Blood does not buy goodwill

In the paper published Guillaume Chapron and Adrian treves in Proceedings B of the Royal Society (Blood does not buy goodwill: allowing culling increases poaching of a large carnivore), the authors looked at whether removing protection for large carnivores would decrease illegal hunting. This idea is supported by many governments. Does it work as expected? Find out by watching this video and by reading the paper available at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/283/1830/20152939.

Abstract of the paper:

Quantifying environmental crime and the effectiveness of policy interventions is difficult because perpetrators typically conceal evidence. To prevent illegal uses of natural resources, such as poaching endangered species, governments have advocated granting policy flexibility to local authorities by liberalizing culling or hunting of large carnivores. We present the first quantitative evaluation of the hypothesis that liberalizing culling will reduce poaching and improve population status of an endangered carnivore. We show that allowing wolf (Canis lupus) culling was substantially more likely to increase poaching than reduce it. Replicated, quasi-experimental changes in wolf policies in Wisconsin and Michigan, USA, revealed that a repeated policy signal to allow state culling triggered repeated slowdowns in wolf population growth, irrespective of the policy implementation measured as the number of wolves killed. The most likely explanation for these slowdowns was poaching and alternative explanations found no support. When the government kills a protected species, the perceived value of each individual of that species may decline; so liberalizing wolf culling may have sent a negative message about the value of wolves or acceptability of poaching. Our results suggest that granting management flexibility for endangered species to address illegal behaviour may instead promote such behaviour.

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The real cost of conservation: cheap protection rarely succeeds

By: Nika Levikov 

Conservation efforts in less-developed and politically unstable countries are full of risk, according to a study published in PLOS ONE. The study, which looks at how to best evaluate conservation priorities, argues that selecting priority countries based solely on economic factors may lead to failure in conservation projects and increase the likelihood of negative impacts on local people.

“The conservation community is often reluctant to discuss negative issues that relate to their work, such as corruption and poor treatment of local people by government officials, which are probably more prevalent in some countries,” explained co-author Bob Smith from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent. “Our study shows we need to investigate these issues further and develop approaches that account for and minimize their impacts.”

Notably, the study found that it’s more expensive to operate in countries with less corruption and stronger economies. In fact, the cost of conservation rose with political stability, low corruption, government strength, civil society involvement and protection of human rights.

The analysis revealed some staggering statistics. For example, the costs of conservation in the 10 most stable countries were 82 times higher than in the 10 least stable. Moreover, costs in the 10 least corrupt countries were 41 times higher than in the ten most corrupt. The results fit the basic assumption that it is cheaper to operate in developing countries.

But the authors caution that conservationists ignore the bureaucracy, political instability and corruption of developing countries at their peril. When a project operates in a country suffering from high levels of instability and corruption, international donors become heavily reliant on both national and local government for implementation. But high corruption, poor bureaucracy and little human rights protection in these areas may put the local human populations at risk and ultimately result in project failure, according to the study.

“Conservationists in low-cost countries have to spend more time and effort overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and ensuring their work does not have negative impacts on local people,” said lead author Erin McCreless with the University of California Santa Cruz, who notes that a more holistic approach to conservation priorities would be beneficial.

A troubling example is human rights abuse stemming from enforcement of conservation policy, such as heavy-handed anti-poaching efforts, which in turn may reduce local public support for conservation efforts.

In addition, the study underlined the problem of lack of focus on project outcomes. Instead of checking to see if a project is working, emphasis is often myopically placed on the initial investment with little follow-up monitoring and analysis, according to the research.

“Relative
Relative protected area management costs. Photo credit McCreless et al.

Since the bulk of the world’s biodiversity is contained in developing countries, conservationists cannot simply pack their bags and leave places most affected by corruption and economic hardship. Instead, the study suggests placing more importance on developing relationships at the local level and increasing civil society involvement in poorer countries. In addition, it stresses increasing emphasis on cooperation between organizations and academics to set new priority areas according to a range of factors, not just initial cost.

“We definitely need to reassess how conservation organizations make decisions about where to work,” Smith told mongabay.com. “At the moment we have a situation where many conservation organizations use ad hoc approaches for identifying priorities, whereas academics have developed more rigorous approaches but fail to account for relevant factors when running their analyses. One big step would be for academics to recognize that every conservation prioritization scheme has to be context and organization specific. They need to work with these organizations to identify what the prioritization scheme is for and what factors should be included.”

The study recommends discouraging individuals and organizations interested in making donations from “blindly” investing in cheap areas for conservation. Smith believes that developing new approaches will help break this simplistic method.

“It’s difficult to say when the issue began,” he said. “I think one of the main negative impacts is that conservation practitioners have ignored new approaches for setting priorities because they felt they produce naïve results.”

Understanding the true costs of conservation efforts and appropriate decision-making is clearly a challenge. However, the authors of this study assert that tackling it with collaborative efforts between practitioners and academics would be a step in the right direction.

Citations:

  • McCreless E, Visconti P, Carwardine J, Wilcox C, Smith RJ (2013) Cheap and Nasty? The Potential Perils of Using Management Costs to Identify Global Conservation Priorities. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80893. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080893

Source: http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0303-Levikov-real-cost-of-conservation.html#Sf0wrBOorTfB5Uhd.99

Who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf?

Agriculturalists and conservationists differ on the foothold the Iberian wolf has on the peninsula

No coherent management plan exists to promote coexistence

The Iberian wolf is a species that can be hunted north of the River Duero, but is completely protected to the south.

In recent years in Spain the traditional tale of Little Red Riding Hood has been turned around to portray the wolf not as big and bad, but the victim. However, the classic version with the voracious beast still lingers in the collective imagination and a solid formula for peaceful coexistence with the species remains elusive.

Responsibility for the management of the Iberian wolf in Spain falls to the regions and policy varies greatly, while tensions between farmers and the authorities over compensation for the loss of livestock are running high in the most problematic areas of Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León. The complaints of farmers and hunters lead to the conclusion that wolf populations are on the rise; Castilla y León has backed this viewpoint in an official report, but biologists and conservationists do not agree. The debate always revolves around the same question: what can be done to allow humans and wolves to live side-by-side, while at the same time protecting the animals and preventing them from causing damage?

The European Union’s Habitats Directive established a frontier in Spain to protect the Iberian wolf: the River Duero. South of the waterway the wolf is considered of “community interest” and is therefore protected. If an animal must be killed, the regional authorities are responsible for doing so. But north of the Duero the wolf’s status is less clear. In Castilla y León, Cantabria and Galicia hunting wolves is permitted, but in Asturias it is not.

Castilla y León accounts for 60 percent of the total number of wolves in Spain, according to several specialists. The region’s latest conservation and management program, which is pending approval, states that the wolf population south of the Duero is rising. There are no official figures but the report cites a census carried out in 2012 and 2013, which will soon be made public. Its preliminary conclusions say that the wolf’s area of distribution south of the Duero increased by 34 percent between 2007 and 2012, a finding based on the first count of wolves ever undertaken in Spain, between 1999 and 2003, which is still used as a reference point to estimate the population.

Farmers and hunters have concluded that wolf populations are on the rise

“Things haven’t changed much over the past 10 years,” says the report’s co-author, ecologist Antonio Uzal, who works in wild animal conservation at the University of Nottingham Trent in the UK. Among the problems facing the wolf highlighted during that earlier census are pressure from authorized and illegal hunting, and the lack of viable corridors between populations, a necessity for inter-group breeding diversity. Castilla y León serves as the current meeting point between populations and is therefore considered the key by conservationists.

Regional data from 2001 recorded 149 packs, comprising around 1,500 individuals. Uzal’s study, carried out with Andrés Ordiz, places the number of family groups in Spain at between 250 and 320 (250 confirmed with indications of a further 70).

Castilla y León’s conservation program, published over the Christmas period, states that regional government employees will take responsibility for controlling wolf populations in the protected area south of the Duero with a quota system established on the northern side. According to its figures, a quota of 18 percent of the existing population will be enforced. In the previous program, set up in 2008, the quota was the same but in some southern areas in Segovia and Ávila it was raised to 28 percent. This program was challenged in the courts by Ecologists in Action because it allowed for the hunting of wolves in areas protected under EU legislation. Responsibility for the matter now rests with the national government in Madrid.

Biologists and conservationists consulted warn that the number of wolves reported in each region could be wildly overstated. Carrying out a solid census would require considerable time and effort as wolves are transient animals. “Their territory can reach 100 square kilometers; in a nighttime outing they can run as much as 50km,” says Eduardo Palomo, secretary of the Lobo Marley wolf conservation organization. Biologists point to the need to conduct a full national census in order to formulate policies to prevent an irreversible situation.

Regional data from 2001 recorded 149 packs; around 1,500 individuals

“Genetic studies on the population of wolves in Spain and Portugal suggest that these animals have been much closer to extinction in relatively recent times than was previously thought,” says Jorge Echegaray, an environmental consultant who coordinated the first non-invasive tracking of wolf populations in Spain. Today, the wolf occupies just 25 percent of its historical range. There have been no studies on its potential future distribution but because of a wolf’s requirements – extensive habitat and sufficient wild prey – it is possible Spain’s population could extend its range considerably. “You only have to look at the attempts at colonization in the Basque Country and La Rioja, and the footnote of the [recent] appearance of wolves in Madrid,” adds Echegaray.

“The government needs to determine the size of the population but it only speaks in terms of groups, to which an elevated number of members have been assigned,” says biologist Alberto Fernández Gil, a member of the Association for the Conservation and Study of the Iberian Wolf (ASCEL). Fernández is the author of a doctoral thesis that concludes that attacks on domestic livestock actually increase when pack members are culled. His study, using data from Asturias, shows that there is a direct relation between the number of wolf deaths and damage to livestock in the year following a cull.

“In this area science is worth nothing,” says Palomo of Lobo Marley. “If you kill the alpha male, the most coveted by hunters, then you take away the pack’s leader and those that are left do not know, for example, how to track and kill a boar. Then they will turn to sheep.”

“There is no evidence that the population control carried out as it is in Spain currently serves to reduce damage to livestock,” says Fernández. “They are shooting wolves without thinking.”

In Spain, the wolf occupies just 25 percent of its historical range

Echegaray, who has worked as a scientist at Spain’s CSIC National Research Council, says that any population control must be backed with “sensible analyses on impact and justification.”

“This is something that European legislation demands, as the wolf is listed as a species of community interest in all of the 28 member states. Spain hasn’t even defined the wolf’s status.”

Theo Oberhuber, a coordinator at Ecologists in Action, recalls with a touch of resentment how in 2012 Environment Minister Miguel Arias Cañete attempted to convince the European Commission to list the Iberian wolf as a hunting species south of the River Duero. “We have always said that the wolf should be a protected species,” he says.

One recent episode serves to highlight the passions and hatred that the wolf still generates: nine were found dead inside the Picos de Europa National Park last December. “This wasn’t hunting; it was a massacre,” says Guillermo Palomero, president of the Brown Bear Foundation. The wolves belonged to a pack based around San Glorio that had wandered into the confines of the park. “They were not considered conflictive,” notes Palomero.

We have always said that the wolf should be a protected species”

In Cantabria there is no specific plan for the conservation of wolves, and one specimen is permitted to be shot per hunt. Conservationist groups have called on the regional government to clarify the situation because the Cantabrian group plays a “priceless” role in controlling wild ungulates, particularly deer, while helping to preserve the biodiversity of the Picos de Europa National Park.

“More objectivity needs to be applied to wolf management and less pressure exerted,” says Roque Ortega of Ecologists in Action in Soria. Castilla y León, for example, is attempting to adapt its 2008 conservation plan to the swinging judicial pendulum resulting from its approval. The group Ecologists in Action has complained that it opens the way for hunting south of the Duero, while the COAG farmers’ union appealed against the compensation system in place for losses of livestock.

Ecologists in Action notes that the 2008 document leans toward a tendency to increase hunting quotas. “More than a conservation plan, it is a plan to hunt wolves,” says Luis Oviedo, the organization’s lawyer. Despite the annual quota being increased from 100 to 138, it has never been reached. In 2012, for example, only 74 wolves were hunted. The reasons for the shortfall depend on who you ask. For conservationists, it is simple: because there are not as many wolves as thought. Hunters complain that the government has made things more difficult.

“We feel like we’re out on parole,” says Santiago Iturmendi, president of the Hunting Federation of Castilla y León. “Before you can go hunting you have to inform the Civil Guard and forestry agents… We don’t even want to hear talk of wolves being declared a hunting species in Segovia because it will make things very complicated for us.” Iturmendi believes that wolves should be hunted to prevent loss of livestock and to maintain the biodiversity of the ecosystem. He points out that wolf quotas are “very low” – up to three times less than for other large animals.

More than a conservation plan, it is a plan to hunt wolves”

Farmers in the province view changes to the management plan as recognition of the colonization of territories that have been wolf-free for a century, and are determined to fight their corner over compensation for attacks on their flocks and herds. “Not only are there losses through deaths but also injuries,” says COAG spokesman Aurelio Pérez, adding that stress-related illnesses, loss of young and low milk production are also triggered by wolf attacks. “Coexistence is impossible. Areas where wolves can live and where they can’t have to be clearly delineated, as does the overall control of the species.”

Between 2005 and 2012 the regional government of Castilla y León paid out 1.7 million euros in compensation, but ecologists point out that attacks caused by wild dogs are often attributed to wolves instead.

Farmers’ tales of a super-population of wolves prove paradoxical for those that study the species. Andrés Ordiz, who has more than 20 years’ experience in the field, participated in the 2001 census in Castilla y León and points out that the large predators, by their very nature, have to be few in number because there cannot be more predators than prey. “No management plan takes into account the role wolves play within the ecosystem by controlling the number of species like deer and boar. Killing wolves also carries consequences.”

Farmers are also facing doubts over the true extent of wolf attacks – in Asturias an investigation into possible fraud against the compensation system is ongoing – and scrutiny of the subsidies they receive from the EU Common Agricultural Policy, which are granted on the premise of adherence to sustainable and respectful biodiversity practices.

Quotas for hunting population controls have never been reached in Spain

In the middle of the debate is wolf tourism, which generates around half a million euros in the La Culebra mountain range in Zamora province, the epicenter of the sector in Spain. Javier Talegón, a biologist who founded the ecotourism firm Llobu (wolf in Asturian), believes that the interest in viewing live wolves proves they can be profitable, and that formulas exist for peaceful coexistence between the creatures and humans. Whether we are genuinely ready to rewrite the fairytales is something only time will tell.

Source: http://elpais.com/elpais/2014/01/21/inenglish/1390298231_288056.html

Plan to delist gray wolf endangers other threatened species, researchers find

Scientists say proposal to end wolf protection across US disregards science, history, threats

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The federal government’s proposal to discontinue protection for the gray wolf across the United States could have the unintended consequence of endangering other species, researchers say.

As written, scientists assert, the proposed rule would set a precedent allowing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to declare habitat unsuitable for an endangered animal because a threat exists on the land – the exact opposite of the service’s mandate to impose regulations that reduce threats against imperiled species.

The FWS has “conflated threats with habitat suitability” by stating that U.S. land currently unoccupied by wolves – most of the country that historically served as wolf habitat – is now unsuitable because humans living in those regions won’t tolerate the animals, the lead scientist said. This claim runs counter to existing research, which the service did not cite in its explanation of the rule.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to detail what the threats are and if they’re substantial enough, they’re supposed to list a species and put in place policies to mitigate the threats,” said Jeremy Bruskotter, associate professor in The Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources and lead author of the paper.

“Here, they’re saying that they recognize the threat of human intolerance and instead of mitigating the threat, they’re just going to say the land is unsuitable.”

Were this rule to stand, he said, “Anytime the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds that something is in the way of a species’ recovery, they can just say the habitat is unsuitable for the species and disregard the threat altogether.”

FWS proposed removing the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from the list of threatened and endangered species in June. The rule covers most of the continental United States where wolves historically existed, before being exterminated by people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Public comments closed Dec. 17, and will be analyzed and considered before the service issues a final rule.

The critique is published online in the journal Conservation Letters.

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The act expanded on previous legislation by providing for the protection of any species in danger of or threatened with extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

The act’s language is critical to what follows: In determining whether a species has recovered, the law requires FWS to declare it is no longer endangered in all or a “significant portion of its range.” The gray wolf has recovered in the northern Rockies and upper Great Lakes.

The proposed rule, however, discounts the other 85 percent of the wolf’s historic range, which stretches across northern states from the west coast through New England and as far east as mid-Texas in the southern half of the country.

“So what the service is saying is that wolves are going to be called recovered in most of the United States despite the fact that very few wolves live outside these two recovered areas,” Bruskotter said. “Wherever they are now, that’s their range – which means taking the historic and geographic component out of the listing process.”

He and colleagues suggest that this practice not only disregards the law, but “specifically creates incentive to destroy habitat in advance of a listing and do things that aren’t good for endangered species.”

The law also requires the service to consider the “best available science” in assessing whether threats have eased and a species is recovered. Instead of citing the dozens of studies that suggest human support for wolf restoration is high, the service simply ignored this research and claimed that these areas are unsuitable because of human intolerance. When federal protection is lifted, species management falls to the states.

“That process is not the best available science,” Bruskotter said.

Bruskotter acknowledged that FWS is under enormous pressure from the opposing sides of a highly contentious fight about wolves: hunters and livestock producers on one side and wildlife advocates on the other. But that pressure doesn’t relieve the service of its duty to act on behalf of endangered species as the law requires, he said.

“The law is supposed to help the protected species, not just describe the threats to that species. But to construct this delisting rule, they’ve had to interpret policy and science in every case in a way that either disregards threats to wolves, or treats them as insurmountable,” he said. “They’re doing the opposite of what the act requires.”

Co-authors of the critique include John Vucetich of Michigan Technological University, Sherry Enzler of the University of Minnesota, Adrian Treves of the University of Wisconsin and Michael P. Nelson of Oregon State University.

Contact:

Jeremy Bruskotter
(614) 247-2118
Bruskotter.9@osu.edu

Written by Emily Caldwell
(614) 292-8310
Caldwell.151@osu.edu

Source: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-12/osu-ptd123013.php

Access to the original paper: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/conl.12081/abstract

Gordon Haber said “It’s not how many wolves you kill, it’s which wolves you kill”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist gray wolves nationwide is flawed because it’s based on the total number of wolves, a statistical approach that, according to wolf biologist Gordon Haber, is “ecological nonsense.”

Haber spent over 43 years observing Alaska’s wild wolves, mostly in Denali National Park, before dying in a plane crash while tracking the animals. To locate wolves, he snowshoed, skied and flew in winter; he backpacked and hiked in summer. He endured minus-50-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, blizzards, thunderstorms, mosquitoes and the risk of grizzly and moose attacks. Few modern biologists have such unassailable experiential authority.

Haber’s take-home message was this: You can’t manage wolves by the numbers. You can’t count the number of wolves in an area and decide whether it’s a “healthy” population, because what really counts is the family group, or pack, as some still call it.

“Wolves are perhaps the most social of all nonhuman vertebrates,” wrote Haber. “A ‘pack’ of wolves is not a snarling aggregation of fighting beasts, each bent on fending only for itself, but a highly organized, well-disciplined group of related individuals or family units, all working together in a remarkably amiable, efficient manner.”

Haber devoted his career to studying intact family groups, especially the Toklat wolves of Alaska. First made famous by Adolph Murie’s 1944 book “The Wolves of Mount McKinley,” the Toklats rank with Jane Goodall’s chimpanzees as the two longest-studied mammal social groups in the wild.

Wolves go to great lengths to stay with family; when important members are lost, families can disintegrate and remaining individuals often die. Haber knew this firsthand owing to an alpha female wolf, who, after her mate was killed in a botched government darting study, died of starvation, alone. Relocated wolves travel hundreds of miles to return home. And the first wolf seen in California in 90 years, OR7, has never stopped moving: He’s searching for a mate, for family.

Left unexploited (that is, not killed) by humans, wolves develop societies that are astonishingly complex and beautifully tuned to their precise environment. Once, Haber observed the Toklat wolves moving their den because heavy winter snow had decimated the moose population; a week before pupping, the wolves shifted to another den closer to caribou. He also recorded unique hunting methods, among them moose hunting by the Savage River family that he called “storm-and-circle.”

Family groups develop unique and highly cooperative pup-rearing and hunting techniques that amount to cultural traditions, though these take generations to mature and can be lost forever if the family disintegrates. After the entire Savage River family was shot illegally in the winter of 1982-’83, Haber never saw the storm-and-circle technique again.

A healthy wolf population is more than x number of wolves inhabiting y square miles of territory. The notion that we can “harvest” a fixed percentage of a wolf population corresponding to natural mortality rates and still maintain a viable population misses the point. According to Haber, it’s not how many wolves you kill, it’s which wolves you kill.

Natural losses typically take younger wolves, whereas hunting and trapping take the older and more experienced wolves. These older wolves are essential because they know the territory, prey movements, hunting techniques, denning sites, pup rearing — and because they are the breeders. Haber observed this many times: Whenever an alpha wolf was shot or trapped, it set off a cascade of events that left most of the family dead and the rest scattered, rag-tag orphans.

It happened again in April 2012. A trapper dumped his horse’s carcass along the Denali National Park boundary, surrounded it with snares, and killed the pregnant alpha female of the most-viewed wolf group in Denali. With her death, the family group had no pups, and it disintegrated, shrinking from 15 to three wolves. That summer, for hundreds of thousands of park visitors, wolf-viewing success dropped by 70 percent.

This is not unique to Alaska. In 2009, Yellowstone National Park’s Cottonwood group disappeared after losing four wolves to hunting, including both alphas. In 2013, the park’s Lamar Canyon family group splintered when the alpha female — nicknamed “rock star” — was shot.

So it’s never about numbers. It’s about family. A wolf is a wolf when it’s part of an intact, unexploited family group. Wolves are no longer endangered when these groups have permanent protection, and when we manage according to this essential functional unit. If we leave wolves alone, we’ll be the ones to benefit.

The government has extended the comment period for delisting gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection to Dec. 17, 2013. Go to http://www.regulations.gov and click on Gray wolf: Docket N. (FWS-HQ-ES-2013-0073).

Marybeth Holleman is a contributor to Writers on the Range a service of High Country News (hcn.org). With Gordon Haber, she is the author of Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal. She also runs the blog Art and Nature and lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

Source: http://www.summitdaily.com/news/8780038-113/wolves-family-haber-wolf

Who’s afraid of the American gray wolf?

As the US debates whether to remove the wolf from the endangered species list, the fangs and fans are coming out

Gray wolf

A gray wolf looks alert in the snow in Montana. Photograph: Panoramic Images/Getty Images

There is no wild animal in America today more revered and reviled than the gray wolf. In Yellowstone National Park, wolf watchers line up along the Lamar Valley like paparazzi stalking pop stars. Meanwhile, in Catron County, New Mexico, schools build cages around bus stops, and a doctorsends a paper (pdf) to the federal government warning of the potential for PTSD among children living near wolves.

“Wolves are symbols,” explained John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Tech, when I asked him about the animal’s peculiar power.

When we’re talking about wolves we’re often talking about our relationship with nature over all. That, as I’m sure you know, is not a subtle sort of thing in our country.

Symbols and nature. The truth of Vucetich’s statement came into sharp focus on 13 June, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service releasedradical proposals to alter its management of wolves. Since then, scientists, conservationist, ranchers, and rural communities have largely responded with censure.

As an inner-city liberal, my instinct here is probably predictable: protect the wolves at all costs. Never mind that I don’t live near them and have never seen one in the wild. Simply knowing they exist gives me satisfaction; they are part of the imagined wilderness I use to reconcile my urban lifestyle. Anybody anti-wolf is ignorant and wrong.

But I also know this is a knee-jerk reaction, ignorant in its own way. Indeed, it is crucial to step back and recognize how emotions and fantasies color debates about wildlife. Reactions to the agency proposals show a wolf with split personality disorder: icon of the wild by day, malevolent monster by night. Either the wolf is nature’s Jekyll and Hyde, or there’s more at play in this discussion than just the Canis lupus.

Here are the facts. Gray wolves already have been removed from the endangered species list in seven states of the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes, where the combined population sits at around 6,100. Now the agency proposes to remove federal protection across the remaining lower 48 states – in effect, to “delist” wolves entirely. It also proposes to relist the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered subspecies in Arizona and New Mexico and to increase recovery efforts.

So far the Federal Register has logged more than 31,000 responses, with the comment period recently extended until 17 December. Although many comments count as personal pleas (“they are gods animal” [sic]), some are detailed legal arguments from rancher and game coalitions. A group of 16 conservation biologists has also released a letter (pdf) of “serious concerns”.

Gary Frazer is assistant director for Ecological Services and heads up the Endangered Species Program at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In a telephone interview, he explained that the agency made its proposals so it could shift resource to “the only other population of wolves that is in danger of extinction” – the Mexican gray wolf.

Taking the facts, many perspectives on wolves today infuse them with a measure of myth. For example, at the sympathetic end of the spectrum wolves are wilderness incarnate, sometimes appearing on t-shirts howling at the moon or framed by an Ojibwe dreamcatcher. The ancestor of domestic dogs, “man’s best friend”, the wolf is easy to anthropomorphize because of its intelligence and family groups (it is like us). Those wolf watchers in Yellowstone have even been known to follow the ins and outs of inter-pack relations like the twists of a daytime soap opera.

Biologists may take a less romantic view, but much scientific discussion also treats the animal as intrinsically valuable. Wolves are “apex predators”, which means, as Vucetich explained, “they have disproportionate effects on the ecosystems in which they live”.

Biologists see this in a positive sense, but the effects of wolves – both real and imagined – motivate the side of opinions where the wolf is seen as “the beast of waste and desolation” (a concept discussed by Barry Lopez in his seminal book, Of Wolves and Men). The wolf is something threatening now: the wild, unpredictable element in dogs; an uncivilized mirror of man; a pernicious competitor for livestock. “The US Fish and Wildlife Service can say that the wolf is never going to attack a person, but they’ve got their fingers crossed,” said Jess Carey, Wildlife Investigator in Catron County, when I asked him about a passionate document subtitled “A County in Crisis” (pdf) that he submitted to the Secretary of the Interior in 2012.

The main question, of course, is whether coexistence is possible given the polarity of these views. True, the situation is not exactly black and white. Advocacy groups like Defenders of Wildlife acknowledge the problem of wolves preying on livestock. Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy at the Farm Bureau, is also open to the idea of ranchers adapting to the presence of wolves on the range. “I don’t see that that’s a dead end at all,” he told me.

But as the US Fish and Wildlife Service deliberates over its next move, the conflict around wolves hints at an even older question: What is the place and value of wilderness in modern America?

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/16/american-gray-wolf-endangered-species-debate