Monday, September 17, 2018

How Wolves Communicate. Part 1: Howling

Wolves, like people, communicate in many ways. They use their voice and face, their posture and fur, even their tail. They also use their senses of smell and sight, touch and taste. Skilled communicators, wolves choose what they need to get their message across: during the day, for example, they may communicate with posture, but at night howling or other vocal signals may work better.

Howling, the most well-known type of wolf communication, is a known attention grabber. According to Fred Harrington and Cheryl Asa in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, howling can “instantly reach an audience from near to far at any time day or night…” But much of the vocal communication between wolves is quieter, like the subtle sounds made by pups in a dark den.

Pups are deaf at birth, start to hear by Day 14, and by Day 20 reach their adult hearing level. During those first two weeks, even though the pups can’t hear, their mother can hear them as they moan, whine, squeal, and scream. These sounds decrease as pups get older. By three to four weeks of age—when emerging from the den with adult level hearing—pups can make all the sounds of an adult and howl with the pack. But another six months must pass before a pup grows into its adult voice.

Adult wolf sounds, according to one researcher, can be divided into two categories: harmonic and noisy. Harmonic sounds such as whimpers, whines, and yelps are used when acting friendly and submissive. Noisy sounds such as growls, snarls, woofs, and barks are made when acting aggressive or dominant. Other researchers found that when wolves are close together, howling sounds discordant, but when separated by at least ten yards, howling sounds harmonious.

Howling is long-distance communication. A wolf can hear another wolf’s howl more than six miles away in a forest and almost ten miles away in an open area. But howling is not a long-lasting communication like scent marking. Harrington and Asa write that an average howl from a single wolf lasts only three to seven seconds. A chorus by a pack lasts only 30 to 120 seconds, and perhaps longer during breeding season.

Short or long, howling helps wolves identify and locate other wolves. A chorus reunites a pack. A lone wolf howls for a mate. Unfamiliar howls reveal strangers. Though many people believe that wolves howling together must be a bonding experience, Harrington and Asa say that there is no empirical evidence to support this. They add that you can’t determine the size of a pack from its chorus howl, and “In times of uncertainty, wolves may use a ‘poker’ howl that limits the amount of information that might be available to unintended ears.”

Howling even varies with the seasons. Doug Smith, head of Yellowstone’s Wolf Project, told a reporter that during denning season, wolves stop howling to their neighbors and howl only to pack mates. But as summer progresses, wolves howl more and more to neighbors and enemies. This territorial howling peaks in February during the breeding season.

In a future post, I’ll describe ways wolves communicate using smell, sight, and touch.

To listen to a variety of howls on the Living withWolves website: 

photo of howling wolf via Pixaba

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Monday, September 10, 2018

An Insider's Look at the Mistreatment of the Togo Wolf Pack

I recently posted “Thoughts on a Wolf Execution” in which I made the case that the execution of the Togo pack’s alpha male by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is the beginning of the end for the Togo pack. This execution also exemplifies why livestock should not be grazed on public land. The post brought in many comments that revealed the deep anger and widespread frustration readers feel over the mistreatment of wolves.
One of the comments came from Amaroq Weiss. She is a wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of two conservation organizations (the other is Cascadia Wildlands) that have sued WDFW. The organizations argue that WDFW should have completed a supplementary environmental impact statement when it created the process for killing wolves. They also argue that the decision to kill wolves in the Togo pack did not come from a “reasoned decision-making process.”
Weiss has been deeply involved with the battle to save the Togo pack. Her comments provides a true inside look at how the pack and its alpha male have been mistreated.
Weiss wrote:
“Despite the reports provided by WDFW of what was or was not done as far as nonlethal measures in each instance where a livestock predation was attributed to the Togo pack, a careful analysis reveals smoke and mirrors.
In instances where WDFW reports said no unnatural attractants were present, there were multiple instances of injured calves or dead cows that had not been removed yet clearly are attractants to wolves and any predator. One calf was found with two "weeping wounds" on its back that the rancher had discovered in June, yet the calf was still out on the range with those wounds in November. In another instance an injured calf was found with wounds already scabbing over, so no one had been keeping an eye on the cattle to discover the animal while its wounds were fresh. In yet another instance there was the stench of a dead cow for days that range riders could not locate until days later, and obviously if humans could smell the stench, so could predators.
The fact these injured or dead animals weren't discovered right away indicates that any range riders present weren't doing an effective job of monitoring the cattle. In one instance an injured calf could not be found for days even though it was within a fenced pasture. In another instance, one predation was found ‘miles away from where the cattle were supposed to be.’ So, in reality: who is watching over these cattle and why don't they know where they are?
The evidence suggests range riding was not being done effectively and therefore should not have counted as a deterrent measure. The evidence also suggests that the rugged terrain and dense forests of this region—with many downed trees where cattle can become trapped and where it is dangerous to take a horse into and impossible to drive an ATV in—is indefensible terrain and the state should not be killing wolves for livestock losses here. Particularly not when you add in the fact that most of the predations were on public lands grazing allotments.

As for the rancher who shot the Togo pack’s alpha male wolf, he knew exactly where to go to find the wolf because the week prior, on two separate dates, WDFW told the rancher where the wolves' rendezvous site was and gave him access to the wolves’ GPS collar data. Evidently WDFW didn't bother (or did it?) to tell the rancher that when approached at rendezvous sites, wolves will give off a bawling type of bark which is an expression of their alarm that their pups might be in danger.
WDFW well knew it should have advised the rancher on this aspect of wolf behavior since WDFW had just gone through the wringer over a recent incident: a graduate student doing Forest Service stream surveys happening into an area near a wolf pack's rendezvous site, hearing their barks and yips for a half an hour and not knowing they were asking her to leave.
Additionally, reports are that when the rancher shot at the Togo male, he broke the animal's hind leg. That suggests the shooting was done with a varmint-killing kind of rifle, not a shotgun, which is what you might take with you if you were simply intending to haze a wolf away from an area by shooting up into the air.
During the recent court hearing, in response to the judge's question of whether the severe injury to the wolf had changed the circumstances, WDFW told the judge that the injury meant the wolf was not a factor/threat to livestock at this time. WDFW also told the judge that if WDFW kills the male wolf, his mate may likely hunt livestock to feed her young, since livestock are easier prey to hunt than wild game, if you are a wolf hunting on your own. So if WDFW's purported reason in killing wolves is to change the behavior of the remaining pack members, why kill a wolf when you admit your actions may instead create a greater risk the remaining pack member(s) will predate on livestock?
The Togo pack hasn't gotten a fair shake from the start, the execution of the male is tragic and senseless, and the fate which awaits his mate and pups may be just as senseless, predictable, avoidable and tragic.”
Many thanks to Amaroq Weiss, the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands for all their tireless efforts to protect the Togo pack and wolves in general.
Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands.

My award-winning Deep into Yellowstone can be ordered signed from me or unsigned on Amazon

My best selling In the Temple of Wolves can be ordered signed from me or unsigned on Amazon

My forthcoming book,
The Wilds of Aging: A Journey of Heart and Mind 
can be reserved

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Thoughts on a Wolf Execution

[Please be sure to read the two comments from Amaroq Weiss. Just click on "comments" at end of post. She adds so much insight.]

On September 2, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sharpshooter executed the black alpha male of the Togo wolf pack. Though the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands had requested an injunction to block the killing, a Thurston County Superior Court Judge said the two groups had not met the legal standard needed for the injunction. WDFW reported on their website that their director, Kelly Susewind, welcomed the judge’s decision to deny the injunction. At 5 p.m. on August 31, the alpha male’s stay of execution was lifted. The GPS collar he wore would make the killing easier.

HTML5 Audio PlayerThis wolf’s death is most likely the beginning of the end for the Togo pack. This wolf’s death also exemplifies why livestock should not be grazed on public land.

The first two attacks WDFW attributed to the Togo pack were on calves and occurred on fenced private land where the rancher used nonlethal deterrents. After those two attacks the rancher continued using multiple nonlethal deterrents and the attacks stopped. But nonlethal deterrents did not work as well on the public land where the next four attacks occurred. Investigators stated that the nonlethal deterrents used by one rancher on public land were not adequate. In other instances, the areas where attacks occurred were so remote and so rugged that only range riders might be effective.

WDFW officials investigated each of the six attacks. I’ve read their reports. In only one attack was there an eye witness; a woodcutter saw a black wolf running from an area where an injured calf was later found. The WDFW report does not say the black wolf was collared. However, since all six attacks occurred in the Togo wolf pack’s territory, WDFW used that circumstantial evidence to convict the pack.

The alpha male of the Togo pack was shot and wounded on August 23 by a rancher. He said he was checking out his cattle when he saw wolf pups and heard barking and growling. As a black wolf approached, he claims that he shot it in self-defense. Most newspaper reports I read tell only the rancher’s side of this story. But the Seattle Times quotes WDFW as saying, “Vocalizations by wolves are not uncommon when people approach wolf pups, and adult wolves often attempt to escort perceived intruders away from areas where pups are present. While these behaviors are not necessarily predatory in nature, they can feel threatening.”

A few days later, after the judge lifted the restraining order, the now wounded wolf was sentenced to death for the six attacks on livestock. Running on a broken leg, his collar revealing his location, he was gunned down by that sharpshooter in a helicopter.

WDFW trail cam photo
While WDFW says they took out the alpha male to see if they could stop the pack from attacking livestock, in reality killing the wolf could produce the opposite result. The alpha female is now the sole provider for herself and two pups. That’s a very demanding job, and she may end up killing a calf on public land—easy prey—to keep her offspring alive. If she does, she too may be executed. If the pups are not killed with her, they will be left to survive on their own. Taking calves on public land may then be essential for them to beat starvation. Of course, it will also sentence them to die.

Wolves have every right to live on public land. They were here, after all, well before this continent was settled. And they have no other place to live. But public lands available to wolves are diminishing and increasingly encroached upon by human uses including livestock grazing. Wolves have only a tiny fraction of their original range and original population left.

Cattle, on the other hand, can—and should—live on private land. Their grazing on public land is driven by economics. The cost of public land grazing is much less than the cost of private land grazing. We the people subsidize increased profits for ranchers at the expense of wolves.

Wolves do not take livestock to spite or injure a rancher. A wolf taking a calf or cow on public land is driven by an instinct to survive. The loss of some livestock to wolves should be considered a cost of doing business for a rancher who benefits from subsidized public land grazing. And that cost of doing business can even be decreased because a rancher can be reimbursed for a confirmed loss to wolves. All six attacks attributed to the Togo pack were confirmed as wolf kills by WDFW.

In an attempt to coexist with wolves, the loss of livestock on public land should NOT be considered a strike against wolves under the Washington wolf management plan, or under any state’s plan. If this were the case, the Togo pack would only have two strikes against them—the two attacks on private land—instead of six. The pack would be far from meeting the standard for issuing a kill order. The alpha male would still be alive and helping the female feed the pack.

If a rancher is not willing to coexist with wolves on public land—to accept possible livestock losses for which he can be reimbursed—the rancher should keep his cattle on fenced private land protected by a number of nonlethal deterrents.

An alternative approach—and the one I prefer—is to keep all livestock off of all public land.

1. Support the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands, currently suing the state of Washington over its lethal removal policy.
2. Read the WDFW reports.

My award-winning Deep into Yellowstone can be ordered signed from me or unsigned on Amazon.

My best selling In the Temple of Wolves can be ordered signed from me or unsigned on Amazon

My forthcoming book,
The Wilds of Aging: A Journey of Heart and Mind 
can be reserved