We spent two fascinating days at the Wolf Awareness Weekend in Edinburgh on 14th and 15th September. The event brought together a range of expert speakers on the subject of the wolf and living with wolves.
- Scientist David Mech who has a 57-year career observing and studying wolves in the United States including Yellowstone.
- Veteran wildlife filmmaker Bob Landis who has filmed wolves in the wild, mostly Yellowstone
- Idaho-based Carter Niemeyer who has gone from trapper to wolf champion in a career spent resolving and investigating wolf depredation and livestock conflicts
- Troy Bennett, a shepherd in the French Alps who now supplements his income tracking and studying wolves.
- Sabina Nowak, a scientist from Poland whose PhD is the ecology of wolves in the Carpathian Mountains
- Author and journalist, Jim Crumley, who talked about the wolf from the Scottish perspective. He said: ‘‘I hope we can look back in a dozen years or so and see this event as a turning point.”
So here are:
11 Quite Interesting Things We Learned About Wolves at the Wolf Awareness Weekend
1. Wolves live in families (called packs) with a structure akin to human families. And there’s no fighting to get to the top. The average family size ranges from 5 – 15.
2. The size of a wolf pack is largely determined by the quantity of prey available. In fact, it’s the supply of prey that determines wolf population numbers overall. The weather, especially the snow, is the biggest factor affecting wolf prey and hence wolf numbers. Mech showed graphs that illustrated this. In Superior National Forest in Minnesota when snow depth goes up, deer numbers go down and then so do wolf numbers. The figures were the same in Denali National Park for wolf and caribou numbers.
3. Male and female wolves mark their territory together, which apparently led one of Mech’s PhD students to remark that ‘wolves who pee together stay together’. This double marking tells other wolves that a pack pair is resident. If a roaming wolf looking for a territory finds such a mark he will move on. If he finds a single mark he’ll stay to investigate.
4. Bears nick food from wolves. Some of the most exciting footage from Bob Landis showed the competition for prey in Yellowstone where wolves may only get 15 minutes of munch time before a grizzly bear takes over. When there isn’t a bear to interrupt, mealtimes tend to be peaceful occasions with the whole family feeding at once.
5. Sometimes wolf prey will get the better of them. Elk have killed ten wolves in Yellowstone, often by kicking the wolf’s head. There was a fantastic bit of footage showing an elk chasing a wolf — the instinct to protect its young fierce.
6. Poland has over 1,000 wolves in 170 packs. It has been a fully protected species since 1998. Wolves prey on the country’s 200,000 red deer and 800,000 roe deer. They also prey on wild boar, fallow deer, brown hare and beaver.
7. Only two tenths of one per cent of livestock herds are being predated by wolves in the US. However, as Carter Niemeyer pointed out: “Each one belongs to a landowner who looks on it with concern”.
8. Living with wolves requires changes in livestock farming methods. There’s no single anti-predator method that is completely effective. Human guard patrols (called range riders in the US), guard dogs, fladry (brightly coloured ribbon hung on fencing where livestock are corralled), fox lights, cowbells (Niemeyer knows some cattle owners who have started using them with excellent results so far), fencing (effective under certain conditions but detrimental to the movement of wildlife), and rapid disposal of carcasses can all dramatically reduce losses to wolves. Livestock losses in the Carpathians are much less than for the rest of Poland because farmers there are used to farming with predators present.
9. Predation is not the only cause of livestock deaths. In fact, numerically it’s one of the least significant. Far more domestic animals die from respiratory disease, calving/lambing problems, weather and lameness/injury. They are also lost to theft. In the US, cattle rustling is on the rise.
10. Compensation can be a cause of resentment and conflict. It doesn’t always build acceptance. Carter Niemeyer made this point and Troy Bennett also highlighted this issue. For most livestock farmers it’s not just about the money but culture and tradition, breeding and bloodlines, husbandry and hard work investing in herds.
11. ‘The whole livestock industry is not opposed to wolves, especially the younger generation. They’re more open-minded to doing business in a different world. They’ve been to university and got degrees. But you won’t change the minds of the 70+ age group who think that the only good wolf is a dead one.’ Carter Niemeyer