Tuesday, December 10, 2019

How 2 Million Wolves Disappeared

A respected naturalist, Ernest Seton, once estimated that as many as two million wolves roamed North America and northern Mexico before colonists arrived. One reason: abundant bison. Bison once grazed in at least 40 of the Lower 48 states with 30 million or more bison between the Atlantic coast and the Rockies. And gray wolves—once found in 41 of the Lower 48—followed those huge herds of bison. Bison were so used to seeing wolves that Native American hunters wore wolf pelts as disguises so they could close in on bison. But by 1970 only 700 or so wolves remained in the Lower 48. How did two million wolves disappear?

1. Wolf hatred arrived with colonists

The disappearance of those millions of wolves begins in the Old World before colonists even arrived here. The often told story says Old World wolf hatred begat New World wolf hatred. Wolves had been eradicated, for example, from England in the 1500s and Scotland in the 1600s. So even though most colonists had never lost livestock to wolves, had never seen or heard wolves, many stepped off the boats into the New World hating the predators. 

But these immigrants and their descendants—our ancestors—added an American twist to wolf hatred, according to historian John Coleman in his book Vicious: Wolves and Men in America. Given the colonists’ Old World view of wolves as monsters, one would expect New World settlers to have avoided wolves. Yet Coleman discovered records from as early as 1621 that show 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. Colonists thumped the Bible to rationalize wreaking havoc on wolves for the crime of killing their 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—struggling because settlers had overhunted their natural prey—took some livestock. This scenario moved west with civilization: Settlers killed off wild game and grazed livestock; wolves came to dine. Settlers fought back. They didn’t just kill wolves; they ravaged them, Coleman says, because these Euro-Americans fantasized…”to overpower savagery one must lash out savagely.”

Lashing out involved 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 savage wolf—a figment in minds fed with fantasies—prompted the eradication of wolves. 

In 1630 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first colonial wolf bounty. In 1632 Virginia followed suit. In 1697 a New Jersey law established payment for wolf carcasses. Wolves began to vanish east of the Mississippi.

Wolves disappeared from Massachusetts by 1840, Ohio by 1850, Illinois by 1860, West Virginia by 1887, Pennsylvania by 1892, and from New York and Kentucky by the late 1800s.

2. Settlers encroached on wolf territory west of the Mississippi

While wolves vanished “back east,” plenty of wolves still hunted bison on the Great Plains. To estimate the number of wolves, researchers in 2005 used a new DNA technique. They calculated 380,000 wolves in the western United States and Mexico prior to the late 1800s and early 1900s. These wolves would be in harm’s way as setters migrated west. 

By 1849 two events helped spur westward migration, according to Richard Slatta, Professor of History at North Carolina State University. In 1848, the U.S. victory in the Mexican War opened up vast new areas of land in the West. In 1849 the gold rush in California brought hordes of fortune hunters.

By 1854 the first homesteaders moved onto the Great Plains, and after 1862 the Homestead Act made claiming western lands easier. Anyone willing to settle in the West got 160 acres of free land if they built a home and farmed that land for five years.

After the Civil War ended, western farming boomed. Homesteaders flooded to the Great Plains from 1870 to 1890. The 1874 invention of barbed wire allowed large areas of land to be fenced cheaply and enclose livestock.

From 1867 until the early 1880s, the cattle industry peaked as railroads provided refrigerated and relatively inexpensive transportation of beef to distant consumers. At the same time more land was looted for ranching when Native Americans were forced onto reservations.

As farmers and ranchers settled on the Great Plains, writes Slatta, they “needed seeds, equipment, household goods, animal feed, and credit. Thus small towns began to dot the western landscape as retail businesses and banks arose to serve the growing population. Social centers, including churches, schools, and saloons, grew as well.”

By the late 1800's, the once wide open West had become a patchwork of farms, ranches, and towns. So much of the West had filled up by 1890 that the Census Bureau declared the western frontier no longer existed.

Of course, all these farms, ranches, and towns sat right in wolf and bison country. Conflict was inevitable.

3. Wolves’ natural prey was eliminated

Settlers hungry for meat and for land upon which to graze their livestock killed the natural prey of wolves. 

The killing of bison presents a clear—and tragic—example. Bison were eradicated from Virginia by 1730. By the 1770s bison had vanished from most or all of the Carolinas, Alabama and Florida. By 1808 they had vanished from Ohio; by 1830 from Indiana; and by 1832 from Wisconsin. In just 100 years bison had been eradicated east of the Mississippi. 

Next, most of the millions that remained on the Great Plains were killed to make bison robes, feed railroad workers, and fuel an industrial revolution. They were also killed for sport and as a means of controlling Native Americans.  By 1884 only 325 wild bison survived in the Lower 48. This included two dozen hiding deep within Yellowstone National Park where hunting was not allowed.

The populations of other wildlife—elk, deer, pronghorn, and moose—that ranchers called competitors for precious grass also declined. As wildlife lost the battle for grass, cattle and sheep moved in. Hungry wolves did what comes naturally: take the prey—cattle and sheep—that is most available and poses the least risk.

4. Wolves were killed for bounties

With ranchers running cattle in wolf country and with wolves’ taking livestock, ranchers complained. State governments responded by instituting bounties on wolves. In 1838 Michigan instituted a bounty as did Minnesota in 1849, Iowa in 1858, Wisconsin in 1865, Colorado in 1869, Wyoming in 1875, and Montana in 1883.

Historians Whittlesey and Schullery found records that show bounties paid on 80,000 wolves from 1883 to 1918 in Montana and on 30,000 wolves in Wyoming from 1895 to 1917. They caution that these numbers may be overstated because “bounty hunters were creative and energetic in defrauding authorities.”

They reference another historian, Edward Currow, who estimated that the number of wolves killed during the 1860s and 1870s was unknown but a “conservative estimate would be more than 100,000 per year between 1870 and 1877.” That's 700,000 wolves killed.

The killing came in various ways. Wolves were hunted with dogs, shot, trapped, and even dug from their dens. Wolves died after eating poisoned carcasses left for them. 

5. Wolves were killed for their pelts

In addition to killing wolves to open up ranch land, the market for wolf hides boomed as beavers—trapped to make felt hats—neared extinction in the 1800s.

In the 1870s and early 1880s wolfers (professional wolf hunters) killed wolves for the value of their pelts. Whittlesey and Schullery refer to an 1873 article in Helena, Montana’s, The Daily Herald reporting that a group of wolfers accumulated about 10,000 wolf hides during one winter.

6. Wolves fell to a federal predator eradication program

The killing of wolves began to become institutionalized in 1885 when a small three-person unit, the Section of Economic Ornithology, was created in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gather and analyze information on bird migrations. 

By 1900, livestock interests throughout the West were lobbying against the collection of grazing fees on national forest land and other public domains heavily populated with wolves and coyotes. The federal government moved to protect its income at the cost of wildlife.

In 1905, the Section of Economic Ornithology became the Bureau of Biological Survey, which flourished during the massive westward migration driven by immigration pressure and the easy availability of land for homesteaders. 

Between 1905 and 1907, Biological Survey investigated predator-livestock conflicts and produced publications that described how to shoot, trap, and poison wolves. The agency helped develop the practice of taking wolf pups in the den.

Predator and rodent control became the dominant activity within the Biological Survey by the early 1920s. This paid well. For many years the financial support received from western States and livestock associations well exceeded monies appropriated by Congress for the Survey’s budget, according to a Texas Tech University paper. 

Between 1916 and 1926 the National Park Service joined in the killing. Its predator control program resulted in the extermination of wolves from Yellowstone National Park by 1926.

In addition to the killing by the federal government, wolf hunts peaked in the 1920s and1930s, with up to 21,000 wolves killed every year. 

Wolves vanished from Missouri by the late 1800s, from Kansas by the early 1900s, from Nebraska by 1913, from Iowa by 1925, and from Colorado by 1941. 

By 1970 only 700 of the once two million wolves remained in the Lower 48. They were hiding in the woods of northern Minnesota and on Isle Royale.

In 1997 the Biological Survey become Wildlife Services—the secretive and out-of-control wolf killers that continues the killing wolves.

7. Killing wolves wasn't enough 

Wolves never fought back in this one-sided war. Their natural intelligence, speed, strength, and teeth were no match for our big brains and big arsenals.

But eliminating wolves from the landscape was not enough. Even as wolves vanished, we kept wolves alive, feared, and hated in literature, especially in children's stories. Take Grimm's Fairy Tales. Though wolves were almost eradicated in Germany by 1812 when that book was published, it contained "Little Red Riding Hood," with its infamous wolf.

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.

And the myths exist today, still feeding a bloodlust to exterminate wolves.

Award-winning Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes, speaks, and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Wolf 341F's Incredible Journey

When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the mid-90s, they were expected to leave the park and repopulate other areas. And they did, traveling in many directions. Two wolves came together just north of the park in 2000 to form the Mill Creek Pack. In 2007 that pack had three adults and five pups. One of the pups was a female who, though she started life in Montana, would end her life—after an incredible journey—far from her birthplace and family.

The Mill Creek pack spent some time on private property on the east side of Paradise Valley where the Absaroka Mountains erupt from the valley floor. The pack, according to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) had taken two cattle. This led FWP to collar three of the pups in the fall of 2007. Once collared, this female pup became officially known as SW341F.

Her Departure

Responding to natural urges, 341F left her family in September of 2008 when she was seventeen months old and probably weighed less than 100 pounds. She began her journey by heading south toward Yellowstone. Her departure wasn’t unusual. Somewhere between one and three years of age, a wolf may leave its family to seek a mate and form its own pack. Dispersers, as these travelers are called, might cover thirty miles in a day. The collar 341F wore emitted GPS signals that would allow FWP to track every step of her incredible journey. 

That track shows that she stayed at first in the rugged Absarokas, familiar territory and public land. She entered and soon exited Yellowstone. She kept walking, now in unfamiliar territory, toward Cody, Wyoming. She stayed in and near Shoshone National Forest. In the Northern Rocky Mountains, according to FWP, the average dispersal distance is about 60 miles. By this time 341F had already travelled farther than that, and she wasn’t done yet.

Face-to-Face with an Interstate

She reached the Wind River Range and climbed up and over. As winter closed in, she went as far south as Interstate 80, near Evanston, Wyoming. The GPS track tracing her journey stops right at the interstate. She decided—probably out of fear of the sight, sound, and smell of a wide, busy, high-speed road—not to cross the freeway. Instead she turned around and headed north.

Though repelled by I-80, she wasn’t ready to stop her journey. After trekking north, she turned west and then south. And ran into I-80. She again chose not to cross and instead did another about face. 

Had she made this same journey just three years later, she would be in what Wyoming now calls their Predator Zone. She could be shot anytime, by anyone, for no reason, no license required. But during her incredible journey she was thankfully protected in every state by the federal Endangered Species Act.

Her Road Trip Menu

This protected landscape was home to plenty of elk and deer. But she would not likely bring down an elk or deer by herself. More likely, she would hunt rabbits and ground squirrels, weasels and badgers, beavers and skunks. She could scavenge roadkill, winter kill, or the remains of livestock dumped in “bone yards” on ranches. Lone wolves even subsist on grasshoppers, according to a recent journal article. Whatever her menu, she found enough food to fuel her incredible journey as she searched for other wolves, howling occasionally and listening for a response. 

A few days after turning away from I-80 for the second time she entered the southeastern corner of Idaho; but she didn’t stay long. Instead, she followed a natural wildlife corridor southward into yet more mountains, the Bear River Range. By late January of 2009, four months into her journey, she was trotting through these mountains toward Utah.

The Bear River Range empties into a valley cut by her nemesis, I-80. Somehow she finally overcame her urge to avoid the interstate and crossed the deadly strip of fencing, concrete, and vehicles. What a challenge that must have been.

Her Historic Entrance into Colorado

With the interstate disappearing behind her, she left the valley floor and entered the shelter of the Uinta Mountains. Day by day she moved eastward through public land. Then she passed by Vernal, Utah, crossed more major roads and, south of Dinosaur National Monument, entered Colorado. 

341F was only the second confirmed wolf to reach Colorado since the Yellowstone reintroduction. In June 2004, another young, collared, female from Yellowstone had reached Colorado only to be killed by a vehicle on I-70 near Idaho Springs, just west of Denver. The state's last native wolf was killed in 1943.

By the time 341F reached Colorado she must have become proficient at knowing when, where, and how to cross life-threatening roads because she did just that as she continued deeper into the state. Eventually, above I-70, she turned north into the wildlife-rich Rocky Mountains. For reasons only she could know she chose a route that would take her back to Wyoming.

After passing by or through Rocky Mountain National Park and surrounding national forests, she reentered Wyoming, staying in national forest until she reached 1-80 yet again. This time she not only crossed it going north but a short while later reversed course and recrossed it going south, backtracking to Colorado. She had become a proficient traveller.

Her Incredible Journey Ends

Once back in Colorado, she stayed on public land, heading south then west. In late March, she entered White River National Forest, the last public land that would shelter her. She was twenty-three months of age, old enough to breed. But there is no evidence she did so during the breeding season that had just ended. With luck she could find a mate, breed next year, and create a resident pack. 

But after traveling for six months and covering more than 1,000 miles, 341F’s luck ran out. Her incredible journey ended by March 31, 2009.

According to documents WildEarth Guardians obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, one wildlife official wrote after studying data from her GPS collar: 

“It doesn’t look good . . . I think she may be dead. She is ~6 miles north of Rio Blanco, Colorado… Her locations show that she has been in the same spot since noon on 3/31 and the locations are within 0.04 miles of the road on the north side. My fingers are crossed that she is feeding on roadkill but it just doesn’t seem likely since her locations are all extremely clustered and so close to the road.”

Wildlife officials found her body about twenty-four miles north of the town of Rifle, less than two miles west of Highway 13, and near Rio Blanco County Road 60. This county road curves through secluded hills and valleys that are covered with sagebrush and freckled with short conifers. Rural homesteads dot the area. For 341F, this landscape might have looked similar to her home turf in Paradise Valley.

By March the elk and deer in Rio Blanco would have come down from the high country and settled in to wait for spring in the bottom land, much of which is privately owned. 341F could have done the same in search of prey. This intersection of private and public land is a deadly conflict zone for wolves everywhere.

Findings of the Investigation

Since 341F was protected by the ESA, wildlife officials began investigating her death. It took years and that FOIA request for investigators to finally release information. And when they did, the findings were troubling.

341F was poisoned with Compound 1080. This poison, sodium monofluoroacetate, was banned by President Nixon in 1972. The Reagan administration in 1985 allowed the use of 1080 in collars that are placed around the neck of sheep or goats. When a predator attacked a collar-wearing animal, it could bite into the collar, ingest 1080, and die. 

Death by 1080 isn’t pretty or quick. Symptoms, according to Predator Defense, begin to appear half an hour or more after exposure and may last for hours or days. The dying animal will go through cycles of vomiting, involuntary hyperextension of the limbs, convulsions, and collapse. Compound 1080 is so potent that animals scavenging months-old tainted carcasses can still succumb to secondary poisoning.

Predator Defense adds that despite the 1972 ban, stockpiles of the poison were never recalled or destroyed and are still used today to illegally kill wolves, coyotes, and eagles. The infamous Wildlife Services can legally use 1080 collars in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. But NOT in Colorado.

That 1080 was found to have poisoned 341F despite being banned for 37 years and illegal in Colorado raises many questions. How did the 1080 get where 341F might ingest it? Was someone illegally using 1080 to kill predators? Did someone set it out specifically to kill 341F after spotting her? Who was responsible for placing the poison?  

Unfortunately, the investigation did not answer these questions. We don’t know exactly how 341F’s incredible journey ended. But there are lessons we can take from it.

Lessons Learned from 341F

Wolves can’t see borders on maps. They go where they go for their own reasons. Public lands and the Endangered Species Act are critical to the safe dispersal of wolves.

Interstates and busy highways did not stop 341F and won’t stop other determined wolves.

The route that 341F chose to disperse from Montana to Colorado uses a number of known wildlife corridors. These corridors should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The use of Compound 1080 should be banned everywhere since it indiscriminately kills animals including those protected under the ESA—as 341F was.

Colorado has territory that drew 341F not just once but twice. Such territory could sustain resident wolf packs.

Award-winning Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes, speaks, and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Wolf in photo is Oregon wolf OR-2, a wolf similar in appearance to 341F. I found no photos of 341F in action.

Monday, November 25, 2019

It's Time to Thank Wolves

As the season of giving thanks arrives, I think it’s time to thank wolves, fine creatures whose ancient ancestors befriended us, shared with us, and taught us. 

Ancient wolves, for hundreds of thousands of years, dogged herds of reindeer that migrated between what is now Spain and Siberia. After the last Ice Age, early humans may have watched wolves bringing down reindeer. Our ancestors may have been as hungry as those wolves and wondered how to plunder some of their competitor’s bounty. But a few humans, no matter how desperate, couldn't just take a wolf pack's kill.  

Early humans, though, were superior to wolves in some ways, say Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter in a journal article, “Coevolution of Humans and Canids.” Humans have greater cognitive ability. Humans can see better at longer distances because we stand taller than wolves. Humans with weapons can hit a target from a distance. Early humans, the scientists believe, could have used these strengths to partner with wolves in hunting.

Ancient wolves hunted, as they do now, by sorting and sifting a herd to expose the animal that requires the least effort to bring down. Once wolves cut that animal from the herd, the dangerous work begins. And that’s where humans could come in. With bigger brains, better vision, and weapons humans could have helped wolves finish the job. Working together, a meal was won and shared using the strengths of both predators.

Another scientist, Pat Shipman, an anthropologist, also theorizes that early humans partnered with wolves. But in her book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, she adds a twist: that alliance gave our ancestors an unbeatable advantage over Neanderthals, our competitor.

Neanderthal sites in Europe (Via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scientists figure that Neanderthals dominated the European continent when our ancestors reached there about 45,000 years ago. But just 5,000 years later, Neanderthals had disappeared. Some experts believe that climate change caused their demise. Shipman presents an exciting alternative. She says that while modern humans and Neanderthals both competed to kill grazers, humans partnered with wolf-dogs. She found no evidence that Neanderthals did so. She believes that our alliance with wolf-dogs helped us outcompete Neanderthals and win the evolutionary race.

The wolf-dogs we partnered with were not the same as modern wolves or modern dogs, says Shipman. They were not a wolf-dog hybrid. But they had characteristics similar to those of today’s wolves. They would have tracked animals like elk and bison and hounded them until they tired. Then early humans would have stepped in to kill the prey with spears or bows and arrows. The wolf-dogs would have kept competitors and scavengers from stealing the kill—just as wolves protect their kills today. The partners shared the work and the meal.

Wolves surround a bison (NPS photo)

While Shipman sees early humans partnering with wolf-dogs, Mark Derr in his book, How the Dog Became the Dog, describes how humans partnered with actual wolves. Derr’s view of our connecting with wolves is quite unlike the more commonly told story that wolves were curs slinking around the edge of early human settlements begging for handouts and eventually tamed by intelligent humans. 

Our partnership with wolves, says Derr, occurred even before early humans had settlements. Certain nomadic humans and wolves met on the trail and were simply right for one another; were both sociable and curious. Those initial connections were no small thing. The first wolves to take up with humans were exceptional animals capable of making what Derr calls “a leap of friendship” with a creature from another species.

Wolves hunting elk (NPS photo)

Once that leap was made, early human and wolves evolved together, and our ancestors learned from wolves. Over centuries, humans eventually domesticated some wolves into dogs, animals that have helped us survive and prosper.

Derr’s image of two intelligent and resourceful creatures meeting on the trail, befriending one another, and evolving together is an important addition to wolf natural history. And I believe that how we view wolves historically is critical to how we treat them today.

Consider this scenario: You’re in the market for a dog and you go to a reputable breeder. She has two dogs from which you can choose. The dogs look similar, and you ask about each. She points to one and says, “Oh, his parents hung out by my trash pile. They were just scavengers.”  Then she points at the other and says, “This one’s parents were two of my best friends. They were intelligent, attentive, and curious.” 

Which animal would you take as one to love and care for? Which might you keep at a distance or demonize? 

As I see it, ancient wolves were intelligent enough to grasp the advantage of working with our ancestors. Ancient wolves were brave enough to make a dangerous leap of friendship with a competitive species. Ancient wolves were generous enough to share their hard-earned kills.

Instead of hating wolves and treating them as unacceptable competitors for game and livestock, we should thank these essential predators that befriended us, shared with us, and taught us.

Award-winning Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes, speaks, and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Signed Sets Available
Photo of black wolf by Bob Haarmans, CC by 2.0 Flickr

Saturday, November 23, 2019

You Just Can't Keep a Good Coyote Down

Yellowstone’s coyotes had no idea in 1995 who the new dog in the neighborhood was when wolves were reintroduced in the park. After a seventy-year absence, generations of coyotes had come and gone without a wolf in sight. But coyotes soon learned that these new neighbors sure could bring down elk. The reintroduced wolves, on the other hand, knew exactly who the coyotes were: competitors for hard-won food.

A Yellowstone coyote is medium-sized, like a Border Collie. A wolf, on the other paw, is a giant. Wolves are a foot taller at the shoulder and weigh four times as much as coyotes. 

So when a hungry—and naive—coyote sidled up to join wolves at their kill, the wolf pack did what it does best: cut the competition, whether that rival is a wolf from another pack, a fox, a mountain lion, or a coyote. (Wolves rarely eat the competitors they kill.) 

Within a few years after wolf reintroduction, Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley coyote population had been reduced by half. Yet today, there are as many coyotes in the valley as there were before wolves returned. That’s an impressive recovery, but I wouldn’t expect less from the coyote, an intelligent, tough survivor with a long history of overcoming adversity inside and outside the park. 

When Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, was established in 1872, no one had experience managing a park or protecting its wildlife. Protecting wildlife wasn’t even a high priority. Yellowstone was created to preserve magnificent scenery and magical geothermal features; the animals just happened to live within the new borders. And anyway, there was no money to hire staff to safeguard wildlife. So, for example, miners passing through the Lamar Valley on their way to claims near Cooke City hunted wolves and coyotes for sport or profit.

By the time wildlife protection was considered, park officials were only thinking about protecting bison, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and antelope from predators. To their minds, protecting wildlife meant killing wolves and coyotes.  

In 1896 coyote control was recommended, and poisoned animal carcasses were the weapon of choice. Eight years later with coyotes still holding their own, the park superintendent said he needed to escalate the war, vowed to use “every means to get rid of them.” Three years after that, the war ratcheted up another notch when the U.S. army, which had been put in charge of the park, deployed troops against coyotes. 

This war against predators did not go unnoticed. By the late 1920s, people inside and outside the National Park Service—the group next in charge—were questioning the heavy-handed destruction of wolves and coyotes. Scientific organizations spoke out against predator control, saying these animals helped maintain ecological balance. The view that predators were essential and should be protected became NPS policy in 1936, and the sanctioned killing of wolves and coyotes in Yellowstone stopped. 

In the forty years between poisoning the first carcass and firing the last shot, more than 4,300 Yellowstone coyotes were killed. But that did not drive them from Yellowstone. In contrast, it only took seven years to kill 132 wolves and eradicate them from the park. 

How could the little coyote survive a battle that the big bad wolf could not?

Coyotes are opportunistic feeders; they’ll eat just about anything that doesn’t move or moves more slowly than they do. In 1937 Adolf Murie and his assistants conducted a landmark study of coyotes in the Lamar Valley. They scoured the valley floor, picked up thousands of pieces of coyote scat and analyzed them. They found that coyotes ate twelve kinds of large mammals; twenty-four different small mammals; twenty types of birds, fish, and snakes; four kinds of bugs; as well as grass, pine nuts, rose seeds, strawberries, mushrooms, blueberries, and Oregon grape. They also found in coyote scat remnants of leather work gloves, twine, cellophane, tinfoil, and shoestrings. 

Such a varied diet makes poisoning coyotes more difficult than poisoning wolves, which prefer a single-item menu: elk. Poison the right elk carcass and you could kill an entire wolf pack.

Also, the size of the animal and its pack matters. The small coyote presents a more challenging target to a bounty hunter with a rifle. And when hunted by humans, coyotes decrease the size of their packs; smaller packs are less obvious and harder to track. Wolves, on the other hand, rarely travel alone and always live in packs; the larger the better, from the wolf’s point of view. And from the view of a hunter who is paid by the pelt.

Perhaps most important, unlike wolves, coyote reproduction is “density dependent.” If hunters and trappers kill many coyotes in a particular area, the surviving coyotes will produce more young than usual. According to one study, a coyote population can withstand an annual loss of seventy percent and still generate enough young to replace that loss.

These differences between the two animals are why predator control led to an increase in Yellowstone’s coyote population and the eradication of wolves. The story was the same beyond the park’s boundaries where hunters and trappers—paid with government funds—destroyed the predators.

Among those paid hunters was a predator control agent in New Mexico in the early 1920s named Aldo Leopold. He was good at his job and helped cut that state’s wolf population from 300 to 30 in just three years. When he saw the light about killing predators, it came as a fading green fire in the eyes of a wolf he had just shot. He wrote an essay about that experience and it was published in a book in 1949, shortly after his death. That book, A Sand County Almanac, would become one of the most significant environmental books of the 20th century. 

Leopold’s new ideas—including his 1944 recommendation to bring wolves back to Yellowstone—would lead to the development of environmental ethics and wilderness conservation. But that would take decades. Meanwhile, the killing of predators continued. 

By the 1970s, the range of the wolf, which had once covered over two-thirds of the United States, had shrunk to include just Alaska, northern Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and northern Minnesota. 

Coyotes—those tough little survivors—fared better than wolves in the predator war outside Yellowstone just as they had in the park, despite federal, state, and private hunters resorting to a gruesome arsenal. Hunters used snares, steel traps, and long-range rifles. They engaged in chemical warfare: anti-fertility chemicals, cyanide, sugar-coated strychnine, and other poisons. They used biological warfare: introducing mange so that coyotes would lose fur and die during winter. They flooded dens or set them on fire. They hunted from airplanes and snowmobiles. 

All of this against a critter the size of a Border Collie.

And when the dust settled, coyotes, which before the onslaught had been concentrated in the Great Plains, now lived in every state except Hawaii. They have even taken up residence in large cities like Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where packs have learned to avoid humans by hunting at night and not howling.

Yep, you just can’t keep a good coyote down.

(This post based on a chapter from the best-selling In the Temple of Wolves.)

All photos by Rick Lamplugh

Award-winning Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes, speaks, and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Signed  Copies Available

Monday, November 18, 2019

How Wolves Arrived in North America

At least 130,000 years ago Canis lupus, the essential predator we call the gray wolf, entered North America from Eurasia. After it turned and travelled far south, it probably encountered dire wolves (Canis dirus), the dominant wolf in North America at the time. Dire wolves had appeared abruptly and fully evolved across North America thousands of years earlier, according to Ronald Nowak, writing in Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. He speculates that dire wolves may have travelled north from South America. 

While we tend to picture dire wolves as huge, Nowak contends they varied in size. Some were the biggest wolves ever; others were smaller, about the size of a large gray wolf. Dire wolves had massive heads, huge teeth, and short legs relative to their body size. Fossilized remains of these wolves have been found across the Lower 48. Dire wolves seemed to prefer warmer climates; they never migrated to the northern reaches of North America, leaving that territory to Canis lupus.

Map by William Harris. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The dire wolf disappeared about 8,000 years ago along with some of its large prey, the mastadons, wooly mammoths, and camels that had been plentiful during the Ice Age. Not all ancient herbivores perished, writes James Bailey in American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon. Ancestors of Yellowstone’s bison survived this mass extinction, as did elk and moose, caribou and musk ox, bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

The dire wolf’s disappearance may have been caused, says Nowak, by increasing numbers of humans taking the wolf’s prey. Or dire wolves may have been outcompeted by gray wolves and red wolves (Canis rufus), both better suited to hunting the relatively smaller and faster prey that was becoming prevalent.

Whatever the cause, the dire wolf’s extinction left gray wolves as the dominant wolf. With plenty of game to dine upon, Canis lupus flourished. “Its range,” writes Nowak, “was more extensive than that of any other terrestrial mammal.” Except humans.

Early gray wolves first entered North America across the Bering Land Bridge during the last Ice Age. When the climate was coldest, glaciers formed at points around the globe and locked up water. This caused sea level to fall in the Bering Strait. As cold persisted, more water froze, sea level fell further, and the Bering Land Bridge appeared, a land route connecting Siberia with Alaska. (On the NPS map below, the land bridge is the yellow area.) 

The name “bridge” misleads. This land bridge was not long and thin like a highway bridge. It was more of a dry subcontinent, called Beringia, that was about five times the size of present day Alaska. Beringia’s cold-hardy vegetation drew many grazers. Hungry wolves followed.

Once pioneering gray wolves crossed Beringia into North America, the species began to divide. Eventually there would be five subspecies of Canis lupus. Each type of wolf adapted to its specific habitat, prey, and climate. This led to the development of the different sizes and behaviors seen in these wolves. 

1. The arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos) inhabited the cold far north. 

2. The northwestern wolf (Canis lupus occidentalis) roamed Alaska and western Canada. 

3. The plains wolf (Canis lupus nubilus) claimed the largest territory, a wide swath from Oregon to Newfoundland and from Hudson Bay to Texas. 

4. The eastern wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) had the smallest range, prowling a compact, football-shaped portion of the northeastern US and southeastern Canada. 

5. The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) stalked its prey in Mexico and the deep southwestern US.

The red wolf (Canis rufus)—a different species—crossed the Bering Land Bridge long before the gray wolf and howled in the eastern and southeastern US.

This North American suite of wolves would remain complete until we humans decided to conquer the continent and get rid of wolves. 

We killed off the plains wolf by 1926.

We drove the red wolf to near extinction by the mid-1900s and it remains critically endangered. 

photo by Dave Pape, public domain

We killed off the Mexican wolf in New Mexico by 1927. It remains endangered with more wolves living in captive breeding programs than in the wild. 

photo by Jim Clark, public domain

The remaining eastern wolves are protected in both the US and Canada. According to the International Wolf Center, there is a scientific debate that some or all the wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are eastern wolves. 

Photo by Michael Runtz. (CC BY 4.0)

The arctic wolf survives in Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands. 

Photo by Ralf Schmode. (Copyright free)

The northwestern wolf ranges from Canada into the northwestern US, including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and California and is protected in some states by the Endangered Species Act.

Photo by Ellie Atteberry (CC BY 2.0)

Award-winning Indie author Rick Lamplugh writes, speaks, and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands. 

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.

Photo at top of post of Wapiti Lake Pack wolves by Mary Strickroth