Episode 9

December 08, 2023


Coexisting with Wolves: Part 2

Hosted by

International Wildlife Coexistence Network Josh Adler
Coexisting with Wolves: Part 2
For the Wild Ones
Coexisting with Wolves: Part 2

Dec 08 2023 | 00:35:24


Show Notes

Why are wolves considered "problematic" to humans? Our discussion continues









Music Credits:

For the Wild Ones Theme Song by Priya Darshini

See the Light by Lobo Loco

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] HOST: Welcome back. You made it for part two of The Truth About Wolves. On for the wild ones. Brought to you by the International Wildlife Coexistence Network. I'm your host, Josh Adler. In this episode, we're continuing our conversation about living with wolves with two gentlemen who follow the minutiae of wolf behavior every day and are constantly surprised. Maxwell McDaniel from the Wood River Wolf Project and Thomas Gable from the Voyagers Wolf Project. One of the things I love about wolves is how much they challenge our human expectations about animal intelligence and present us with so many opportunities to be better at sharing our landscapes. Let's dive back in. [00:01:14] HOST: Wolves are apparently pretty adaptable. [00:01:17] GUEST: Yes, that's what makes them so difficult to live with sometimes. [00:01:20] HOST: Maxwell. What about in the Wood River Wolf Project area? How are you tracking? [00:01:25] GUEST: I wish we had as much available data as Tom does. That would make it a lot easier, I think. And like he says, there are obviously problems with it still. But in Blaine County here, we have over 2600 sq mi within the project area, less than half that's considered wilderness here. And we don't have, as far as I know right now, any collared individuals within our boundaries. Idaho Fishing Game does have collared wolves throughout the state, but depending on who you talk to, I've even heard that sometimes here in the state of Idaho, a collared wolf is a dead wolf because Fishing Game primarily will utilize those locations to find them and eradicate them when necessary. So as much as I would love to be able to track some of these individuals, to be able to watch their daily movements, we just don't have that luxury. And keeping their locations secret and anonymous. While that does make our job more difficult ultimately does provide them a little more security and safety. Here in the saltus things are extremely vertical. It's extremely rough growing country and a lot of the time fishing game here will primarily use aerial gunning as a way of removing packs or problem wolves. And they really don't have that ability to do that here. So when they do send in wildlife specialists or trappers, they're generally going in on horseback doing what they can to find them. But they don't have the same resources available as they would in other parts of the state and they're not always successful. Plain county is, as far as I know, the only county in Idaho that doesn't allow trapping as well, which makes it much more difficult to remove wolves from the population. And that's largely in part to other organizations. Living with the wolves is one of them who have spent endless amount of time and resources and are very passionate about keeping trapping out of the county here for a multitude of reasons. But it makes it difficult to find wolves when they're causing problems and it makes it difficult for us to find these wolves as well, to make sure that they can't cause any issues out there. So like I said earlier, it's really aggressively leaning on the community and these livestock herders out there in the field because we don't want to just be reactive to incidents occurring. We would love to have the ability to provide enough insight to these individuals so they don't have any incidents, but we also want to be there and be able to respond immediately to any incidents occurring. So just being there on the ground every day basically, and being able to respond and provide the support they need. [00:04:09] HOST: You said a collared wolf in idaho is basically a dead wolf. Why would that be? Why is the state so aggressively targeting wolves? [00:04:18] GUEST: That's up for speculation. But idaho taken an incredibly aggressive stance on reducing the wolf population. Even when other states are trying to reintroduce wolves to the population. Idaho seems pretty hell bent on just removing them. They say that they're managing them properly in response to elk predations and elk herds. And they're trying to basically reduce the population down to about 500, 600 individuals in the state. A lot of the science and the numbers behind that that idle fishing game is using to sort of create this management plan has been under a lot of attack and rightfully so. A lot of their data has been using seems to be pretty heavily biased. They've been able to selectively pick and choose the numbers that they want to use and how they were acquiring their data to make these decisions also seemed a little uncertain. So it really seems that the state, more than anybody else is supporting the reduction and eradication of wolves here in idaho. Regardless of whatever their motives might be. There's a bounty on wolves in idaho. The hunting tag to hunt wolves here is next to nothing. And not only will they respond and remove them at the request of livestock producers, but there's a year round hunting season on them. It's incredibly easy to acquire. You're encouraged to hunt them based on the bounties. So they're basically receiving pressure not only from the state, but just from all sides really, the public included. But having these wolves that are collared anytime there is an issue, anytime they want to start reducing those numbers and providing a certain amount of wolf kills month to month or throughout the year, it's nothing more than idle. Fishing game to use these GPS collars to know exactly where they're at, to go in there and remove a pack or remove those individuals that are collared. And for them, they don't have to remove the collared individual. They can remove however many wolves they want from that pack, still keep an eye on where that one individual is moving around. So basically he or she is giving away their location to the rest of them. So it's kind of like a snake in the grass. But even though they're not playing on the same team. [00:06:38] HOST: I guess this makes me want to expose or at least discuss the concept of the quote unquote problem wolf. As you said, Maxwell, that wolves don't recognize boundaries, they don't recognize property. So how is it that we can judge an individual wolf as a problem wolf? Shouldn't the accountability be on human behavior? [00:07:02] GUEST: Everybody's got an opinion on that, and Tom explained it really well with trying to perceive these problem individuals and that it's usually a very small percentage wolf population that could be potentially causing problems for other people. Depending on who you talk to. They'll have different opinions on how to stop that and how to prevent that. I've spoken with some trappers that believe that it's a learned behavior. There's one individual causing these problems, they will pass it on to other family members, and that by removing that lead instigator that that could solve the problem for everybody else. But I've also spoken with other people who feel very differently that there isn't just one problem within the pack, there isn't one individual like pursuing this. And I think it's a little bit all over the place. But ultimately, I think it comes down to how we respond to these incidents and managing it and realizing that when there is an incident occurring, there's more than one method of resolving this, other than just going out there and lethally destroying either a pack leader or removing the entire pack. Because ultimately, if they're having an issue, as Tom said before, they're not going to always spend the time or have even the ability or knowledge to go in there and know what specific individual is causing the problem. And it's easier for the ranchers and more often wildlife services to just remove the entire pack to prevent anything else from occurring, regardless of whether it's coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bears, that's what they do. And it is these trappers jobs to go out there and do that whether they like it or not. But all of them, again, have sort of their own personal knowledge of how to go about doing their job, and that's going to vary a lot. [00:08:54] HOST: Thomas, do you want to add any perspectives around this concept of problem wolves? [00:08:59] GUEST: Well, when it comes down to the trapper in charge of dealing with depredation issues, at least in our area, typically the trapper is going to be one kind of assessing the situation, determining wolf presence, how many wolves they think are out there when they do trap a wolf or two, do they think they got them all? You think there's more out there? So there's a lot of guesswork. And I don't mean that in a negative way. It's just no one knows. Let's say there's a depredation. We have tons of data, relatively speaking, on the wolves in our area. And oftentimes if it's not a collared wolf, I couldn't tell you who the offending wolf is. So I do think there's a real difficulty in figuring out and resolving issues once depredations occur. That's why using preventative solutions is really important if you want to have sort of resolution. Because once a wolf becomes a quote unquote problem wolf, you've got an uphill battle. And so there has to be decisions on where do you put your time and resources. And to put hundreds of hours keeping one wolf that's causing problems alive by trying to chase it with non lethal solutions is probably not going to be very a good way to go long term. And so we're hoping to maybe highlight why it's important to use these non lethal approaches, preventatively instead of reactively, and how do we implement things so that we're never in the position where we're trying to find out who the problem wolf is and resolve it that way. [00:10:27] HOST: I guess the aspect of this conversation I just want to push back on is at what point in our ability to cohabitate with nature and wildlife, at what point does their right to pursue food resources, their right to territory, balance out? At what point are we able to kind of cede some aspect of our needs? And I'm not talking about giving up our businesses or giving up our land usage, but at what point are we able, as a human species, to adapt to the needs of wildlife so that we can have shared landscapes rather than conflict zones? [00:11:16] GUEST: Well, that's a deep question and a pretty challenging one, I would say, at least in our area. I think it would be a pretty radical idea, for example, if you told folks that the wolves are probably going to kill some of your livestock, but that's just the price of doing business, and you're just going to have to absorb that. The balance here is right. Is sort of the ideal scenario where ideally we could live in harmony all the time, right? Wolves wouldn't kill livestock, where if they did, we would be like, no big deal, that's just a wolf. But I think the reality is that there's a particularly economic cost and a personal cost to that. Oftentimes the people who bear that cost, so to speak, are a very small percentage of the population. But nonetheless, there are people who bear that and they're in some sense handling or bearing that because all of society is deemed that we want wolves on the landscape or we want other predators. And so I think my opinion is, I think it would be great if wolves could be wolves. We didn't have to worry about having to kill wolves that were causing problems and things like that. I don't think that's the ideal scenario, but I also think there's a lot of things that aren't ideal, unfortunately. So we have to think about, well, how do we find the best solution, given the factors that are going on? And I think that's kind of how we approach it. For example, this cattle ranch that we're working on. We've had many people ask us if you saw where the ranch was at. It's literally out in the middle of the southern boreal forest. There is nothing around it, it's just woods, right? It's prime wolf habitat. And then you just have this ranch that's been plopped there and people say, well why don't you just tell that person they should just go somewhere else if they don't want to have issues with wolves. It's like, well that seems simple, but in some sense that's not simple. To just tell someone, move your whole life somewhere else so you don't have some problems with wolves, that's a pretty tall order. And then others say it doesn't make any sense to settle down in that area and raise your cattle, you should do it somewhere else. And I can understand, certainly understand that perspective because it doesn't seem to be the ideal place. Nonetheless, that ranch isn't going to be moving no matter what happens. So then the question becomes, okay, so then what's the next best solution if we want to resolve the problem? [00:13:39] HOST: You talk about the economic cost to the rancher, which is true. You talk about the potential personal stress to the rancher, which is also true. But there is an economic cost to hunting and trapping wolves and lethally controlling wolves. It's not free to call wildlife services, it costs money to the public as well. As there's an economic loss that just because our economics, our accounting balance sheets aren't able to value the life of a wolf or a wolf pack on a landscape. There is an economic loss in terms of natural capital and then the personal loss in terms of socially disrupting the dynamics of a pack, for instance, has been well researched in terms of actually leading to more depredation behavior. Because if you take out the elders in the pack, the pack leaders who are more experienced at hunting, you're left with yearlings or younger wolves who are less experienced and more likely than to seek out livestock as a food source. And it just continues the cycle, or even worsens, it. [00:14:48] GUEST: And I think the biggest thing that you're hitting on, and unfortunate as it is to really see a change in how issues with wolves are dealt with, I think it really does come down in some sense to the economic aspect. Let's say a ranch, or every time a wolf killed their livestock, they got paid by the state far more money than that animal is worth to do nothing, right. They probably wouldn't care quite as much. That might change things, but that's not how we currently do deal with them. And I'm not saying that that's even a sustainable option. I'm just saying I think there is an economic level, and you're certainly right that dealing with problem wolves is not a zero cost game. Lots of money goes into dealing with problem wolves in the state of Minnesota. I think wildlife Services remove somewhere between 100 to 200 wolves a year, which is a lot of wolves, because we have a large wolf population in the state and most people aren't even aware of how those problems are dealt with or who's paying for them. We had people who are upset that we are building this fence saying, I don't want my money, taxpayer money going to that, and you've kind of given us the spiel. And it's kind of like your taxpayer money wasn't going towards this. But what your taxpayer money is going towards is reimbursing people for losses, paying the trap and removals perpetually, basically funding a process that isn't really leading to long term solutions. It's just sort of patching the hole for a little bit. And so I think that's the real thing is if you can provide economic incentive to things like, let's say, non lethal measures or living with wolves, then you might see changes in attitudes towards them. But that's also, I think, an uphill battle too, at least for right now. [00:16:43] HOST: Those kinds of economic incentives for conserving and stewarding wildlife are being developed, are being implemented in certain protected areas in certain countries. It's kind of a project to project basis, but those incentives provide the economic basis for the challenges that come with living with predators. Maxwell I know Minnesota. In some ways it's a very different world than Idaho, but is there anything you want to add to this? [00:17:16] GUEST: Tom touched on that, but a huge goal of the Wood River wolf project here is showing that we can provide non lethal support that's economically sound without spending so much to actually do this. We're definitely not spending the same amount of money that goes into predator removal. I would say that between compensation for livestock producers to the amount of money that various agencies use to consistently hunt wolf packs, that amount far exceeds the amount of damage that wolves are actually causing. And that's really something that I think we should take a bigger look at, because at what point is it just not cost effective? And how else can we find ways to balance things out a little bit, something that's economically sound for everybody and showing non lethal tactics that could be a little more affordable for everybody involved? Tommy mentioned that it can be a personal issue for some of these ranchers, but again, when it comes down to everybody who has a voice in voting on reintroduction of wolves or maintaining their population, there are a very small percentage of that population as a whole, but they have the most to lose from it. So I feel like there are some cases where that can create a negative reaction when they don't feel like the state or the public holds their interest. And that can only create a negative incentive to make themselves heard, because everybody has a voice in this, regardless of what their intentions are, regardless of their opinions, they should be heard and they should have the right to voice their opinions. [00:19:04] GUEST: And I think that's a great point about considering what people want and even if they don't represent the majority. Particularly in places like Minnesota, which I'm not sure if it's entirely the same as in Idaho but there's sort of this perspective that the people who are driving a lot of wolf related decisions all come from urban environments around the twin cities of Minnesota, which is St. Paul and Minneapolis. Whereas the people who are actually dealing with the issues are people living in the country that are far away from that. And so the people who are dictating these decisions aren't really familiar with what that entails. And there is a fair bit of research that indicates that as people have to live with wolves more and more, they have less favorable opinions of them through time because they start to see some of the difficulties. And I'm not saying that this means that people shouldn't learn to live with wolves, I just think it's just one of those realities of figuring out how to deal with it. Incentives that other countries are implementing, paying producers money for basically raising livestock in predator environments and for dealing with predators, right. Providing those incentives gets people on board. And I think if we really want to turn the tide of how people think about living or dealing with predators, I think that will turn with where the money ends up going or how the money gets used. Because I think if people had huge incentives to live with predators, you'd probably hear very little. Like if a rancher thought like, this is a great deal, I'm making way more money now that I raise cattle and place with wolves than I would otherwise, they're probably going to be pretty happy. Or if someone says, hey, we're going to help you with these non lethal deterrence here and you don't have to put in any of your own money and you probably won't have wolf problems, I think most people are like, sweet, that sounds great. When we finished this fence project, the rancher that we were working with told us that he had a bunch of people calling him asking when they can get their fence, right. So the idea is most people don't want problems, right? And so if there's an incentive for them or a way that they can resolve those problems and not have to face the financial burden of it, a lot of people probably would take that. [00:21:17] GUEST: Yeah, like Colorado, right, when they were voting on reintroducing wolves. There the loudest proponents and opponents reintroduction. Rarely are the people who are actually going to be at the hands of dealing with it on the forefront on both sides, whether it comes from conservation or hunting, trapping, ranching, the people who generally have that loudest voice, who are really screaming about the problems it's going to cost, or how we should reintroduce as many wolves as possible. They rarely have much skin in the game. And the people on the ground level that really are the ones who pay the price and suffer from depredations, they can be a little more logical and a little more aware of the risk. And having that state compensation, having that federal compensation goes a long way. The only drawback I think about that sometimes, though, is there has been this expectation in the past to rubber stamp any depredation issues declared as a predator or a wolf to ensure compensation. And that's a tricky one for wildlife services to figure out, for the ranchers to figure out, and the people that go in there and ultimately make that decision and say, yes, this was a wolf depredation, yes, this was bear, so they receive the adequate compensation for their livestock losses. There's just so many different layers to peel back. When it comes to dealing with how we respond to these issues, as an organization, as a rancher, as the general public, there's really no easy answers to. [00:22:45] Speaker E: Any of it because there's no easy. [00:22:46] HOST: Answer when it comes to living with wolves. I want to go ahead and bring in founder and executive director of the international wildlife coexistence network, suzanne aisha stone, in case we've overlooked some angles or left some stones unturned in our conversation. Suzanne, what would you like to add? [00:23:03] Speaker F: Yeah, I wanted to talk about the problem wolves thing, and that was like it's such a common statement, a common assumption. Thank goodness for tom. He did a good job answering that. But I still think these guys are coming at this from this aspect of the people that they work with the most closely. So both tom and Maxwell spend most of their time working with ranchers directly and with herders and people in the livestock industry and then also wildlife services. And those folks come with a very strong perspective of that. If there is a problem, then it is a problem both rather than if there is a problem, then maybe we were part of that problem. Because if you look over the decades that we've spent working at the field level with wolves now and then doing it across not just idaho, oregon and washington, california, montana, wyoming, across europe, there's always a trigger that takes wolves from focusing on their native prey to focusing on what's more available or what is more of an attractant to them. Some new attractance. I can give you an example. In Oregon, the first livestock conflict with wolves, there was with a pair of young wolves that had come down out of the mountains in search of what they were smelling from over 10 miles, which was this huge carcass pit full of dead livestock that the ranchers had been using. And this was set up on BLM land, so it was not even a legal carcass dump, but there were hundreds of carcasses in there, and wolves superpower is their olfactory sense. So they could smell this from a long distance away and they're scavengers rather than just being predators, right? Scavenging is easier, it's safer for them. They can earn a meal without having to put themselves at risk. So they do a lot of scavenging in order to survive, especially younger wolves like these. So this was the really powerful draw. Brought them out of the mountains, down 10 miles across branchland and they found the carcass pit. But right next door was this spring lambing pasture full of young spring lambs. And they made the same decision that you and I would probably make of, hmm, maggoty old smelly bones or brand new spring lambs just across this two strands, three strands of barbed wire. It was easy for them to just shuffle underneath and start feasting on lambs. And so are those problem wolves in the minds of the community and certainly of that rancher, they're problem wolves, but they didn't start off by being a problem, they started off by following their instincts. So we're trying to get away from words like problem wolves or depredation. Depredation implies that there's a really kind of a sinister sense of I'm going to take something that's yours and that there's premeditated. And with wolves, that's just not the way it is playing to whatever most attracts them. And if something is really compelling to them as an attractant or as a threat, that's the other side of the coin here is that if ranchers move livestock into an area, like in an open range situation where they're moving them across the big landscape. And they move sheep and livestock, guardian dogs and all that. Right on top of where wolves are denning. Wolves will often respond by saying, okay, gee, you're threatening my pups. Now, the biggest threat to pups are unfamiliar canines, so other unknown wolves and they will be very defensive in protecting their pups from those unknown canines that they perceive as being a significant threat. And then that triggers another attack on livestock guardian dogs. So knowing what time of year to use livestock guardian dogs and how to use them is essential to not creating a problem. And I think we've got to step back a little bit and look at this through the eyes of a wolf going, you're inviting me to the dinner table when you're piling up dead carcasses or when you're bringing livestock on top of where my young are. And then adjust for that, putting your efforts into more preventative measures and then trying to avoid having those conflicts. [00:27:37] Speaker E: You're making a very clear case for our human impoverished and perhaps corrupt attitude towards our relationship with wolves. What can we move towards? What is a coexistence vision? How do we talk about that? [00:27:53] Speaker F: We're so self aware right to the point where it's like we are so focused on our interests and our perspectives because we live in an echo chamber. Other humans, right. Constantly describing the situation from the human perspective. And it's really hard for us to recognize that essentially we're in the room with millions of other species that cannot speak our language and are speaking to us in their own life by their instinctual behaviors, all of those things that go into how they interact with the world. So just being aware and listening for a little bit, I think that really helps when we approach a situation like this is that what are the animals trying to tell us? Once we kind of look at it from that perspective, then I think we define it different, that there isn't a problem wolf out there. There isn't a wolf that's born with the intention of becoming a problem for humans. That's something that we teach them by rewarding and attracting food resources for them or putting them at risk and making them feel desperate to protect their pups. We would understand that behavior if we were in their paws, but we often just interpret their behavior as how we perceive someone who's in opposition to us. It's hard to have that kind of empathy when it's your livestock being killed to see the world through their eyes. But it will help prevent future livestock losses. If we take a lesson from that and really investigate what caused this, how do we position in the future so that we don't create these same set of circumstances that draw wolves into that same situation? Because we can't be surprised by them acting on their own instincts, their own need to survive, and what causes them to react to us in that way if we are completely unaware of it. [00:29:46] Speaker E: I love what you're saying about listening. Considering the perspective of wildlife, what's also coming up for me is this perception, which we've spoken about on the podcast before, that wildlife is encroaching upon human territory, when in reality, humans are expanding into wildlife habitat. Cities like San Francisco or New York are native wildlife habitat. We don't carry that perception. We act on a daily basis as if these places are roped off for humans, when in fact, that is not the way that the planet works or that life has operated for the predominant time that it has existed on the planet. So that shift about territorial boundaries and human attitudes towards them is a big one that can quickly shift the sense of, why is this wolf here? As well as it's not just people putting their livestock on land that is theirs. It's putting livestock on land that is habitat for all kinds of creatures. [00:30:57] GUEST: Yes. [00:30:57] Speaker F: What we've reserved for national forest lands, this is the only place left for wildlife to go, especially large carnivores like wolves. And they still have to play by our rules as if they were coming onto our private lands. And that's not what they're doing. They're living their lives mostly on these national forest lands and then encountering livestock on. Those lands and then getting punished for using them as a food resource, especially when they're unprotected livestock. It really is confounding because we're somehow blaming wolves for being wild where they're supposed to be wild and taking basically revenge against them for being predators, which is what they are. That's their gift to the world, culling animals from large herds. And they are particularly valuable to us when they're doing that normally because they're being diseased animals or the weaker, and they're keeping herds in better balance against available habitat is. So they do tremendous services for us. I think we have to have a little bit more understanding and responsibility. It comes down to really, are we being good stewards of those lands if we can't coexist with wolves? And I clearly think the answer is no. We have to do a better job as stewards. [00:32:08] HOST: Tom and Max, what are your thoughts about all that? [00:32:11] GUEST: The reality of living with wolves is wolves for the most part, don't cause problems with people. [00:32:16] GUEST: That's a very sound point Tom makes. There at least people that I've met out west that have very strong opinions with very little experience with wolves. They're not vindictive. They don't have this motive to wreak havoc on the public and on livestock. They may not be easy to deal with, but they're very wary of people. They understand the pressure being applied, especially out here. They reduce their interaction as much as possible so they don't have this methodical evil intent. They're not just waiting for their chance to jump in and wreak havoc on livestock or cause problems in the community. But unfortunately, that does happen. But overall education and awareness for the public to realize what people have to deal with out here. So he says it's not always easy having that threat to losing your livestock or pets to predation out there. At the same time, we have a lot of public lands that are constantly used for grazing out here, whether it be cattle or sheep. Those are public lands to be shared by everybody. And if we are allowing ranchers to graze on these public lands in these wilderness areas, that there is some cost of doing business, and most of them are fully aware of that. It'd be really helpful for the public to understand what's at stake and the blockades in the way and the problems that people on the ground out here are actually dealing with day to day, that it's not easy, but it can be done. [00:33:56] HOST: I thank you both for your perspectives and for digging into these very, very challenging questions that may never have simple answers. And thanks so much for all the work that you're doing in Minnesota and Idaho on the ground. I know that you spend countless hours poring over all the different sides and facets trying to work with the different stakeholders who are trying to understand better how to live with wolves. So just keep up the good work, and I hope we get a chance to talk again soon. [00:34:28] GUEST: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on. [00:34:31] GUEST: Yeah, it was great talking to everybody, and I'm glad we could have this discussion. I think it's really important. [00:34:48] HOST: Thanks to our guests for sharing about the intricacies of today's wolf conservation efforts and the delicate balance of living alongside these iconic creatures. And thanks to all our supporters who help us provide a seat at the table for wildlife and coexistence. We hope you'll join us for the next episode of for the Wild Ones.

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