Monthly Archives: August 2005

Cougar management plan faces criticism

var s_pageName=”” var s_server=”MailTribune.com” var s_channel=”” var s_pageType=”” var s_prop1=”” var s_prop2=”” var s_prop3=”” var s_prop4=”” var s_prop5=””By MARK FREEMAN
Mail Tribune

Animal-rights activists in Oregon and across the West are taking shots at the state’s draft cougar plan, saying it focuses too heavily on managing public complaints instead of managing the animals themselves.

But that’s exactly what the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was aiming at when it crafted its draft Cougar Management Plan, which, among other things, calls for killing more cougars in areas where livestock and human-safety complaints are high, until the complaints subside.

The plan’s so-called “adaptive harvest management” approach is the department’s solution for sustaining the cougar population yet cutting roughly half of damage and human- safety complaints attributed to cougars.

“The public is telling us, ‘There is a problem. Do something,’” said Mark Vargas, an ODFW biologist in Central Point who helped draft the plan. “If the public isn’t calling us, there’s no problem.

“The phone calls are real,” Vargas said. “People are frustrated. They are the citizens of the state we have to answer to.”

But critics from Oregon to Colorado are questioning a plan based largely on what agency biologists say are often unverified complaints.

Wendy Keefover-Ring, director of the Colorado-based organization Sinapu, said attacks on humans and livestock by cougars are statistically very rare, yet the “specter of a large cat that might eat you” generates misplaced fears.

Educating the public on how to reduce livestock damage and deal safely with a cougar encounter and targeting just the damage-causing cougars are better approaches for reducing complaints than killing animals, she said.

“Basically, you have a free-for-all in Oregon,” Keefover-Ring said. “This (draft plan) is so particularly bad that it merits a lot of attention.”

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is set to adopt some version of the plan during its December meeting.

The plan calls for killing more cougars around urban “fringes” such as the hills above the Rogue Valley to help reduce public-safety and damage reports to 1994 levels — the year sport-hunting with hounds was banned.

The draft does not specify how more cougars would be killed by sport-hunters, and it does not call for any new or expanded hunting seasons. It also does not call for the return of sport-hunting with hounds.

The plan does call for ensuring the cougar population does not dip below 1994 levels.

Four cougar studies in Oregon were used in computer models to estimate that the cougar population here had risen from about 3,100 animals in 1994 to 5,101 in 2003.

The number of reported livestock damage and human-safety complaints climbed from 36 in 1986 to 853 in 2004, though the agency acknowledges that the vast majority of reports are not verified.

Williams animal-rights activist Spencer Lennard said the complaint increases are more the product of “public furor through the media” than actual conflicts.

Lennard said humans leaving livestock or pets unprotected in urban-forest interface areas are more responsible for real damage than the cougars.

“The plan doesn’t put the onus of behavior-modification on the only one who can change — humans,” Lennard said.

“Why do the animals always have to lose?” he said.

Ron Anglin, the ODFW’s Wildlife Division administrator, said the draft plan is designed to ensure Oregon maintains a healthy cougar population while allowing “flexibility to respond to public concerns in all the ways we respond now.”

While this is the first time agency biologists have used complaints as a driving force in cougar management, the approach long has been used in deer, elk and other big-game species, Anglin said.

Elk hunts and the issuing of tags to kill elk causing agricultural damage are common tools in elk management. Elk-damage complaints largely go unverified, Anglin said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com

ODFW Meeting:
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will hold a public meeting on its cougar management draft plan from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at the Jackson County Courthouse Auditorium, 10 Oakdale Ave., Medford.
Written comments will be accepted through October. The draft is available on the ODFW’s Web site at www.dfw.state.or.us.


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Wildlife officials want to hear from the community on the state of the continent’s largest elk herd

Tamara Miller
The Vail Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — There’s a pest ruining Bud Gates’ haystacks, tearing down his fences and eating his crops.

The lifelong cattle rancher lives in rural, northwestern Eagle County, and is a less-than-enthusiastic neighbor to the largest elk herd in North America. Elk, after all, don’t pay much attention to trespassing laws.

“It’s not so much what they eat, it’s what they destroy,” Gates said. “By the time they urinate all over the haystacks, the cattle won’t even eat it.”

State wildlife officials estimate just under 42,000 elk live in the northwest corner of Eagle County, near the communities of Sweetwater and Burns.

That’s nearly a 40 percent increase from 15 years ago, though wildlife officials point out they are better at counting the animals these days.

With those new numbers in tow, the wildlife commission is considering raising the number of elk hunting permits issued year-to-year.

Hunters, ranchers, wildlife enthusiasts and business owners are just some of the people who have a vested interest in the herd’s health and survival.

Comments from those groups that use and share the land with the elk will be key in deciding the herd’s fate, said Pat Tucker, area wildlife manager.

If it’s up to Gates, more hunting licenses will be issued in the future. Depending upon the time of year, 50 percent of that herd’s habitat is on private land.

Hunting keeps the herd in check, and it makes life for ranchers a bit easier, while ensuring that the herd still has the right mix of males-to-females for reproduction. Wildlife officials issue more licenses for female elk, known as cows, Gates said.

Jannis Putelis agreed. The avid hunter said the state needs to issue more cow hunting licenses to keep the herd population under control. Hunters too often just want to hunt male elk, or bulls, aiming for a trophy set of antlers, he said.

“We have way too much elk roadkill in Colorado,” Putelis said.
Hunting is big business throughout the area and the county, bringing in $10.18 million worth of business to Eagle County, according to wildlife officials.

The last three years have been good hunting seasons in that the population remaining after the season closes remains high, Tucker said.

Tucker said he didn’t know how many licenses were issued for the Sweetwater/Burns area, but said “there definitely hasn’t been an increase.”

Handing out more hunting licenses won’t do enough to thin the herd, said Rob Edward, with Sinapu, a group that advocates the restoration of carnivores, such as wolves, in Colorado.

Hunting as a sport is on the decline, he said. In the meantime, elk are increasing because their primary predator — wolves — have been absent from the state since 1945.

Bringing wolves back to Colorado would thin the herd, as well as force elk to change habitat more often. “Redistributing” the elk would stop them from overgrazing aspen and willow trees.

Such a change in the food chain would prompt positive changes in the landscape, such as providing better beaver habitat and more wetlands, Edward said.

It’s working in Yellowstone National Park, where wildlife officials are still studying the success of the wolf-reintroduction program there, Edward said.

“The people of Colorado have said in multiple public opinion polls that they believe wolves should be restored to Colorado,” he said. “So certainly there is widespread political support. The issue is of the political will to do so.”

The commission is expected to decide this fall how many elk licenses it will issue.

Throw disease to the wolves?

Park eyes predators to control chronic wasting in elk

By Theo Stein
Denver Post Staff Writer

Predation by wolves may be an effective way to stop a deadly brain disease of deer and elk in Colorado, according to a recent study.

A modeling study based on conditions at Rocky Mountain National Park shows wolves could have “potent effects” on the rate of chronic wasting disease in the park’s overabundant elk herds, according to three Colorado researchers.

Existing control efforts, which focus on intensive culling to reduce herd numbers, have been expensive and, so far, ineffective.

“We need to think outside the box,” said National Park Service wildlife veterinarian Margaret Wild. “We’ve got to come up with some different tools.”

Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy like mad cow disease. Unlike mad cow, it is contagious and persists in the environment for years.

There is no evidence that CWD has ever sickened a human, but health experts warn hunters not to eat the meat of an infected animal.

Since it was identified in Colorado in 1977, CWD has hopscotched to Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York and Saskatchewan.

Studies have shown that wolves prey on the weak or sick. That behavior could help remove contagious animals from the population and reduce infection rates, according to Wild. Wolves also could help scatter herds of deer and elk, further reducing the risk of transmission, she said.

Field research will be needed to show what effect, if any, wolves have on CWD, she said.

Some prominent wolf biologists have offered cautious support.

“I need to see the data,” said L. David Mech, a University of Minnesota professor. “If the claim is valid, there may be some value in terms of

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controlling CWD. But it needs some pretty good documentation before it will be accepted.”

Rocky Mountain National Park is evaluating whether wolves could help cull and redistribute elk herds that have overbrowsed aspen and willow.

The only promising CWD control technique is now in a third year of study in Estes Park. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has biopsied the tonsils of tranquilized mule deer, fitted the animals with radio collars and removed those found to be infected.

CWD rates do appear to be declining in the project area, division veterinarian Mike Miller said. But at about $660 an animal, the cost makes the technique unsuitable for backcountry applications.

The research does not involve elk because no live test for elk has been developed.

The strategy of testing and culling is essentially what wolves do, Miller said.

“They’d be paid by the pound, not by the hour,” he said. “Wolves would always be on the clock.”

RMNP looks at utilizing wolves

Option floated to trim number of elk

By KEVIN DARST
The Coloradoan

Wolves are on the short list of options to control Rocky Mountain National Park’s bulging elk herd, according to a park newsletter.

The predators, which would be tracked with collars outfitted with global positioning system technology, would be confined to the park. Wolves that wander out of the park would be captured and returned, said Carlie Ronca, a natural resource management specialist at the park.

“We’re going to commit to restricting their movement,” Ronca said.

Park managers say the park’s 3,000 elk are destroying winter-range aspen and willow stands. They want to reduce the herd to 1,200 from 2,100.

Public hunting and moving some elk to other locations won’t get further consideration, according to a park newsletter.

Birth control and fencing elk out of certain areas could be used along with culling, but they won’t be used on their own to control the park’s elk population, according to the newsletter, though culling alone is an option.

Park managers plan to announce their preferred alternative sometime this winter, with a decision sometime after that.

Under the wolf option, park managers would use a “small population” of gray wolves, along with culling, to control elk numbers. If wolves prove effective, they’d be allowed to increase over time.

A local wildlife advocate praised the park’s decision to include the wolf option. If it chooses that plan, Gary Wockner said the park should study the wolves’ effect on ecosystem restoration and chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness that targets deer and elk.

“I think it’s an extraordinary scientific opportunity for the park to see if wolves can perform the same kind of magic that wolves in Yellowstone did,” said Gary Wockner, a member of the state’s wolf working group. The group is studying ways to manage wolves that migrate into Colorado.

The park won’t examine the possibility of a free-roaming wolf pack, something that could disappoint some wildlife conservationists.

“We want to see wolves functioning across the landscape as an ecological process just like fire,” said Rob Edward, director of carnivore restoration for Sinapu, a Boulder-based organization whose name is Ute for wolf.

“We definitely have to look at that carefully,” Edward said. “It’s certainly not wolf restoration within the frames that the conservation community is ultimately seeking for the southern Rockies.”

Some aren’t so sure the park will be able to keep wolves within its boundaries.

David Mech, one of the nation’s leading authorities on wolves, said an abundant supply of food – elk – wouldn’t be enough to keep the predators in park boundaries.

“Even when food is abundant, wolves tend to travel a great deal,” Mech said in an e-mail Wednesday. “They seem always to be looking for new opportunities. And, of course, if prey migrates, the wolves must follow.”

Wockner also wants to see wolves roam free in the state, but the park’s plan could be a good first step, he said.

“I have been advocating for free-roaming wolves in all suitable habitat in Colorado, including Rocky Mountain National Park,” Wockner said. “Until then, I think this alternative is a careful, mature proposal that will begin the restoration.”

Loss of Wolves Changes Canadian Ecosystem

By Maggie Fox, Reuters

WASHINGTON — The loss of once-plentiful wolves in a part of Canada’s west allowed the elk population to mushroom, pushing out beavers and songbirds and showing the importance of top predators, Canadian researchers said Monday.

Although scientists have long noted that the loss of even one species can have profound effects, the report is one of the first large-scale studies to show clearly the widespread consequences of losing a predator at the top of the food chain.

Mark Hebblewhite of the University of Alberta, and colleagues studied what happened in “a serendipitous natural experiment” when wolves returned to part of the Bow Valley of Banff National Park in Alberta.

Wolves were driven out in the 1960s “because that’s what we did then,” Hebblewhite said.

“The first wolf pack recolonized the Bow Valley of Banff National Park in 1986. High human activity partially excluded wolves from one area of the Bow Valley, whereas wolves made full use of an adjacent area,” the researchers wrote in their report, published in the journal Ecology.

Willow trees, river-loving birds called willow warblers and American redstarts, and beaver dams once were common in Bow Valley and surrounding areas. But in the areas where wolves remained scarce and elk populations mushroomed, these plants and animals were less common.

The wolves clearly had a major effect on elk. Elk populations were 10 times as high in areas where there were no wolves, Hebblewhite’s team found.

This meant that elk could be found in suburban backyards, and sometimes on hiking trails. “Seven people are sent to hospitals every year on average by getting into a fight with an elk,” he said. “They are 250 kg (550 pounds) on average so you don’t want to get into a fight with one. But being a park they couldn’t just go willy-nilly shooting elk and as a society we have advanced beyond wildlife management by just shooting things.”

The elk browsed on tender young willows, leaving little for beavers and willow-dwelling birds. Aspen trees seemed less affected.

“We also found that as elk populations climbed, active beaver lodges declined, probably because beavers could no longer find sufficient trees with which to build their dams,” Hebblewhite said in a statement.

But in the parts of the park where wolves returned, the elk populations in affected areas fell and willows were coming back.

While other predators such as grizzlies might have played a role, Hebblewhite’s team noted, bears were never completely driven from the park while wolves were.

“Yes, wolves are ecologically important. It (the study) bolsters the importance of conserving species like wolves and other top carnivores,” Hebblewhite said.

Park considers letting wolves handle elk problem

By THEO STEIN
THE DENVER POST

The problem: elk chewing the bejeebers out of Rocky Mountain National Park.

One solution: adding a pack of wolves to the park.

Another problem: wolves wandering into nearby Boulder and Loveland, Colo.

Still, the National Park Service is slated this week to propose, as one alternative, adding a pack of wolves, outfitted with radio collars, to chase the elk herds ravaging the park’s aspen and willow stands.

Biologists already have warned that keeping wolves in the 226,000-acre park may be next to impossible.

“I can’t conceive of a way to keep wolves in the park,” said University of Minnesota biologist and wolf expert David Mech. “I just don’t know how one would do that.”

Park Service authorities concede the idea is controversial. “One biologist told us, ‘If you do this, prepare to have your world turned upside down,’ ” said Therese Johnson, a park management biologist.

Wolves were successfully reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, but Yellowstone is almost 10 times larger than Colorado’s Rocky Mountain.

“You can’t keep them from going,” said Michael Phillips, who headed the Yellowstone red wolf program. “The question is will they stay in the park long enough to have an impact on the elk herd?”

Wolves have been known to wander 500 miles in search of a home. Estes Park is just outside the park, and Boulder, Loveland and some Denver suburbs are about 50 miles away.

Park authorities stress that they are not trying to reintroduce wolves to Colorado and are using the predators only as a wildlife management tool.

Under the park service’s wolf alternative, only a few wolves would be released in the rugged terrain. The animals would be under constant surveillance and would be trapped and returned to the park if they left.

Sharpshooters also would be employed to bring the elk down from 3,000 animals to between 1,200 and 2,100.

Details of the proposals are scheduled to be released this week.

The service, however, can’t seem to please anyone. Boulder-based Sinapu, an advocate of returning wolves to Colorado, also is criticizing the plan.

“Wolves are not a tool,” Sinapu spokesman Rob Edward said. “We should not be treating them as some sort of pest-control device.”

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This article also appeared in the following newspapers: Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Helena Independent Record, The Casper Star Tribune,