Thursday, December 17, 2009

Elk v/s Wolves - a doomed relationship?

This blog will likely be a bit of a work-in-progress as epiphanies hit me, as my theories evolve, and as I do more research. (DT, I fully expect you to challenge some of this and to perhaps refine or evolve my theories by bringing up new points I had not yet considered (haha).) In the mean time, consider the following links I have dug up thus far concerning the effects of wolf re-introduction on elk (and other) populations:

Yellowstone National Park's gray wolves impact elk

These following two links (to one study) do not directly address the effects of wolves on elk herds, however it can be noted that wolves are likely not decimating elk populations...

Winter Severity and Wolf Predation on Formerly Wolf-Free Elk Herd

Full study (full version of the above)
"In summary, the relationships between reintroduced YNP wolves and previously wolf-free elk did not differ in any way that we could detect from wolf-prey relations in long-extant systems. This was true despite the high ratio of prey available to wolves and the large number of unculled prey."
"As wolves recolonize areas of the West outside Yellowstone National Park, concerns will be voiced about the possible effects of wolves on elk populations. Although this article does not directly address that issue, it does emphasize that the effect of wolves on elk numbers will be related to winter severity. Thus, any population modeling, hunting regulation changes, or other management reactions to wolf predation must consider this important relationship."

Petition - An interesting study-backed petition that suggests that wolf-introduction numbers are not yet sufficient.

Elk Having Fewer Calves due to Changes in Nutrition
I found the above study quite interesting, and it is logical. So then we are led to questions such as this perhaps being a learning curve for the elk? Rather than hunting wolves to 'control' elk populations from being indirectly pressured into having fewer calves (thus creating a population growth decline), perhaps we need to sit back and see whether this is a trend that continues, or if elk populations 'bounce back' as the elk acquire new survival skills that also allow them to reproduce successfully. I would be willing to bet that this sort of trend was observed when wolves were first re-introduced to some areas - within the first few years: more elk were likely killed than in later years as the elk adjusted to living with, and being preyed upon by, wolves. Prior to the wolf's re-introduction, elk were not required to strategize the same, as they were not significantly preyed upon by large predators (excluding humans).

Parks Canada - Elk management in Banff, courtesy (in part) of the wolf
"Strong limiting effects of wolves on elk appears essential to maintain integrity of the park ecosystem."
I think that it is very important to note how wolf populations mirror elk populations; check out the wolf graph and how it either increases or decreases according to the previous year's elk populations.

Elk Population Dynamics - another very interesting study re: wolves versus elk

The basis of my thoughts are the following: where were humans to 'control' animal populations prior to our habitation of, say for example, North America? I honestly doubt vikings and the First Nations people were counting elk and wolf populations (or other animal populations, for that matter) and hunting accordingly prior to 1492. Heck, I highly doubt even European settlers were counting and hunting accordingly, so as to 'control' populations (hence how the wolf was eradicated to begin with). Yet this earth has existed for hundreds of millions of years, and elk and wolf populations have evolved over the past 1.6 million years (Quaternary period, Cenozoic) co-exist together. Somehow, these populations all sustained themselves just fine without our intereference to 'control' them. In fact, it is human interference that created these ecological unbalances to begin with, from the Dodo bird, to Grizzly bears, to Wolves. On that note, it is also important to note that populations will fluctuate in nature - some time periods we will see larger elk populations than the land can sustain, and other time periods we could see wolf populations outnumbering elk populations, perhaps, even eradicating certain species (such as elk). That, however, is...nature. Species evolve, shaped by their environment, or are eradicated and a new species fills the ecological void created by the species 'lost'.

I think the key to elk-wolf balance are:
- large conservation areas with a suitable prey base
- prevention of population pockets isolated to small areas where migration and natural 're-introduction' is inhibited - spatial distribution
- low human impact and interference

Elk (and other prey species, such as Caribou) need access to large areas of diverse land so they have the best chance of survival - to find sustenance and avoid predation. On a related note, the potential for spatial distribution is also important, as prey-predator species need to be able to migrate so as to fluctuate and self-regulate populations in specific areas. For example, if wolves are decreasing elk numbers in a particular area, wolf packs need to have the ability to migrate to a new area and/or elk herds need the ability to migrate into different, wolf-dense areas. This in turn creates a balance in populations, through migration, and thus specific populations are not completely eliminated, particularly as wolf-elk relationships strive to attain their balance point (which will require years before relative stabilization). Much of this restriction though seems to be due to humans - housing developments, highways, direct human interference, etc. So what if we were to focus more on controlling/restricting human interference and impact moreso than direct animal populations?

As far as hunting goes, reducing or controlling human impact and interference and taking a step back from direct species population control could, in fact, result in there being less prey available to hunters, particularly short-term. Nothing against hunting, I fully support it, however I think we need to put the needs of our environment above our own - which may require us to chew down a few cows in lieu of elk (or caribou - the species of course depends upon the area and its individual situation) for a short while. Maybe. I realise unfortunately this is as unlikely a request as would be asking the American Quarter Horse Association to move futurities (detrimental to horses' health) from a horse's 3-year-old year to their 4-year-old year. Humans are involved, which invites Greed of earthly objects such as (waaait for it...) Money.

The other 'problem' with our limiting our impact and interference on Nature is then finding a way to co-exist with Nature. For example, if we do not 'control' coyote populations in Calgary, then we are dealt the card of learning to co-exist amongst a population(s) perhaps not regulated at a number we are particularly comfortable with. To elaborate: each year the Calgary Herald is ripe with letters to the editor from Calgarians concerned about the increased coyote population. They are concerned for their pets, for their children, for their health. However I think that, rather than resorting to 'control' of a population, it is perhaps our job then to better learn to co-exist with a population (from wolves to elk to coyotes). There are a number of ways to enable co-existance, from fencing Banff to keep elk outside the town and thus expose them to predation beyond the town's borders (such as lions and wolves, who will not come within a certain distance of the town's borders), to eliminating wild animals' access to garbage, and placing up electric fencing in certain situations to restrict wild animals from clashing with humans. Education (of humans) is also key.

On a personal level, I don't think we can, or should, kid ourselves in thinking we are so superior as to need to control nature by managing predator and prey relationships. Nature will balance itself out, though now we could (and are likely to) experience some drastic population fluctuates as nature seeks to repair the mess we as humans have created. For those who say wolves do not self-regulate - who regulated them prior to our presence and 'control' measures?

I just think we're getting into the same issues as those surrounding Grizzly and Great White Shark hunting. On that note, if you're interested in Grizzly behaviour and how we can co-exist with these bears, check out Grizzly Heart. It's a great read and for me, really confirmed what I felt in my heart. Perhaps I am wrong on this whole wolf issue, however I just feel it ignorant and proud of people to think that we, measly little humans, hold the Earth in our hands and are granted the knowledge and power to control and manipulate Nature, to its benefit. I think for certain we need to clean up some of the party mess we have left behind in particular cases, however I think we need to think deep and really consider our impact, even in 'fixing' our 'mess'. Our touch on Nature needs to be limited.

Furthermore, I think our previous experiences 'controlling' nature has further demonstrated our inability to do so. I feel like this is simply a repeat of our other similar failures, from decimating the shark and fish populations (shark populations stand at only 10 percent of their original populations - the Great White in particular is in danger of extinction), to elimination of the wolf in the first place, to placing our Grizzlies on the endangered list. Who are we to attempt control of a force larger than our own?

One last point to consider: where were 'we' when people are/were going up in helicopters and slaughtering entire herds of elk and deer, for that 'one good trophy rack'? What about when we 'bountied' the wolf to extinction in its native areas? Whilst we fatally and detrimentally affect our earth and its species, we propose to regulate the impact of a natural predator on its natural prey in its natural setting?

I'm not sure, but it's a complex issue with a lot of food for thought to consider.

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