The Undeniable Value of Wolves, Bears, Lions And Coyotes In Battling Disease


by Todd WilkinsonSUPPORT USGET NEWSLETTERPhoto courtesy NPS / Jacob W. FrankPART FOUR
For over two decades, Douglas Smith and successive teams of researchers have watched wildlife predators hunting for prey in Yellowstone.
The national park’s senior wolf biologist says there is no mistaking the way that lobos identify and target elk. To the human eye, an individual wapiti might appear perfectly healthy yet there is something—almost a sixth sense— that catches the attention of discriminating pack members searching for their next meal.
It might be an elk with arthritis carrying a slight gimp in its gait, or maybe a hint of winter-worn fatigue, a slowness brought on by advancing old age or illness, or perhaps naïve behavior exhibited by the young.
There is no doubt, based on the accrued record of wolf behavior documented in Yellowstone—and the significant body of scientific accounts logged across the continent—that under normal conditions, wolves key-in on prey that is meek, infirmed or vulnerable.
“Wolves pick up on stuff we can’t see. They are most efficient at exploiting weaknesses in prey because their survival depends on it,” Smith told me recently. “They are predisposed, by instinct and learned behavior, to focus first on animals that are easier to kill rather than those living at the height of their physical strength.”
Does having predators on the landscape—wolves, bears, mountain lions and coyotes— provide a protective gauntlet that can help slow the spread and prevalence of deadly diseases?
In particular, with ultra-lethal Chronic Wasting Disease now invading the most wildlife-rich ecosystem in America’s Lower 48 states and spreading coast to coast, are these often maligned meat-eaters, frequently dismissed as worthless vermin in western states, actually important natural allies in battling CWD?

“Wolves pick up on stuff we can’t see. They are most efficient at exploiting weaknesses in prey because their survival depends on it. They are predisposed, by instinct and learned behavior, to focus first on animals that are easier to kill rather than those living at the height of their physical strength.” —Yellowstone’s chief wolf biologist Douglas Smith

While the data and the assessments of most scientists clearly suggests yes, there remains fierce resistance by some to acknowledge the beneficial roles predators play.  At the recent year-end meeting of the Montana Fish and Game Commission, anti-predator biases were on full display, especially toward wolves. They surfaced as the commission pondered its next move in confronting CWD which this autumn entered Montana via sick wild deer for the first time in state history.
Weeks earlier, Ken McDonald, wildlife bureau chief at the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department, raised eyebrows when he claimed the advantages predators bring in weeding out sick prey is merely theoretical and unproved. Dismissing the notion of wolves as effective disease-fighters, he asserted that in order for lobos to truly make a difference in slowing CWD’s advance, they would need to exist in such high numbers that it would be socially unacceptable to humans, namely ranchers and hunters.
In terms of Montana’s strategy for dealing with CWD spread in the state through sick wildlife entering via Wyoming from the south and Canada to the north, McDonald said the state’s primary method of confronting disease will involve enlisting hunters to aggressively harvest animals in emerging CWD endemic zones. The state recently approved the issuance of 1,200 additional B tags to kill deer in areas east of Red Lodge, Montana (the northeast corner of Greater Yellowstone) where six dead deer have turned up CWD positive out of 1300 tested there—four mule deer bucks, a mule deer doe and a white-tailed doe.
Many claim McDonald’s characterization of wolves demonstrates not only a personal anti-wolf bias, which also permeates the thinking of the department, but it shows a lack of understanding and appreciation for the natural history of the species. In other words, it denies what the very essence of a wolf is.
“I was disappointed with Ken McDonald’s nonsensical bureaucratic response,” conservationist and professional biologist Dr. Gary J. Wolfe wrote recently in comments that were widely circulated.
Wolfe is a former Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Commissioner appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock. Notably, he is also the former project leader of the CWD Alliance founded by a number of prominent sportsmen’s’ groups and former national president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for 15 years. He is widely respected in hunting circles.
 “While I don’t think any of us large carnivore proponents are saying that wolf predation will prevent CWD, or totally eliminate it from infected herds, it is ecologically irresponsible to not consider the very real possibility that wolves can slow the spread of CWD and reduce its prevalence in infected herds,” Wolfe says. “We should consider wolves to be ‘CWD border guards,’ adjust wolf hunting seasons accordingly, and let wolves do their job of helping to cull infirm animals from the herds.”

“While I don’t think any of us large carnivore proponents are saying that wolf predation will prevent CWD, or totally eliminate it from infected herds, it is ecologically irresponsible to not consider the very real possibility that wolves can slow the spread of CWD and reduce its prevalence in infected herds.  We should consider wolves to be ‘CWD border guards,’ adjust wolf hunting seasons accordingly, and let wolves do their job of helping to cull infirm animals from the herds.”  —biologist Gary Wolfe, former Montana wildlife commissioner and former CEO/president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Strong evidence seems to bear him out. Not only do predators stalking large game species target weak animals, they can mitigate the impact of disease outbreaks, experts say. Further, by removing sick prey species, predators could, over time, though this is unproved, make herds more resilient and stronger, less susceptible to disease.
While some may doubt this premise, illustrated in literature below, no one has provided evidence suggesting that having robust and stable numbers of predators will not aid in confronting the most rapidly spreading and fearsome new disease in North America.
° ° °
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a region unparalleled in the Lower 48 states. It is known globally as America’s Serengeti for having its full original complement of mammal and bird species, including large native predators, that were here when Europeans arrived on the continent in the late 15th century.  Plus, the landscape these animals inhabit, a 22.5-million-acre mixture of private and mostly public land, is intact—meaning not fragmented and enabling migrations of elk, deer and pronghorn (antelope) to occur and which do not exist anywhere else.
Lloyd Dorsey, conservation director for the Sierra Club in Wyoming, is a hunter and crusader against Wyoming’s operation of elk feedgrounds. This autumn when we spoke about predators and CWD, he had just returned from hunting in the Gros Ventre mountains east of the National Elk Refuge. He told me of how on the morning that he glassed mule deer and bands of elk, he found grizzly tracks in the snow and heard wolves howling a quarter mile away.
Citing reams of scientific studies to back him up, Dorsey says predators play an import ecological role in keeping prey species in check and in serving as vanguards in removing sick animals. Greater Yellowstone’s “predator guild” of wolves, grizzly and black bears, lions and coyotes, he notes, also makes it a draw for wildlife watchers from around the world, helping to fuel a $1-billion annual nature-tourism economy tied to the national parks alone. 
A disease like CWD that stands to significantly harm the health of deer family members over time—deer, elk, and moose—also has potentially grave implications for species that eat and scavenge their remains. In many ways, the biological integrity of Greater Yellowstone’s large mammal populations depends upon the health of its ungulate herds and the biomass they provide in sustaining other species large and small—those with fur and feathers down to the microbial level.  Diseases that threaten to dramatically diminish Greater Yellowstone’s ungulates could have negative, far-reaching consequences for people and the environment.
To date, there is no evidence that CWD can infect predators, humans or livestock, though geneticists who have studied the molecular make-up of CWD prions [misshapen proteins] believe it could change. And a recent study in Canada involving macaques exposed to CWD prions has elevated concerns. Macaques are primates with genes similar to humans.
With CWD, Wyoming is perilously burning the candle at both ends and it has implications for Montana and Idaho, Dorsey says. Wyoming and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to knowingly operate feedgrounds [read parts OneTwo and Three of MoJo’s series here] which makes the state and federal government guilty of game management malpractice by setting up public wildlife for calamity, he says. 
At the same time, Wyoming persists in destroying a natural ally—wolves—based upon no solid reason other than traditional cultural animosity toward these archetypal animals that earlier generations of settlers took great delight in eradicating to make way for livestock.
“Our understanding of wolves has broadened in an age of greater scientific and ecological awareness,” Dorsey told me. “They are not the animals of menacing myth they were portrayed to be in fairy tales.  We can—and should—co-exist with them for mutual benefit.”
Nonetheless, Wyoming—along with Alaska—is known for having the most notoriously-hostile attitude toward wolves in America. There, in over 85 percent of the state, lobos, like coyotes, can be killed year-round for any reason, no questions asked. Only in the northwest corner of Wyoming within the vicinity of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are wolves classified as a game animal and even there it is state policy to keep their numbers suppressed to please outfitters, guides and ranchers.
Beyond that small zone, they are classified as “predators” and treated as vermin. They can be trapped, poisoned, shot at any and all hours of the day, and targeted by aerial gunners in aircraft. Even if they are not threatening livestock, it’s open season on wolves.
The profound irony is that just as Wyoming condones a campaign of re-eradication against wolves, CWD has been rapidly spreading westward, faster than anyone expected across the state via infected mule and white-tailed deer.Perfect conditions to amplify a CWD pandemic, experts say, exist on the National Elk Refuge and 22 elk feedgrounds operated by the state of Wyoming, many of them on U.S. Forest Service land.
CWD’s arrival is considered imminent. When the disease lands in the Wyoming feedgrounds, where more than 20,000 elk are unnaturally concentrated during winters, CWD is expected to not only take hold but have its spread accelerated due to the widely-condemned management practice of bunching up wapiti. The conditions there are similar to game farms where CWD infections have been devastating.
This point was made in a letter sent December 7, 2017 from the Montana state wildlife commission (read it at bottom of this story] to counterparts in Wyoming, asking the state to take steps to shut down feeding.
“We respect the fact that how Wyoming manages its affairs is up to Wyoming. However, Montana’s ability to combat CWD will depend upon decisions that Wyoming makes about its wildlife management.  Over the long-term, the feed grounds make your wildlife populations less healthy, less stable, and much more vulnerable to a catastrophic disease event,” the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission wrote.  “We implore you to begin the process of looking at alternatives to the present management regime that unnaturally concentrates wildlife in feed grounds each winter and increases the pace at which CWD infects both states’ wildlife populations.”
The letter ends with this warning:  “If we do not address CWD, we will all be culpable in leaving a greatly devalued landscape to future generations.”  Culpable is a word with many connotations.

While Montana has escaped the intense scrutiny and public rebuke aimed at Wyoming over its operation of feedgrounds and controversial management of wolves, Wolfe and others say Montana isn’t much better with regard to predators.
Recently, another case of CWD was confirmed in a deer near Chester along Montana’s Hi-Line south of Canada.

Currently, only three wolf management units in Montana have strict quotas (two located north of Yellowstone and one west of Glacier National Park). But all others allow unlimited wolf harvest “which is probably not the best ecological strategy for containing CWD,” Wolfe noted. “As a wildlife biologist who spent several years working on the CWD issue, I believe wolf predation is an important tool that needs to be recognized and effectively utilized, along with other tools, as part of Montana’s CWD management plan.”
Wolves, Wolfe says, ought to have their numbers safeguarded in areas that represent the front line of disease. Stable packs can serve as a barrier.  Wolf management units (WMUs) that border CWD infected areas (or have CWD infected herds within the WMU) should have conservative wolf harvest quotas, he notes. Currently, only three WMUs have quotas (313 and 316 immediately north of Yellowstone, and 110 west of Glacier).  All others allow unlimited wolf harvest.
When the argument has been presented to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, it has been met with deaf ears, though Dr. Mary Wood, the state wildlife veterinarian noted in 2016 that predators can play a beneficial role.
° ° °
Humans can invent any fairy-tale-reason they want to despise wolves and justify their elimination, but that doesn’t change the fundamental time-tested nature of the species, says Kevin Van Tighem, a hunter and former superintendent of Banff National Park in Alberta’s Canadian Rockies.  “I don’t know of a single credible biologist who would argue that wolves, along with other predators and scavengers, aren’t important tools in devising sound strategies for dealing with CWD.” Van Tighem says it can be rationally argued that wolves provide the best line of defense since they are confronting infected animals.
Van Tighem told me, just as a dozen other scientists and land managers who hunt have—that once CWD is confirmed in the places where they go afield, they will no longer eat game meat from that area and may stop hunting altogether.
Dr. L. David Mech, the eminent American wolf biologist, has authored or contributed to hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers on wolves and prey. We’ve been talking about wolves since the late 1980s when he came to Yellowstone in the years before lobos were reintroduced. There’s no tangible argument he’s seen that suggests wolves wouldn’t be useful in combatting CWD.
“In the main, the preponderance of scientific evidence supports the view that wolves generally kill the old, the young, the sick and the weak,” Mech said. “There’s so much documented field data behind it.” 
He then made a point that exposes the limitations of relying on human hunters and sharpshooters alone to remove suspected CWD carriers.  Wolves appear to target sick animals that, to the human eye, exhibit no overt symptoms of disease.
“There’s a lot more going on than we can detect,” Mech said. “They are killing animals that most people would say, ‘That animal looks pretty healthy to me,’ but in fact it isn’t.”  Mech stays out of the political fray, though he says the value of predators is clear.  “Based upon everything I’ve seen over the course of my career, I generally stand behind the assertion that wolves make prey populations healthier,” he said. “The evidence to support it is overwhelming.”
In Wolves on the Hunt: The Behavior of Wolves Hunting Wild Prey, Mech, Doug Smith and co-author/editor Daniel R. MacNulty undertook an exhaustive, unprecedented review of scientific studies and observations related to wolf behavior. They cite example after example of how wolves choose prey.  They use intricately-detailed observations based on the work of park ecologist Rick McIntyre and colleagues who have tracked the wolves of Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley for decades. They also point to hours upon hours of accumulated video footage amassed by award-winning wildlife cinematographer Robert Landis who has recorded numerous wolf predation incidents in Yellowstone. 


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