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Predators delight WSU researchers

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By Matthew Weaver
Capital Press

"We don't know enough about wolf management and basic wolf behavior," said Dan Bernardo, WSU vice president of agriculture. "Rob [Wielgus]'s lab is well-equipped to fill in some of those voids in knowledge, which can assist policy makers in steering us in the right course."

PULLMAN, Wash. -- While the sight of a cougar, bear or wolf may evoke fear in many people, it represents just another day at the office for Robert Wielgus.

Wielgus, director of the Large Carnivore Conservation Laboratory at Washington State University, studies predators and how they interact with other animals, including wildlife and livestock.

His colleagues and students study grizzly and black bears, cougars and lynx in the Pacific Northwest by collaring the animals -- and their prey -- with satellite-tracking transmitters. Then they track them in an effort to understand their habits and how best to manage them, Wielgus said.

"Instead of making assumptions that we think they're doing this, we actually go out and find out what they're up to," he said.

The work is less dramatic than it might seem, he said.

"I've radio-collared hundreds of these animals, and none of them have ever been involved in an attack on a human being or anything like that," he said. "The number that were involved in attacks on livestock, I could count on less than one hand. I can't think of any."

The worst case Wielgus ever experienced was a lightning strike on three cow-calf pairs that were under a tree. A grizzly bear ate their carcasses.

Wolf concerns

The influx of wolves from Canada, Idaho and Oregon has caused the most concern lately among ranchers. In northeast Washington, state wildlife managers had to kill seven members of the Wedge Wolf Pack this year after they repeatedly attacked and killed cattle.

Wielgus believes there are two extremes to the wolf management argument: Either wolves are not a problem at all, or every cow that goes missing was killed by wolves. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, he said.

"It would be great to find out, instead of hyperbole and whoever screams the loudest," Wielgus said.

From the outside, he observed the situation with the Wedge Wolf Pack.

"I don't know that I would have handled it differently," Wielgus said of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife managers' actions. But, he said, "I would have liked to have more science on the ground."

Wielgus said he would have had a graduate student on site, tracking and monitoring the wolves and determining the exact number of cattle they killed.

Wielgus has extensive data on wolf and livestock interactions in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In some cases there's depredation and some there aren't, he said.

Wielgus is working to determine why wolves kill in some cases and not in others. Factors could include animal husbandry practices, the ages of the wolves or sexual competition among them. Other factors could be the season, terrain and forest type.

Based on that information, Wielgus could then determine the areas in Washington where conflicts are likely to develop and what can be done to reduce that conflict.

Wolf supporters have called for nonlethal methods like range riders, flags or rubber bullets. The ranchers did what they could on the rugged terrain of northeast Washington, but said most of those options were not realistic or effective.

Wielgus said the effectiveness of the solutions depends on the situation.

"These things could be costly," he said. "We want no-cost solutions to these problems."

In February, the lab will be working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and WSU Extension on a training program for extension advisers, who will in turn train ranchers about what to do if wolves show up.

"We're trying to get all the players together and get proactive on this, so we don't experience too many problems," Wielgus said.

State follows wolves

Donny Martorello, carnivore section manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state primarily focuses on keeping up with the recolonization of wolves, identifying locations of pack activity and collaring them.

State officials routinely talk with Wielgus and other researchers about questions, but are not ready to start a comprehensive research project on wolves just yet, Martorello said.

He expects to need further information on Washington's wolf population down the road, a year or two at least, at which point the lab will be considered as a research partner.

The lab typically has six graduate students, three getting their doctorates and three getting their master's degrees, as well as Wielgus and an assistant director, plus partners from state and federal agencies.

Lab workers' times are divided evenly between indoor work and work in the field, Wielgus said. All data are collected in the field and examined in the laboratory.

The lab focuses on Washington, but has worked in northern Idaho, northern Oregon and southern British Columbia and southern Alberta.

New cougar tactics

Graduate student Kaylie Peebles grew up on a ranch near Boise, Idaho. She has studied many of the complaints the state received about cougars over the past six years. She believes the biggest misunderstanding is what the cougars are after.

"Don't leave your pet food outside, don't leave your pets outside, don't leave chickens unattended," she said, attributing much of the cougar-rancher interactions to a failure to pen small livestock or feeding other wildlife.

"When you're feeding deer, you're actually bringing in their predators," she said.

Earlier this year, the lab released its findings on using the sport harvest of cougars to reduce complaints about cougars preying on livestock and pets.

Wielgus found that killing too many cougars resulted in the elimination of older tom cougars and created a surplus of adolescent males. Without the presence of the older males, the adolescents would try to kill cubs, causing the females to flee to human-occupied areas or agricultural landscapes to protect their cubs.

"It was just assumed that of course increased sport hunting would reduce predators and conflicts, but it had never actually been studied," Wielgus said. "When we finally looked at it, it was the exact opposite."

In reply, the state is adopting a new program to harvest less than 14 percent of cougar populations, effective in January.

Martorello expects stable cougar populations with "minimal" interactions with the public as a result of the lab's research.

"We have some of the best information on living cougar populations anywhere in the country," he said.

The lab's findings drew some criticism from members of the livestock industry.

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association, said he is wary of the potential impact the lab's science could have on Fish and Wildlife protocols.

Field wants to wait and see how the change in cougar management plays out, but doesn't think a similar approach would be of benefit when it comes to wolves.

"I can't really convince somebody that had a dead calf or a horse chewed up (that) the answer is not getting a hound out and killing that cat, it's waiting and killing less cats," he said. "It's going to be extremely difficult for livestock producers to embrace the idea if indeed that same rationale were to come through if they were to do wolf work."

Field said he would like to see a focus on wolves' diet. There must be an accurate survey of what wolves are eating and where to expect them to turn up in order to prevent their diets from shifting to livestock, he said.

He said there needs to be more information about wolves, even if further research shows the only effective management involves aggression.

"The sooner you can instill fear into them so that when they see people, they better get the heck out of there, the better off we are," he said.

'Win-win' scenario

With proper management, Wielgus said, agriculture can achieve the same results without killing any animals. That would be a win-win scenario for producers, hunters and animal rights supporters, Wielgus said.

"All the data is there, I simply don't have the funding for a grad student to crunch the numbers," he said.

The lab has received a mix of federal, state and private funds from forest products companies. Wielgus said the lab has never received funding from conservation or agriculture groups, but he's trying to reach out to agriculture for future efforts.

Dan Bernardo, WSU vice president of agriculture, said funding opportunities will primarily come from state and federal grant programs.

Movement toward wolf research might help attract funding, as wolves and their interaction with agriculture and society become a more contentious issue, Bernardo said.

"We don't know enough about wolf management and basic wolf behavior," he said. "Rob's lab is well-equipped to fill in some of those voids in knowledge, which can assist policy makers in steering us in the right course."

WSU's Agricultural Research Center has prioritized funds to be allocated to food, agriculture and natural resource issues. Wolf research certainly qualifies, Bernardo said, noting Wielgus' work could potentially be funded through internal grants, but that has not been determined.

The livestock industry isn't likely to directly fund research, as they have limited funding due to restrictions on checkoff funds, Bernardo said.

"There's little question that there's a greater possibility for funding over the next several years around wolf behavior than cougar behavior," Bernardo said. "Whether or not there are funds available remains to be seen."

Wielgus estimated the lab's annual budget is typically $250,000, but funding has dropped to essentially nothing in the last three years with the financial crisis, he said. Students are self-funded.

With the bulk of scientific funds going to human biomedical research, Wielgus says there's not a lot left over for wildlife research.

"Until it's in the public's eye, no one really cares," he said.

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