Bring back the wolves – but not as heroes or villains
In a new finding that goes against current conservation paradigms, reintroducing wolves and other predators to our landscapes does not miraculously reduce deer populations, restore degraded ecosystems or pose a significant threat. livestock, according to a new study.
“The hopes and fears we have on both sides of the debate – neither are coming true. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow wolves, cougars, to return to their traditional landscapes – they’re part of it,” said conservation biologist Bernd Blossey, professor of natural resources and environment at the College of Agriculture and life sciences. Blossey is lead author of “Myths, Wishful Thinking, and Accountability in Predator Conservation and Management in the United States,” published June 3 in Frontiers in Conservation Science. Its co-author is Darragh Hare of Oxford University.
“Based on currently available evidence (not just in the United States), top predators, despite their ability to kill ungulates and livestock, will not eliminate deer, threaten people, or cause harm. intolerable livestock losses – the myths,” the authors write. “On the other hand, top predators are unlikely to undo all the harm humans have inflicted on ecosystems – wishful thinking.”
On the side of myths, there is little evidence to claim that the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves, bears and cougars is a major threat to livestock and wild ungulates such as white-tailed deer, mule deer and elk.
When the US federal government removed the wolf from the endangered species list, hunters and ranchers, as well as some state governments, called for action to address what they saw as a need to protect the wildlife they wanted to hunt and the livestock that provided their livelihood.
But it’s nearly impossible to assess these claims independently, Blossey said. Other factors also kill livestock, from lightning strikes to hot or cold weather, pests, disease, and poor husbandry and foraging conditions. And livestock producers can do a lot to protect their animals from predators, like deploying more staff, guard dogs and fencing.
And hunters don’t have to worry about wolves fighting over deer. The deer population in the United States is at historic levels, in part because humans have given them ideal living conditions and plenty of food. “What we do for landscapes, whether it’s forestry, farming or gardening, provides the perfect landscape for deer to live in,” Blossey said. “Hunters don’t kill enough deer, cars don’t kill enough. Their populations exploded, because living conditions were simply wonderful.
And the wishful thinking – that wolves and other predators can control deer populations and restore degraded ecosystems – is also lacking in evidence. When large predators are present in a landscape, deer and other herbivores simply graze when wolves are resting.
“A significant reduction in deer populations in Wisconsin alone would require tens of thousands of wolves, at least temporarily until deer populations decline – an ecologically and socially impossible scenario,” the authors write.
And wolves alone cannot undo the ecological damage caused by humans, Blossey said. A popular “How Wolves Are Changing Rivers” video, which has been viewed more than 43 million times, suggests that the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has triggered a cascade of effects that have benefited the whole of the ecosystem.
“I was as fooled as everyone else by the great stories that came out of Yellowstone saying, you bring the wolves back, and you restore the rivers, and you’re fine,” Blossey said.
In fact, these claims may be based on selective evidence collection, as other research has shown. “Once I started digging like an archaeologist into the literature, I found things that didn’t support what I thought I knew,” Blossey said. Other factors, such as hunters, grizzly bears, cougars, bison, beavers, precipitation patterns, climate, and the quality and quantity of vegetation may also have played important roles.
Rather than relying on myths and wishful thinking, we should view top predators like wolves as a valuable part of ecological communities in their own right, Blossey said, and not just for their function.
“As long as people learn to live with and tolerate new (old) neighbors,” the authors write, “a cautious but not entirely conflict-free existence seems possible.”