Monthly Archives: December 2004

Gray wolves lope toward Colo. release

The Denver Post

By Electa Draper
Denver Post Staff Writer

Durango – In three to five years, wolves could hit the ground running in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico, according to several members of the federal recovery team.

And the wolf that appears headed for reintroduction in the Four Corners region, including perhaps the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, is the imperiled Mexican gray.

Although nothing has been finalized, scientists on the team are leaning toward release of the smaller and greatly endangered Mexican gray wolf rather than the northern grays released in Yellowstone National Park.

“I suspect the recovery team will consider which subspecies of wolf needs our help the most,” said Michael Phillips, recovery team member and executive director of the Montana-based Turner Endangered Species Fund.

There is some dissent, however, because the Mexican gray’s historic range extended only as far north as the desert climes of southern New Mexico and southern Arizona, said Michael Robinson, recovery team member and carnivore coordinator for the New Mexico-based Center for Biological Diversity. However, he said, his view that the Mexican gray might not be the most suitable for Colorado appears to be in the minority.

Several team members estimated that a draft recovery plan for public review could be three to nine months away. While an exact timeline is undetermined, they said reintroduction is likely before the end of the decade.

Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Gary Skiba said scientists are also looking at west- central Colorado in the wilds near Aspen as a potential site to re-establish one subspecies or another. He emphasized that the deliberations of the federal recovery team, about two dozen experts or stakeholders, must be largely confidential until the draft plan is ready.

The region where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet historically was a mingling place for northern and southern wolf populations before their extermination in Colorado and much of the West by the 1930s.

“It is quite clear there is still room in southern Colorado for wolves. There is a huge number of elk,” Robinson said.

A team member representing livestock interests, Tom Compton of Hesperus, said ranchers oppose reintroduction in the Four Corners but must accept that wolves are likely coming. Recovery of the species is the law. And the Endangered Species Act has more teeth than a pack of wolves.

“If we had our druthers we’d rather not have this experience,” Compton said. “But it’s inevitable, so we’re looking for some major concessions in compensation and livestock protection. On a scale of ‘angry’ from 1 to 10, I’d say Colorado ranchers are at 8 or 9. In New Mexico, they’re at 11.”

The Yellowstone reintroduction has been hailed as a success. The release of 66 wolves a decade ago helped yield a wild population estimated at more than 700 in three states: Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. The wolf there is now designated as threatened rather than endangered. And colonization of northern Colorado and Utah by these northern gray wolves is widely expected.

But the Mexican gray’s recovery in Arizona and New Mexico has been undermined by a complicated management scheme Robinson said.

The Mexican gray wolf is the only endangered species in the country that the Fish and Wildlife Service is required to kill or remove if pack members stray outside arbitrarily defined boundaries. That has been more damaging, Robinson said, than illegal shootings of the wolves, which have occurred in other recovery regions.

Last Monday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a five-year review of Mexican gray wolf releases. An early environmental impact statement had projected 12 breeding pairs by this December, but scientists know of only five pairs.

The Mexican gray wolf is the smallest American wolf. Females typically weigh 50-65 pounds. Males generally weigh in at 70-75 pounds.

In the desert southwest, Mexican gray wolves prey on antelope, deer, javelina and peccary, but they’ll take elk when they can get it, Phillips said.

At this time in Colorado, any wolves south of an arbitrary federal boundary, Interstate 70, are part of the Southwest wolf recovery program and are fully protected as an endangered species. Wolves north of I-70 are considered merely threatened.

The Endangered Species Act requires that the federal government recover wolves in the Southwestern “distinct population segment.”

If recovery team members, as now expected, deem it necessary to reintroduce wolves directly into southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, one site could be media tycoon Ted Turner’s Vermejo Ranch near the state line.

“It’s crazy,” said Ignacio-area sheep rancher J. Paul Brown, who has federal grazing permits in both states. “It’s not right for the wolves. There’s too many people here.”

But Phillips said there is room for perhaps 1,000 wolves in the San Juan Mountains and other ranges of the Southern Rockies for many decades. He cites computer modeling of wolf and human populations concluded last year by the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, the Turner Endangered Species Fund and others.

There are legal and moral imperatives to recover wolves, Phillips said. “We as a people, as a country, have decided to share our lands with wildlife. The biggest determinant of the wolf’s fate will be human tolerance.”

Staff writer Electa Draper can be reached at 970-385-0917 or edraper@denverpost.com

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Wolves gone, western ecosystems suffer

Oregon State University

Research about wolves that began in Yellowstone National Park has been replicated in an adjacent area, and a growing body of evidence leads scientists to conclude that this historic predator may have an ecological impact far more important than realized in the American West.

A withering stand of aspen in Yellowstone National Park reflect a phenomenon that researchers from Oregon State University believe is now far more widespread – the loss of wolves in the American West leading to the decline of tree and stream ecosystems.

The near extinction of the gray wolf across most of the West in the past century now appears to have removed the natural element of “fear” from these ecosystems. It has triggered a cascade of ecological effects on everything from elk populations to beaver, birds, fish, and even stream systems – and helped lead directly to the collapsing health of aspen and some other tree species and vegetation.

Two recent studies by forestry scientists from Oregon State University, published in the journals BioScience and Forest Ecology and Management, outline a role for the gray wolf that is complex and rarely understood, but helps explain many major problems facing western streams, forests and wildlife.

“It would appear that the loss of a keystone predator, the gray wolf, across vast areas of the American West may have set the stage for previously unrecognized and unappreciated ecological changes in riparian and upland plant communities, and the functions they provide,” the scientists concluded.

The studies were authored by William Ripple, a professor, and Robert Beschta, a professor emeritus, in the OSU College of Forestry.

In their research, the scientists explore a concept that has been called “the ecology of fear.”

The ecological and historical significance of wolves is only partly due to the actual impact they have by preying on other animals, both large and small, the OSU researchers have found. Just as important is the fear that many larger animals have of wolves, and the resulting behavioral changes in elk and some other grazing animals.

“Prey species will alter their use of space and their foraging patterns according to the features of the terrain and how that affects the risk of predation,” Ripple and Beschta noted in their study. “They forage or browse less intensively at high-risk sites.”

Some of those sites, the researchers say, are streamsides rich in aspen, cottonwood, willow and other edible vegetation. When healthy and normal, such areas naturally grow large trees and other streamside vegetation that provides the basis for supporting beaver, other wildlife, fish populations, native bird communities, and stable channel banks.

The OSU scientists, in previous work, documented that the loss of aspen and cottonwood trees in Yellowstone National Park dated almost exactly to the extermination of the last wolf packs in the park in the mid-1920s.

The elk moved in, ate young trees before they could become established, and the entire riparian ecosystem began a slow demise that was only reversed recently – when wolves were re-introduced to the park.

In their newest work, the researchers have found exactly the same forces at work along the Gallatin River in southwestern Montana. Coincidental with the return of wolves to that area, there has been a dramatic recovery of willow populations along streams, and other possible factors such as changing climate conditions have been ruled out as a possible cause.

A modest recovery of willows may not seem that significant. But the OSU researchers say it has set the stage for ecological “spin-offs,” including an increase in plant biomass, improved streambank stability, better floodplain functioning, reduced soil erosion, and better food web support for everything from beaver to river otter, fish, birds, amphibians, and insects. Biodiversity will increase and rising beaver populations will lead to even more changes, including sediment retention, wetland maintenance and nutrient cycling.

And the story, the OSU scientists say, appears to be much larger than just Yellowstone National Park or the mountainous regions around it, as demonstrated by a broad range of research.

One study suggested that the loss of wolves has allowed increases in deer populations across much of North America, which led to a browsing pressure on plants that was unprecedented. Predation effects involving wolves and elk were also found in aspen growth in Jasper National Park. In Grand Teton National Park, the local extinction of grizzly bears and wolves caused an increase in herbivory on willow by moose, and ultimately decreased the diversity of neotropical migrant birds.

The role of fear, while emphasizing the value of wolves, is not exclusive to them, the scientists said. Even the fear of human sport hunters has a role.

One study in Montana showed that elk adjusted their foraging behavior by browsing far from roads to avoid human contact and possible predation. And research in Colorado has found that aspen was far more heavily browsed, and used year-round by elk, where sport hunting was excluded.

Ultimately, however, the value of large predators needs to be reconsidered, the reports conclude. The body of evidence has become compelling, the OSU researchers say, that predation by top carnivores, especially wolves, may be pivotal to maintaining biodiversity in some ecosystems.

“The ranges of large carnivores are continuing to collapse around the world,” the scientists note in their report. “In North America, the gray wolf and the grizzly bear have faced nearly complete extirpation in the lower 48 states, although populations of these carnivores have been increasing in recent years.”

“Growing evidence points to the importance of conserving these animals because they have cascading effects on lower trophic levels.”

A similar point, they said, was made by the great naturalist Aldo Leopold in 1949, who predicted this crisis.

“I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves,” Leopold wrote 55 years ago. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anemic desuetude, and then to death.”

Sport hunting triggers debate over cougar management

April Reese, Land Letter Southwest reporter

SANTA FE, N.M. — Cougar hunting has been a part of life in the West for decades. But some wildlife advocates contend state management efforts are often overly aggressive, killing an increasing number of the animals for no clear benefit to public safety.

Rich Hopkins of the Cougar Fund, a conservation organization based in Jackson, Wyo., said cougar management policies often involve hunting quotas that are based more on guesswork than science. That means in some cases, too many cougars may be under the gun, he said.

“Cougars can be overharvested,” said Hopkins, speaking at a carnivore conservation conference held here in mid-November.

Like other carnivores in the West, cougars — also known as mountain lions or pumas — were long seen as competition for game and a threat to livestock and were aggressively hunted for almost two centuries.

“Basically, when we settled the West, we essentially tried to kill every large carnivore there was, because they competed with us,” said Rick Winslow, a wildlife biologist with the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game. “So we’ve spent the past couple hundred years trying to kill them off.”

The cougar has the greatest natural distribution of any mammal in the Western Hemisphere except for man. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.

Today, for the most part, the big cat is no longer found east of the Rocky Mountains. But the species has made something of a comeback in the West, where viable populations persist in 12 states. Of those, 11 states have adopted sport hunting programs, and most states kill cougars that are determined to be a direct threat to the public or livestock.

But few states have been able to gather hard data on mountain lion numbers, relying instead on estimates based on the amount of suitable habitat, extrapolated from one or two site-specific studies or reported cougar sightings — information critics say is insufficient to determine hunting quotas. Sighting reports are unreliable and often false, and it is impossible to estimate cougar numbers based on sightings alone, Hopkins said, warning that management policies based on such reports are “doomed to failure.”

“There’s no evidence that increased sightings translates into increased risk” to the public, he said.

Furthermore, few studies have been done to test what effect hunting programs have on cougar populations, Hopkins added. “Harvest levels have been pushed to all-time highs based on little or no empirical evidence,” he said.
Setting the quota

Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of carnivore protection for Sinapu, a wildlife advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo., pointed to New Mexico’s harvest program as an example of overzealous cougar management.

A 1995 study recommended that New Mexico establish sustainable hunting zones and “refugia,” areas where hunting is off-limits. Instead, “they’ve increased the quota to the highest it’s been in 20 years” — from 110 in the 1980s to 230 today, she said.

But Winslow said state wildlife officials have set appropriate hunting quotas by using the results of that study, which looked at a cougar population in the San Andreas Mountains, to estimate cougar populations in other parts of the state.

Yet he acknowledged that drawing statewide conclusions from one study is not ideal. “It’s hard to say if the population is stable or expanding,” he said. “But I would say at this point it’s fairly stable. Virtually everywhere in New Mexico that we have habitat, we have cougars.”

State wildlife officials say they use the best available science to determine reasonable harvest levels, and use caution in setting limits in areas where data are lacking. They acknowledge that gathering more precise numbers on cougar populations would allow for better-informed management decisions, but note that population studies are expensive and difficult because of the cat’s elusive nature and expansive territories.

“Getting absolute numbers on how many there are is a very expensive and tricky proposition,” said Tice Supplee, game program chief for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

About 2,500 cougars are thought to roam the state, although those estimates are imprecise, she said.

Echoing a common regret among state wildlife managers, Supplee said limited resources prevent Arizona from getting a better scientific grip on cougar populations in the state. Even so, wildlife biologists are able to make fairly good decisions about cougar management, she said.

“Those interested in [cougar protection] like the idea of more hands-on work with those animals, yet that may not be warranted,” she said. “The other approach is to adopt conservative harvest programs, which I believe most of the states have done.”

In low desert areas, where the drought has taken a particularly heavy toll on prey, Arizona has set the harvest limit at one cougar per year, and some areas are off-limits to cougar hunting altogether, Supplee said. Harvest limits, which average about 250 animals per year, have been set for areas where hunting is permitted.

Arizona hunters killed 218 cougars last year, the lowest number in the past five years. The state’s harvest numbers have been stable for several years, and “it would appear that the harvest is having a low effect on the population of cougars in the state,” Supplee said.

A study in central Arizona and another in New Mexico found that even high harvest levels had little long-term effect on the population, because cougars from the surrounding area filled the void within a year or two, she added.

But some states are moving toward a more cautious approach to cougar management. In Colorado, the state wildlife commission voted in mid-November to lower the mountain lion hunting quota for 2005, from 790 animals to 567. It also plans to launch a $2 million long-term study using radio collars to track the state’s cougar population, which is currently estimated at about 3,400 animals.

“This is a big step,” said Keefover-Ring, whose organization pushed for a lower quota. “Colorado is one state that is definitely on the path to responsible cougar management.”

Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, said her organization does not have a problem with the newly lowered quota because it is within the range of historic harvest levels. But she is concerned that wildlife advocates will try to further reduce the quotas.

“If there’s increased depredation, we’ll try to get the quota raised,” she said.

“Managing mountain lion populations can certainly benefit the livestock industry [by preventing depredation],” she added. “All the information on the ground from hunters and ranchers suggests that everybody’s seeing more lions.”
No hunting

The only Western state that does not allow mountain lion hunting is California. In 1990, residents voted in favor of Proposition 17, which banned sport hunting of cougars in the state. Animals that are determined to be a public safety risk or prey on livestock are killed, however.

While the department receives hundreds of reports of mountain lion sightings each year, fewer than 3 percent are found to be public safety threats requiring the killing of the animal, department officials note. This year, just nine mountain lions were killed for public safety reasons.

According to what the California Department of Fish and Game describes as a “crude” estimate, between 4,000 and 6,000 mountain lions live in California. About half of the fast-growing state is prime habitat for the species.

While there have been only 15 verified mountain lion attacks in California since 1890, 13 of those attacks have occurred since 1986 — an increase that some suspect could be due to the increasing human presence in cougar habitat.

“We’ve definitely seen that,” said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. “Lions are ending up in places that are sort of rare, like neighborhoods.” One cougar was recently spotted in a tree in Palo Alto, he said.

Highly publicized attacks on two mountain bikers on a trail in Southern California’s Orange County last winter that left one person dead triggered a call among some area residents for re-instating a cougar hunt, but much of the public remains supportive of the ban. Under the terms of the ballot initiative, a majority of the state Legislature would have to vote in favor of resuming the hunt — a “highly unlikely” prospect, Martarano said.