once again.

But the Revierjäger had a life to put together again. And everyone knew about the horrors of wolves in the deep forest. They would tell their children, who would tell their children, and so the fear was known long after the last wolf howl rose from the oak wood in that region.

Some of their descendants would come to North America, and they would kill every wolf and coyote they saw, simply because they knew what happened when wolves were allowed to live upon the land. They never saw a wolf attack anyone, but they knew that they would, simply because that is what they were told. 

 

 

 

 

 

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black coyote

For most of my life, scientists believed that the present era was still the Holocene.  Glaciers retreated with a global warming trend around 11, 650. Man went from being the apex predator over much of the world and became the apex consumer. Agriculture allowed our populations to expand, and we started to give up our wandering ways and became “civilized.”

It was generally believed that the past few centuries are but a continuation of this age, but now a growing number of scientists believe we have left the Holocene and entered into the Anthropocene. Several scholars have issues with this new distinction, but I think it is quite useful. In this era, human activity is the main factor affecting climate and ecology, which is why the age is named for the Greek word for human (anthropos).

The best argument I’ve seen for when this era began is 1610.  In this scenario, the era is dated to when European disease and conquest killed off enough Native Americans and enslaved and enough African had been enslaved to allow forests to grow back in former agrarian fields.  This process started in 1492, but by 1610, enough of those trees had grown to remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to push the planet into the Little Ice Age.

Darcy Morey and Rujana Jeger have a great model for understanding dog domestication as a change in trophic strategies.  In the Pleistocene ecosystems, most wolves were mesopredators, playing second fiddle to an ecosystem full of cave lions, machairodonts, large bears, and cave hyenas. When these wolves hooked up with people, though, they hitched their wagon to the species that often behaved as the apex predators in the ecosystems.  When humans switched to agrarian lifestyles during the Holocene, humans became apex consumers, and dogs joined us as beneficiaries of being allied to that apex consumer species.  During the Holocene, many wolves became apex predators, as the cave lions and other large predators became extinct.

I’ve always liked the framework that Morey and Jeger derived in this paper, but now that we’re entering into a new geological age, maybe we need to look at the change in trophic strategies of wolves in this new age.

Morey and Jeger don’t have a good framework for what happened to wolves in the Anthropocene, but across Eurasia and North America, wolves were gone from many human-dominated landscapes by the first decades of the twentieth century.  They existed only in isolated areas in Western Europe, and in the  lower 48 states of the US, they lived only in Minnesota and in an isolated region in East Texas and Louisiana, where the taxonomically controversially red wolves were located.

Large pack-hunting wolves were really in quite a bit of trouble.  In the United States, the coyote population began to expand out of its Western core range into the Great Lakes States. They eventually made to New England and the Maritimes of Canada, and they hybridized with relict wolves and the expanding population of domestic dogs.  Coyotes eventually colonized all the Eastern states, and as they did so, they largely became the apex predators in many parts of their range.

But in the 1960s, attitudes about wolves began to change. Many nations protected wolves, and there were often introduction plans in the works.  By the early decades of the twenty-first century, wolves were making significant comebacks in Germany and Italy. The wolves in Italy were often living very much like stray domestic dogs, living large at garbage dumps. Wolves live near large cities in Germany, and how these wolves are going to adapt to living in such human dominated environments is going to be a major question for researchers.

And in throughout Eurasia, we began to see that domestic dogs were mating with wolves.  Indeed, it is now estimated that a majority of wolves in Eurasia have relatively recent dog ancestry. 

Similarly, as coyotes expanded in North America, their genes began to work their way into the wolf population.  Yes, coyotes in a large part of the US have wolf ancestry, but we also have discovered that wolves across North America have coyote ancestry. Indeed, one interesting thing about these genome comparisons is that coyotes and wolves are much more closely related than we initially gleaned form mitochondrial DNA analysis. The calculation is that the gray wolf and the coyote last shared a common ancestor around 50,000 years ago.  This recent common ancestry has a taxonomic implication, which is that coyotes are themselves a divergent form of gray wolf in much the same way domestic dogs are.

In the Anthropocene, the wolves that have done the best have been the domestic dog and the coyote. The domestic dog’s ability to ingratiate itself into human society or live very nicely as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter on the periphery of humanity is a great gift.  The coyote can live as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter as well, and it also can live very nicely as a mousing fox or pack up and hunt deer.

Gene flow among wolves, coyotes, and dogs has made these entities much more fuzzy than we once thought they were. Dog genes are working their way into both the coyote and wolf population.  Strange pelt colors are popping up in the wild animals. The black coloration in domestic dogs was conferred onto the North American wolf population during the Holocene, but this same mutation for melanism has entered the coyote and Italian wolf population in very recent years. Dogs have introduced dewclaws on the hindlegs to some wolf populations, and I have seen photos of Eastern coyotes that have those hind dewclaws as well, which likely were introduced through breeding with domestic dogs.

Coyotes in the East are evolving larger size to become better predators of deer, but becoming larger and more effective ungulate hunters will have a trade-off. As carnivorous mammals grow larger, they become more and more dependent upon large prey to survive.  Very large wolf-like coyotes will lose their ability to live well on small prey and garbage.

So in the Anthropocene, dogs remain allied to the apex consumers. Some coyotes operate as apex predators, and some wolves live as opportunistic scavengers.

And as these creatures adjust their trophic strategies in a much more predator tolerant world, the pseudo species barriers that exist among wolves, coyotes, and dogs can break down. Hybridization among these creatures is likely to be a major feature of their continued evolution, a definite feature and not a bug.

These canids  thus make the leap with us into this human dominated age, an age that is experiencing a mass extinction of amphibians and great retrenchment of large sharks and big cats.

Yet they are still there. Evolving as the winds change. Winds that we ourselves are changing and are only now starting to understand.

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painted wolves

I’ve been watching Dynasties on BBC America, and I have been waiting until the series got to the African wild dog episode. African wild dogs, which the series calls “painted wolves” in light of a direct translation of their scientific name,  Lycaon pictus,  are critically endangered canids.  Only 6,600 of them exist in the wild, and the series hooked up with Painted Dog Conservation to follow the high drama of two packs living at the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

The story starts with a pack led by Tait. Tait is a ten-year-old breeding female, and she has over 200 descendants. One of these is Blacktip, the breeding female of growing pack, that now needs more territory to feed itself. Tait’s pack is in a pretty bad state.  Their numbers are small, and because the African wild dog range in the park is surrounded on two sides by lion and spotted hyenas, Blacktip’s pack drives Tait’s pack from its territory.

Tait’s family escapes to lion country, where they are forced to hunt impalas, choke down some bits of meat, and then run like hell when the lions eventually show up.  Blacktip’s pack lives very nicely, but they are forced to remain stationary while Blacktip nurses her pups.  When they get old enough to move, Blacktip leads her pack against her mother in lion country,  a campaign that will prove disastrous.

Spotted hyenas kill at least one pup, and lions almost off the rest of the litter. However, they are saved when a foolish African buffalo comes charging onto the scene.  The buffalo was unexpected,  but the lions hate buffalo more than they hate African wild dogs– and certainly prefer their meat.  So the lions kill the buffalo, and the pups are spared.

The campaign ends when a Nile crocodile catches one of Blacktip’s pups and drags it into the Zambezi. It is the most graphic scene in the whole episode. I could not help but feel for the poor wild dog as it died in the crocodile’s jaws. This is a horrible way to die.

After that campaign, Blacktip retreats to her old territory, and Tait’s pack is able to return to its old haunts. Just before we hear that they have returned, Sir David Attenborough narrates that Tait died at the hands of lions. She was too old to keep running.  Her mate refused to leave her side, and he dies at the hands of the lions. Surely, this scene had to have been witnessed, but it was probably too horrific to be shown as part of this documentary.

The film ends with Tait’s family hooking with some errant males. Their booming cries are hauntingly beautiful as the new males join up.  A new mated pair is being crowned, and Tait’s daughter Tammy becomes the new lead female. And Tait’s dynasty continues on.

This film shows many amazing hunting scenes. I’ve never before seen any footage of African wild dogs hunting baboons, a pretty dangerous undertaking.  Baboons are smart and strong and have massive canine teeth. But the dogs are able to cause such chaos in a baboon troop that some young ones do get left unattended in the melee.

In another hunt, Tait’s pack runs an impala into the Zambezi, where the crocodiles instantly devour it.  You almost feel the dogs’ pain as that impala leaps into the water. That good meat, now lost to the archosaurs.

In another scene, we see Tait’s tiny litter of only two pups that are almost instantly threatened by honey badgers.  One of Tait’s daughters flies into action and begins harrying the ratels to drive them off.

This film was such wonderful high drama. It was like the story of Exodus from the Old Testament, complete with its own Moses figure who never makes to the Promised Land, that mixes in with the story of Ernest Thompson’s Seton’s story about Old Lobo, the marauding wolf of the New Mexico ranges that dies because he will not abandon his mate.

And this story is fully true and documented before the rolling cameras.

Every time I watched those dogs run on their hunts, I thought how much they reminded me of sighthounds.  Their svelte frames seemed to glide across the plains, running hard and fast after the game. Dan Belkin famously compared the saluki’s running style to this species, and in watching their endurance runs, I have to agree.

I particularly have enjoyed the way this series has made a conservation message part of the documentaries. In this one, the final part has Sir David Attenborough and the wild dog trackers standing and sitting among the packs. They tell us of the real problems facing these dogs. They need big territories to hunt their game, but most of the painted wolves don’t live in national parks. Livestock ranchers and pastoralists shoot and poison the dogs, even if they have legal protections. Zimbabwe has set up corridors for wildlife that allow travel between parks, but most African countries that have these dogs have not. So they must constantly run a gauntlet of often hostile humanity as they try to survive at the edge of lion and hyena territories.

The painted wolf, the painted dog, the African wild dog, or the Cape hunting dog are all names that we use for this animal. I prefer “painted wolf,” but I realize that no one knows what I’m talking about when I use that term. I hope that this film popularizes that name a bit more. The name “African wild dog” connotes something feral, something that we can just kill off and not consider more deeply.

Lycaon pictus, the painted wolf, has a far more noble connotation. No, they aren’t as magnificent as lions, but in their intense social behavior, we surely must see ourselves. Like us, they evolved in Africa as a distant running predators, and we probably were intense competitors for he same sorts of antelope.  Our kind wound up taking over the whole world. Theirs remained in Africa, and now our kind has come quite close to wiping them off the face of the earth.

Films like this episode of Dynasties fully reveal the plight of these amazing creatures. They are pack-hunting wolves evolved in parallel on the great continent of Africa, and we are only now realizing their marvelous ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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isle royale wolves

One of the classic studies in wildlife management happened on island in Lake Superior. Isle Royale, part of the state of Michigan but much closer to the state of Minnesota and Northwest Ontario, is home to a population of moose. These moose either swam across from Minnesota or were stocked there in the early 1900, and they found themselves in a paradise. No predators existed on the island, and the island was full of birch trees and aspen colonies.

Over time, the moose denuded the aspens and the birches, and they were forced to eat balsam fir. In 1949, when Lake Superior was frozen over, a pair of wolves crossed to Isle Royale, and they were the foundation for a wolf population that specialized in hunting moose.

This island became of interest to ecologists early on.  It had been made a national park in 1940, and as a national park, it has no permanent residents. Because wolves and moose live on the island without any chance of humans hunting them,  early predator-prey researchers went to the island to see if Paul Errington was right.

Paul Errington was professor of zoology at Iowa State University. He had studied bobwhite quail population dynamics while a student at the University of Wisconsin, during which time he became close friends with Aldo Leopold. Leopold was not faculty member, but Errington learned so much from him during his time at the university. Errington was

Errington’s most famous research was performed in the marshes of Iowa. There, he studied the population dynamics of muskrats and American mink. Muskrats, which are giant water voles, are a major prey source for the mink, and one would think that mink would severely reduce muskrat population. However, Errington’s research found that mink predation had no real depressive influence on muskrat numbers.  He found that the mink tended to take young and infirm. Most healthy muskrats  were generally left alone.

This research, which was published in 1943, was the hottest idea in the nascent science of ecology, and researchers were looking for places where this hypothesis could be tested on a grander scale.  Isle Royale fit the bill, and the first studies of wolf and moose dynamics on the island started in 1958.

Initially, the research found similar findings to Errington’s muskrat and mink study.  Moose and wolf populations fluctuated over the years. When the moose became too numerous, they were forced to eat more and more balsam fir. The fir is not nutritious, and the moose gradually become emaciated. Because the moose require lots of nutrition from their bones to grow their antlers, they also wind up suffering from arthritis.  Emaciated, arthritic moose are easy prey for wolves, and wolf numbers increased when the moose hit this stage.  The wolf population would then increase, and after a few years, it would begin to pare back the moose population to allow birches and aspen to recover.

But at the same time, there weren’t enough weak moose for the wolves to hunt, and the wolf population would crash. The moose would find themselves in a situation with more limited predation and better forage, and their numbers would increase again. And the cycle would start again

When I think of Isle Royale’s wolf and moose dynamics, I think of the work of Rolf Peterson, who made a career out of studying the wolf and moose population fluctuations.  He began to notice that the balsam firs on the island were not regenerating through each moose and wolf fluctuation.

These findings meant that Isle Royale would not be able to continue on through constant moose and wolf fluctuations as one might have hoped, and this problem became worse when the wolf population really crashed.

Lots of debate exists about how well wolves can withstand inbreeding. Climate change has meant that ice bridges that connect the island to Minnesota and Ontario no longer form, and those that do form aren’t around very long. So the wolves have been inbreeding on the island for decades. They were able to withstand this inbreeding for decades, but in the 1990s, the population really began to suffer from this inbreeding depression.

In 1997, a lone male wolf, “Old Gray Guy,” wandered onto the island, there was hope that his genes would be a genetic rescue on the island.  He apparently did introduce some much needed genetic diversity to the island, because by the 2010s, 56 percent of all wolf genes on the island could be traced to him. Wolf fertility did not increase as the result of his arrival, and although a debate exists as to whether there was anything like a genetic rescue on the island, it should be noted that Old Gray Guy was very much like a popular sire in a purebred dog. The population was already quite inbred, and the influx of only a single male that winds up contributing that many genes to the population isn’t going to save the population

By the first decade of this century, a genetic disorder of the wolves’ spines became rampant in the population.  The wolves began to die at early ages, simply because they were unable to walk or because movement was painful for them.

At that time, a real debate existed about bringing in wolves from the mainland, but caution was exercised. There was a hope that natural selection would purge the spinal deformities, but this purge never came. When the ice bridge formed during a polar vortex collapse in 2014, there was also real hope that wolves would walk over to the island. However, all that happened was that two Isle Royale wolves left the island, and one was found dead on the Minnesota mainland.

Further, because the purpose of the studies on wolves and moose on Isle Royale was to see what predator and prey relations are like without the use of human intervention, there was very real resistance to introducing more mainland wolves.

However by December 2017, only one wolf was thought to be living on the island, and the moose population exploded.   However, the moose themselves were physically smaller and would very likely eat themselves out of forage in short order.

This past September, a plan was hatched to restore the wolf population to Isle Royale.  Wolves from the UP of Michigan and northeastern Minnesota would be released upon the island.  Yes, after decades of allowing nature to take its course, man would finally intervene in these predator-prey dynamics.

Things are not off to a good start, however.  One of the first three wolves released on the island has already used the formation of an ice bridge in the most recent polar vortex collapse to escape back to the Minnesota mainland.

However, wildlife managers aren’t giving up. Currently, there are plans to release six wolves from Ontario’s Michipicoten Island onto Isle Royale.  These wolves, which also live on an island in Lake Superior, have a bit of a storied reputation.

On their island, there was once a thriving population of woodland caribou, but the wolves have reduced their number from over 900 to just 30 individuals.  The  caribou were not native to the island, however.  A bull just happened to pop up on the island, and other woodland caribou were stocked to create a population, which thrived until the winter of 2014-2015.

That is when wolves walked across an ice bridge n Michipicoten, and they found it a paradise for wolves. Finding a vast horde of ungulates was a boon for their numbers, but by it took them just a few years to drop the caribou numbers. The caribou are now being taken off the island, but the wolves have had virtually no options. the wolves have had virtually no options.

These Michipicoten wolves are large-bodied creatures that definitely have the ability to hunt large ungulates, so there are very real hopes that these wolves will be able to reduce Isle Royale’s moose population.  New studies on their population dynamics can begin, and this experiment continues on.

That is the hope, anyway.  Whatever happens in the next few months, it should be noted that Isle Royale and the related Michipicoten experiences is that both are studies in a really controlled environments that no longer exist in North America, if they ever did at all.

Moose, caribou, and wolves are all at the mercy of a human-dominated world.  These islands give us an idea of what the world would be like if predator and prey dynamics were left alone, but they aren’t necessarily indicative of how these dynamics would exist on a continent in which human interests have great knock-off effects upon ecology.

After all, the Isle Royale moose and wolves are not directly affected by human hunting. They are still controlled by climate change.  Warmer than normal winters mean that the ice bridges don’t form, and the collapse of the polar vortex, which is also caused by climate change, means that the inbred wolves just don’t want to stay on the island. Moose are getting weaker and weaker as the ticks spread through the populations, and without long periods of cold, the ticks are able to infest the moose, weakening them in greater numbers every year.

The Isle Royale studies are the studies of an island where hunting isn’t allowed, but virtually every place where wolves and ungulates exist on this continent, hunting is a major point of human interest. Humans want more ungulates on the ground, and if their numbers ever drop, wolves will be blamed.  Wolves certainly can have an effect upon prey numbers, and even more than that, they have an effect upon prey behavior. Trophy cervids are just harder to kill if they spend much of the year being harried and herded by wolves.

Maybe what we can know from Isle Royale is limited, but in those limitations, we might get an idea of how to mitigate all these competing interests and have some way of keeping large predators as part of our North American wildlife heritage.

If wolves are not restored to Isle Royale, the landscape will likely be denuded of trees, and all that will be left is a population of tick-invested, diminutive moose.  They will always be on the edge of famine.

Restoring wolves gives a potential hope, but nothing is guaranteed.

But the saga goes on. Maybe for just a bit longer, or maybe new, bright future exists for this most storied of predator and prey studies.

 

 

 

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smithsonian wolf

The Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article with the very simple title “Should the Himalayan Wolf  Be Classified as a New Species?”

The article details the work of scientists who have gone around Nepal collecting DNA samples from wolf scat.  This is a difficult project, for wolves in this region have experienced quite a bit of persecution from man. Further, where they live is quite inaccessible.

The researchers have found that these wolves have some uniqueness in their mitochondrial DNA, and they have also found that they share some genetic markers with the African golden wolf.

This is all interesting stuff, but I would caution going out on a limb and creating a new species called Canis himalayensis.

The big reason is the studies that have  attempted to figure out where these wolves fit have base part of their calculations on an assumption that gray wolves and coyotes last shared a common ancestor about a million years ago. We know that from full genome comparisons that this assumption is faulty, and the most divergence between gray wolves and coyotes happened about 50,000 years ago.  The DNA studies have shown that the Himalayan wolf is closer to Holarctic wolf, as is the African golden wolf, which means that Himalayan wolves aren’t as divergent from Holarctic gray wolves as coyotes are.

I have argued many times on this blog that the best way to think of coyotes in light of the evidence of this recent divergence between gray wolves is to think of coyotes as a form of gray wolf, and I think the name for coyotes should be Canis lupus latrans.  It makes at least as much sense as Canis lupus familiaris for pugs and Yorkshire terriers.

Because of the coyote’s position in light of full-genome comparisons, I think that we really shouldn’t think of the Himalayan wolf as a distinct species. I have no problem with Canis lupus himalayensis.

I am quite open to the African golden wolf being recognized as a subspecies of Canis lupus. In light of the work performed on Himalayan wolves and the recent discovery that African golden wolves are almost entirely gray wolf in ancestry, I think this might be correct.

And if you use this species model for gray wolves, you wind up with amazingly phenotypically and behaviorally diverse species, which is reflected in both wild and domestic forms.

I find this a lot easier to deal with than this model that has all these different species described that wind up exchanging genes all the time, and then, because we have declared one form endangered, we get into culling all the hybrids.

We need full genome comparisons between African golden wolves, coyotes, Holarctic gray wolves, and Himalayan wolves to suss out fully what these exact relationships are, but it seems that all of these animals are much more closely related to each other than we initially assumed. We also need more comparisons of ancient wolf DNA, including DNA from the remains of the ancestral Mosbach wolves (Canis mosbachensis).

So there might be a new species of wolf in the Himalayas, but I don’t think the evidence is all there yet. And there are lots of reasons to be skeptical.

But I do think that a unique high altitude subspecies of wolf does exist in the Himalayas. It is very likely that African golden wolves and Himalayan wolves are genetic relics of what was once a more genetically diverse Canis lupus. These lineages have since been lost in the main Holarctic wolf populations, just as we have lost the lineage that led directly to the domestic dog in these wolf populations.

After going through the red and Eastern wolf taxonomic mess, we should be careful in assigning new species status for unique wolf populations, particularly when we are using only very limited DNA assays.

 

 

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