Is rewilding of modern species a good idea? The answer: sometimes

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Building off of my previous rant against the idea of pleistocene rewilding I would like to discuss the idea of rewilding modern species. Unlike pleistocene rewilding, which suggests modern descendants of ice age megafauna should be introduced to habitats where their ancestors roamed, modern rewilding involves reintroducing an extirpated species, or at least a closely related subspecies, into an ecosystem which it was known to live in recent times. Probably the greatest example of this would be the reintroduction of wolves to the American west. Since most  gray wolf populations were completely eradicated from the lower 48 a closely related subspecies of gray wolf was brought in from Canada to repopulate American parks such as Yellowstone.

Unlike pleistocene rewilding this effort should not upset the ecological balance of habitats these modern species are reintroduced to. These species have evolved in these ecosystems and the ecosystem relies on them for certain services. Continuing with my gray wolf example, in the absence of wolves prey species exploded in population. These increased populations began to destroy their habitats, literally eating themselves out of house and home as there was no predator efficient enough to keep their populations in check. Restoring wolves to these habitats has returned the natural balance. Prey populations have fallen to more natural, sustainable levels and the plant community has begun to rebound.

While I still contend that pleistocene rewilding is a terrible idea, modern rewilding can be beneficial. However, I do not recommend we place modern rewilding as the highest priority. Some areas should strive for this if it is necessary to restore the habitat and there are no greater conservation concerns upon which they should focus. For example, I do not believe India should focus so much of its time and resources on the rewilding of cheetahs when the protection of their tigers and rhinos from poaching should be their highest concern at this time.

Additional Readings:

The first wolf family in Denmark since centuries? » Rewilding Europe A new beginning. For wildlife. For us.

Project to ship cheetahs from Africa to India totally misconceived – Telegraph.

WII Plans Rs 260 Crore Project for Reintroducing Cheetah in India – The New Indian Express.

African cheetah sourced for reintroduction to India – Big Cat Rescue.

Cheetah reintroduction stirs up debate – The Times of India.


Draft rule ends protections for gray wolves – Yahoo! News

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Draft rule ends protections for gray wolves – Yahoo! News.

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Wolf Hunting Opens in Wisconsin

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Wolves are a unique species in terms of their cultural and politic affects, especially their ability to polarize public opinions. To some they are a symbol of the wild, the majestic rulers of the mountains if I may. To others they are a nuisances that kill cattle and wildlife species such as deer and elk. I for one find myself somewhere in the middle. As a small child I feared wolves, even though I had never seen one. By the time I was ten this fear had turned into respect and admiration. So I can see both sides, on one hand wolves must be maintained at manageable levels to prevent over population (accompanied by over-predation) but they should not be slaughtered to the point of extirpation as they were before.

On August 31 of this year wolves were officially delisted in Wyoming and control was turned over to the state wildlife agency. In a little over a month I have seen dozens of blog posts and news articles blasting the Wyoming Game and Fish Department over wolf management, specifically their use of limited hunting as a management tool. So after reading a lot of BS I took it upon myself to do some real research, something the other writers have not attempted to do or have no desire to do.

As most wildlife enthusiasts know wolves had been on the endangered species list for quite a while. However, many folks are unaware of the fact that wolves met the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) requirements for delisting ten years ago in 2002. Since then state agencies have been working with the USFWS, the agency which enforces the Endangered Species Act, to design acceptable management policies. Since control was turned over to Wyoming in late August there have been a lot of false statements about Wyoming’s wolf policies. So here are the facts I gathered in an interview with a representative of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

As of December 2011 Wyoming is home to 48 separate wolf packs, 36 of which are outside of Yellowstone National Park, with at least 27 breeding pairs and 19 of those are also located outside of YNP. The state has a total of 328 wolves with only 104 of those being found in the park. These numbers may seem low but they are actually good considering 1) Wyoming is on the fringe of the wolf reintroduction areas and 2) we are dealing with a carnivore, carnivore levels are stable at much lower number than prey species.

Wolf hunting has strict guidelines and is only allowed in certain zones. In fact the wolf hunting areas comprise less than 1/4 of the state and can be seen in the maps below. There is a strict quota system in place which splits the hunting are into different zones and once quotas are met the season closes. The zones with the highest wolf populations are only allocated a quota of 8 wolves while others are only allowed 1-2 wolves and any wolves killed must have their skulls and pelt presented to the WGFD for verification and study purposes within 24 hours of the kill. All together the total number of wolves on quota are 47 individuals, out of a total population of 328 individuals this means less than 15% of the total population can be harvested. One addition I might add here to help the reader understand how insignificant this number is has to do with how populations are surveyed. Based off my time as a Wildlife Ecology and Management student I can say that most population surveys count only adult animals. Thus the number of 328 most likely does not include the juvenile wolves.

Wolf Trophy Game Management Area Boundaries

Several anti-hunting groups have made remarks that wolves are now going to be slaughtered without restriction, dens are going to be gassed to kill pups, and a bounty has been placed on all wolf pelts to encourage the slaughter. After my interview with the WGFD I can now set the record straight. I was assured that there is no bounty on dead wolves and that the gassing of dens is highly illegal. While some may try to do this anyone caught will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. As for simple slaughtering of wolves there is some truth to their claims although as usual the details have been sensationalized and the truth has been disregarded. According to the WGFD any wolf outside of the hunting zones and YNP can be considered predatory and may be shot as such. However populations are so low outside of the YNP and hunting zones that they believe very few will ever be seen let alone shot at. If any predatory wolves are killed they must be reported to the WGFD within 10 days.

The bottom line is wolves are not in any danger here. They are a vital part of the ecosystem and our state game agencies intend to manage  them in a way that promotes the overall health of wolves and their habitat, including prey species. There is no need to sensationalize the story and claim the wolves are going to be extirpated again, to do so would be simply crying wolf. I apologize but I could not resist that last remark.

Additional Information and Direct Links to wolf regulations in Wyoming:




The Big Bad Wolf: Societal Views and Modern Conservation

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As this will be my last post before I leave for three weeks in Africa I wanted to hit another North American conservation issue which has interested me since I was little.

I have always been interested in the discrepancies in the way people view wild dogs and wild cats. All through history people have wanted to compare themselves to large, wild cats, Richard the Lionheart for example, as a sign of power, strength, bravery, etc…. However wild dogs are demonized, the big bad wolf. In an effort to protect cattle and deer this ideology led to the eradication of wolves from the lower 48 states.

Even some of the leading biologists of the time believed wolves needed to be eradicated to boost the number of deer. Aldo Leopold himself, the father of wildlife management, at one point bought into this belief. However, large canids such as wolves are necessary for a healthy ecosystem. In his short story, Thinking Like a Mountain, Leopold describes the moment he realized this idea was wrong.

“Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.”- Aldo Leopold, Thinking Like a Mountain

Wolves were one of the first species listed after the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. While the ESA called for a recovery plan of all listed species, wolf recovery did not begin until the 1980s. In 1982 gray wolves, Canis lupus, after 50 years of absence were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountain area (Smith). A second round of reintroductions started in 1995 for central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. The original restoration plan called for the establishment of 3o or more breeding pairs and 300 or more individual wolves amongst the three areas (Smith).

Recovery efforts have been very successful. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service there are an estimated 6,100 gray wolves in the lower 48 (FWS). As a side note there are anywhere from 7,700 to 11,200 gray wolves in Alaska, but this population was never classified as endangered like the wolves from the lower 48.

With the successful recovery, management of wolves has once again been handed over to state wildlife agencies. This has caused a considerable amount of controversy though. Most states are enacting wolf hunting seasons, which has many in an uproar. This concern is valid as hunting by humans caused the original extirpation of wolves.

However, the original persecution of wolves took place in a time when many states did not have legitimate game departments or laws concerning wolves. In those days wolves were accepted as vermin and it was considered a responsible citizens duty to shoot them if possible. Modern conservation on the other hand employs scientifically based quotas or bag limits to protect species from over harvesting.

I firmly believe that regulated hunting is necessary. This is due to the effect wolves have had on elk populations. Just in the central Idaho region before wolf reintroductions there were  16,000 elk. Now the elk have been knocked down to 4,000. However let us not jump to conclusions and blame only the wolves. The decline is mainly due to one particularly harsh winter in which an estimated 8,000 elk were lost. The problem is, that with current wolf populations the elk have not been able to bounce back. Hunting is necessary to correct the balance. Quotas must be set to reduce the wolves low enough to allow elk recovery without threatening the over all survival of the wolves as well.

As humans have interrupted the natural order it is our responsibility to maintain the balance. When wolves are too plentiful deer and elk numbers plummet. But when wolves are scarce or absent deer and elk destroy the local vegetation which leads to their own starvation. A final word from Leopold to end this post:

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.”


Leopold, Aldo. “Thinking Like A Mountain.” Sand County Almanac.

Smith, Douglas et al. “Survival of Colonizing Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains of   the United States, 1982-2004.” Journal of Wildlife Management. 74 (2010): 620-634.

US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). “Gray Wolf Current Population in the United States.” http://www.fws.gov/midwest/wolf/aboutwolves/WolfPopUS.htm