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Wolves and Grizzlies and Good Reading

Categories: History, News, Through Early Yellowstone, Wildlife
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wolf

Gray wolf, Yellowstone Treasures page 351, photo courtesy National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park

Wolves have been feared and hated by humans for centuries. “It’s like the abortion issue of wildlife,” according to a recent Oliver Milman article in The Guardian’s U.S. edition. In his thoughtful article, Milman traces gray wolves from their rebound in Great Lakes states in the 1960s and their reintroduction to Yellowstone in the mid 1990s. He quotes wolf restoration project leader Doug Smith: “Fifty years ago, everyone hated wolves. Now, half the population hates wolves. We are progressing . . .”

I confess to having missed Endangered Species Day, which was May 20th this year. But I see that the Endangered Species Coalition has an extensive reading list for young and adult readers, including wolf books for children. For adults, it includes a favorite of mine, The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen, the renowned author who just wrote the text for National Geographic’s May issue on Yellowstone. Then there’s a book I would like to read, The Future of Life, by one of our wisest scientists, Edward O. Wilson.

* * * * *

grizzly bear and cub

Grizzly bear sow and yearling on boardwalk at Daisy Geyser, NPS Flickr photo

The fate of the grizzly bear population in the Greater Yellowstone Area is a serious matter on the verge of being decided by the courts. People who live, work, hunt, or frequently visit the area are closely following the controversy over listing / delisting the great bears.

An excellent article appears in the May 16th issue of the magazine High Country News. Carefully researched and written by environmental journalist Gloria Dickie, her article puts the whole problem of managing grizzlies in perspective. Grizzlies can live about twenty-five years in the wild. There are now 717 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by a recent estimate and 960 in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (in and around Glacier National Park).

Environmentalists would like to find a way to bridge these two populations for their genetic health. Meanwhile, others with strong opinions about whether or not the bears should be delisted include hunters, outfitters, photo safari guides, and Native American Indian tribal leaders.

Chris Servheen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife grizzly bear recovery coordinator, believes the recovery level of grizzly bears reached as of now more than fulfills the goals of the Endangered Species Act. The bears’ recovery is “the greatest success story of all,” he says.

The controversy continues, but for comic relief here is a bit of (definitely not politically correct) historic humor that appears in my new collection, Through Early Yellowstone. This took place in the first decade of the twentieth century.

How Buffalo Jones Disciplined a Bad Grizzly
by William T. Hornaday
in The Minds and Manners of Wild Animals, 1922

The most ridiculous and laughable performance ever put up with a wild grizzly bear as an actor was staged by Col. C. J. (“Buffalo”) Jones, when he was superintendent of the wild animals of the Yellowstone Park. He marked down for punishment a particularly troublesome grizzly that had often raided tourists’ camps at a certain spot, to steal food. Very skillfully he roped that grizzly around one of his hind legs, suspended him from the limb of a tree, and while the disgraced and outraged silver-tip swung to and fro, bawling, cursing, snapping, snorting, and wildly clawing at the air, Buffalo Jones whaled it with a beanpole until he was tired. With commendable forethought Mr. Jones had for that occasion provided a moving-picture camera, and this film always produces roars of laughter.

Now, here is where we guessed wrongly. We supposed that whenever and wherever a well-beaten grizzly was turned loose, the angry animal would attack the lynching party. But not so. When Mr. Jones’ chastened grizzly was turned loose, it thought not of reprisals. It wildly fled to the tall timber, plunged into it, and there turned over a new leaf.

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Plans for the Yellowstone grizzly

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Grizzly bear on Swan Lake Flats, Yellowstone

Grizzly bear on Swan Lake Flats, Yellowstone

Grizzly bears have been in the news in recent years. First, because human-bear conflicts have been more numerous, including a total of six deaths of people since 2010. Managing these conflicts and the bear predation on cattle means about twenty grizzlies are intentionally killed or removed to zoos per year (see this database if you are interested). In 2016 the news is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to take them off the Endangered Species list by the end of the year. The National Park Service put together an informative page about the history of efforts to help the Yellowstone-area grizzly recover, including listing it and delisting it, plus explaining how to minimize encounters with bears and ensure your safety if you do accidentally come close to one. You can find the article here: “Grizzly Bears and the Endangered Species Act.” The most recent delisting was in 2007, but a court ruling overturned that and put them back on the threatened species list in 2009.

Here’s a quick list of safety points, courtesy of the NPS. When backcountry hiking, you can reduce the odds of being injured by a bear by following these five rules:

  1. Hike in groups of three or more people.
  2. Stay alert.
  3. Make noise in areas with poor visibility.
  4. Carry bear spray.
  5. Don’t run during encounters with bears.

The grizzly bear population has made a remarkable recovery, to about 700 individuals in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. So why is delisting controversial? Some are worried about plans for hunting in the surrounding states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. For a March 20, 2016, article that quotes the state governors on the subject, see “US seeks end to Yellowstone grizzly protections” on the Explore Big Sky website.

Do you have an opinion on this subject? Isn’t this photo beautiful? Write your informed comment below.
—Editor Beth

Photo by Jim Peaco for the National Park Service, June 2005.

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Science for Parks conference, part 5

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5. Conference Keynoter E. O. Wilson

A great many people in the Wheeler Hall crowd on March 26, 2015, had the same feeling: We are in the presence of the world’s foremost living biologist, a man who has made a big difference in many fields of endeavor. We were not disappointed in his address.

Born in 1929 and raised in Alabama, Edward Osborne Wilson became the world’s leading expert on ants, but he has studied and written on numerous subjects relating to the natural world. The prizes awarded him are amazingly numerous and include the 2012 International Cosmos Prize and two Pulitzer Nonfiction prizes, for On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991, with Bert Hölldobler). Berkeley Professor Steve Beissinger, who introduced Wilson, said his own favorite book by the speaker is his autobiography, The Naturalist (2006).

E. O. Wilson lord of the ants keynoter
Picture source: PBS
Dr. Wilson is now a Harvard emeritus professor and a special lecturer at Duke University, where he located his E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The goal of this foundation is to forward stewardship of the world through biodiversity and education. Another center established in his name is the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center near Freeport, Florida, whose mission is “making naturalists in an outdoor extension of the science classroom.”

Wilson calls his religious position “provisional deism” and feels that religious leaders and scientists should build an alliance. But his human sociobiology ideas (the study of the biological basis of all forms of social behavior in both animals and man) have met with opposition.

Of course, it will be impossible to sum up what E. O. Wilson said in a few paragraphs, but I will pass on some high points for readers who do not plan to listen to the entire talk (starting at 2:30 in the video).

Beginning with what scientists have learned in the field of biodiversity in the past twenty years, Wilson defined it as the “collectivity of all inherited variation in any given place.” It can be divided into three levels: ecosystems, such as ponds or forest patches; the species in an ecosystem; and the genes in each species. Only about one-fifth of all the probable species in the world have been discovered and named as yet. This census needs to be sped up; among the national parks Great Smoky National Park has so far the most complete U.S. census, and about 18,000 species are known to live there. “We live on a little-known planet,” he says.

Moving on to the subjects of species extinction and efforts to preserve species, Wilson told us that the global extinction rate is some one thousand times greater now than before the coming of humans to the planet. “Prospects for the rest of this century are grim,” and “loss of natural habitat is the primary cause of biodiversity extinction.” Can we believe, he asks, that future humans can manage life in a system devoid of all or most of the species that took three-and-one-half billion years to put together?

As of 2015 about 15% of land surfaces and 3% of oceans are protected from exploitation. Wilson believes, however, that a world population of ten billion people could live on earth if 50% of land and sea areas were protected. “We can achieve this with four unintended consequences of human behavior.” These are (in brief):
1. A dramatic drop in the fertility rate, achievable “whenever women attain a modicum of social and economic independence.”
2. More population living in cities and the land thus gained utilizing improved agricultural methods: “Present day agriculture [in much of the world] is Neolithic.”
3. Reduction of the ecological footprint, the space each person needs, becoming less as the global economy evolves, creating products using less material and less energy.
4. “Easing of demand on the natural environment inherent in the evolutionary shift from an extensive economy to an intensive economy.” Most of the National Academies of Science, he says, recommend “focusing on quality of life instead of capital and economic power as the premier measures of success.”

Dr. Wilson ended his remarks by stating that “national parks and reserves are going to be logical centers for fundamental research.” This is already true for the geosciences; soon, he predicts, it will be comparable for original studies of the living environment.

During the question and answer session, Wilson recommended that places such as national parks and reserves be connected in corridors, such as is already being set aside in the Yellowstone–to–Yukon (Y2Y) initiative. And replying to “What is the role of the U.S. national parks in all this?” he went out on a limb: “More, bigger!” he said; “take a central place in America’s strategic planning alongside defense.”

Wilson would like to see more science schools include departments of herpetology, entomology, and the like, where students can study biodiversity and “bring in the armamentarium of modern biology to enrich their studies.” His reply to a question about triage for endangered species was, “Save them all!”

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Science for Parks conference, part 3

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3. NPS Science Advisor, Dr. Gary Machlis

The YouTube video of Gary Machlis’s talk in the final session of last week’s conference (3:10 pm, Friday) is not for the faint of heart. (For just his talk, titled “The Future of Science and the National Parks,” go to 28:24 minutes into the link provided above.)

I wrote in my notes: “This guy is brilliant”! In this instance he was talking to people, almost all of whom have a science background of some kind, but there is important and understandable take-away here for anyone willing to pay attention to what he has to say.

Gary E. Machlis has recently been appointed the first-ever science adviser to a National Park Service director. We can hope that Director Jon Jarvis will be able to take his advice to heart. Machlis is also Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University, a South Carolina public university ranked highly among science and engineering schools. And he has written and co-authored numerous books about parks, biodiversity, and related topics. His most recent is Warfare Ecology, the historical effects of violence and warfare on places such as World War I Slovenia or many parts of Africa.

Dr. Machlis provides a stellar example of how to organize a lecture of just over twenty minutes and yet plant important ideas that will take root in the minds of his audience. He begins with a mention of a 1942 book (C. C. Furnas, The Next Hundred Years), full of predictions such as that the technological limit for a wireless receiver will be a two-pound backpack. Go figure.

Machlis’s own predictions for what is “just over the horizon” in technologies that will be useful to park managers include quantum biology that will help explain how birds migrate; new ocean research platforms like the newly launched USS Neil Armstrong, designed for ocean research; “CubeSats,” tiny satellites that can gather date wherever they are; and citizen science that he foresees will involve young people up to high levels of serious participation.

Also totally new to me is the idea of “de-extinction”: cloning and re-creation of extinct species, which could involve major ethical decisions. And there was much more.

Near the end of his talk, Machlis brought out the statistic that 87% of scientists believe that human evolution took place over time, while 32% of the general public believe this. But he ended on a definitely upbeat note, showing a picture of the young girls who won awards a few days ago at the White House Science Fair.

SciFairGirls_2015-04-02 at 11.07.15 AM
Screen shot of Science Fair winners and Barack Obama.

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A quick heads-up on Yellowstone’s wolves

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Exactly twenty years after gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone Park, Kathie Lynch has given us a wonderful summary of their present very healthy state in the park. This is spite of the unfortunate killing of several collared wolves, at least three of them alphas, in the three hunting seasons since they were removed from the Endangered Species list in Montana, Idaho, and (until September 2014) in Wyoming.

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Wolves are “just like us”!

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YT174 copy

Yellowstone’s wolves are always in the news. Back in late 2012 the Obama administration lifted federal protection for wolves in Wyoming. In the year following, trophy hunters killed 62 wolves. An unknown number were shot or trapped. Then, on September 13 of this year, federal judge Amy Berman Jackson returned Wyoming wolves to Endangered Species Act protection. Wyoming’s congressional delegation has now pledged to go to Congress in an effort to get wolves again delisted in the state.

As the legislative ping-pong game continues, Doug Smith, Yellowstone wildlife biologist and leader of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, has fascinating things to say in a 23-minute Iowa Public Radio interview about the history of wolf re-introduction in the park and the present state of wolves.

Tempting you to listen to this excellent interview, I’ll mention a couple of highlights of Doug’s remarks.

Although the next official count will take place in mid winter, current Yellowstone wolf numbers are at approximately 130 wolves in 11 packs.

In discussing the ongoing argument about Canadian wolves being introduced, thus bringing in a different subspecies from those that historically lived in and around Wyoming, Doug explains that over the decades when no wolves lived there, no exchange of genes could take place due to geographic isolation. He states that there are now 5 subspecies in North America, not the many more claimed by some people.

Doug points out that Yellowstone is now returning to “ecological functionality”—big words for the balance achieved in the environment by returning wolves to the park.

He completely empathizes with the ranchers in the ring of land that circles the Greater Yellowstone public land, where wolves now live. Unavoidably, preying on their livestock is a big problem, but ideas to cope with this are multiplying.

Replying to a listener’s question about attacks on humans, he stresses that wolves are afraid of humans and/or “can’t figure us out because we walk on two legs.” He suggests that the big, bad wolf stories may be based on some historical attacks but could well have been referring to rabid wolves.

Doug will be giving a talk at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union, 8:00 pm on Monday, November 3. In his interview he lists an impressive list of human traits found in wolves: they are monogamous, good parents, territorial, and communicate by body postures and many quiet vocalizations—as well as howling. And he concludes, “They’re just like us!”

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Wolves and bison, oh, my!

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Just in time for National Park Week (April 16-24, 2011), when entry to Yellowstone and all other parks is free to all visitors, things have changed for the Northwest’s wolves and bison. First, the agreement between conservation groups and the U.S. Department of the Interior concerning the wolves (that I wrote about on April third) was rejected in the courts. Then this week, as broadcast in the national news, the budget agreement passed by Congress includes an unprecedented delisting of wolves from their endangered status—an act that has until now been the prerogative of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency. Democratic senators Tester and Baucus from Montana signed on to the plan, stating that they had put aside their differences and worked on a responsible, common-sense plan.

Admittedly, the estimated 1700 wolves now living in the northwestern states exceeds by many times the goal stated when gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995. They have restored ecological balance, and they appear to be resilient and adaptable, although in the interim their numbers have both grown and diminished, mostly from natural causes. Environmental organizations will now devote their energies to being sure that state management of wolves is “based on sound science and public involvement to ensure they continue to fill their ecological niche on the landscape,” to quote Mike Clark of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Meanwhile:
An agreement on April 14th now gives Yellowstone bison access to 75,000 acres of land north of the park, although much of that land is not suitable for grazing. Says the National Park Traveler’s Kurt Repanshek: “Under the agreement laid out Thursday, park bison will be allowed to roam roughly 13 miles north of the park to Yankee Jim Canyon, a natural pinch-point in the landscape. There a cattle guard has been installed across the highway to discourage bison from moving further north along the road, while fencing is to be erected on U.S. Forest Service land abutting the road to keep the bison from moving around the cattle guard.”

The most desirable land for grazing from a big ungulate’s point of view is north of Yankee Jim Canyon, where ranchers irrigate many delectable acres, but any bison that somehow wanders around the fencing will be shot, according to the new plan. Still, this should be an improvement over previous arrangements for those bison who migrate north of the park in bad winters.

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Wolves and grizzlies of Yellowstone again making the news

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The top of the food chain is always the most controversial. Last week [August 2010], U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Montana overturned last fall’s decision by the Interior Department to remove the gray wolf’s Endangered Species protective listing. The previous decision had resulted in the states of Montana and Idaho holding wolf hunts that saw the deaths of several hundred wolves, while wolves in Wyoming (outside of the national parks) were still protected, since Wyoming’s delisting plan had been deemed unacceptable.

Judge Molloy’s August 5th decision centered around his ruling that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service cannot list only part of a species as endangered while another part is left on the list. As stated on the National Parks Traveler’s website: www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2010/08/federal-judge-overturns-federal-governments-delisting-gray-wolf-endangered-species-act-protection6366, “conservation groups . . . have maintained that a sound wolf recovery program couldn’t sustain itself, genetically, without two or three times the estimated 1,500 or so wolves loping about Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming,” but this latest ruling “surely will infuriate some groups that see wolves as nothing more than four-legged killing machines.”

Meanwhile, grizzly bears were returned to the Endangered Species Act list, also last fall, due to another ruling negating their delisting due to the adverse effects of global warming on the bears’ ability to find food. The terrible death and maulings by a grizzly sow in a campground near Cooke City, Montana this month might have been related to the sow being malnourished, but the direct cause was probably her associating people with easily obtained food. A photographer had been baiting the bear shortly before that tragedy occurred. The marauding bear is now dead and her three cubs placed in the Billings zoo.

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News!

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First, the bad news.

After a summer of legal battles over the fate of wolves near Yellowstone, a federal judge has recently ruled that a large number of wolves in Idaho and Montana may be legally killed by hunters. The slaughter has already begun; four wolves have been shot in Idaho and one in Montana. However, Defenders of Wildlife is hopeful that their legal challenge to the Interior Department’s delisting of wolves in Idaho and Montana will ultimately prevail.

But long-time conservationist Mike Medberry has written a very thought-provoking op-ed piece for High Country News. He writes: “The groups’ lawsuit argues that the wolves have not recovered yet. That is simply disingenuous, as the goal has clearly been met. Conservationists need to be honest about their goals. If they insist on supporting shifting numbers, they may find that they represent shifting support. More to the point, however, is their refusal to accept that this victory for wolves endangers the Endangered Species Act, which protects all endangered species.”

Among the comments, one reminds us of an important part of the judge’s decision: “This column completely leaves out the element of recovery that the Fish & Wildlife Service set out for wolves in 1994 and a federal judge ruled it had not met in 2008: ‘genetic exchange between subpopulations.’” As has been clear since reintroduction of wolves was first proposed, this is a complex issue, and much more effort and time will be required before all its aspects are resolved.

Now, the good news.

Yesterday (9/21/09) a federal judge in Montana ruled that Endangered Species Act protections must be returned to Greater Yellowstone’s grizzly bears. According to the Defenders of Wildlife Web site, the judge agreed that, in delisting the bears in 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not “take into consideration the continued decline of the whitebark pine, a critical grizzly food source threatened by pine beetles, blister rust and climate change.”
2. Snowmobiles are to be limited to 318 per day for the next two winter seasons, more than the daily average entering the park in the past two winters, but cutting by more than half the 720 authorized to enter by the previous decision. Meanwhile, 78 snowcoaches holding 10 or 12 people will be allowed to enter.
3. This year, 3300 bison are living in Y.N.P., according to a recent count. This is a reasonable number to sustain the herd. Now, if only the agencies which have been hazing and killing the animals in the winter will develop and implement a more reasonable policy!
4. For the year, more than 2.6 million people have visited Yellowstone, making the first eight months of 2009 the busiest January through August in the park’s history (as reported in USA Today, 9/15/09).
5. Not news to anyone interested in Yellowstone but good news for all our national parks is the attention paid by Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan, who have produced twelve hours of what promises to be fascinating public TV watching in their series on the parks—including some footage of all 58 of them—beginning on Wednesday, September 27, nationwide.

Janet

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