Appeals to “we need to follow the science” abound pretty much everywhere. But whose science exactly? Well, there’s nothing more contentious than wolves and wolf reintroduction, as we have seen on TSW previously. And so, as we’d expect there are different layers of science, approaches, modelling versus observation and so on. The fact that Colorado had a wolf reintroduction initiative on the 2020 ballot (that succeeded) caused much discussion within the state. Mostly I heard a simple claim that wolves will “restore balance.” But that’s more of a mystical idea than a scientific idea.
I ran across this op-ed from Mark Holyoak of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in the Steamboat Pilot. It’s reply to another op-ed by Erik Molvar of Western Watersheds. It could present us with an opportunity to examine some of the research, which scientists/approaches count most, and where values and science intersect.
“He claims the initiative is science-based yet it circumvents the world’s foremost scientists on Colorado wildlife management at Colorado Parks and Wildlife and puts the decision into the hands of citizens unfamiliar with the issue’s intricacies. This “ballot box biology” flies in the face of nationwide professional scientific wildlife management practices.”
This is a very “whose science” and “who counts as a scientist” question.
Molvar claims wolves “provide a measure of defense against chronic wasting disease.” Absolutely untrue. Renowned wolf researcher David Mech warned against sanctifying the wolf and stated any claims wolves stop or slow the spread of CWD are merely speculation.
There are also approximately 30 wolf packs within 50 miles of the northwest Montana town of Libby where CWD was first detected in early 2019. By July, there were five confirmed samples. By January 2020, there were 64 CWD-positive samples, so despite the concentrated presence of wolves, CWD is spreading.
This is one of those things that has been stated in many news articles as if it were a proven fact, when many of claims were “thinking out loud by scientists”, with the criterion “it sounds plausible.” CWD make ungulates sick. Wolves can more readily attack sick (or injured or pregnant or ??) ungulates, therefore they will keep CWD down. It does sound plausible. But what about Holyoak’s observation IRL?
Molvar claims wolves changed Yellowstone’s ecological landscape. Mech said, “…any such cascading effects of wolves found in National Parks would have little relevance to most of the wolf range.” 2010 research
conducted at the same location as original trophic cascade studies refutes the theory. Arthur Middleton, UC Berkeley assistant professor of wildlife management and policy, said, “It’s
not true.” In addition, 2019 research questions whether introducing predators has any effect whatsoever on ecosystems.
I guess we can imagine that introducing predators has some effects on some components of an ecosystem, and those effects interact with other effects, like human presence, livestock, roads and trails, size of herds and migration paths and so on. It doesn’t seem particularly predictable nor transferrable, and that’s what the Alston et al. 2019 paper says..
“Outcomes of apex predator reintroduction and removal are variable across systems, regardless of system complexity.”
Mexican wolf recovery scientists in Arizona/New Mexico fear a Colorado gray wolf introduction will lead to the genetic extinction of that species.
Here’s something from the abstract of Odell et al.
If Northwestern wolves come to occupy Mexican wolf recovery areas, these physically larger wolves are likely to dominate smaller Mexican wolves and quickly occupy breeding positions, as will their hybrid offspring. Hybrid population(s) thus derived will not contribute towards recovery because they will significantly threaten integrity of the listed entity.
Directing Mexican wolf recovery northward outside historical range threatens the genetic integrity and recovery of the subspecies, is inconsistent with the current 10(j) regulations under the ESA, is unnecessary because large tracts of suitable habitat exist within historical range, is inconsistent with the concepts of restoration ecology, and disregards unique characteristics for which the Mexican wolf remains listed.
Is there one scientific answer to the question of wolf reintroduction in Colorado? I don’t think so.
And we have come full cycle, as Odell works for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.