Wolf hunting reduces sightings
Is that a bad thing?
by Cat Urbigkit, Pinedale Online!
April 30, 2016
Visitors to national parks are half as likely to see wolves in their natural habitat when wolf hunting is permitted just outside park boundaries. That’s the main finding of a paper co-authored by the University of Washington appearing April 28 in the journal PLOS ONE. Its authors examined wolf harvest and sightings data from two national parks — Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska and Yellowstone National Park that straddles Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — and found visitors were twice as likely to see a wolf when hunting wasn’t permitted adjacent to the parks. The research was funded by the National Park Service.
The authors note: "The opportunity to view free ranging large carnivores is an important driver for wildlife tourism worldwide, and the National Park Service mission in particular emphasizes the preservation of wildlife resources in their natural condition for the non-consumptive benefit and enjoyment of the public. Thus, factors that influence sightings of iconic wildlife such as wolves are important to track and understand. Here, we have shown that consumptive use of a large carnivore reduces opportunities for non-consumptive use in protected areas. Limiting harvest of large carnivores along the boundaries of protected areas may provide a strategy to increase sighting opportunities for visitors to these areas and the associated economic benefits to adjacent communities."
It’s expected that animal advocates will suggest that the paper provides reason to prohibit hunting near the borders of Yellowstone National Park. But consider these factors:
• "Although harvest of wolves in our study systems may not have occurred at rates generally considered sufficient to reduce population size, harvest may influence sightings through other mechanisms. Behavioral avoidance of humans by wolves following exposure to hunting or trapping could reduce sightings."
• "Selection for behavioral traits may be another method by which harvest of carnivores could decrease sightings. In our study systems, a small number of wolves may contribute to a large number of wolf sighting opportunities. Harvest can selectively target ‘bold’ individuals, thereby removing bold individuals and over time, the trait, from populations."
The reality is that some wolves become habituated to humans in Yellowstone National Park with its annual visitation nearing 4 million people, and where there are severe restrictions on human development and activities. It is inevitable that some of these habituated wolves will leave the protection of the park and enter the human-dominated world.
Yellowstone National Park has its own management plan for habituated wolves, with its first two objectives of maintaining a wild population of wolves, and to prevent the development of habituated wolves. The plan states: "Almost all of the wolves that have shown aggression towards humans have lost their wildness by being repeatedly exposed to humans and losing their fear as a consequence."
The plan also notes: "Second to habituation, humans who act in a non-threatening manner appear to be a key factor in wolf aggression towards people."
Wolf biologist Diane Boyd authored a compelling essay on the challenges of wolf habituation to humans, noting: "The common factor among nearly all reported wolf attacks was that wolves had become increasingly bold around humans (perhaps because of food scarcity, or possibly as a new strategy to exploit resources brought by humans into wilderness areas). North American wolves involved in recent attacks were repeatedly seen stealing articles of clothing, gear, exploring campsites, and sometimes obtaining food items—behaviors nearly identical to those reported by early frontiersmen. The wolves of Algonquin and Vargas Island exhibited bold behavior for weeks or months before the attacks occurred. Therefore, those injuries would probably have been preventable if humans had perceived the wolf as a wild predator rather than a thrilling campsite visitor."
The selected removal of "bold" predators has been a mainstay of modern large carnivore management within Yellowstone National Park and outside the park’s boundaries. The human-habituation of both wolves and grizzly bears inside Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks has caused controversy when these animals leave the park where the rules are different, as are land uses. Outside the park boundaries, state wildlife officials must deal with the variety of land uses and humans that share the same range with these wild predators – far outside park boundaries.
It’s up to the reader to interpret whether the decrease in potential wolf viewing inside the park because of hunting that occurs outside the park is a positive or negative for humans and/or wolves. Perhaps the question can be framed in this way: Is the purpose of the park’s wolf population to have a complete ecosystem, or to provide for human entertainment?