Interview of Get Bear Smart Society Executive Director Sylvia Dolson about living respectfully with bears in Whistler, British Columbia, and elsewhere.
Friends of Animals: Hi Sylvia! Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got involved with bears.
Sylvia Dolson: Thanks Dave! My background is in accounting, and teaching mathematics and finances. I have a degree in business administration, and was raised in Toronto and lived mostly in London. When almost turning 40, we loaded up a motor home with our two cats and hit the road for two years. One thing we knew for sure was we were not going back home; we were going to find somewhere new to live.
We found Whistler our first summer. Returning the next year, we got a newspaper to look for jobs and an apartment, and the front-page story was, “Garbage Bear Destroyed In Village.” And I thought: Why would you kill a bear for eating garbage? Don’t we all have a right to eat?
That’s what brought me down this road.
I called up the then-president of the Get Bear Smart Society, who said, “Come out and be part of the solution.” I went to the group’s next meeting and haven’t missed a meeting since, and now I’m executive director.
Tell us a bit about the background of the Get Bear Smart Society.
Sylvia: We’re a registered Canadian charity and our mandate is to ensure people and bears can safely and respectfully co-exist. We work with communities to help them become bear-smart, and with governments and policy makers to find cost-effective ways to bear-smart communities. We work with conservation officers and police, training them in non-lethal bear management practices, and advocate those as well. So we work with various levels: with residents in their homes, companies who send employees to work in bear country, and individuals who enjoy recreation in bear country. The point is minimizing the number of bears being killed in preventable conflicts.
Mainly our work is in Whistler, but we share this information with other communities and governments so we don’t all have to reinvent the wheel, and there’s no charge.
Underlying it all? Creating that paradigm shift in people’s attitudes towards bears and all wildlife and animals. Replacing fear and misunderstanding with understanding and respect.
So when living in bear country, the main step is keeping our food and scraps inaccessible to them, or even making them undetectable.
Sylvia: Undetectable isn’t a good choice of words! A bear’s sense of smell is so powerful; we have no conception of how powerful it is. They have 100 times the olfactory glands in their nose, so it’s not possible to make our garbage undetectable, but we can make it inaccessible. Bears will eventually give up trying to get access to something they can’t gain. They have the intelligence of great apes; people underestimate their intelligence and creativity!
People think if bears can’t see the garbage, it’s not an issue. But bears don’t live in a visual world; they experience the world by scent. I work with Dr. Lynn Rogers in Minnesota, of Bearstudy.org. He was tracking a radio-collared bear, and one day couldn’t figure out where she went. He organized a flight, and found her 70 miles away, near Lake Superior, eating acorns that had just ripened. How did she figure that out? She’d never been there before. Rogers had been tracking her for years. Maybe the scent carried that far?
Tell us about bear-proof garbage containers.
Containers in Canada’s national parks are generally manufactured by HaulAll of Lethbridge, Alberta. They usually work quite well, although we’ve had to re-design ours. These are the common design issues:
- Containers must be easy for people to figure out how to unlatch.
- Containers can’t allow bears to slide their own paws in to lift the lid, or get the back service door open.
- Containers must be very heavy, or they just tip over and stuff can often spill out if all the latches aren’t tightly secured.
Some containers have holes to dispose of recycling and bears can reach their whole arm in there and take out stuff.
Our municipality worked directly with HaulAll to design one that overcame all of those issues. It can fit in large and small spaces and is not too difficult to empty. It does need to be mounted with deadbolts to a concrete slab bigger than the base of the container — to prevent tipping.
Unlike most communities, Whistler has no curbside pick-up. We have two compactor sites where residents take their garbage and recycling. For curbside pick-up communities, totes need to be bear-proof. At least there should be a by-law or ordinance preventing curbside disposal until a couple of hours before pick-up. Other than that it needs to be stored indoors or in a bear-proof enclosure.
Some communities have a communal bear-proof waste system, where large bear-proof containers are conveniently placed throughout the neighborhood so that people can dispose of their waste 24/7. This is the best system. They use it in the national parks and in communities like Canmore, where bears are known to wander.
Do you think it’s ever okay for bears to wander into our towns and cities?
Sylvia: We need to try hard to keep bears wild, and keep them from anthropogenic food sources. Garbage is just not good for bears. They suffer all kinds of internal damage and injuries from broken glass and other things that get stuck in their intestinal tract, and they can die. And that alone is incentive to keep garbage away.
There are other things they go after, like birdseed, compost and fruit trees. In Whistler, we’ve asked for the removal of large mountain ash trees surrounding a children’s playground. They wouldn’t put garbage in the middle of the playground, but it’s also problematic for a bear to be lured by natural food sources like berries.
There’s always that chance a bear’s predatory instinct might kick in. It’s rare, but it might happen, and quite possibly a child might be smacked, or get a nasty bite, and then the bear would be killed, even if the injury was not serious. In these situations, the bear becomes habituated to people, and learns it’s okay to eat in people’s home ranges, and be near people’sdens, which in the bear world would be very disrespectful: a bear would never go in another bear’s den.
They learn this when eating at a bird feeder, and each time they learn that people are being non-threatening, and are rewarded for that behavior with food, they take more liberties — just like people! One day the door is open and a pie is cooling, or whatever it is, and they go in to get it. They don’t understand they’re going to get shot for that. What does a dead bear learn?
Lines are drawn in the sand: here in Whistler if they go into a home they’re shot, but other communities might shoot them on sight.
If a bear shows up on somebody’s property, and is shooed away, the bear learns that it’s not appropriate to hang around in that yard. Stamp your feet, bang pots and pans, yell “Get out of here!” That’s what we need to do. We need to teach bears that it’s unacceptable, for our own safety and for the bear’s welfare.
So would you say it’s safe to shoo away a bear, or bang pots and pans?
Sylvia: There’s always potential for harm if you’re within slapping or biting distance; and you don’t want to have a bear cornered. If you have a bear in your house, you don’t want to start banging pots and pans and create more stress for the bear. You want to encourage the bear with less force, and in a slower manner. Encourage them toward the open door or window they entered.
We should tell you to call the wildlife officials. There’s liability involved in telling people to shoo bears from their houses! But I teach officers how to do that, so I’m quite comfortable doing it, and it’s not hard at all so long as you give the bear an escape route and don’t escalate the situation.
But a bear outside is really easy to shoo off using noise and your own physical presence. Use body posture and a tone of voice that communicates what you want. Bears understand that.
You’ll recall from old literature: don’t stare at a bear; it’s threatening. Well, it is! So that’s one tool you can use when a bear is on your home range, or near your den.
I’ve gone to the landfill, and got them to leave a pile of garbage by standing and staring them down. I’ve done it several times. It took 10-15 minutes, and eventually I could see their unease, and finally they looked at me and turned around and high-tailed it. So direct eye contact is a powerful tool.
Please make sure you’re in a safe position, make sure they have a safe avenue of escape, make sure there isn’t a bunch of kids next door having a play-date, or that you’re chasing the bear through traffic. You need to be cognizant of what’s going on around you, and do it from a safe space. You could be standing right outside your door knowing you could go back inside your house at any moment.
Would you say there are ever any legitimate overpopulation issues with bears, or is that view an excuse to go hunting?
Sylvia: I think it always comes down to human-caused conflict: people providing attractants for bears, and people not being willing to accept the responsibility of removing those attractants. It almost always comes back to people being able to solve the problem, and perhaps choosing not to, or not knowing how to.
Overpopulation? We can talk about bear biology. Bears go through courtship and mating mid-May through mid-July. That fertilized egg stays in a state of delayed implantation until they go to den. When they start looking for dens, if they have enough body fat to sustain a pregnancy, then one or more eggs will implant on the uterus wall. If they are not fat enough, the fertilized egg will just be reabsorbed into her body. So if the bear is really fat, she could have up to six cubs, although normally it’s two. If not quite fat enough, she might have one.
How do they get fat? By food availability. In the past, bears did not overpopulate their own habitat. They’re designed to sustain their own population by food availability. If there’s not as much food, there are not as many cubs, so that natural system doesn’t allow for overpopulation. People can affect that, in providing non-natural foods. This creates a slightly larger urban bear population than might be normally sustained in that same habitat, so it comes back to people.
If people want to get rid of urban bears, hunting in the woods does not target those bears.
What are your thoughts on human management vs. bear management?
Sylvia: We have to do both, but it certainly starts with people. And so we’ve now been looking towards community-based social marketing tools to foster sustainable changes in people. We’re not there yet. We need to work on changing social norms, to make it unacceptable not to be bear-smart, just as it’s unacceptable to get in your car and drive home drunk from a bar or visit someone’s home and light up a cigarette.
Would you argue against shooting bears in the name of human safety?
Sylvia: Yes. If you shoot a bear, you haven’t addressed the root cause, and another bear will move in to access that habitat or niche. It’s a cyclical problem, which shooting never resolves.
Nature abhors a void, right?
Sylvia: That’s right. Five homes in a row have bird feeders? If you kill the bear on that street, another is going to move in. Also, with shooting bears, there’s the issue with bear social hierarchy. Say you kill a dominant male, who’s been keeping teenage males out of his range. You’ve just opened yourself up to more than you had before.
Do you think we could achieve a no-shooting policy?
Sylvia: We have had zero-kill years in Whistler. It’s not the norm, but we have gone through a year with no bears shot because of conflict. Normally it’s because natural foods were abundant. Bears don’t choose to come into residential areas if they can get food elsewhere.
So it looks like we could live peacefully with bears!
Sylvia: Everything is in the realm of possibility. It’s our choice: We can see ourselves outside of the eco-system and continue in our selfish ways, or we can consider other animals in our daily lives, and adjust for them.
Then there’s the other extreme, with the animal lovers wanting to commune with bears and make bears into pets and feed them on their porch. I know you’re not advocating that, but there are probably people in your audience who feel that way. Let them know it’s equally destructive; for bears will be shot in the name of public safety. Feeding bears on your porch or backyard, deliberately or with a birdfeeder has the same outcome, even if the intention is not the same.
Thank you so much, Sylvia. This has been informative and a real pleasure. Any other thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?
Sylvia: I’m working on my third book: a photo book with inspirational quotes and sayings, and joyful stories elevating bears, as a keystone species that represents all animals and wildlife. I’m just trying to do what you guys do, and elevate non-human animals in the consciousness and the everyday consideration of people as they go about their lives.
MORE INFORMATION: www.BearSmart.com
Cheers to the Connecticut Post for the editorial, GeeseSolutions, (August 27, 2012), encouraging peaceful solutions to the conflict with geese, highlighting simple steps like allowing vegetation to grow a little higher (which geese do not like) and discouraging feeding that go a long way to getting them to avoid certain areas. As usual, there are easy solutions that don’t involve a rifle.
Ginny Messina, aka the Vegan RD, has set up a page on Facebook, and deserves Cheers for sharing helpful, reliable vegan nutrition tips and findings which will benefit new and experienced vegans alike. If not on Facebook, you can also follow Ginny’s blog which posts much of the same info, and also allows you to interact with Ginny and other readers. Links to both are here:http://www.theveganrd.com
We’re giving NASA a “space cheer” for making Mars Mission food vegan. The trip to Mars would take upwards of six months each way, and so astronauts must grow their own food. Plant foods obviously offer all the nutrition they need. We’re thankful there is no discussion of bringing other animals along for the trip.
Cheers to Neil Corbould SFX Special Effects for designing animatronic horses , sparing real horses from being used in films. Read more about it here with an amazing video showing how three puppeteers become a horse in recent popular films:http://www.wired.com/underwire/2012/01/animatronic-war-horse/
Brooklyn Bridge Park is getting a Jeer for inviting people to an event where they used a 20-foot net to capture sea animals for participants to look at. They would drift the nets through the East River, collecting sea life, and then drag the marine life from the river to display to attendees. They ‘released’ what they caught afterwards, but no doubt many would perish from this traumatic experience.
A counter-Cheer goes out to Destiny River Adventures in British Columbia, which set a much better example by offering a chance to snorkel with salmon; a peaceful way to check out sea life. Be sure to view the entertaining Rick Mercer Report video link:http://www.destinyriver.com
‘Animal Practice’ is a new NBC sitcom that deserves a Jeer. It’s about an animal hospital, featuring dozens of live animals, including Crystal the Monkey – a capuchin monkey who’s been exploited in television and movies for years. Please write to NBC to cancel this show, and request they stop exploiting animals in their programming:
Attn: ‘Animal Practice’
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York , NY 10112
Online, select ‘Other’ from the pull-down menu:http://www.nbc.com/contact/general/
Or post your thoughts on their Facebook page (you don’t have to join it; you can just post comments on their wall):https://www.facebook.com/AnimalPractice
Editors’ Note: As we went to press, “Animal Practice” was canceled, so a Jeer has become a Cheer that the show ended!
A Jeer to reality show celebrity Kim Kardashian for, as Wendy Diamondof AnimalFair.com observed, purchasing a Persian Teacup kitten, and ironically calling her Mercy. Real mercy would be adopting a shelter animal rather than financing an animal breeder, and setting a terrible example for her fans.
A Jeer to the Sidney ( British Columbia, Canada) City Council for reviving carriage horses. There was a contract to a company that had shut down years ago, but Black Beauty Carriage Tours (also operating in Victoria, where we’ve been protesting and working towards a ban) asked to take over the contract, and return horse-drawn carriages to this city. Write to the Municipal Hall to tell them you won’t be visiting Sidney, and that they ought to step into the 21st century and let horses be.
Town of Sidney Municipal Hall
2440 Sidney Avenue
Sidney , BC Canada V8L 1Y7
Tel: (250) 656-1184 Fax: (250) 655-4508
To many experts, animals are inventory, with quotas and targets to measure a population as too small, too big, or just right. Can environmental professionals perceive and respect animals as individuals?
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a Montana district-court ruling that blocked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service from removing Yellowstone grizzly bears from the federal list of threatened species.1 Notably, the case was strongly based on climate-change effects. The outcome of the lawsuit was the return of grizzlies to the Endangered Species List.
It was a win for bears, but it is far from the end of the story of bears and their human managers in Yellowstone National Park.
Grizzly bears first came on the list as threatened in 1975. Then, about a thousand grizzlies roamed just two percent of their traditional range in the lower 48 states. About one in every five of those bears lived in the Greater Yellowstone area.
The Yellowstone bears were on the rebound, with about 580 reported, by 2007—the year the federal government issued its rule stripping Yellowstone-area bears of protection. “Based on the best scientific and commercial information available,” the Fish & Wildlife Service decided, the Yellowstone grizzly bear population had recovered.
In 2009, in Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Inc. v. Servheen, U.S. District Court Judge Donald W. Molloy found that the federal government failed to adequately consider either (a) the potential impacts of global warming on the food (particularly pine cones) of grizzly bears, or (b) how the bears would be protected after removal from the Endangered Species List.
The federal government argued that the bears would adapt by finding other food sources. Judge Molloy rejected that argument, finding it unscientific. And the parties who sued the federal government pointed out that those other food sources might turn out to be whatever bears could take from human visitors, thus putting the bears at an extra risk.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Judge Malloy that the bears’ potential difficulties finding pine cones needed to be carefully considered, and noted the court’s responsibility to ensure that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s decisions aren’t arbitrary.
Bear advocates also explained to the court the uncertainty of future genetic viability for Yellowstone’s population of grizzly bears. Although the advocates didn’t prevail on the genetics argument, the evidence they presented is critical. It shows that the grizzlies’ long-term survival would require not just several hundred bears (which is all the Yellowstone ecosystem can support), but several thousand.2
It’s difficult to imagine a way to ensure the bears’ future without relinquishing some land to them, creating safe corridors for these wilderness animals, corridors largely off-limits to the buzz created by Yellowstone’s millions of human visitors a year.
The Montana court, though, had accepted the claim by the Fish & Wildlife Service that genetic health could be ensured through “translocation”—airlifting a few bears in if needed to meet the population targets.3The idea of interchangeable bears thus allowed the federal government to claim that the Yellowstone bear population’s numbers suffice—because people can always augment them.
But in the best reading of conservation law and policy, shouldn’t consideration be given to the stake of individual bears in the geography these animals know? In other words: Doesn’t the idea of home territory matter to a bear?
To survive and thrive, grizzly bears need vast, relatively undisturbed expanses of land. The Endangered Species Act considers the habitat needed by groups of animals, so that it can be preserved. Insofar as habitat means a life experience, isn’t relocation itself a form of disturbing a habitat?
This is not to say we should endorse a blanket opposition to relocating bears; but perhaps it’s time to question the paradigm of intrusive management, and the conception of bears as bulk, experimental populations.4
Individuals Living on Earth
The grizzly population is seen as a model for the health of the Northern Rockies ecosystems; yet it is also a model from which control of untamed animals developed. Frank Craighead and John Craighead studied grizzlies in and around Yellowstone National Park for more than three decades. In 1961, they invented the radio collar. From that time on, biologists have collared, darted, trapped and tattooed bears, pulled teeth to ascertain bears’ ages, and moved the animals from place to place to suit human decisions.5 The stress and disorientation connected with trapping and relocation can kill, and sometimes does.6
Although the public could, from time to time, be called to account for our romantic perspective (for example, describing bears as “shy and magical”), decision-makers who apply environmental law tend to err on the opposite side, seeing animals in numerical terms, with relocation as one way to achieve targets. But bear s are individuals who live on Earth apart from our opinion and descriptions. While species preservation is critical, so is enabling animals to live as communities—to interact with each other; to participate in group dynamics of their own making; to flourish on their terms.
Granted, the Endangered Species Act, as it now stands, seeks “recovery of listed species to levels where protection under the Act is no longer necessary”7 —so our readers are invited to consider this commentary as an idea of how policy could evolve. Though idealistic, this view arguably represents sound science—because a species, like any community, consists of individuals whose bonds with each other and the environment have biological significance.
- 1. Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Inc. v. Servheen , (9th Cir. 2011). A species is “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act if “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” A species is endangered if “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
- 2. This is the opinion of Dr. Craig M. Pease, a professor of science and law at Vermont Law School who has carried out key research regarding the bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
- 3. The district court stated: “ To combat this issue, the Service proposed that, if no connectivity with other populations occurs by 2020, one to two effective migrant grizzlies per generation will be transferred into the Yellowstone grizzly population.” 672 F.Supp.2d 1105, 1110 D.Mont. (2009).
- 4. The Endangered Species Act’s Section 10 enables the reintroduction of “experimental populations” to portions of their former range.
- 5. John Craighead, et al., The Grizzly Bears of Yellowstone at 59 (1995), cited in John G. Hintz, “Pragmatism and the Politics of Rewilding Nature: The Case of Grizzly Bear Reintroduction in Idaho” (2005). Doctoral Dissertation, available at: http://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_diss/357 (visited Sep. 15, 2012).
- 6. See U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Grizzly Bear Recovery in the Bitterroot Ecosystem: Draft Environmental Impact Statement (1997) at xvi, cited in Hintz, ibid.
- 7. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Program: About Us (updated Aug. 28, 2012 ). Available: www.fws.gov/endangered/about/index.html (visited Sep. 15, 2012).
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service tells us there are 42 million “backyard birders” in the United States. Forty-eight million of us — that’s a fifth of the country’s population — regularly travel at least a mile from home to watch birds.
Hummingbirds are beloved by birdwatchers, and for good reason. These tiny birds, measuring between three to five inches, can flap their wings 80 times per second — and this astonishing wing speed creates the hum. Hummingbirds are delightful to behold, flying upside down, sideways and even backwards, until they hover as they feed on the nectar that keeps them humming. A hummingbird in action rivals a Cirque de Soleil performance.
Graced with long, thin and pointed bills, these birds use their long tongues to ingest flower nectar, tree sap, insects and pollen every 10 to 15 minutes. They eat more than their own weight in nectar each day, and to do so they visit hundreds of flowers. Their metabolism is such that they’re always just hours away from starving to death, Reed Hainsworth and Larry Wolf once wrote in Wildbird Magazine.
At least 320 species of hummingbirds exist within the Western Hemisphere, from southeastern Alaska to southern Chile, with most species living in the tropics. More than half the species are found in South America.
Ruby-throated and Rufous hummingbirds appear in the northeastern United States, too. Most hummingbirds in the United States and Canada migrate south in fall to spend the winter in Northern Mexico or Central America. Only the migratory Ruby-throateds breed in North America east of the Mississippi River and Great Lakes.
In the western United States we see Black-chinned hummingbirds, and Rufous hummingbirds are the most common in western Canada. Anna’s hummingbirds, common from inland California to southern Arizona, and north to southwestern British Columbia, live in North America the whole year long.
Hummingbirds seek out flowers, especially bee balm, red columbine, delphinium and hollyhock; they’ll also home in on a butterfly bush, a Catawba rhododendron, or a rose of Sharon. Other plants they love include trumpet vines and trumpet honeysuckles, cardinal vines, lanatana, fuchsia and silk trees.
Red Dye: An Attractive Nuisance?
Backyard birders often attract hummingbirds to their yards and feeders with commercial nectar which simulates the natural sugar properties of the nectar-producing flowers. The birds are naturally drawn to bright, nectar-producing flowers, usually red. So many commercial nectars designed to attract hummingbirds to feeders contain a petroleum-based dye, Red Dye # 40. Also known as Allura Red, it is used in various foods, drugs and cosmetics sold for human consumption.
While Red Dye # 40 is approved by the FDA in the United States, it has been banned in several European countries, including Belgium, France, Sweden and Denmark. In 2010, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called on the Food and Drug Administration to ban Red Dye #40, citing claims that petrochemical dyes contain known carcinogens and contaminants.
Anne-Katrin Titze, a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, calls the use of artificial additives such as dye a “foolhardy and unnecessary act of carelessness.” Moreover, dyed nectars do not necessarily attract more hummingbirds when red f eeders themselves would do that. Feeders often also have floral decorations to attract the birds.
What the Pros Do
The Wild Bird Fund Center, a non-profit organization in Manhattan that provides emergency care for wild birds and other animals, is New York City ’s central resource for wildlife emergency care and rehabilitation. Wild Bird Fund rehabilitators are licensed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and are uniquely permitted, through the U.S. Interior Department, to work with birds protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act.
Rita McMahon, co-founder and director of the Wild Bird Fund, explains that the rehabbers avoid commercial sugar waters for nectar-feeding birds as they consider these foods inadequate. “We buy and use Nektar Plus, which is more expensive, but provides full nutrition,” she said. Produced by a German company, Nektar Plus uses no artificial coloring and is sold online.
The Wild Bird Fund recently rehabilitated and released two hummingbirds. The birds were fed Nektar Plus liquid out of a bright red artificial flower that volunteers crafted from red veterinary wrap attached to a 3 cc syringe.
We’re grateful to know these creative, kind people work in the city in case we come across any emergencies. Meanwhile: Happy birding!
My life is a paradox. As a wolf biologist in Montana, I live in a world of hatred and violence. Yet, I am surrounded by an infinite network of beauty and complexity. The Fishtrap wolves I studied for ten years are an example of my contrary existence. They lived in the wilderness of northwest Montana, an area of thick forests punctuated by occasional meadow systems and steep mountains. Amongst the trees are small knolls covered in grass, often places where I sat and listened to the wolves howl. Periodically, we met.
My first experience was with a lone and very young black pup. It was no larger than a shoebox and shaped like one. Wolf pups can be blocky in appearance until their bodies morph into young adults. At the time I was looking for the den site but had not yet found the entrance. I did not want to approach until the wolves had moved on for the summer. Instead, as I stood unknowingly nearby, a pup waddled toward me. I reacted by asking myself, “Where is Mom?” Had this been a bear or cougar I most likely would have found out before I asked the question. Wolves protect their young, yet don’t attack, at least when it comes to humans. I knew the adults were watching but the numerous trees obscured my view. My goal had always been to observe the pack’s behavior, but the dense forests made that impossible. My brief glimpse into the pup’s life was a special occasion. As it padded leisurely through the leaves, I slowly backed up. The pup was not especially interested in me and eventually veered to its left and walked off. It was so young that I was unsure it even knew I was there, although the distance between us had only been about 30 feet. A week later I verified that the pack had moved to their first rendezvous site of the year. I found the den entrance a few days later.
During the summer months, rendezvous sites are temporary living areas where instead of bringing food back to the pups, like at a den site, the adults move the pups to the food. The pack may use each site for perhaps several weeks before moving on to another, which they do throughout the summer. These areas not only provide food but act as training facilities in which the pups learn future social skills, hunting techniques, and in general become functioning members of the pack. By fall, they will have matriculated into the pack’s social hierarchy just in time for the nomadic part of the year which ends the following spring at the den site.
During the ten years I studied the Fishtrap pack, encounters with pups and adults have been extremely rare. Yet they have given me brief insights into how a wolf pack functions. At one point there was a two year-period in which I surveyed almost every day, under all conditions and seasons. Past scientific studies have shown that wolf packs break into smaller groups temporarily for hunting and social reasons. This activity, however, was not monitored over several seasons or even years. Consequently, to what extent wolf packs are assembled throughout the year has remained unknown. Therefore the descriptive phrases used in these studies, such as “moves as a group” or “tight-knit year-round,” were either not defined or were just assumed. A group of wolves could consist of the majority of pack members or all of them. Tight-knit could mean the pack was fully assembled or the wolves acted as a cohesive group even though they spent time apart, like a human family. Such language has given the impression that wolf packs do almost everything together as a group throughout the year. The wolves I studied showed that this was not true, at least for them.
Data from the collared wolves demonstrated that the Fishtrap pack was fully assembled in no more than thirty-one percent of the surveys during the two-year period, indicating that pack members spent a minority of time together. Their constant movements precluded a complete pack most of the time. Monitoring, hunting and marking their territory were full-time jobs, and the work load was apparently shared by all members. To accomplish this, it appeared the Fishtrap wolves were indeed a tight-knit group, but socially rather than physically. The pack was an intricate design of almost infinite complexity. I have learned that rather than a “thing,” a wolf pack is a dynamic process. It is greater than the sum of its parts. The parts consist of pack members interacting with each other and with their surrounding environment. The net result is a force that changes over time as the pack reacts to endless environmental variations such as increasing or decreasing prey populations, prey migration, climatic changes, or when pack members come and go.
So how does one manage beings who live like this? You don’t, at least not effectively. Currently, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is the agency responsible for wolf management, and its number one tool is killing. This is done through government control actions and public hunting seasons. Research studies, such as mine, can provide wolf managers with reliable information to help guide their decisions on how to manipulate wolf populations. However, they are not interested in scientific results. Ultimately wolf managers have only one federal requirement they must follow to keep wolves off the Endangered Species List. Montana, Wyoming and Idaho must maintain at least 100 wolves each and at least 10 breeding pairs. The three states now have management and hunting policies that potentially remove all wolves except for the required minimums. This includes bow, rifle and trapping seasons.
Wolves are well known for controlling their own population, but clearly the current number of wolves is not within our society’s comfort zone. Perhaps at some point we’ll just have to accept what the data from ecological and other scientific studies ultimately indicates: learn to live with wildlife rather than control it. However, to understand wolves is a tedious and time-consuming endeavor. There is no way around this fact. Intolerance by the public and convenience on the part of management agencies impedes our knowledge of these animals, and leads to their deaths.
I had always vowed to be there at the end if the Fishtrap wolves were killed by the government, but I wasn’t. There was no warning, no call, nothing. They just vanished. The entire Fishtrap pack was eliminated in a government control action for killing someone’s cow. This simultaneously ended the longest running behavioral study of wolves in the state’s history, outside of Yellowstone National Park. Over their decade or so of existence, the Fishtrap pack depredated on livestock at a rate of one every 2 – 3 years, low even by FWP standards. Although killing the wolves was not FWP’s first choice, they were eventually eliminated to appease the prejudice of the local people.
Wildlife managers often use the premise that they are saving a species, and to do so requires the sacrifice of individuals. Although they tout the success of their arbitrary management goals, wolf managers neglect to explain that the infrastructure of wolf family groups and their effects on the surrounding environment are also eliminated. Science already understands the serious environmental consequences of removing predators from all ecosystems of the world. Some prey species, for example, such as caribou and other organisms, have co-evolved with wolves and depend on intact wolf packs for their own population’s survival and quality of life. Individuals are the foundation of wolf packs. Their needs, wants, and insatiable drive to stay alive affect everything around them. What happens to them matters. This perspective has prompted renowned ecologist Marc Bekoff to state that, “It is individuals not species who personally feel pain and suffer.” The Fishtrap wolves have expounded on this fact. Their deaths are another example of how humanity has not yet learned that we are part of a larger system, something science has demonstrated repeatedly.
Why wolves die
I was recently asked, “Why do you do it?” The situation for wolves is so abysmal and depressing that this woman could not understand why I continued to study these animals and fight against their needless deaths. She stated that thinking about such things was too painful for her, but before walking off she wanted an answer. I immediately felt the paradox of my life envelope my thoughts. I always try to give positive yet realistic answers to questions, but what could I say? As a group, human beings seem hard wired to take what they want, without conscience or regard to long-term consequences. Despite our self-proclaimed intelligence and scientific advancements, the environment continues to degrade, even when solutions are available. To help wolves and other wildlife, there will need to be a paradigm shift in how humanity perceives its role in the natural world. Wolves die because few people care enough to stop it. It’s that simple. Most people wait for someone else to act and find a solution. So with sincerity and a glimmer of hope, my answer to her was short and to the point. “Who else is going to do it?”
From post-traumatic stress in a captive wolf to breaching whales in the Bering Sea, Jay Mallonee has studied the behavior of numerous animals. Through his business of Wolf and Wildlife Studies, he has researched the Fishtrap pack in northwest Montana for a decade and has written several scientific publications. Jay also wrote Timber – A Perfect Life, an account of his sixteen-year relationship with a profound canine companion.