What Does Species Recovery Look Like For Wolves?

May 5, 2015

Credit Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Desmond: Since wolves first started returning to Washington and Oregon in the late 1990s, the population has been increasing steadily – especially over the past few years.

Now wildlife officials are taking a look at the species’ protected status. In late April, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission initiated the process of removing wolves from the state’s endangered species list.

All this brings up questions of whether the wolf has actually recovered enough to dial back protections.

With me now with some answers is EarthFix Correspondent Jes Burns.

Jes, Why is this happening now?

Jes: This is all laid out in Oregon’s Wolf Management plan - basically the state’s roadmap for wolf recovery.  In that plan, there are three phases – three levels of protections - based on how many breeding pairs there are.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wolf Coordinator Russ Morgan explains it pretty well:

Morgan: “It was believed that if we achieved a minimum of four breeding pairs for three consecutive years in the eastern part of the state, that would represent a population that is able to function.  Function in the future, function on its own.”

Jes: Morgan says four breeding pairs is not actually an optimum number. It’s just the number that triggers this review.

Desmond: What is this “77” number that keeps getting tossed around?

Jes: That’s the number of individual wolves currently confirmed in Oregon – undoubtedly it’s a low estimate.  It’s the number that many conservation groups have cited as a reason not to delist the wolf in Oregon.

Wolf Biologist Dave Mech, is with the US Geological Survey:

Mech: “The Oregon population is really just part of a much larger population of wolves that extend back into Idaho, and up into Washington and over into Montana and Wyoming. Not to mention that all of these wolves are connected to the huge population in Canada. So you can’t really think in terms of just the number of wolves in Oregon when you’re speaking of a wolf population.”

Jes: The wolves in Oregon don’t exist in a vacuum.  They travel around.  And they don’t care about state lines.  The broader Northwest population from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascades is right around 1800.  So 77 wolves may not be the best number to latch onto.

Desmond: Are there other indications wolves are recovering?

Jes: Well, a definition of a healthy population is that it is growing.  For the past five years wolf growth has been about 30-40%.

The other positive is the wolf dispersals we keep hearing about. Young wolves from the packs in Northeastern Oregon have been going full-hobo, if you will, striking out to establish new territory and to find mates.

Just in the past few months, we’ve seen traveling wolves near Klamath Falls, in the forests around Mt. Hood and rather surprisingly for biologists, in the high desert of Malheur County.

Desmond: Are there other ways to think about wolf recovery?

Jes: Definitely.  An interesting one comes from Ecologist Bill Ripple of Oregon State University. He’s well regarded for his work in Yellowstone, where he found the reintroduction of wolves affected the entire ecosystem in surprising ways. For example, the threat of wolves influences where deer and elk fed, allowing certain plant communities to thrive.

Ripple: “I think it’s important to think about ecological interactions and the functions that predators have, rather than just the total number that may be in a state, or on a landscape or in a region.”

Jes: Ripple says it would be good to consider this “ecological effectiveness” in setting recovery goals.  But this science is relatively new and exactly how many wolves it would take to be ecologically effective is unclear.

Desmond: At this point, what are the barriers to wolf recovery?

Jes: Wolves are actually great candidates for population recovery because they can live anywhere and eat just about anything.  So as long as there’s enough food, the only real barrier to wolf recovery is us.

This concept is something Dave Mech calls “social carrying capacity.”   How many and where will people allow wolves to live?

Neither Oregon nor Washington has hit its capacity.  In both states the population continues to expand both in numbers and geographically and will until the public as a whole says “no more.

copyright, 2015