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Moving past wolf propaganda and poaching

Posted by Chase Gunnell at Dec 11, 2014 05:30 PM |

In late October, a poacher killed the most important wolf in Washington.

Moving past wolf propaganda and poaching

A collared wolf from the Teanaway Pack. Photo: WDFW

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

In late October, a poacher killed the most important wolf in Washington

The breeding female of the Teanaway Pack was pivotal in two ways. First, since the pack is strategically located just north of Interstate 90 in the Cascades and has been fertile the last few years, it’s the most likely source of wolves to colonize the southern Cascades. Wolves can be deemed “recovered” in the state only when at least four packs are established in the part of Washington that includes the South Cascades and the Olympics. Therefore the well-being and success of the Teanaway breeding female was of the highest importance to the goal of a rapid legal recovery and delisting that is shared by all interests, especially those in the ranching and hunting communities. Her death could significantly set back and delay recovery, which should be a grave concern to ranching interests, hunters concerned about game populations, and many others.

Second, the Teanaway Pack had been well behaved, without any recorded livestock conflicts in the several years of its known existence. As was widely reported last week, researchers at Washington State University's Large Carnivore Lab published a study in which they analyzed 25 years of data across the western states and found evidence that killing wolves actually increases depredations of livestock. These new findings are consistent with information presented by wolf experts during the Wolf Management Symposium we recently co-hosted with Pacific Wolves at the University of Washington.

Whoever shot the Teanaway wolf was probably under the misconception that he/she was doing a favor for ranchers and hunters. But in the real world, a world that can be observed, measured and studied carefully through the scientific method, nothing could be further from the truth.

What all this suggests is that where a well-behaved wolf pack is coexisting with livestock without conflict, the very last thing that anybody would want is for that pack to suffer unnecessary deaths which could alter its behavior.

If the findings of this study stand the tests of time and scrutiny, which is likely, then the poaching death of the Teanaway breeding female likely increases the risk of wolf-livestock conflict to the Martinez and Kayser families, which respectively graze sheep and cattle in the area.

Those ranching families deserve anything but increased conflict, as both have been diligent in efforts to coexist with wolves by employing nonlethal measures. Conservation Northwest has for the past two years helped fund and support Sam Kayser’s range rider, Bill Johnson. What I have learned from Sam and Bill (as well as other wolf-country ranchers that Conservation Northwest is collaborating with) is that, while they were anything but happy to have wolves turn up on their range, they have stepped up in a big way. 

These ranchers express respect for the laws and values of the state, which support wolf recovery, and have committed themselves to coexistence despite its significant challenges. Living with wolves is hard for ranchers, even when nonlethal tactics are working. There are strains and costs of the labor, cattle behave in new ways and turn up in new places, and a good night’s sleep is less frequent. There are benefits of the effort too, including fatter cows and healthier range, but there are reasons these folks weren't riding the range nearly as much prior to the coming of the wolves.

It’s therefore a shame and gross injustice that Sam Kayser's business risks are likely now higher due to the criminal act of a poacher. 

Media Skewed on Responses to Wolf Science

I’ve been disappointed with some of the media reporting on the WSU study. While extensive coverage is good, too many articles featured counter perspective that utterly lacked credibility. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the New York Times’ piece:

“Jamie Henneman, a spokeswoman for the group backing the billboard campaign, Washington Residents Against Wolves, said that the new study, published by the journal PLOS ONE, was ‘not clean science.’ She said it seemed to have a predetermined pro-wolf conclusion because the research was supported by the State Legislature, which has supported a big increase in wolf population.

‘Frankly, it is a bit shameful,’ said Ms. Henneman, who also speaks for a group called the Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association.”

So Ms. Henneman, who likely has not even read the fully tested and peer-reviewed study, gets to disparage to the world its methods and the motives of the researchers? It's disconcerting at best when an obviously biased contact is allowed to publicly criticize a study that has withstood the scrutiny of the scientific community, without providing a single reference or fact to back up her claims. The fear mongering Ms. Henneman's group has used, including Spokane-area billboards depicting dramatized wolves, a small child on a swing, and the message "The Wolf...Who's Next on Their Menu?", is what's truly shameful. 

A wolf from the Teanaway Pack. Photo: WDFW
A wolf from the Teanaway Pack. Photo: WDFW

The scientific method controls for bias today in extremely rigorous ways. A peer-reviewed study, such as the one published by WSU about wolves, has gone through independent, double blind scrutiny even before the world sees it. It will then be attacked savagely by other researchers, who have every incentive to shock the world with different results. If research withstands this intensive assessment and passes muster, we have every reason to believe the study is sound.

Millions of people worldwide have learned about wolves and trophic cascade theory. Yet trophic cascade theory, at least with respect to wolf ecology, has taken recent hits in the science world. Some of the original observations are not standing up to scrutiny. But more shoes will drop, more studies will soon be published, and over time we will gain a more nuanced and accurate view of how complicated animals like wolves interact with complicated ecosystems. The same is true of the WSU wolf/livestock study.

Looking Forward with Facts and Collaboration

Instead of phoning hired PR hacks for "astroturf" groups like Washington Residents Against Wolves (a campaign likely financed by recalcitrant livestock interests including the Stevens County Cattlemen's Association), reporters should have called people like Sam Kayser, John Dawson, or other credible representatives.

Legitimate, rational ranchers have a huge stock in truly understanding wolf behavior, and in seeing wolves live, breed, and swiftly reach population levels that warrant legal delisting. There's no debate that these animals can and do cause problems for livestock operators. But instead of fear mongering and deliberately spreading misinformation, these folks are rolling up their sleeves, working together with respect and compromise, and finding effective solutions to reduce conflict; for wolves, other wildlife, livestock and people, too. 

CNW staff, John Dawson and Leisa, the range rider.
CNW staff, John Dawson and Leisa, the range rider.

Meanwhile, whoever shot the Teanaway breeding female was probably under the misconception that he/she was doing a favor for ranchers and hunters. Perhaps they had even been influenced by propaganda spouted by the likes of Washington Residents Against Wolves. But in the real world, a world that can be observed, measured and studied carefully through the scientific method, nothing could be further from the truth.

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