Making Space for Predators in the Cultural and Ecological Landscapes

We need wolves, bears, and large cats on the North American landscape. They belong here, and neither the landscapes we call home nor our own cultures would be the same without them. It’s not only proper management practice to protect the place and role of predators in North America, it’s both a patriotic act and a moral responsibility.

I began this post some time ago, but just didn’t quite have a clear direction for it, so I shelved it until I had a real impetus to put it together. I found that impetus somewhat serendipitously in a mixture of personal interest and the politics of managing large predators. First, I recently read environmental historian Dan Flores’s new book American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains. 9780700622276 Second, there have been a number of recent controversies about the conservation status of predators in various North American jurisdictions and the subsequent management actions proposed for those species. In Ontario in particular, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) recently implemented an immediate ban on hunting and trapping for a species of wolf in selected townships throughout the province. I’m interested in exploring the sociocultural perspectives around both the idea and physical existence of predator species, in particular between hunters and non-hunters – often the cultural line that seems to divide much of the binary thinking about predators.

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Eastern coyote, Canis latrans

Ecologically, it should be no surprise to anyone that predators play an important role in North American landscapes. Very little that exists in natural systems is ecologically inert, without any kind of evolutionary or relational role. Predator-prey interactions are both complex and necessary for species on both sides of that relationship. Remember that North American species evolved on this continent alongside one another and the interspecific (between species) interactions were critical in their evolutionary histories. Predator-prey dynamics played an important role in shaping species’ behaviours and maintaining balance at various scales within a habitat. For instance, the threat of predation can impact the behaviour of certain species in ways that can be important for maintaining vegetation health or composition. In other cases, predator and prey populations are connected so closely that they literally need one another to keep populations within the carrying capacity of their habitat.

Despite this longer-term understanding of the ecological role of predators, our social values still paint a particular portrait of predators. I’ve heard Cameron Hanes and Joe Rogan comment that bears need to be managed because they impact moose populations. While this is certainly true, the repeated use of value-laden language gives the – even subconscious – impression that bears are somehow purposefully intending to wipe out moose populations or that bears are inherently evil for the impacts of their predation. This is ridiculous, so let’s put this kind of loaded language to rest now. Bears and other predators do not “devastate” or “decimate” prey species populations. The role of predators is to seek, kill, and eat their prey, and that is what they do. Both predators and prey are active participants of their ecosystems and their evolutions. There is nothing somehow immoral about this and we need to avoid anthropomorphizing predator-prey interactions.

Now, this does not mean that predator populations shouldn’t be managed. On the contrary, I am a strong advocate of harvest-based predator management; however, I think there’s an important distinction between managing predators and the portrayal of this task as simply “predator control”, as though the greatest achievement of wildlife management is maintaining low levels of predator species – usually either in the interest of protecting livestock interests or to maintain higher levels of desired prey species like deer. Instead, we should apply the same management philosophy to predator species that we do with prey species, appreciating the biological and cultural role of hunting within human communities, and striving to maintain sustainable, healthy, and balanced populations and ecological communities. This might seem overly picky in terms of the language we use, but our choice of language reveals a great deal about our perspectives and impacts how we are perceived by others, so it’s worth some consideration.

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One of the most demonized and misunderstood large predators on the North American landscape, the mountain lion, Puma concolor. Despite urban myth, mountain lions do not eat hikers and children by the hundreds.

The question is, how do we shift our collective perceptions around predators?

There are certain camps who share cultural perspectives about predators. Sometimes these groups are divided along the hunter/non-hunter line, sometimes along an urban/rural line – and as humans, we seem incapable of resisting the finger-pointing that often comes with these cultural divides. But the reality is, we all have a responsibility in this issue, and the nature of that responsibility depends on how we come into contact with the issue of predators. To hunters, I would say that we need to put an end to the short-sighted and arrogant demonizing of predators. It’s unethical and unpatriotic. To non-hunters (and in particular, anti-hunters who seem determined to end predator hunting altogether) I would say to stop mobilizing emotion over the charismatic nature of predators and to understand that species need to be managed in integrated ways. Sometimes, this management includes sustainable hunting measures, and like it or not, this is sometimes the most effective way to manage predators well. In both cases, these species are far more than the characters of myths and fairy tales; they are important members of complex ecological communities, and the oversimplifications on both ends of the spectrum only serve to damage our own claims to righteousness and the health of ecosystems.

Let’s look at wolves (Canis spp.) as a way to contextualize this discussion a bit. By wolves, I mean the various species of canids throughout North America. To put it bluntly, our various sociocultural perceptions have shaped a shameful history with the various Canis species. North Americans have intermittently embarked on campaigns of extermination against wolves, designed variously to protect livestock development, market hunting economic opportunities, and as a result of misguided perceptions of the physical threat wolves present. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that our history of wolf management on this continent has been defined by wisdom and forethought. We have both moral and national duties on this continent to change the trajectory of this history.

There are some organizations working to encourage the valuation of ancient predator-prey relationships. Just this week, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) released information on a campaign to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, which spans the border of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, from the effects of industrial development. In their press release, CPAWS cites as one of the reasons to protect the Park that is it “the only place in the world where a natural predatory relationship between wolves and bison has continued unbroken over time”. As North Americans, we have come to recognize the power of bison in this continent’s ecological and cultural history, and it is equally important to acknowledge the other side of the bison’s history, which is its interactions with predators.

Wolves are truly a North American species. Wolves evolved exclusively on this continent before emigrating to the rest of the world. They are both a natural and historical part of the North American landscape, and as such, I would say that it’s actually unpatriotic to not give wolves the respect they deserve – it would be some kind of national ecological sin to deny wolves their rightful place here. In tracing the evolutionary history of canids, Dan Flores explains that all members of the family of animals that comprise wolves throughout the world originated from a common North American lineage that is 5 million years old. At some point in their history, ancestors of today’s gray wolf migrated to Asia and Europe, later returning to North America. Meanwhile, a separate wolf lineage remained in North America, later becoming the red wolf, Canis rufus, and the eastern wolf, Canis lycaon. Ancestors of today’s North American wolves have been part of this continent’s ecology for 20 000 years, hunting the giant animals of the ice age along with many other large predators that are now extinct.

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A size comparison between (from smallest to largest) a black bear, a grizzly bear, and a recreation of the short-faced bear, which went extinct about 11 000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age.

There are, however, important reasons to consider predator management for the purpose of mitigating their pressure on species such as white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). At the same time I posted this discussion, I also posted one that reviews recent research on coyote predation on deer; however, I found myself reluctant to post that one by itself because I was fearful it would contribute to the dichotomized nature of predator conversations, so I wanted this post to offer some more depth to the conversation. In part, this fearfulness is in the context of recent changes to wolf and coyote management in Ontario and some of the backlash I’ve seen to these decisions.

On June 15, 2016, the Ontario government reclassified Eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) as Threatened on the basis that “the estimated population of mature individuals is less than 1000”. Eastern wolves were also assessed as Threatened by COSEWIC, the national committee responsible for assessing the status of wildlife in Canada. Part of the reclassification process in Ontario included renaming the Eastern wolf the Algonquin wolf.

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The newly renamed Algonquin wolf, Canis lycaon

On September 15, 2016, the Ontario MNRF – the provincial department responsible for managing hunting based on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (FWCA) – announced a full hunting and trapping ban on wolves and coyotes in 40 townships throughout the province as a measure to protect Algonquin wolves.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) issued a statement opposing the decision and in their official submission to the MNRF outlined a number of compelling reasons why a hunting/trapping ban is “scientifically indefensible”. In the wake of the MNRF’s announcement, hordes took to social media expressing their complete disdain for wolves and coyotes, voicing poorly informed opinions about the merits of even recognizing the species, and suggesting that people should just continue to kill wolves and hide the evidence. In a much more poignant response, the OFAH skillfully walked a fine line that recognized the importance of Algonquin wolf recovery and genetic protection while also explaining why a hunting/trapping ban amounts to a short-sighted and unwise management decision. The OFAH argues that the FWCA offers more effective options to achieve conservation objectives for Algonquin wolves than an all-out hunting/trapping ban.

For instance, the OFAH notes that for the last 14 years, there has been a wolf hunting ban in core areas of Algonquin wolf range surrounding Algonquin Provincial Park (APP). Speaking to the effects of this ban, the OFAH cites both the Ontario and Canadian species at risk assessment bodies (COSSARO and COSEWIC, respectively) in acknowledging that while “human-caused mortality is identified as a significant threat, a reduction in hunting and trapping mortality from 67% to 16% resulting from a ban in townships in and adjacent to Algonquin Park in 2001 was followed by a comparable increase in natural mortality rates”. This means that hunting amounted to what is known as “compensatory mortality”, or in other words, that the wolves killed by hunters each year would have died anyway and therefore that hunting was not having an additive effect on the population (incidentally, this is really the backbone of the concept of sustainable harvest). In addition, there is a concern with genetic introgression from coyotes (in other words, through interbreeding, coyotes are making Algonquin wolves more coyote), and the OFAH suggests that without managing the population of coyotes, there is concern that we will lose more Algonquin wolf genes over time.

Though it might seem counterintuitive, I tend to agree with the OFAH that changing the status of Algonquin wolves might actually do more harm than good because it restricts the available options for conservation measures. What troubles me most, however, is the nature of criticisms from the very community that should appreciate the need for ecosystems that contain healthy and balanced predator populations. As hunters, we pride ourselves on understanding ecology and being committed to conservation. This means promoting the maintenance of landscapes complete with the richness of species that have evolved here and that have been integral to the relationships within their habitats. I agree that hunters are the strongest voice for conservation, so we need to use that voice thoughtfully, intelligently, and then powerfully.

Lest I be dismissed as some predator bleeding heart, recall that our own evolution and adaptation on this continent would not be the same without the other species living here. Indeed, Dan Flores notes that, “with the exception of our primate cousins, wild canids have been intimately associated with us longer than any other large animals on the planet.” There’s a value to wild life that is measured by some metric far beyond our socially constructed desires for growth, productivity, or predictability. We need to remember that the interactions and relationships between multiple species within ecosystems is what shaped our landscapes and what has made them the places we admire and rely on for food, recreation, and an important part of our culture. As such, we owe it to ourselves and these landscapes to be thoughtful and comprehensive in our attitudes and decision-making with regards to predators. We need to give them the space they deserve in our cultural and ecological landscapes.

Science Update: Another Chapter in Understanding Coyote Predation on White-Tailed Deer

So here’s the deal with this post. I don’t believe that science is detached from the social, cultural, and political implications of the knowledge it produces; however, these posts are intended to specifically focus on recent updates in scientific knowledge concerning species that hunters might be interested in. In an effort to keep these posts focused and concise, therefore, this post is a two-parter. The research paper I’m talking about here relates to a hotly debated and highly emotive issue, so I felt a bit compelled to also address the social and political aspects of the issue in a companion post. Onwards to the science though.

This post is seasonally timely with the Ontario white-tailed deer bowhunt opener on October 1. In a paper published in August 2016, researchers from the Ecological Research Center in Newton, Georgia reported on a study that began in 2003, to investigate the effects of mesopredators on white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) recruitment. The paper, titled Predator Exclusion As a Management Option for Increasing White-Tailed Deer Recruitment, reports on a study that used fenced exclosures to provide refuge for deer from predators to assess whether exclosures could be used as a management tool to reduce pressure on white-tailed deer from coyote (Canis latrans) and other mesopredator predation, particularly in cases where hunting coyotes is ineffective.

The researchers compared the neonate/adult female (fawn/doe) ratio in deer that used the exclosures to those that did not use the exclosures. Using neonate/adult female ratios gives an indication of recruitment – how many new individuals are brought into the breeding population. Since fawns are most vulnerable to predation, this ratio is generally a good indicator for population trends (i.e. if neonate survival is low, individuals are not surviving to reproduce, and combined with other mortality, this may lead to a decline in the population).

Exclosures are fenced areas that are just the opposite of enclosures: rather than containing a species, they are designed to prevent certain species from entering the fenced area. In this study, the researchers designed the exclosures with electric wire fencing so that deer were still able to jump the fence into the area, but coyotes, foxes (Vulpes spp.), and other predators were unable to get through the fence.

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Grazing exclosure. Source: The Konza-Kruger Experiment

The effects of coyotes on white-tailed deer is one of the most hotly debated barstool topics among hunters. There are those who swear we should kill every coyote we see and there are those who insist that no matter how many coyotes we kill, we are only removing the transient individuals and having negligible effects on the actual local population. There is also the idea that coyotes will change their reproductive rate and behaviour in response to population changes, increasing litter size as populations decline. Then there is also a polarization of opinions on whether coyotes even present any real threat to white-tailed deer populations.

However, this paper notes that the massive population and range expansion of coyotes in North America throughout the last century has exposed white-tailed deer to increasing predation pressure that has affected neonate recruitment. Further, while there is evidence that removal of coyotes has had positive effects on white-tailed deer recruitment, the evidence also suggests that these effects are quite localized and difficult for most landowners to implement effectively. Coyote populations usually span a much larger area than individual hunters or landowners can affect, which means that individual animals that are killed will be replaced by others from the same population. In other words, coyote removal would need to occur over such large areas that for practical purposes at the property level, killing coyotes is generally not an effective tool to increase white-tailed deer recruitment.

The study found that the average neonate/adult female ratio was greater inside the exclosures than outside. Average neonate/adult female ratios within exclosures was 0.19 and outside exclosures this ratio was 0.09. To put this in more direct terms, this means that within exclosures, roughly speaking, there was 1 fawn for every 5 does; outside exclosures, there was 1 fawn for every 10 does. Hunter success also improved after the construction of exclosure areas. The study doesn’t report harvest statistics, so it’s difficult to know if hunters were killing more mature individuals, which would indicate that adult deer were also surviving longer.

In terms of management lessons, this study indicates that reducing predation pressure on white-tailed deer can increase neonate recruitment into the population. However, it’s notable that the effects of predators doesn’t always take the form of increased mortality. Decreased risk of predation can also result in behavioural changes in deer. Wildlife species are constantly balancing risk and reward – for example, how much energy will it take to locate a food source, and will the energy taken in by that food be greater than what was expended to find it. In terms of predation, prey species will seek refuge from predators, so predation risk can affect both foraging and reproductive behaviour (for a notable example of this, revisit the behavioural effects wolves had on elk in Yellowstone Park).

If increasing local deer population is a management goal, there needs to be an increase in neonate survival. In many cases, lethal control of coyotes is ineffective. In these cases, the authors suggest that predator exclosures may provide a viable option to manage predation risk by reducing “the need for energetically costly antipredator behaviors (e.g., increased vigilance while foraging) by providing year-round reduction in predation risk”. If exclosures provide more effective refuge from predators, it is likely that deer will use these areas to escape predation.

While this research is interesting, I can’t help but find larger questions to ask. For instance, while I have great respect and gratitude for the successes of the North American model of wildlife conservation, I still wonder: are we losing some essence of what it means to have wild life on these landscapes by managing them with the use of fences? At the end of the day, we need to find the best way to manage wildlife for the health of a wide variety of species and habitats; however, there’s a subjective element to this that I can’t escape, which makes me feel a bit uneasy about putting fences in wild places (even if those are on private properties). Then again, I can’t very well suggest that we continue to use potentially ineffective management strategies like lethal control of predators simply because it somehow feel more natural, can I? So uncertainties remain.