Initiative 107 and the case for returning gray wolves to Colorado

wolf in snow howling

On Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, biologist Mike Phillips presented “Wildness Restored: The Wolf’s Return to Colorado” at the University of Colorado Denver, the latest lecture in the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He comes to Colorado at a pivotal moment — as state residents consider a proposed 2020 ballot measure to initiate a wolf restoration plan.

portrait of Mike Phillips
Wolf biologist and Montana state Senator Mike Phillips

Phillips is currently a Montana State Senator and Director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund. A biologist who previously worked on both the Red Wolf Recovery Program and the Wolf Restoration project at Yellowstone National Park, Phillips has conducted extensive wildlife research, though he specializes in large carnivores. Besides many articles in both peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines, Phillips is the author of “The Wolves of Yellowstone.” In other words, he is a well-recognized wolf expert.

As such, Phillips has to contend with our country’s troubled history with wolves. Europeans settlers virtually eradicated wolves, first through independent hunting and trapping, and later through government-sanctioned wolf extirpation programs (involving mass poisoning, among other inhumane killing methods) that left the species almost extinct. Why? “Manifest destiny,” Phillips explains, “which demanded a zealous embrace of the determination to tame the land and its wild inhabitants.”

But the large-scale destruction of wild animals, including bison, grizzlies, wolves, and elk, eventually prompted a call to action. “The entire science of wildlife management grew out of a need for things to shoot because the great game herds had been destroyed,” Phillips said. Once the U.S. realized it needed to reverse the trend toward species extinction, it passed the Endangered Species Act, which protected threatened and endangered plants and animals and their habitats. This ushered in a new era of conservation — and the wolf once again became a central metaphor for how we view wildness.

The real wolf vs. the mythic wolf

In addition to history, Phillips has to contend with popular culture, which has largely depicted the wolf as a vicious predator. In this regard, the United States is not alone. For centuries, and across continents, the wolf has been at the center of stories and fables, serving as a convenient symbol. And many wolf myths are aimed at children, which prompted the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project (RMWP) to produce a video titled “Meet the Real Wolf” (see above).

Phillips is forced to discuss the wolf in this context, acknowledging the mythic wolf while providing information about the real wolf: “The real wolf has been studied exhaustively over many decades. The real wolf is one of the most studied large mammals in the world. The real wolf is not even a shadow of the mythical wolf — it’s the mythical wolf that gets in the way of restoration,” Phillips said.

It’s important to change the narrative about the real wolf, especially in regards to social structure and survival. For wolves, family is of paramount importance, as explained in the RMWP video. Another misconception is that wolves are supreme killers, which is incorrect: “The real wolf — oh, my heavens. Life is a daily struggle. Starvation is a common cause of death. Puppies suffer the most of all. Most efforts to hunt end up with gray wolves coming up empty-pawed,” Phillips said.

adult wolf with wolf pup; photo by M L via Unsplash
“There are very good, successful models from the northern Rocky Mountains,” said Mike Phillips. “Reintroducing gray wolves is a certain affair.”

Initiative 107: restoration of gray wolves

Currently, the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund (RMWAF) is collecting signatures for a proposed 2020 ballot measure that would restore the gray wolf to Colorado. Rob Edward, president of RMWAF, summarized the petition: “Initiative 107 directs the Colorado Department of Wildlife & Parks to initiate a science-based wolf restoration plan, to include public input into the process, and to ultimately begin reintroducing wolves to designated lands west of the Continental Divide in Colorado no later than 2023.”

The final written version of Initiative 107 is available at the Colorado Secretary of State website. The measure does not establish its own plan for wolf reintroduction but rather asks the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to “Develop a plan to restore and manage gray wolves in Colorado, using the best scientific data available.”

That is one of the strengths of the initiative, according to Phillips. “Initiative 107 does not aim to be a strong statement of wildlife management. 107 acknowledges the expertise of Colorado state and of wildlife biologists; it acknowledges the expertise of the state assembly. It is specifically written to take advantage of that expertise and those authorities,” he said.

Edward and the RMWAF team are in the process of collecting the required number of signatures for Initiative 107 to appear on the 2020 ballot (approximately 124,500 by Dec. 13, 2019). He hopes to gather at least 200,000 signatures. That may be the hardest part in the campaign to reintroduce wolves to Colorado, particularly since the state requires signatures to be collected in person. If Initiative 107 gets on the ballot, Edward said he is confident Colorado voters will approve the measure: “We have over two decades of polling data showing support for wolf restoration standing at over 70% statewide and 65% on the Western Slope.”

map of United States showing wild wolf population areas, courtesy of Wolf Conservation Center
According to the Wolf Conservation Center, Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) were once among the most widely distributed wild mammals. They inhabited most of the available land in the northern hemisphere. Due to the destruction of their habitat and persecution by humans, they now occupy only about 10 percent of their historic range in the continental 48 United States. 

Colorado is critical link in wolf range

According to Phillips, “Western Colorado represents the last great wolf restoration campaign.” This is because of Colorado’s geographic location —in between two wild wolf habitats. To Colorado’s north, wolf populations inhabit the northern Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest. To Colorado’s south, wolves inhabit the Southwest.

Renowned wolf expert L. David Mech, PhD, biologist and senior research scientist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, has been studying wolves since 1958. He writes: “Re-establishing wolves in western Colorado could connect the entire North American wolf population from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan through Canada and Alaska, down the Rocky Mountains into Mexico. It would be difficult to overestimate the biological and conservation value of this achievement.”

The state of Wyoming, however, poses a threat to a continuous Rocky Mountain wolf habitat since it delisted wolves from the Endangered Species list on April 25, 2017. Wolf management is now in the hands of the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, which defined wolves as predatory animals in a large majority of the state. Wyoming’s policy will negatively influence wolf movement. “But with a population in Colorado, at least there will be animals that can move both from the south to the north and from the north to the south. With more animals involved, the prospect of connectivity improves,” Phillips said.

 map of Wyoming wolf management area
Map of Wolf Management Area from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

And connectivity is important because wolves, like other large predators, help maintain healthy ecosystems. This is one of the important arguments for wolf reintroduction to the state. In a 2001 article titled “The Importance of Large Carnivores to Healthy Ecosystems,” Phillips and his co-authors write, “The impacts of carnivores thus extends past the objects of their predation. Because herbivores eat seeds and plants, predation on that group influences the structure of the plant community. The plant community, in turn, influences distribution, abundance, and competitive interaction within groups of birds, mammals, and insects.”

When asked to put this concept into everyday language, Phillips said: “Let’s assume that life is a most powerful force in the universe. If that’s true, then death has to be equally important … Life matters and death matters. Prey matters and predators matter … Gray wolves just happen to be good at moving life in the direction of adaptation—good at shaping life because they’re good at picking out those that are predisposed to die.” He explained what decades of wolf research has established: wolves prey on the weak.

Wolves could potentially mitigate chronic wasting disease

According to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) report from Dec. 2018, chronic wasting disease (CWD), a neurological illness similar to mad cow disease, is a growing concern: “As of July 2018, at least 31 of Colorado’s 54 deer herds (57%), 16 of 43 elk herds (37%), and two of nine moose herds (22%) are known to be infected with CWD.” And the incidence of CWD is growing quickly: the same report cites “greater than a tenfold increase in CWD prevalence” in some mule deer herds since the early 2000s.

People cannot easily detect animals with CWD. For example, CPR News recounted the experience of Eric Washburn, an experienced hunter who shot and killed a mule buck in Northern Colorado. The animal had a “thick coat and massive rack of antlers,” but mandatory testing found it had CWD. Washburn, who was forced to throw away “all of that beautiful meat” instead of using it to feed his family, learned an important lesson: “It just showed me you can’t tell by looks which deer are diseased and which are not.”

This incident turned Washburn into an unlikely ally for the pro-wolf-reintroduction movement, as a hunter working for the RMWAF in the hopes that wolves would help curb CWD. Biologist Gary Wolfe, a former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioner, points out that wolves target diseased animals. While there is no direct evidence that wolves mitigate CWD — only past studies related to wolves hunting animals with other diseases and a study on mountain lions preying on CWD-infected mule deer— Wolfe cites the inverse relationship between wolf population distribution and CWD-infected herds in the Mountain West. “That’s circumstantial evidence, but to me that’s a piece of circumstantial evidence that says that wolf predation can help slow the spread of the disease,” he states.

Opposition to wolves in Colorado

Other hunters, as well as ranchers and concerned citizens, strongly oppose Initiative 107. Some of them believe that wolves might increase the CWD problem by spreading it throughout prey herds. But there is no evidence that wolves increase the occurrence of CWD.

Stop the Wolf, an organization firmly against wolf reintroduction, has published a fact sheet titled “Wolves & Chronic Wasting Disease” that counters: “Wolves … act as an agent of dispersion and displace big game herds from their traditional habitat.” While their fact sheet does include accurate data concerning CWD from the Centers for Disease Control, the organization also disseminates misinformation and promotes fear. For example, another fact sheet titled “Wolves & Human Safety” claims “Now environmentalists teach children that it is safe to pet a wild wolf.”

There are more reasonable arguments that could be made against wolf reintroduction to Colorado, including the following: wolves will kill cattle and other livestock, wolves will kill prey animals like deer and elk, hunters could kill wolves, and wolves could harm humans. In response to many of these arguments, it’s fair to state that wolves are predators: Their presence or absence needs to be considered within the context of ecosystems and within the context of competing species, including humans.

Phillips addressed three of the counter-arguments in his lecture at CU Denver, anticipating the concerns of ranchers, hunters, and fearful citizens. Under Initiative 107, ranchers would be paid for any livestock killed by wolves. He also reviewed the current estimated elk and deer herd populations in Colorado and used figures from Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho to illustrate that wolves would make only a minor impact on Colorado’s hunting seasons. “Coexisting requires only a modicum of accommodation,” he concluded.

Elk population and harvest data across the northern Rocky Mountain states in years before and after wolf reintroduction
Elk population and harvest data across the northern Rocky Mountain states in years before and after wolf reintroduction. Data from state game departments, courtesy of Mike Phillips.

History of human–wolf interactions

The last point—that wolves might kill humans—might be the most important argument to address, given the complex history between humans and wolves in the United States (and elsewhere). European settlers and their descendants took a very common species and virtually exterminated it. Phillips said, “The gray wolf was destroyed relentlessly … killed for no great reason.”

Fear, of course, was at least part of the reason humans killed wolves. A report titled “The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans,” published by Norway’s Ministry of the Environment in 2002, examined literature and first-hand accounts of wolf attacks on people from Scandinavia, continental Europe, Asia, and North America, including written documents from as far back as the fifteenth century. The report lists 18 authors and more than 90 contributors from more than 30 countries. Have there been wolf attacks on humans? Yes. But they dramatically decreased in the 20th century and the majority of attacks involved rabid wolves. The report concludes: “Unprovoked attacks by non-rabid wolves on people are very rare, and the vast majority of wolves do not regard people as being prey.”

Norman A. Bishop, who worked for the National Park Service for 36 years, addressed the issue of human safety closer to home. In an email, he wrote: “I served as a park ranger in Yellowstone from 1980 to 1997, and I led hundreds of people afield to view and study wolves between 1999 and 2005. I never saw anything that gave me a hint of concern about my safety or that of my companions.”

Bishop also provided data from Yellowstone. “From 1995 to 2018, Yellowstone hosted 101,070,722 visitors, none of whom was injured by a wolf.” For people who argue that it’s the backcountry campers who might be in greatest danger, Bishop cited 2.7 million tent campers in Yellowstone from 1995 to 2018—and “no camper was injured by a wolf.”

group of wolves in the snow; photo by Eva Blue via Unsplash
Mike Phillips explains that with a good wolf reintroduction plan, “Within a decade, you could easily imagine 100 gray wolves or more free-ranging across the woodlands of Colorado.”

Direct democracy and wolf restoration

During a Q&A after his lecture, Phillips addressed concerns raised by two opponents to wolf restoration. Ultimately, he returned to the exact language that begins Initiative 107: “Be it enacted by the people of the state of Colorado.”

This echoes what he said in an earlier interview with CU Denver. “It’s left to Coloradans to decide, based on the nature of their heart.”

Garfield County commissioners don’t want to let wolves in

Grey Wolf
Walking Grey Wolf.
Getty Images

Garfield County commissioners on Monday unanimously approved a resolution opposing reintroducing wolves to Colorado. But the county’s resolution may not matter when voters head to the ballot box next year.

“I’m amazed that people want to do something like this, because I don’t think it would be good for anyone, in any way,” Commissioner Mike Samson said of efforts to bring wolves into the state.

But in fact, many people in Colorado want wolves here, according to one 2019 poll.

With so many supporting wolves in Colorado, Rob Edward, founder and president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund backing the initiative, says it’s high time to get started.

Edward is behind the effort of putting wolf introduction on the ballot for Colorado’s November 2020 general election. The initiative requires creating plans and bringing wolves into Colorado by the end of 2023.

Edward is confident that volunteers have collected enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

He’s also convinced of broad support for wolf introduction.

“We have the Western Slope with us, it’s just a matter of helping people understand the nuances of living with wolves,” Edward said.

On the Western Slope, where the wolves would be introduced if Initiative 107 passes, 61% of respondents favored wolf introduction, according to the poll.

Those opposed to wolf reintroduction have a number of concerns.

“Not only do (wolves) kill the cattle, but they bother them, they chase them around and stir them up,” and as a result, there are fewer cattle pregnancies, Garfield County rancher Frank Daley told the commissioners.

Based on his experience with coyotes, Daley also worries that the cattle made anxious by wolves will break fences and injure calves.
“We definitely don’t need to add in another predator,” he said.

The impact on wildlife is another concern.

“We do not want to have wolves reintroduced into the state of Colorado for many reasons, one of which is that it would be devastating for the moose, elk and deer populations of our state, not to mention domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep,” Samson said.

The effect of wolves on elk and deer where they have been reintroduced in isn’t completely settled.

Wolves appear to be a factor in declining elk herds in Yellowstone National Park, but elsewhere, like Montana, elk herds are increasing.

In 2004, the Colorado Department of Wildlife, which has since been renamed Parks and Wildlife, commissioned the wolf working group, recommended managing wolves that came into the state, but tabled reintroduction efforts.

Garfield County commissioners see their opposition as continuing that management plan.

“The wolves are kind of introducing themselves and they are getting into Colorado from Wyoming and the southern part from New Mexico,” Jankovsky said.

Two potential gray wolf sitings in 2019 are being investigated by state wildlife officials.

According to Edward, who was a member of the wolf working group, going to the voters is appropriate.

“It’s not circumventing the DOW or the Wildlife Commission. It very explicitly involves them. It simply says, ‘The people want you to do this, so do it,’” Edward said.

Washington Court to Hear Arguments Friday on State Agency’s Wolf-Killing

OLYMPIA, Wash.— Thurston County Superior Court will hear arguments tomorrow in a case challenging the killing of endangered wolves by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The case is being brought by the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands.

“We’re hopeful the court will protect Washington’s endangered wolves from the state’s reckless killing program,” said Amaroq Weiss, the Center’s senior West Coast wolf advocate. “The majority of Washingtonians want these magnificent animals to recover and thrive, not be gunned down for the private, for-profit livestock industry.”

What: Hearing in Center for Biological Diversity et al. v Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife et al. (No. 18-2-05620-34), a case challenging the department’s killing of state-endangered wolves in violation of state law

When: 9 a.m., Friday Nov. 1.

Where: Thurston County Superior Court, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Building 3, Olympia, WA 98502, courtroom for the Honorable John C. Skinder.

The plaintiffs are represented in the case by the law firm of Animal & Earth Advocates PLLC. The Center’s lawyer and a Center representative will be available after the hearing for questions.

Background

Since 2012 the state has killed 31 state-endangered wolves, nearly 25 percent of the state’s confirmed population of 126. Of those 26 were killed on behalf of the same livestock owner. Those kills have now led to the eradication of four entire wolf packs, including the OPT pack this year, the Sherman pack in 2017, Profanity Peak pack in 2016 and Wedge pack in 2012.

In 2017 and 2018, the plaintiffs — the Center for Biological Diversity and Cascadia Wildlands — filed several lawsuits challenging the state’s wolf-killing program. The 2017 case was declared moot after the state destroyed the pack at issue, but the court has since required the department to provide eight hours’ public notice of any new kill operation, to allow plaintiffs or other members of the public time to seek a temporary restraining order.

In late summer and fall of 2018, the state agency issued new kill orders for members of the Togo, OPT and Smackout packs. A lawsuit was filed by the Center and Cascadia in November 2018 to challenge the kill orders on all three packs, and it is this lawsuit the court will hear arguments on tomorrow.

The court will decide whether to dismiss claims brought under Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act. That law requires analysis of, and public involvement in, any state actions that may harm the environment. The wildlife advocates argue that the department has failed to do this required analysis.

Washington’s wolves were driven to extinction in the early 1900s by a government-sponsored eradication program on behalf of the livestock industry. The animals began to return from neighboring Idaho and British Columbia in the early 2000s, and their population had grown to 27 confirmed packs by the end of 2018.

But wolf recovery in Washington is still a work in progress. Wolves remain absent from large areas of the state, and although the population has been growing, it remains small and vulnerable.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Cascadia Wildlands educates, agitates, and inspires a movement to protect and restore Cascadia’s wild ecosystems. We envision vast old-growth forests, rivers full of wild salmon, wolves howling in the backcountry, and vibrant communities sustained by the unique landscapes of the Cascadia bioregion.

Federal judge renews ban on gillnet fishing in Nantucket area to protect whales

By  Oct. 29, 2019 17:43 GMT

A federal judge in Washington, DC, on Monday ruled that the US’ National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the Endangered Species Act, Magnuson Stevens Act, and other federal laws when it removed a roughly 20-year-old ban last year on gillnet fishing within a 3,000 square mile area south and east of the Massachusetts island Nantucket.

US District Court judge James Boasberg has renewed the ban in order to protect North Atlantic right whales, the Boston Globe reports. He said, in his 32-page ruling, that his decision was “not a close call” and quoted Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”.

“Demonstrating that ‘there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men’ … humans have brought the North Atlantic right whale to the brink of extinction,” he wrote.

Boasberg’s ruling does not apply to the scallop industry, which will be allowed to continue using its dredging equipment in the area, as it has not been found to harm the marine mammals.

The ruling echoed concerns laid out in a recent whistleblower complaint that suggested NMFS misrepresented the views of its own scientists to justify the action, the newspaper noted.

The agency had argued that it wasn’t required to conduct a deeper review and consult with all of its branches, though Boasberg disagreed.

NMFS’ “duty was clear,” he wrote in his opinion. Once scientists in the agency make “the determination that its action ‘may affect’ a listed species, it is without discretion to avoid consultation with the expert agency as to the effects of the action on the listed species. The court cannot excuse this breach.”

People are reporting sightings of the Tasmanian tiger, thought to be extinct

A Tasmanian tiger, which was declared extinct in 1936, displayed at the Australian Museum in 2002.

(CNN)The Tasmanian tiger, a large striped carnivore, is believed to have gone extinct over 80 years ago — but newly released Australian government documents show sightings have been reported as recently as two months ago.

Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) recently released a document detailing eight reported sightings of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, in the last three years.
The thylacine, a marsupial that looked like a cross between a wolf, a fox, and a large cat, is believed to have gone extinct after the last known live animal died in captivity in 1936. It had yellowish brown fur, with powerful jaws and a pouch for its young, according to the Australian Museum.
While stories abound that some continue to live in the remote wilds of Tasmania, an island state off Australia’s south coast, there has been no hard evidence to support this — only claims of sightings, like the ones newly released.
One report last February said that two people, visiting Tasmania from Australia, were driving when an animal with a stiff tail and striped back walked onto the road.
The animal “turned and looked at the vehicle a couple of times” and “was in clear view for 12-15 seconds,” the report read. Both people in the car “are 100% certain that the animal they saw was a thylacine.”
Another report filed the same month described a striped “cat-like creature” moving through the mist in the distance.
“I am accustomed to coming across most animals working on rural farms … and I have never come across an animal anything close to what I saw in Tasmania that day,” the report read.
In 2017, another driver reported seeing a possible thylacine near the Deep Gully Forest Reserve in northwestern Tasmania. He didn’t see stripes, but he was about 150 meters (492 foot) away — likely too far to have seen that level of detail. He “seemed certain that if it was a cat it was a bloody big one,” the report said.
Most recently in July, a man in southern Tasmania, near the state capital of Hobart, reported seeing a footprint that seemed to match that of the Tasmanian tiger.
These reports reflect just how large the thylacine still looms in the collective imagination. Native to Tasmania and the Australian mainland, it was the only member of the Thylacinidae family to survive into modern times, according to the Australian Museum.

This thylacine was the last of its kind to be captured and died in Hobart Zoo on September 7th, 1936.

European colonists killed thousands of thylacines for attacking sheep.
Today, the thylacine still remains a major component of Tasmanian culture. It maintains almost Loch Ness Monster status, with regular claims of unsubstantiated sightings. In 2002, scientists at the Australian Museum even replicated thylacine DNA, opening the door to potentially bringing back the species with cloning technology.

Washington State Kills Wolf Mother to Protect Cows

Friday, October 4, 2019 – Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials announced today that they killed a female member of the Grouse Flats wolf pack on September 25. She was believed to be the mom.

On September 24, in accordance with the agency’s controversial Wolf Plan and 2017 wolf-livestock interaction protocol, Director Kelly Susewind authorized the incremental “removal” of wolves following livestock depredations in Grouse Flats territory on both private lands and state wildlife areas in southeast Washington.

The announcement of the killing comes after Governor Jay Inslee expressed concern over the state’s Wolf Plan:

“We must find new methods to better support co-existence between Washington’s livestock industry and gray wolves in our state. The status quo of annual lethal removal is simply unacceptable.”

Since 2012, WDFW has killed an estimated thirty one endangered wolves and pups, has obliterated entire wolf families (including the Old Profanity Territory pack in August), and has caused countless packs to fragment as a result of targeting individual wolves.

Moreover, peer-reviewed research demonstrates that employing lethal action to deter depredation on cows can even result in increased attacks.

Enough is enough.

Please contact WDFW Director Kelly Susewind and respectfully ask him to stop the assault on Washington’s wolves.

Punishment for illegal catching rare animals to be toughened in Russia

14:06 24/09/2019

MOSCOW, September 24 (RAPSI) – A bill to toughen punishment for illegal capture and sale of especially valuable wild animals and marine biological resources belonging to species listed in the Red Book has passed its third and final reading in the State Duma.

Amendments, according to a statement of the lower house of parliament, would be introduced into the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.
Under them, such crimes against rare animals would be recognized as medium and grave.

Thus, illegal catching, keeping, purchase, transportation or sale of red-listed animals and marine biological resources would be punishable by community service or imprisonment for up 4 years instead of current 3 years. If the crime is committed with the use of job position or is publicly demonstrated on the Internet or in media, it would be punished with prison terms of up to 6 years instead of current 5 years.

The bill also toughens punishment for illegal buying rare animals online. Currently, it is punished with community service or imprisonment for up to 4 years. Under the draft law, such actions would result in jail terms of up to 5 years. Those purchasing rare species through the Internet with the use of official position would face up to 7 years behind bars instead of currently stipulated 6 years.

Punishment for crimes of this type committed by a group of people in conspiracy and with the use of job position would be also tightened by 1 year, from current maximum 7 to 8 years in custody.

According to the State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, both poachers and their assistants would not have a chance to avoid sanctions as the bill introduces a separate provision on penalties for non-officials using job position to commit the crime, namely employees of national parks and special nature reserves. Previously, responsibility was not set for them.

http://rapsinews.com/news/20190924/304121302.html

As killer whales starve to death, public anger drives a shift in the political winds

The final moments of J54.

Young J54, covered in rake marks from the attempt to keep him alive, is held afloat between his sister, J46 (left) and a cousin in late October 2017. He probably died within hours of this photo.

Third of three parts. See parts 1 and 2.

Everyone in the San Juan Islands who watches the whales remembers the summer of 2016. No one wants to relive it.

That was the summer the Southern Residents lost seven members, including one of the J Pod’s elderly matriarchs, who scientists say are the acknowledged leaders of the pods and repositories of the stored knowledge essential to the whales’ survival. But it was the death of J28 and her calf that stirred people to action.

It was late summer when observers began noticing J28, a 23-year-old female known as Polaris. She had given birth to a male calf that spring, but as the summer wore on, it became clear something was wrong. One day in August was especially telling.

The scene unfolded in the waters directly off Lime Kiln Lighthouse, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands: Polaris’s 6-year-old daughter, J46, nicknamed Star, was swimming about actively in the roiling currents with her mother and her baby brother, who had been designated J54, but had not yet been named.

They were not, as is often the case at this lighthouse, merely frolicking in the nearby seas. They were pursuing the salmon that comprise most of these endangered killer whales’ diets, and there was a deadly serious intent to it.

J46 Star, left, and her mother, J28, playing in 2011, when Star was only eight months old.

A week or so before, researchers at the nearby Center for Whale Research had sounded an alarm of sorts about Polaris, who was in her reproductive prime, and by extension the dire lack of salmon for the Southern Resident killer whale population. Ken Balcomb, the center’s founder, had reported that another J Pod matriarch, J14 (Samish), was missing and presumed dead, and that several whales appeared to be struggling.

“Things are shaping up to be pretty bad,” said Balcomb. “J28 is looking super-gaunt, and I would say she is within days of her death.”

The “peanut head” condition that Balcomb had reported—a severe sunkenness in the flesh directly behind the orca’s skull, an indication of extreme malnutrition and often a harbinger of imminent death—was clearly visible in Polaris the day we observed her, about a week after the warning. However, the listlessness CWR had reported also was ameliorated somewhat: The orca mother appeared at times to be frolicking physically with her calf, and seemed to be fairly active, though at times she also was simply “logging,” laying still on the surface and drifting with the current.

J28 and J54
The last known photo of J28 and J54 together, early October 2016.

The most striking aspect of the scene was Star’s activity. She swam constantly around her two companions, diving deep at length and doing percussive behaviors like tail-lobbing and pectoral-slapping, often pointing in her mother’s direction. At times, the three of them would go down into the deep currents and disappear for minutes at a time, evidently foraging. It appeared to my amateur eye that she was herding the salmon she could find toward her mother, helping her get the food she so desperately needed.

The scene also had a deep emotional resonance for me: Six summers before, when Star had just been a still-callow baby of eight months, I had encountered her with Polaris a little south of the lighthouse, along a cliff wall in my kayak. I had tucked into a cove, well out of their way, and began taking photos.

That too had been a deeply touching scene: The mother and little amber-toned calf had played in the still morning waters, nuzzling and wrestling about, reveling in the kind of contact that human parents and their bonded offspring know well, the joy of touching. Polaris also seemed to be feeding the calf, getting its first nascent tastes of fish as the mother dove and brought at least one healthy Chinook to the surface to show and share, as these orcas have been observed doing for years.

Six years later, the now-grown calf was doing her part, returning that love and care to her mother by helping her find and catch the salmon she clearly has not been getting. The familial bonds of killer whales are now a scientifically established fact, but they are profound things to observe, spine-chilling reminders of the deep connection that exists between humans and orcas, whom the Northwest Native Americans referred to as “the people under the sea.”

The afternoon feeding at the lighthouse was a bit of good news, at least—it appeared that Polaris was more active and feeding well. Orcas have occasionally recovered from “peanut head,” though rarely (in captivity, it has been a virtual death sentence). Still the worry remained, and was compounded by the reality that if Polaris died, it meant nearly certain death for her still-unweaned calf, too.

In some regards, the loss of J14 Samish—a 44-year-old female whose still-mysterious death can’t be attributed to malnutrition or a lack of salmon, since the last sightings of her just days before her disappearance showed her in robust apparent health—may prove even more devastating for the Puget Sound’s endangered orcas. Recent research has revealed that post-menopausal females play an essential role in orcas’ long-term survival, because they actively lead the pods in their foraging and represent long-term memory of prey-seeking routes. Without their immense brains leading the way, orcas have a harder finding the large of amounts of fish they need to eat daily to survive and thrive.

That year also saw the loss of a big, striking male once so large he was nicknamed “Doublestuff,” who died after being struck by some unknown vessel. There was also a mother who died after her developed fetus died and became necrotic. Another big male died after government scientists darted him, and the wound became infected.

The bad news regarding the two well-known orca females cast a pall over a multimillion-dollar whale-watching industry in the San Juans that had just endured the worst season (for seeing resident orcas, at least) in its history, and seemed to cast a cloud on the island’s whole community. As September drew to a close, it seemed everyone wanted to know how J28 was doing, as though the fate of the Southern Resident killer whale population seemed to hinge on the news. And in some respects it may have.

J2 Granny, playing in the kelp near Lime Kiln Lighthouse in 2012.

The orcas’ human advocates were not giving up, but the picture was becoming grim. “Right now, we don’t even have a sustaining population of Southern Residents,” said Deborah Giles. “We’ve gone backwards. There were 88 animals when they were listed in 2005. Now we are down to 82, and maybe fewer very soon.” As she said this, she looked out over the waters where we had all observed Polaris and her offspring a few days before, and a cloud crossed her face.

A month later, on Oct. 28, CWR scientists made it official at a press conference in Seattle: J-28 had disappeared and was now presumed dead. Her baby, J-54, they said, looked even more malnourished and was being supported in the water by his sister, J-46. They gave him only a few more days, if not hours, to live, and at the time of the announcement was also presumed dead.

“It’s a sad day,” said Ken Balcomb. “I’ve been to several funerals and that’s what this feels like.”

Something snapped. The agony of watching a mother orca slowly starve to death, followed by the spectacle of her unweaned baby’s path towards the same death, was like a final straw that kicked the region’s whale advocates into action.

Coordinating among several advocacy groups and the CWR, they organized a press conference at the Seattle waterfront focusing on the deaths of J28 and J54 as a tragic warning sign for the state of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. Even the normally reclusive Balcomb was persuaded to participate, and he delivered the message in stark terms.

“We know what we need to do—feed them!” Balcomb told the assembled reporters, and urged government officials to take immediate steps to begin removing the four Lower Snake River dams.

“Restore Chinook habitat, anywhere, anyhow,” he said. “If we don’t, we will lose our whales.”

The surge of publicity created immediate political pressure on the state’s politicians, though it eased off over the following year or so, but local lobbying efforts in Olympia, led by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and other advocacy groups, stepped up their intensity during 2017, culminating in Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 2018 announcement that he was forming an Orca Recovery Task Force to tackle the problem.

In the meantime, the bad news for the Southern Residents reached a kind of apex when, shortly after New Year’s Day 2017, Balcomb and the CWR announced a momentous death in the population: J2, aka Granny, the J Pod’s grand matriarch who was estimated to be more than 100 years old.

There was only one further death in the population in 2017: J52 Sonic, a 2-year-old male who disappeared in September. But 2017 also saw a significant change in the Residents’ behavior: Their presence in the Salish Sea waters became extremely scarce.

It may have been one of the effects of Granny’s death; matriarchs are known to be the leaders of the pods, calling the shots on where they go and when, and the change in J Pod leadership clearly affected its foraging patterns. However, the far more likely culprit in the change was the disappearance of Fraser River salmon.

The Chinook produced by the Fraser—which flows out of British Columbia just south of Vancouver—have long been the primary reason the Southern Residents have come to the Salish Sea in the summertime: Scientists estimate that 80 percent of their summer diet comprises fish from the Canadian river. And in the summer of 2017, the numbers of Chinook returning to the system, measured at the Albion Point salmon station, simply flatlined.

Canadian officials remain puzzled at how the returns simply fell off the table that year, but the trend has remained similar through 2018 and much of 2019, as well. The return of the J Pod to the San Juans this past week coincided with a marginal rise in salmon return numbers on the Fraser.

So for most of the summers of 2018 and 2019, the Southern Residents have simply been absent from the Salish Sea.

“It still feels very surreal that we’ve just had our first June on record with no Southern Resident killer whales in inland waters,” wrote Monika Wieland, executive director of the Orca Behavior Institute and the author of Endangered Orcas: The Story of the Southern Residentsat her blog. “June used to be a highlight of the year because of the abundance of sightings of all three pods on the west side of San Juan Island. Yet here we are, 58 days without any of them in the Salish Sea. The silence created by their absence is deafening.”

A humpback whale breaches in Haro Strait with the Olympic Mountains in the background.

The absence of the Residents, however, has not been the complete disaster one would expect both for land-based whale watchers and for the whale-watching operations based in the San Juans and Vancouver/Victoria area. That’s because the second population of orcas to use these waters—the mammal-eating population known as transients, or Bigg’s killer whales—have suddenly begun showing up in unusually large numbers.

The two populations—which geneticists have determined haven’t exchanged DNA in more than 300,000 years—are not friendly; when they have been observed in proximity to each other, the Residents have generally chased away the smaller pods of Bigg’s whales. So scientists have hypothesized that the Bigg’s whales may be taking advantage of the absence of the Residents to access the abundant numbers in the Salish Sea of their main prey: namely, seals and sea lions.

Additionally, humpback whales—which were absent from the Salish Sea after being hunted out near the turn of the 20th century—have begun returning as well, feeding on the large schools of herring and the semi-abundant krill that can be found here.

Transient orcas kill a Dall
A pod of mammal-eating Bigg’s orcas catch and kill a Dall’s porpoise on May 25.

Certainly, passengers on the region’s whale-watching tours have had plenty to witness. On one tour I took this spring, we followed a pod of Bigg’s whales as they hunted a Dall’s porpoise at high speed, and then turned the waters around them blood-red when they finally caught and killed it. Even more common have been sightings of Bigg’s whales launching hapless harbor seals 50 feet into the air with their powerful flukes at the climax of a hunt.

A transient calf and mother.
A transient calf with its mother in Juan de Fuca Strait.

“The transients are fascinating animals, and it’s been great to have them here,” says Jeff Friedman, owner of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching and president of the PWWA. “They are amazing to watch, especially when they’re hunting.”

However, the tour operators aren’t content with the new reality. “The fact is that our number one priority is the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whale population,” Friedman says. “They are the reason we are here. Even with the transients around, the picture isn’t right without the Residents.”

Friedman, like the scientists and advocates, has been heavily engaged in the Orca Recovery Task Force process. Even though his focus has necessarily been directed to warding off the would-be moratorium on whale watching, he says his primary mission remains getting enough fish in the water to return the Resident population to health.

However, many of the solutions under consideration by the task force—habitat restoration, vessel effects, toxins in the water, and dam removal among them—are all long-term solutions that do relatively little to help the orcas now. Even if the Lower Snake dams were all to be taken down within the year (not at all likely), it would be as long as another decade (though perhaps sooner, depending on which salmon scientists you talk to) before the Snake/Salmon river systems would produce numbers of fish appreciable enough to help the killer whales.

The pressing issue facing scientists is how to get enough fish in the water to feed the orcas right now.

J35 Tahlequah romps in the waters off Lime Kiln Lighthouse on Sunday, Aug. 25.

J35 Tahlequah, the mother whose mourning for her dead calf gripped the world last summer, thus sparking the wave of anger over the loss of the whales that finally drove the state’s politicians into action, was among the J Pod whales who returned to the San Juans last week. She looked plump and healthy, frequently playing with little J56, and tail-slapping and socializing.

“We have seen her foraging successfully a couple of times. She looked really healthy to me,” says Deborah Giles. “It made everyone happy.”

Both the condition and the behavior of J Pod made clear that they have, for now at least, figured out how to sustain themselves without enduring the paucity of salmon that has been their reality in the Salish Sea recently. “It’s so heartening to see these whales, and to see them together, see them playing, lifting each other up out of the water, breaches and tail slaps—it’s really amazing,” says Giles. “And it’s really, really good to see them looking as well as they do.

“But in the back of my head, I am thinking—where is K pod? Where is L pod? Are there more babies? Obviously K27 lost the baby she was pregnant with last September. She didn’t come back with a baby. K pod hasn’t had a new baby since 2011.”

While J Pod appears to have regained its health, there were nonetheless three deaths among the Southern Residents this year, including J17, a 42-year-old matriarch known as Princess Angeline. She was Tahleuqah’s mother, making J35 the matriarch of her clan at age 21.

So while Giles spends her time this month on the water collecting scat samples, she has been directing her political focus on getting more fish in the water sooner. For her, that means fisheries management.

The Northwest’s salmon harvest is carefully regulated by a treaty overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission, an international body that includes both American and Canadian stakeholders such as commercial and sport fishermen, as well as Native American tribes. That body produces a treaty every 10 years—vigorously negotiated—in which the salmon harvest produced in Pacific waters is divvied up among those various interests.

The Southern Resident killer whales, however, do not have a place at that table. So their needs are left to whatever might be left over from the divided harvest.

“What we’ve all been screaming about is giving the whales a place as a major stakeholder in fisheries management,” says Giles. “We’re asking for an allocation of fish for the whales.”

The solution, as she sees it, is for much tighter regulation, if not an outright moratorium, on fishing for Chinook in the orcas’ home waters, which run the entire length of the Pacific Coast.  “If not full on fisheries closures, we at least need to have targeted regulations for where and how we fish,” Giles says. “It’s past time we’re doing that. And a lot of that has to do with tribal rights, which is where it becomes very political.”

Recently undertaken studies aimed at identifying key orca-foraging “hotspots” in the San Juans could help provide the data needed to make such a plan a reality, Giles says. However, “the thing I am scared that if we don’t get a handle on these fisheries, there won’t be any salmon even in those hotspots.

The PSC itself has been resistant to these overtures, though its most recent news releases have indicated at least a sensitivity to the political pressure that has arisen around orca recovery.

“At the Pacific Salmon Commission, at that highest level, in the rhetoric around the most recent treaty, the dialogue was that ‘the needs of the Southern Residents would be taken into consideration,’ but if you look at the treaty itself, the words ‘whale,’ ‘killer whale,’ ‘orca whale’—none of that show up in the treaty itself,” Giles observes.

“So basically it’s just lip service. Those words ‘allocation’ and ‘Southern Resident’—they don’t want those to pass into reality. No way.”

However, an adjunct body of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Pacific Management Fishery Council, has proven more amenable to whale advocates’ overtures. It is holding public hearings of an ad hoc group in key cities around the Pacific Northwest, examining the impacts of mixed open fishing on Southern Resident killer whales.

“It is a start, and the more people that get involved in those hearings, and make comments leading up to the meetings” the better, Giles says, noting that the deadline for such comments is Tuesday.

Overall, Giles is mostly heartened by how the public has responded to the killer whales’ plight, and how the effort has drawn help from a variety of quarters. “There are a lot of people working in a lot of different arenas to help these whales in different capacities—like the Toxic-Free Future people, who are doing a lot of important work to remove toxins from our system, and to try to push legislation that reduces the use of chemicals as much as possible. I think that’s good, I think we need to keep pushing each other in our own areas of expertise. “

“And we need to be engaging with our political appointees, the people that we elect, and pushing them into continuing to address the issues and continuing to cut to solutions,” she adds.

At times, particularly back in 2016, Giles would confess that she feared she was doomed simply to document the demise of a once-great population of killer whales. These days, she is more hopeful—not to mention determined.

“We may well be witnesses to the complete loss of the Southern Residents,” she says. “But we know what can be done. It may get depressing at times, but none of us will ever stop fighting for them.”

Florida panthers suffering from mysterious disorder affecting their ability to walk, officials say

An inexplicable crippling disorder appears to be affecting some Florida panthers, puzzling wildlife officials who are working to determine what is ailing the endangered animals.

The Florida Wildlife and Conservation Commission (FWC) this week announced some of the state’s big cats — namely kittens —  have “exhibited some degree of walking abnormally or difficulty coordinating their back legs.”

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RHINO SAVED? SOUTHERN WHITE RHINO GIVES BIRTH AIDED BY ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION

So far, FWC officials said they have confirmed neurological damage in one panther and one bobcat, but noted at least eight other panthers and one adult bobcat are also “displaying varying degrees of this condition.”

Trail footage from three counties — Collier, Lee, and Sarasota — shows some cats exhibiting the disorder. In one clip, a kitten loses its balance; its hind legs seem to simply give out. It manages to get up, albeit slowly, before trotting off after its mother.

Officials said the disorder, as of now, seems to be limited to those counties.

While officials have ruled out a number of diseases and possible causes, an exact cause for the cats’ “abnormal gait” has not yet been discovered, Michelle Kerr, a spokeswoman for the state agency, told Fox News.

That said, there are suspicions, which include “a variety of toxins and infectious disease,” she said.

“One of these potential causes is bromethalin, a rat pesticide, commonly used in the United States to control rats,” Kerr added, noting the FWC “does not currently have information on any poisoning efforts.”

Florida panthers, the state’s official animal, are a subspecies of pumas, which once had the “largest range of any land mammal in the Americas,” the wildlife agency says. The Florida panther is the only puma subspecies that exists east of the Mississippi River.

There are just 120 to 230 adult Florida panthers — one of the two wild cats found, the other being the bobcat  — in the state, according to the FWC, which makes the condition currently affecting some of the cats more of a concern.

SUDAN, THE WORLD’S LAST MALE NORTHERN WHITE RHINO, DIES FROM ‘AGE-RELATED COMPLICATIONS’

Conservation efforts beginning in the 1970s and 1980s helped save the cats from extinction. At that time, there were an estimated 20 to 30 panthers in the state, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

Today, Florida panthers are primarily threatened by habitat loss and cars and highways, among other challenges, according to officials.

Report confirms ship strike caused death of killer whale J34

Final necropsy report released upon request, 2½ years after whale’s dead body found near Sechelt

Officials with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans inspect the carcass of killer whale J34 near Sechelt, B.C., on Dec. 21, 2016. (Graham Moore)
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The final report into the death of a southern resident killer whale over two and a half years ago confirms that it died from blunt force trauma, likely inflicted in a ship strike.

J34, an 18-year-old male nicknamed Doublestuff, was found dead near Sechelt on Dec. 20, 2016.

At the time of his discovery, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said initial examinations of the seven metre orca indicted that it was alive when struck and died sometime later.

J34’s necropsy report was last updated on May, 23, 2017, however, according to a DFO spokesperson, the report wasn’t made public and is only available upon request, as per policy.

CBC requested the report July 22.

“There were no requests for this information at the time the report was finalized. There had been significant media coverage at the time, reporting the cause of death was blunt force trauma, consistent with a ship or boat strike. The final report came to the same conclusion, ” said DFO’s Dan Bate.

The final necropsy report for J34 confirmed the original evaluation of researchers that the whale was killed by a ship strike. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Shari Tarantino of Orca Conservancy, a Washington state non-profit, said there is a lack of transparency around the DFO’s reporting on J34.

According to Tarantino, her group and Washington state orca researcher Scott Veirs had been asking DFO for the final J34 necropsy report for months. Tarantino received a copy of the report late last week, but only after petitioning the office of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Jonathan Wilkinson directly.

“It should not have taken two and a half years to release a report,” said Tarantino.

“There’s nothing new in this report. It’s basically what we had already been told. But it’s hard not to wonder if it was withheld because Kinder Morgan or because of Roberts Bank Terminal 2 (the proposed container terminal in Delta, B.C.) was waiting on comments.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada media advisor Lara Sloan said the delays in sending the report were due to administrative problems and miscommunication within DFO.

“There was no intention not to provide that report,” said Sloan.

The precarious state of the 76 remaining southern resident killer whales is a major concern in the Trans Mountain expansion project which will increase tanker traffic through the animals’ territorial waters once completed.

A report released this year by the National Energy Board backed up those concerns, suggesting the project would have “significant adverse effects” on the whales.

The federal government approved the Trans Mountain expansion project last month.