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Of beavers, wolves, and forested wetlands.

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Interesting study just out from Isle Royale about the interactions among beaver, wolves, and tree composition around wetlands in the north woods. I thought folks here would appreciate it, given the number of foresters, wildlife-watchers, etc we count among our members.
 

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  • Leave It to Beavers_ Not if You’re a Wolf. - The New York Times.pdf
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Summary sentences from the study:

The study found that wolves attack beavers that strike out farther from their
homes, and thus they limit the extent to which beavers can down trees and
transform a landscape. (A previous study by many of the same authors showed
that wolves also prevent wetland creation by killing beavers.)

As these toothy engineers pursue their projects, the wolves are “like permitters, in
some sense,” said Thomas Gable, project lead for the Voyageurs Wolf Project, and
an author of both papers. “They’re like, ‘Nope.’”
 
Well, dipping back deep into granduate school learning - it only makes sense that traveling far from safety would be more risky for the prey than staying closer to water. I'm glad there's a study to demonstrate that, but it can't have been a surprise.
 
Beavers have made a huge comeback in the lower 48 states. They are busy transforming landscapes all over the place.
The re-introduction of wolves in the West and greatly reduced the number of hoofed ungulates. Moose and elk in particular have been greatly affected. It makes sense that would impact the populations of beavers and nearly every other prey animal around. What is astonishing is the ability of wolves to fill up the habitat and establish new territories.

I was talking to some wildlife biologists on my last camping trip 2 weeks ago in the Sierra. They were monitoring trail cams and talking about the Lassen Pack a little north of our location at the time. I have seen wolves in Nevada. They are firnly established in OR and WA and lots of other places we don't think of as having active wolf packs.

Wolves are notoriously difficult to hunt and trap. My grandfather was a teamster on the Northern Pacific RR in Montana around 1910. When it was too cold to lay track, he hunted wolves for bounty. He used a Winchester .32/40 and shot off his horse. Wolves are here to stay and so are beavers.
 
it only makes sense that traveling far from safety would be more risky for the prey than staying closer to water. I'm glad there's a study to demonstrate that, but it can't have been a surprise.
Agreed. What was interesting to me was the degree to which the effects are visible in aerial photos of tree distribution patterns.

Wolves are here to stay and so are beavers.
Well, we did extirpate both from most of the lower 48 at one point. That they've come back to such a degree are huge conservation successes in my book, though moderation is usually good across the board.
 
That they've come back to such a degree are huge conservation successes

Why would anyone want wolves around, or at least around human habitations? I'm genuinely curious.

Yeah, I know, the entire food chain would collapse if we eliminated wolves or cockroaches or rats. Well, as far as I know, 99.9% of all species that have ever been alive have gone extinct, and the food chain, perhaps changed, seems to have evolved and survived just fine.
 
Why would anyone want wolves around, or at least around human habitations? I'm genuinely curious.

Why not? I'm genuinely curious too.

I can understand a rancher being less than enthused and I'm sure the re-introduction of wolves in many areas would create a bit of chaos in the food chain until things balance out. But other than that what are the downsides?

Alan
 
Why would anyone want wolves around, or at least around human habitations? I'm genuinely curious.

Yeah, I know, the entire food chain would collapse if we eliminated wolves or cockroaches or rats. Well, as far as I know, 99.9% of all species that have ever been alive have gone extinct, and the food chain, perhaps changed, seems to have evolved and survived just fine.
Glenn, you're right that species come and go. Given enough time, more species will evolve. But that happens on the scale of millennia. Species are going extinct at a far faster rate than ever before. And ecosystems are changing because of it.

In Yellowstone, the return of wolves is linked to cascading changes in the ecosystem that involve elk and beaver, but trickle down to everything from song birds to minnows. Western landscapes with beaver are more resilient to catastrophic wildfires (as opposed to more frequent but less intense fires that are generally an ecosystem benefit), and wolves in some instances help beavers exist on the land, without becoming overabundant (see https://new.nsf.gov/news/yellowstone-ecosystem-needs-wolves-willows-elk as well as the OP).

To your addendum about 'around human habitations', unfortunately I think almost everywhere in the lower 48 and southern Canada is 'around human habitations' by many measures (e.g. road density). But, there's a spectrum here. I don't think it's realistic to reintroduce wolves to densely populated areas.

Here in the southern NY, and much of the populated East Coast, white-tailed deer populations have exploded and are overabundant, over-browsing forests so that they cannot regrow. We have a lot of what could be considered zombie forests - a mature canopy with no saplings underneath. Seedlings are eaten by deer before they can grow above browse height. There aren't enough carnivores eating deer to keep the deer in check. While some argue that humans were actually the main predators of deer before we switched to a system of industrial agriculture, wolves surely ate some too. Luckily here in NY we have coyotes, enlarged with some wolf DNA, as well as bobcats and bears, all helping to take a bite out of the deer. I want deer on the landscape, but they need to be in balance too. We need carnivores to help keep things in balance now, especially since most Americans no longer hunt. If the deer eat themselves out of house and home, maybe their populations will eventually crash, maybe a disease will wipe them out. But the forests will take centuries to recover. And I, like many humans, like the ecosystems we have/had. So again, it'll all sort itself out over some millennia, but I'd personally like to see a functioning ecosystem in my lifetime, not just assume one will re-arise in deep time.

Beyond ecosystem functioning, there's an aesthetic value to wolves and other wildlife. When I worked in the Yellowstone backcountry, howling wolves were as evocative of the splendor of nature to me as a loon's cry, or a kingfisher's chatter, or the yipping my local coyotes do just over the hill from my house now. Biodiversity is part of what makes canoeing and particularly tripping so much fun - the unexpected wildlife encounters that happen when we step farther away from the intensely developed world. Every species add to the rich tapestry.
 
Our traditional view of wolves has been that they need extermination. By the Environmental Movement of the 1970s the USFWS made some bold moves and re-introduced Canadian timber wolves to Yellowstone. Many would say that little environmental impact assessment was done before hand.

Our ethics continue to evolve. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is possible to document the importance of wolf introduction. The Plateau has been over run with deer, elk and moose for 100 years. The Park allows no hunting. Putting the wolves back, returned the ungulate populations to more historic levels. That has had a great positive impact on the riparian systems in the Park. Newarly all wildlife species rely on riparian habitats for part of their life cycles.

We can agree that wolves are highly social and intelligent animals. But they are very efficient killers. That makes them suitable for wilderness areas and remote country but problematic near where people live. In order to deal with wolves around livestock operations and communties, we need to de-list wolves from the Endangered Species Act. Same with grizzly bears. We need to make hunting them acceptable under some circumstances and predator control a possibility instead of a Federal crime.
 
Tsuga8,
Look at a map of the National Forests and wilderness areas in the western US. There are 100 million acres of wild country not near "where humans live."
 
Lots of deer and coyotes here in Pa. It doesn’t seem like the coyotes are not enough to control deer populations. My gut feeling is that wolves would be a good thing. May as well throw in some mountain lions too. The deer around here are eating some of their favorite foods into extinction..
 
Why would anyone want wolves around, or at least around human habitations? I'm genuinely curious.

Why not? I'm genuinely curious too.

I'm just trying to promote a serious and interesting conversation, even if controversial.

It seems obvious to me that humans are natural species, too, and that historical humans have driven many species to extinction, or at least to remote places, for reasons that seemed to be beneficial to the human species. Such reasons include the danger of the hunted species to human life or other animal life upon which human life most directly depends.

You can find lists of hundreds of species that humans have extinguished. I don't know why in most cases, and I'm not saying I "favor" any given example of those extinctions, but I'm also not aware of any "great ecological harm" that has befallen the world because of the extinction of dodos, auks, bulldog rats, or passenger pigeons. To say nothing of sabre tooth tigers and woolly mammoths, which I'm all sure we'd all like to see on a safari.

I have no personal desire to see a pack of wolves near my home or my campsite. I also firmly believe that no government employee or scientist has any understanding of what the near infinite combinations and permutations of possibilities are of removing an individual species from the world's ecology. It's all wild speculation.

If some people believe there are "too many" deer in Utopia, I don't believe we need to introduce wolves to restore an imagined "natural balance". I'm quite sure that the species that eradicated sabre tooth tigers, and almost eradicated bison, is quite capable of reducing the population of deer from its lands if Hobbes' Leviathan government would just get out of the way, instead of in the way.

I'd argue that the greatest danger to nature is the arrogance and hubris of men who ignorantly believe they understand nature and know how to control nature on grand scales.
 
Personally, I'm doing my part to reduce deer population & I'm hoping to continue that reduction on Sat when the regular rifle season opens here.

As for coyotes, bobcats & bear; I seriously doubt that any of them would actively hunt deer. They might, occasionally, eat a fawn or some road kill but the main impact of coyote in this area was to decimate rabbit & pheasant populations and push the foxes toward humans. I've seen more foxes in & around barns in the past 5 years than I ever have. Seems coyotes eat baby foxes too so the foxes move toward humans and use us as human shields.

I don't know of any plans to dump wolves in PA but the Pine Marten is coming and I'm certain that the backyard chickens will be on the menu.
 
We can agree that wolves are highly social and intelligent animals. But they are very efficient killers. That makes them suitable for wilderness areas and remote country but problematic near where people live. In order to deal with wolves around livestock operations and communties, we need to de-list wolves from the Endangered Species Act. Same with grizzly bears. We need to make hunting them acceptable under some circumstances and predator control a possibility instead of a Federal crime.
@ppine I completely agree with your first two paragraphs and much of this one. I get nervous when people start talking about 'predator control' because I think in some cases that's been used as an excuse for sport slaughter. But, I'm not opposed to hunting wolves or protecting livestock (though there've been some interesting efforts lately about non-lethal methods of protecting livestock from wolves, like fladry and guardian dogs).

Per your comment about National Forests and wilderness areas, you're right of course. I was merely pointing out that human impacts extend over pretty much everywhere these days, in one way or another. Those lands all host roads and human recreation, as many NFs host grazing (as I'm sure you know). I agree with you that there's room for wolves to roam in the West, and that wolves aren't suitable for heavily developed areas. There's a lot of nuance on the spectrum between legal Wilderness and cities. Does a lone rancher's cabin near thousands of acres of National Forest grazing land count as 'near human habitation' when it comes to where wolves should be? While I think the human footprint does cover most of the land, I'm not going to sit in NY and tell folks in Billings or Boise how close they should live to wolves.

I'm just trying to promote a serious and interesting conversation, even if controversial.
Same. I'm answering in depth in the spirit of serious and interesting conversation.

I'm also not aware of any "great ecological harm" that has befallen the world because of the extinction
Many of the famous examples were lost before much info was collected on the species, like the auk and the dodo. But there's a lot known about the impacts of extirpation of species like the wolf, beaver, bison, and alligator. They're all keystone species, which alter and create habitat for other species. Of course what's 'better' is a matter of opinion. If you like red cedar and oak scrub more than prairie, maybe you'd like bison to be extinct. If you like invasive shrublands instead of eastern forests, maybe deer should thrive until the native trees are gone and there's nothing but thickets of honeysuckle, rose, and bittersweet. If you like flashy streams that erode banks and leave Western lands parched and susceptible to catastrophic wildfire, than maybe you think beaver should stay extirpated from much of the West. But the impacts can and have been studied.
I also firmly believe that no government employee or scientist has any understanding of what the near infinite combinations and permutations of possibilities are of removing an individual species from the world's ecology. It's all wild speculation.
I'd argue that the greatest danger to nature is the arrogance and hubris of men who ignorantly believe they understand nature and know how to control nature on grand scales.

While I'd agree whole-heartedly that the natural world has near infinite combinations and permutations of possibilities, I strongly disagree that it's all wild speculation. There's a lot we don't know. There's a lot we can't know. But we can study and we can learn. Ecology is infinitely complex. We get some things wrong. The science evolves over time as we know more. For example, in the article in the OP, they note that while it seems like this relationship between wolf-predation risk correlates to tree distribution via beaver travel distances, there are other factors that could be at play. It's complex.

But I think the idea that it's all wild speculation and that scientists don't have any understanding discounts all of science and everything we have learned. And we have learned a lot.

At the same time, I do share skepticism in our hubris and arrogance. I see it in the confidence of many developers who bulldoze a wetland here and create a wetland there as mitigation - the human-made wetlands often don't function like the naturally made ones do. Ecology is a very inexact science, and restorations sometimes don't pan out as intended.

But, we keep changing the natural world at a dizzying pace. I'm not going to throw up my hands and say 'well, it's too complex to understand so we might as well just drive whatever species we feel like to extinction because there isn't a clear impact.'

is quite capable of reducing the population of deer from its lands if Hobbes' Leviathan government would just get out of the way, instead of in the way.
Humans, unregulated, nearly drove deer to extinction. Deer were brought back in large part through legal conservation, enacted by the government. I think we do need to hunt more deer in the eastern US, and government regulations are one of many barriers to that in some ways. But, there are other barriers to hunting deer that are likely much more pressing, like a lack of access to huntable land, residental densities that proclude safe hunting, and many modern Americans being too dang busy and plugged in to get outside and hunt (or paddle), at least where I live. We have deer tags going unfilled in this area.

But no hunting regs at all leads to extinctions in many cases. Moderation, of individuals and government, is key, I think. Unfortuntely neither individuals nor government seem very good at moderating themselves.

Personally, I'm doing my part to reduce deer population & I'm hoping to continue that reduction on Sat when the regular rifle season opens here.

As for coyotes, bobcats & bear; I seriously doubt that any of them would actively hunt deer. They might, occasionally, eat a fawn or some road kill but the main impact of coyote in this area was to decimate rabbit & pheasant populations and push the foxes toward humans. I've seen more foxes in & around barns in the past 5 years than I ever have. Seems coyotes eat baby foxes too so the foxes move toward humans and use us as human shields.
Glad to hear you're getting out and hunting up some deer, Gamma! A colleague here in southern NY document with a trail camera a lone coyote taking on an adult buck, so it does happen. And fawn predation is still predation, though we could question whether it's compensatory or additive (i.e., does killing fawns really impact the overall population?). I agree that coyotes, bobcats and bears probably aren't killing enough deer, but in areas where hunting isn't practicable, they're better than nothing if you ask me.

The fox-coyote dynamics are certainly interesting, and pretty well documented in several scientific papers that came out in the last few years (though clearly you're on the land enough to see the phenomenon for yourself).
 
Ahhh - interesting topic. I became engrossed with wolves due to Mr. Mowat - fact or fiction, you decide - and have read a bit more in my younger years. You get older and then start to worry about insurance rates because in Michigan's UP deer used to be as plentiful as mosquito's. Insurance companies spent huge sums to extend deer season to reduce accident's. No luck. So the idea of wolves came into play. Now, you can't say you are getting wolves to kill the deer, but you can do it for all of he right historical reasons. But then some enterprising wolves in Wisconsin decided they wanted a better life and moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Everybody freaked. Shortly thereafter every single pet that disappeared was due to a wolf. Just to the left of where i lived the DNR was summoned because Fluffy was pulled off the porch by a wolf that surely was 12 feet high at the shoulder. No evidence was ever found to support this.

I wanted to see one. I figured if I hiked back into the general area where they lived one of them HAD to come out and try to kill me. I heard stories from experts in bars all across Michigan that this was the case. So, armed with the knowledge from hundreds of Pabst Blue Ribbon drinkers I went looking. Armed with a .22 magnum pistol - had to make it fair - off I went. Hiked all over the place. Nothing. Talked to people - nobody had ever seen one, but everyone just KNEW they were decimating both the deer population, domestic pet industry, and anyone that had, or had ever thought about getting a cow.

Fast forward to today and the wolf population has leveled in the mid 600's or so for some time. From James Hammill formerly from Michigan's DNR -

"We now know that wolves live across the entire Upper Peninsula, which contains more than 16,000 square miles of rugged forest. There is also abundant prey and low enough human density to afford the wolf a chance to survive. To date there have been only eight confirmed cases of depredation on livestock and two cases of depredation on domestic dogs. "

Farley said they loved mice. I'm sure they do. Easy to catch, one quick gulp. Like eating liver. Better to sit and snack then burn calories chasing deer all over. But the farm animals are caged yet still don't come to the top of the menu. In my BRIEF experience seeing wolves in the UP they bolted so fast I couldn't get my camera ready.

Now, I don't want to fight one, but in my limited experience I have not developed any fear of them while in the woods. I'm more concerned with Bigfoot. Not all sure what happens our west, but I don't like the idea of poisoning anything and shooting animals from helicopters seems a tad unsportsmanlike.

So in my corner of the world the initial panic slipped away and reality crept in.

But we might be saved from wolves after all. What with global warming resulting in less snow, the deer should have more food options, resulting in a huge increase in the deer population. They will be everywhere and the wolves can dine in peace on the side of Highway 601.
If the wolves were dedicated to killing a bunch of deer I would be ok with that. Watch the Guns of Autumn. If I were a deer I'm pretty sure I'd prefer a 180 grain surprise instead of starving to death. Tough to watch.

Let them flourish I say. Let's turn our attention to combatting those pesky Asian Carp. Now that's a potentially huge problem.

NOTE - completely joking about the global warming thing. We don't discuss politics here, which is a good thing, but I couldn't resist.
 
When I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley back in 1970, I think, I took a graduate course in wildlife management from A. Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold, of “A Sand County Almanac” fame. When discussing predator/prey populations, Starker opined that the prey population controlled the predator population, not the other way around. This was contrary to accepted beliefs at the time. I have no idea what constitutes current wisdom.
 
When I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley back in 1970, I think, I took a graduate course in wildlife management from A. Starker Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold, of “A Sand County Almanac” fame. When discussing predator/prey populations, Starker opined that the prey population controlled the predator population, not the other way around. This was contrary to accepted beliefs at the time. I have no idea what constitutes current wisdom.

That makes sense. I'm sure it's a never ending boom/bust cycle for both of them.

Even people, often times, seem to have difficulty eliminating a species by hunting alone. The most effective way seems to be removal of habitat.

With proper habitat most species can hold on. Take that habitat away and you can try re-introducing them all you want but it's probably not going to work.

We don't have prairie chickens here not because we hunted them out but because we removed the prairie. We do have an abundance of robins here not because they're protected but because we created a perfect habitat for them. I doubt you could extirpate the robins by hunting alone.

Same goes for deer. Historically deer were very rare here and now they're super abundant because they have a lot of food and habitat. Between hunters removing 100,000+ per year in the state and driver's eliminating another 30,000 the population isn't dropping.

Alan
 
I won't add much more to this discussion because I think the points made by Tsuga8 and Keeled Over cover my perspective pretty well. I used to work and hike and camp in wolf country (saw a group of four while canoeing and a single while working) and I was never fearful of wolves. Grizzlies, yes, wolves, no. I used to hunt deer but gave it up after a farmer was shot and killed less than half a mile from where I was hunting one fall so I'm more afraid of deer hunters than even grizzlies.

I'm more concerned with getting a nasty disease from ticks. The more deer we can get rid of the better in my opinion.
 
My parents grew up in a very rural part of NY State on what is affectionally called the Tug Hill Plateau, the snowiest part of the state. The most current USGS Topographic map of the area is dated 1943. The map looks to be entirely wooded, including a few low hills and valleys, with a number of stream heads winding through. I asked my father, a lifelong hunter, about beavers. He said when he was growing up in the early-mid 1900’s, there were no or few beavers, as they had all been previously trapped out. But go there now and there is almost no resemblance to the old topo map. Most of the creeks and lowlands have been dammed by beavers, making cross country travel tricky at best with constant wet feet. During a recent SAR incident, we had a devil of a time with planning and carrying out an effective search pattern for the missing man, due to all the newly created waterways, marshes, and ponds.


In another area, as president of a local lakeside camp landowners association, I am often answering calls from lot owners complaining about beavers damaging lakeside trees, or blocking road culverts, including the main flow from a shallow side pond where beavers live, supplying flow into the main lake. Beavers have also created a secondary dam below the earth berm separating the feeder pond from the main lake as well as blocking the culvert flow into the main lake. Remove the blockage of sticks and mud and overnight it is rebuilt every time. The new secondary beaver dam, some 30 feet below the culvert, is causing flooding of a hiking trail and access across the berm.

On the other hand, another group of lot owners with camps in another separate inlet arm of the main lake appreciate the beavers because they almost every night show up to feed on and clear out thickly growing aquatic weed beds near their boat access docks. So, I called the NYSDEC wildlife management office to ask about beaver control. The answer is trapping during the open fall/winter trapping season, or to apply for a nuisance beaver elimination permit out of season. Turns out that beaver pelts have almost no value these days, and trappers do not much seek them out. It is not legal or practical to live trap beavers and transport them to make problems for someone else miles away. So, I got the permit and located a young local trapper willing to set traps for a fee for each beaver caught. Last year we trapped 10 adult beavers, with a number of more young ones left behind. The problem of course recurred again this year and I obtained another permit for the same trapper. But in an attempt to not trap otters we know we have, he set the trap trigger off to one side of one trap opening, which unfortunately caught a beaver by one leg only. The struggling still alive beaver created more phone calls to me, resulting in completely terminating the trapping program.
 
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