Monday, March 11, 2019

An Inside Look at Capturing Yellowstone's Bison: A Photo Essay

On 3/7/19 the National Park Service announced that the Stephens Creek bison capture facility (the trap) is open for business inside Yellowstone. The trap opened late this year because the bison waited a long time before migrating. But a couple of days after the trap opened, I saw a group of bison about a half-mile from and grazing toward the trap.  

The trap run by the National Park Service is a deadly cog in the controversial Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP). Two concepts sit at the heart of the plan: migration and social tolerance. Bison--in a race between starvation and spring--migrate out of Yellowstone each winter in search of grass not locked away under ice or snow. The state of Montana has no tolerance for bison outside the park near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. State officials claim this is because some bison are infected with brucellosis that can be transmitted to cattle. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to cattle.

This unfounded fear of brucellosis was one factor leading to the creation of the IBMP—a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies and some tribes. The IBMP calls for the capture of bison at Stephens Creek and for their shipment to slaughter in Montana. It also calls for a hunt (a firing squad, really) just outside the park to further reduce Yellowstone's bison population. This winter the IBMP goal is to remove 600-900 bison, though that may not happen because the bison stayed in the park longer.

Along with members of the media and conservation organizations, I toured the Stephens Creek facility in the winter of 2016 and 2017 when bison were in the trap. (The 2018 tour was cancelled due to security concerns. No tour was scheduled in 2019.) I represented Gardiner’s all-volunteer Bear Creek Council. Below are fourteen photos I took during the tours. I've added captions that explain how bison are handled at Stephens Creek. 

Processing began as NPS employees on horseback rode into the pen that holds captured bison. During the tours we observed the shipping of some bison and the processing for later shipment of more.

Shouting, whistling, and waving their hands, horseback riders run the bison toward a second pen.

The bison are hazed from the second pen into a long chute that leads to a device with the brand name “The Silencer.” NPS employees use long poles to prod the bison out of the chute and into The Silencer, one at a time. 

The Silencer performs a number of functions. In this photo, a park bison biologist waiting to work stands to the left of the machine, while a supervisor on the catwalk makes sure the machine is ready for bison. (As of 2017, NPS had painted over The Silencer brand name on the equipment.)

We watched many bison go through The Silencer. They bucked and kicked and grunted, the whites of their frightened eyes obvious. Once a bison is in The Silencer, an operator slides levers that moves the sides of the machine inward, squeezing the animal and holding it in place. Once the bison is still, a bar pushes the animal’s head to the side and holds it there so the biologist can draw a blood sample. The large needle used to draw blood is in the biologist's right hand. 

In addition to a blood draw, each bison is weighed, and its sex, age, and brucellosis status are determined. 

An employee showed us the blood samples. An NPS bison biologist analyzes the samples at a small lab at Stephens Creek. A positive test result means that a bison has been exposed to brucellosis, but does not necessarily mean that the bison can transmit the disease. Test results, say NPS officials, are not used to determine which animals are shipped to slaughter. Instead, they use them to understand the disease status of the population and to identify a few animals that are appropriate for brucellosis research studies.

After release from The Silencer, bison are directed to various holding pens, depending on age and sex. In the photo, female bison are seen through a small hole in one of the sheets of plywood that cover the fence of the holding pens. NPS officials say that if bison can't see past the plywood, can’t see an escape route, they stay calmer. 

These captured calves--born the previous spring--were waiting to be shipped to slaughter. This view is from a catwalk above the holding pens. An armed law enforcement ranger accompanied each of us when it was our turn to observe from the catwalk. About eight employees work on the catwalks. They open and close gates and keep bison moving. Four other employees draw blood and gather data at The Silencer. Workers often communicate with silent hand signals.

Once a bison has been processed and assigned a number by a tag placed on its back, it's ready to be shipped. The blood on this bison is either from an injury to this animal or from rubbing against another injured bison.

A trailer from a Native American tribe backs up to the loading gate, and the door of the trailer is opened. Bison are released from the holding pen and hazed down a chute. NPS employees prod the animals with long poles from above to make them step from the loading gate through the open door of the trailer. 

In this photo, sixteen bison were in one of these trailers and fourteen in the other. Once the bison were loaded, the trailer was sealed. The trailers left together, followed by a Montana Department of Livestock law enforcement officer in a DOL truck. The officer was armed and ready to shoot the bison in case there was an accident and a bison escapes or was injured. This procedure is required by the state of Montana. 

In the winter of 2017-2018, 1030 bison were captured and sent to slaughter or killed by the firing squad. In 2019, 600 to 900 could be killed. The NPS has submitted an Environmental Impact Statement to replace the original bison management plan that is seventeen years old and requires this capture and slaughter and hunt. In 2016, an NPS spokesperson told us that they have outgrown the old plan. In 2017, a different spokesperson said that it could be up to ten years before a new plan is in place. In the meantime, this capture and slaughter and hunt will continue.

Since 1952 the image of a bison has appeared on the arrowhead patch—the official emblem—worn by NPS employees. In the time I spent touring Stephens Creek, I heard numerous NPS employees state that they do not want to be sending these genetically pure bison to slaughter. However, they added that they are required to do so by the IBMP. I was also told that the Montana Department of Livestock wants a quicker return from Yellowstone's current population of around 5,000 bison to the IBMP target of 3,000. To reach this target population, of course, even more bison--our national mammal--must be killed. 

For details on the number of bison held at Stephens Creek and for numbers killed by the firing squad, visit the Buffalo Field Campaign.

For more info on the IBMP, including a schedule for meetings. IBMP meetings are open to the public. The next meeting: April 24, 2019 in Gardiner, MT.

To read my post: "The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

Award-winning indie author Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves is available signed and on Amazon

The sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed or on Amazon.

The new prequel, The Wilds of Aging, is is available signed or on Amazon in paper or eBook.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Brief History of Wolves and Humans, Part 3 of 3

How to Build a Culture that Respects Wolves

I will start with a story about a country that took its culture from wolf respect to wolf hatred. Though that’s the opposite direction of where we must go, buried in that tragic tale of rejection are lessons we can use to build the acceptance of wolves that is needed now more than ever.

The story, told well by Brett Walker in his book The Lost Wolves of Japan, begins around 1600 when the Japanese regarded wolves as deities and worshipped them at shrines. Farmers accepted the wolf as a partner that killed boar and deer that ate the grain crops on the small farms that were the cornerstone of Japanese agriculture.

During the 1700s, Japan’s population swelled and people encroached on wolf territory. Rabid wolves killed some Japanese. Hatred stirred; bounties were placed. (This progression is similar to what happened in Europe a few hundred years earlier, as described in Part 2 of this series.) 

But Japanese citizens continued to hold the wolf in high esteem. That changed in 1868 when a new Japanese government vowed to modernize the country’s economy. As part of that modernization, Japan would create a large-scale livestock industry similar to that in the U.S. The government wrote policy that demoted small-scale grain farming and promoted livestock production on huge new ranches carved, of course, from wolf territory.

Five years later, the Japanese government took another step and hired an American rancher, Edwin Dun, to help build the livestock industry and eradicate wolves. Dun knew about industrial poisoning with strychnine, and when he arrived, the war on wolves erupted. 

The government helped by portraying wolves as monstrous killers that preyed on almighty livestock. They even used taxidermy—stuffed snarling wolves—to transform reverence to fear. The government created a bounty system that provided financial incentive to kill animals once seen as essential partners.

Statue of Honshu-wolf via GNU

By 1905—just thirty-two years after this war began—wolves were extinct in Japan. The key was that government-sponsored campaign to its citizens’ image of the wolf from deity to demon.

This story reveals how a government has the power to convince citizens to do the unthinkable: annihilate an animal they once revered. Our government might use such power to do something almost as unthinkable: convince those who want to annihilate wolves to respect them instead. 

Let’s consider a few steps that Japan used for the bad that the U.S. can use for the good.

The Japanese government used financial incentives—bounties—to overwhelm centuries-old reverence and to make wolves more valuable dead than alive.

We must value wolves in a way that encourages protection. But now the opposite happens. For instance, Idaho hunters and trappers who kill wolves legally can be reimbursed up to $1,000 per dead wolf. The organization behind this bounty system claims that wolves have decimated Idaho’s elk herd. However, statistics from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game show that the statewide elk harvest now is similar to the harvest prior to the reintroduction of wolves. This same organization is trying to get a bill passed in the Montana legislature that would make a bounty system legal in Montana too. 

Montana legislators are also considering two bills that devalue wolves. One would add a wolf hunting tag to a resident’s hunting license for only $10. A second bill would allow non-resident deer and elk hunters to receive a FREE wolf tag. Both these bills aim to use financial incentives to increase wolf killing.

On the other hand, financial incentives have been used elsewhere to actually improve attitudes toward wolves. A 2011 study took place in a part of Sweden where livestock producers living in wolf territories received subsidies for installing predator-proof fencing. Scientists found that those who had received the subsidies tolerated wolves better than those who had not, regardless of the number of wolf attacks on sheep or dogs.

photo from WRWP website

Fencing is just one kind of nonlethal deterrent that keeps wolves and livestock separate and alive. For an excellent example of how nonlethal deterrents can work in the U.S., look at the Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho. Since 2008, this project has been succeeding with nonlethal deterrents. During the first seven years, documented sheep losses to wolves in the project area were 90% lower than losses to wolves in the rest of Idaho. The Project states on their web site, “Using nonlethal methods reduces management costs and social conflict while maintaining the wolf’s important ecological contribution.” The Wood River Wolf Project also proves that groups that often fight one another—ranchers, wolf advocates, scientists, county officials, and federal agencies—can work together to benefit wolves and livestock.

Given the power of nonlethal deterrents to protect wolves and livestock and improve attitudes toward predators, all wolf states should provide significant financial incentives to use nonlethal deterrents. States should also require that realistic nonlethal deterrents be used before ranchers can be reimbursed for losses due to wolves.

Japan’s government wrote powerful polices that led to the eradication of wolves in only thirty-two years.

A policy in the U.S. harms wolves as well. A little-known Department of Justice guideline referred to as the McKittrick policy has existed for years. This policy evolved from a 1995 Montana case in which Chad McKittrick was convicted under the Endangered Species Act for killing Wolf Number 10—one of the first wolves released into nearby Yellowstone National Park. McKittrick argued that he was not guilty because he thought he was shooting a wild dog. He appealed his conviction and lost. 

photo of coyote and wolf by Rick Lamplugh

Even though the the Department of Justice prevailed, DOJ administrators adopted what became known as the McKittrick policy. This directed DOJ attorneys to not prosecute unless they could prove that the accused knowingly killed a protected species. The McKittrick policy is why the hunters who killed federally protected gray wolves dispersing to Iowa, Colorado, and the Grand Canyon were not prosecuted; the shooters claimed to have misidentified the wolves as coyotes.

In June of 2017 WildEarth Guardians and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance won a four-year-long lawsuit against the McKitrick Policy. A U.S. District Court Judge found for the groups and ruled that the government does not have to prove that a defendant who kills an endangered animal knew that the animal was endangered. Unfortunately, a little over a year later, The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the District Judge’s finding.

The McKittrick policy continues to tell hunters that wolves don’t matter. That even though wolves are endangered there are no consequences for killing them. Policies such as these must be abolished if we are to say that wolves’ lives matter.

The Japanese government hammered home to its citizens the message that wolves were demons to be destroyed, not deities to be worshipped. Citizens complied. 

Our federal and state governments also send important—and deadly—messages. Wolf states have federally approved wolf management plans that define protecting wolves as keeping a certain number of breeding pairs alive. Some of those states’ plans allow, even encourage, the legal killing of “surplus” wolves. 

Those plans endanger wolves in two ways. First, the animals die in legal hunts. Second, government-sanctioned killing can increase poaching. If the government says it’s acceptable to hunt wolves, then citizens figure it’s acceptable to poach them—as happened in Yellowstone National Park with the alpha female of the Canyon pack. 

Canyon alpha female photo by Rick Lamplugh

A study in Wisconsin looked at the connection between legal killing and illegally poaching of wolves. Published in 2015 in the journal Biological Conservation, the study examined atttitudes and inclinations to poach among farmers and hunters living in Wisconsin’s wolf range. The results of the study suggest that “lethal-control measures, in the short term, may be ineffective for increasing tolerance of wolves.” The scientists write that this result is important because for many years scholars “have predicted that poaching would decline if other forms of lethal management were legalized.” That’s not the case.

Idaho has sent to its citizens a deadly message about wolves. The state government committed to spending $2,000,000—most of it from taxpayers—over a five-year period to fund the Idaho Wolf Depredation Control Board and eradicate wolves. The money is spent only on lethal methods, and in fiscal year 2018 Wildlife Services was paid to kill 83 Idaho wolves. (This is in addition to the 312 that hunters and trappers took in fiscal 2018.)  Currently, the Idaho legislature is considering making the board permanent. A message such as this can only increase the prevalence of the shoot, shovel, and shut up mentality.

Every state with wolves should write policy and enact legislation which sends the message that killing wolves should be the last resort, not the first.

The Japanese government built modernization the need to abolish wolves into the country’s education system. 

Today, more than a century after their eradication, wolves are still vilified in Japan. 

Education changes—one mind at a time—how people view predators. One study found that the acceptance of bears, for example, increased when people were given two pieces of information: how bears benefit the ecosystem and how to reduce risks posed by bears. But if people were told only about how to reduce risks and not about how the ecosystem benefits, acceptance decreased. 

Grizzly and wolf photo by NPS

With that in mind, try this: study the wolf management plans of the wolf states. You will likely find that each plan describes how to reduce the risk of wolf-human or wolf-livestock encounters. But you will not likely find a plan that promotes any meaningful information about the benefits wolves provide to the ecosystems in which they are allowed to survive. By focusing only on risks and not on benefits, wolf management plans can actually reduce the acceptance of wolves. 

The federal government should implement a curriculum to teach how little risk wolves present and how much ecological benefit they provide. A number of curriculums already exist. One for students in K-12 was produced by National Geographic and Living with Wolves. These curriculums provide educators with activities that enrich students' understanding about the wolves. The activities dispel common myths and prejudices and encourage youth to get involved in conservation efforts. 

Our hatred and disrespect of wolves is centuries old and will not change quickly or easily. 

Here are four steps that can start building a culture that respects wolves:

1. All wolf states should subsidize nonlethal deterrents and require their use before reimbursing ranchers for losses due to wolves.
2. The McKittrick policy must be abolished.
3. Every wolf state should write policy and enact legislation which requires that killing wolves should be the last resort, not the first.
4. The federal government should implement a curriculum to teach how little risk wolves present and how much ecological benefit they provide.

To learn more about the Wood River Wolf Project 

To Read Part One of this series

To Read Part Two of this series

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves is available signed and on Amazon

The award-winning sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed or on Amazon.

The new prequel, The Wilds of Aging, is is available signed or on Amazon in paper or eBook.

Wolf photo at top of post by Eric Kilby via CC BY-SA 2.0

Saturday, February 9, 2019

A Brief History of Wolves and Humans, Part 2 of 3

Any partnership hunters and gatherers may have had with wolves soured after our ancestors became herders. Once we owned land and raised livestock, we came to hate wolves and treat them as unwanted competitors. Our history degenerated from a tale of two species partnering to a sad story of one species with a powerful arsenal—and few thoughts of long-term consequences—waging war on another. 

To understand this war, let’s use the Middle Ages (5th-15th century) as a starting point. That was a time when horrifying rumors—some true—about rabid wolves killing humans spread across Europe. Governments declared war on wolves. In France in the 800s, the government hired an elite corps of hunters to control the wolf population. In England in the late 1200s, King Edward ordered the extermination of wolves in some parts of the country. In 1427, James of Scotland passed a law requiring three wolf hunts a year, even during denning season.

Those European wolf wars were not waged in a vacuum; Europeans were struggling with numerous deadly challenges. A Little Ice Age chilled Europe, and some experts believe it began as early as the 1300s and lasted until the mid 1800s. During that Little Ice Age, temperatures fell, snowfall increased, and the growing season shrank. This reduced harvests and created painful shortages of crops and livestock. 

Europe in the 1300s. Map public domain

Also during the early 1300s, and perhaps due to the Little Ice Age, the Great Famine struck, killing 10 to 25 percent of the population of many European cities and towns. 

To make matters worse, in the mid 1300s, the Black Death peaked. That plague eventually killed at least a third of all western Europeans.

With families and friends starving and dying, few would accept wolves taking livestock. I can imagine the war cry spreading across the countryside: Protect our families! Protect our livestock! Kill all wolves!

Once the Black Death subsided, western Europe’s population rebounded and doubled by the early 1600s. According to Jon T. Coleman, author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, more Europeans meant more mouths to feed. More food meant more land for livestock and crops. And less open land for wolves. 

As Europe’s population grew and spread, wolves had to go. By the early 1500s, wolves had been hunted and trapped to extinction in England. They were eradicated from Scotland by the late 1600s and from Ireland by the late 1700s.

Wolf Hatred Sails to the New World

Increased European population also increased colonization of North America. When colonists disembarked in the New World, wolves probably watched from the woods; an estimated two million roamed most of North America, though colonists rarely saw them since wolves avoided humans. Nevertheless, another war on wolves was about to erupt. 

The New World siege started quickly. By 1625, colonists were using tactics refined in the Old World to stop predation, according to Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men. They also had firearms and could kill from a distance. They hired wolf hunters and passed bounty laws—the first in Massachusetts in 1630. Other colonies followed including New Jersey in 1697.

Photo by Mary Strickroth

Wolf Hatred American Style

The often told story says Old World wolf hatred begat New World wolf hatred. Even though most colonists had never lost livestock to wolves, had never seen or heard wolves, they stepped off the boats hating the predators.

But historian Coleman argues that these immigrants and their descendants—our ancestors—added an American twist to wolf hatred. Given the colonists’ Old World view of wolves as monsters, you would expect New World settlers to have avoided wolves. Yet Coleman discovered records from as early as 1621 that show just the opposite. A settler, in one example, stumbled upon wolves at a deer kill, chased the wolves away, and swiped the meat. Records also document colonists encountering wolves and the frightened animals turning tail.

If wolves were such cowards, why did colonists treat them so viciously? Religion was partly to blame, says Coleman. “The biblical version of wolves with its focus on greed, corruption, and theft flourished in New England…” Colonists thumped the Bible to rationalize wreaking havoc on wolves for the crime of killing livestock.

Yet settlers aided and abetted the predators’ crimes by grazing livestock in wolf country without proper supervision. Coleman found colonists entrusted their herds to teenage boys “short in stature and attention span.” Wolves—hungry and struggling because settlers had overhunted their natural prey—took some livestock. This scenario moved west with civilization: Everywhere settlers killed off wild game and brought in livestock, wolves came to dine. Settlers fought back. But they didn’t just kill wolves; they ravaged them, Coleman says, because Euro-Americans fantasized…”to overpower savagery one must lash out savagely.”

Lashing out included creating fantasies that were the opposite of reality. Colonists portrayed wolves preying on humans. Reality: humans preyed on wolves. Colonists described howling wolves surrounding humans and inducing panic. Reality: humans surrounded and panicked wolves. This belief in a savage wolf—a figment in minds fed with fantasies—prompted vicious eradication of wolves. By 1840 wolves were extinct in Massachusetts and vanishing elsewhere. 

Wolves didn’t fight back. Their natural intelligence, speed, strength, and teeth were no match for our big brains and big arsenals. By the mid 1800s, that arsenal included more effective rifles and strychnine. By poisoning a carcass, hunters could kill an entire pack.

By Gustave Dore (1883). Public Domain

Wolf Hatred in Literature

But eliminating wolves wasn’t enough. Even as these essential predators vanished from the countryside, we kept wolves alive, feared, and hated in literature, especially in children's stories.

Take Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example. Though wolves were almost eradicated in Germany by 1812 when that book was published, it contained "Little Red Riding Hood," with its infamous wolf.

Around the same time—on a continent almost devoid of wolves—Europeans resurrected two thousand-year-old Aesop's Fables. Those stories contained "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," with its wolf destroying the flock of a lying boy, and “The Dog and the Wolf," with its wolf refusing to give up its freedom to become a collared, well-fed pet.

In 1886—more than three hundred years after the wolf was eradicated in England—“The Three Little Pigs" was published in The Nursery Rhymes of England. In that tale, a wolf with an insatiable appetite manages to eat two of the pigs before the third kills and eats him.

Stories such as these taught new generations to fear and hate wolves that didn't even exist.

Map by Vucetich, Bruskotter, Nelson

Stopping the War

The real danger for wolves today lies in this anti-wolf propaganda and hatred that sailed from the Old World to the New, underwent an American twist, and became imbedded in our culture.

This propaganda was institutionalized in the early 1900s by the U.S. Biological Survey—our government’s first wolf-killers. That agency and their prodigy, Wildlife Services—today’s secretive and out-of-control wolf killers—almost cleared the Lower 48 of wolves. Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, wolves have made a comeback. But even after seventy years with few wolves in the Lower 48, the propaganda, the lies, and the fantasies survived and today breed intolerance of wolves and spawn vicious anti-wolf acts.

Wolves suffer most where they are no longer federally protected, where states have the final word.  In states with powerful livestock industries, “wolf management” is a vow to kill all wolves except the minimum number required by a state’s federally approved wolf plan. Plans like those do nothing to reduce wolf hatred or wind down the war on wolves. Worse yet, they give the false impression that wolf survival is just a biological issue, a matter of the number of surviving breeding pairs. 

Looking only at numbers obscures the truth: To protect wolves, we must transform our nation’s culture from one that wages war on wolves to one that respects wolves. Wolf hatred was centuries in the making and will not succumb to reason quickly. Until then, wolves need federal protection from hunting and trapping. Wolves need a national wolf recovery plan.

(This post based on a chapter for In the Temple of Wolves.)

To Read Part One of This Series

Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves is available signed and on Amazon
The award-winning sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, is available signed or on Amazon.

The new prequel, The Wilds of Aging, is is available signed or on Amazon in paper or eBook.

Wolf photo at top of post by ODFW