The Grey Wolf: A Carrying Capacity Tragedy
by Melissa Pond
Ecosystems have two types of capacity; a carrying capacity and a social capacity. The carrying capacity of an ecosystem is the maximum number of individuals for a population that can be sustained indefinably in a given area. This number is determined by the availability of resources: food, water, space, shelter, and other necessities. Often the carrying capacity is a much larger number compared to the social carrying capacity. The social capacity is determined by the tolerance of human populations for a given species in a given area. The social capacity is highly important as it is one of the most limiting factors of a population size. When the social carrying capacity is exceeded the result can be devastating to both the animals and the humans.
A prime example of what happens and the issues that arise when a population exceeds the social carrying capacity is the gray wolf. There are many states that have and are currently dealing with this issue, but I will focus my discussion to the state of Wisconsin.
The current method of determining the wolf population numbers in the state of Wisconsin is based on confirmed sightings and track surveys. Tracking surveys are not all inclusive and certianly do not cover the entire state. Often times a “section” (tract of land) will only be checked for tracks for a total of one hour. In some cases the area where depredation has occurred is not included on the designated tracking map. Additionally, tracking only occurs after a fresh snowfall and only November through March. Additionally the volunteer assigned to the block is only required to cover 20 miles.
Each trained tracker is assigned a survey block of about 200 square miles. The survey block will be designated by a system of roads or natural boundaries such as lakes and rivers. Not all portions of the survey block will contain suitable habitat for forest carnivores. It will be the tracker’s responsibility to survey the forested areas of his or her block for forest carnivores. Surveys are conducted by slowly driving the survey block 1 to 3 days after fresh snowfalls. All recent sets of tracks of medium and large forest carnivores are recorded along these snow-covered roads….. Laurie Groskopf of WI, DNR volunteer and advocate of conservation.
Big Bad Wolf….Not Quite, but Not too Far Off
What happens when the wolves get out of control and interfere with citizens’ livelihood and recreation? Often times the populus will manage that threat at their own discretion. An unfortunate result of this management technique is that the natural resources, wolves, will go unutilized. There is actually a disincentive to not waste the carcass. Additionally, not all wolves prey on pets and livestock, but because of the exceeded social carrying capacity, people are indescrimately poaching these animals. So, when a choice has to be made concerning your livelihood, enjoyment of the outdoors, or safety of domesticated animals in contrast with the prosperity of the wolves, the wolves will seldom come out on top.
For what it’s worth, there is a compensation program in place for depredation. Unfortunately the compensation often falls short the owner’s perceived value of loss. Do you think that you could agree to a price for which you would be wlling to surrender your pet? And what of the value of the family farm that has been handed down for six generations. The federal government has done the work for you… a dog killed by a wolf is worth $2,500 (before taxes). As of 2010, the state of Wisconsin has paid out $1,083,162.62. But please note that in order to even collect that insignificant compensation you must provide a hair sample from the wolf that caused the damage. Tracks, bite patterns, and sightings are not sufficient evidence.
WARNING! The images below are graphic and disturbing. I encourage you, if you can, to take a look anyways even if for only a mere second.
Imagine the grief of being a father that has come home and tell his daughter that wolves killed her dog while out training in a county forest. Or worse, imagine the horror the child would have had to witnessed had she been along in the woods on that grim day. The federal government has assessed that such a tradgic event is worth $2,500 (before taxes). The dog on the left was taken by a lone wolf right out from beneath a tree. What this picture doesn’t show is the bond the owner had with the dog and the many nights the dog spent curled up in front of the fireplace next to his master. To see current dog depredations go to: http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/er/mammals/wolf/dogdepred.htm
The image on the right shows the extent of the damage that wolves can do. Not only has the revenue from the cow been lost, but so too has the future revenue of her offspring.
Where does all the money to pay for wolf depredation come from??
In 2000 the gray wolf in the state of Wisconsin was removed from the endangered species list. A few months later the United States Humane Society, USHS, sued the United States Fish and Wildlife Services, USFWS, for the “premature” delisting of wolves. Guess who paid for that… you did, via your Federal and state tax dollars and your payment for endangered resource license plate fees. Following the lawsuit, the wolves were placed back on the endangered species list. Although somewhat ironic, 90% of the fees collected from the endangered species plate go to pay for depredation. I bet that’s not how you thought your “donation” would be used. This money could have been put to better use by funding protection and research efforts for species that truly are endangered. Of that, $87,486.50 was spent on depredation fees for livestock, excluding game farm animals. $61,307.01 was spend on pet depredation and associated vet fees. Since the federal government starting paying for depredation over 1 million dollars has been used for wolf damage. The 2011 reports have not be generated and released to the public yet, but the overall trend is an increase in wolf depredation across the board. http://www.aphis.usda.gov/wildlife_damage/prog_data/2010_prog_data/index.shtml
Many of the people making decisions about how to handle the wolf population have lived in a major city for their entire life. The experience and knowledge that most have to offer are not deeply rooted in reality. As an example, as a last ditch effort to keep wolves on the endangered species list, several organizations (USHS, PETA) protested that the Grey wolf in Wisconsin was actually comprised partially of Eastern Red wolves (even more rare than the Grey wolf). Of course that allowed them to claim that the number of individual wolves was well below the set recovery number. After extensive genetic profiling, a ruling was made stating that wolves in Wisconsin were to be considered one subspecies. On January 27, 2012 the wolves were once again removed from the endangered species list and the management of this species was turned over to Wisconsin state officials and, more importantly, the residents of Wisconsin. Let’s hope that this time around some well-intentioned, albeit misinformed, persons do not try to pursue litigation for premature delisting again.
Links for More Information:
About the author:
Hometown: Rhinelander WI
Graduation Class: 2013
Degree Seeking: BS Cellular and Molecular Biology
Post-grad plans: Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine
My favorite past time is working with hounds, specifically hunting raccoon and mountain lion. I currently breed and own UKC and AKC registered Bluetick Coonhounds. I actively participate in UKC competition Nite Hunts, field trials, bench shows and water races. When I’m not training my dogs for coon related events I train and compete in rally obedience, agility, conformation shows, and weight pulls. My most accomplished dog is UWP GRCH GRCH “PR” Blue Bawlin Ella- RN RA. She received the title of 2010 Wisconsin state over all field trial dog winner and is also the first UKC coonhound to earn a degree in weight pull (UWP).