A Bite of Western Wolfy Science Controversies

from video of wolf pack observed in Colorado https://youtu.be/4xUVIs0ENXI

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.

11 thoughts on “A Bite of Western Wolfy Science Controversies”

  1. I always looked on science as a process, not an answer, a way of looking at things where you are always questioning your own assumptions and also welcoming the questioning of others. That said I don’t think science is necessarily applicable to larger questions of opinion and values. For some reason wolves and many other environmental issues always are argued using utilitarian reasons. Does it really matter if wolves do or don’t affect CWD? Does it matter what effect if any predators have on a landscape? Can’t we simply want wolves here because they would be fun to have around? Do we need a reason? Certainly endangerment was never really an issue.

    Yet so many electrons are wasted (even if recycled) arguing about reasons for or not to have wolves here or there. Why have mountain lions, or moose?

    Peter Kareiva once made an observation that has been my guiding principle for many issues environmental ever since I read of it. Paraphrasing.. The people who should have the most say over any conservation issue are those most affected, especially if adversely affected….. Those would be ranchers, hunters, rural dwellers or people who might have dogs or domestic stock subject to predation? Certainly not me.

  2. Mark Holyoak is a former TV sprotscaster, before joining the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

    Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist with published research in the behavior, ecology, and population dynamics of Alaskan moose as well as large-scale conservation planning.

    Holyoak works for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a rabid anti-wolf hunting group that funded a $1000 bounty per tapped and killed wolf in Idaho.

    The previous CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, David Allen, was a marketing executive for NASCAR, Wrangler Jeans and the Pro-Rodeo Circuit who espoused lots of anti-scientific wildlife sentiments.

    The current CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is Kyle Weaver, who previously was the operations director of the National Rifle Association, working under NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre.

    Numerous reports document strong connections between the NRA and Russian operatives, including Russian spy Maria Butina.

    Below is a photo of Kyle Weaver with Alexander Torshin. Torshin is a high-level official from Vladimir Putin’s party who USA federal prosecutors say directed a conspiracy by Russian agent Maria Butina to influence American politics.

    Seems pretty clear-cut what organization really cares about “wolfy science.”

  3. Matthew,

    I know that you think certain groups are full of morally repugnant people who need not be listened to due to their associations.

    However, my point in posting this was to point out the three published papers Holyoak links to, and to ask the question “does anyone else know about his claim?”

    “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.”

    You don’t need a Ph.D. in biology to think..
    (1)There’s a claim on the table, wolves will keep down/out CWD.
    (2) If there is increasing CWD in populations with wolf predation, then it’s not that simple.

    The claim in 2 is something I was trying to get independent corroboration for.

  4. “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.”

    Here’s the important context and information that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Mark Holyoak failed to disclose to readers in his January 2020 oped.

    Turns out, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks ALL the deer that have tested positive for CWD in the Libby, Montana area have come from within a 10 mile radius of Libby, “and a majority were near the urban center of town.”

    I’m pretty sure if 30 wolf packs were roaming the urban center of Libby, Montana we’d hear about it. So Holyoak’s scary claim of the supposed “concentrated presence of wolves” clearly has zero relationship to the urban center of Libby. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that majority of the deer living in the urban center of Libby, Montana (which represented the majority of deer with CWD, according to MTFWP) that tested positive for CWD very likely never saw a wolf in their entire life.

    From Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on January 17, 2020


    CWD was first detected in the Libby area in the spring of 2019 after a white-tailed deer tested positive. FWP established the Libby CWD Management Zone, spanning a 10-mile radius around town, and began surveillance efforts to identify the prevalence and distribution of the disease. Surveillance efforts included sampling road-killed and symptomatic animals, deer trapped in the urban center of town, and hunter harvests of deer, elk and moose inside the CWD Management Zone. More than 950 samples were collected and tested inside the Management Zone.

    To date, 61 white-tailed deer, two moose and one mule deer have tested positive for CWD in the Libby area. The first moose to test positive was harvested approximately half a mile outside the northwest corner of the Libby CWD Management Zone in late October. The rest of the positives have all occurred within the Management Zone, and a majority were near the urban center of town.

    The estimated prevalence of CWD in the Libby urban area, identified as the Libby Survey Area, is approximately 13 percent. In the greater Libby CWD Management Zone, the estimated prevalence is nearly 4 percent.

    “FWP is working with the City of Libby as it considers an urban deer management plan that would reduce the density of deer in the Libby Survey Area and hopefully reduce the prevalence and spread of CWD,” said FWP Region 1 Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson.

  5. See also:

    November 23, 2020
    CPW Update – Moffat County Wolves

    Link to the full press release, which contains photos and additional links, is here: https://cpw.state.co.us/aboutus/Pages/News-Release-Details.aspx?NewsID=7654

    DENVER — On November 3, Colorado voters passed Proposition #114 – The Restoration of Gray Wolves, a measure directing the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission to develop a plan to reintroduce gray wolves west of the Continental Divide. The passage of Proposition 114 has led to increased interest in wolves in Colorado, specifically, the wolf pack previously confirmed to be present in Moffat County.

    The gray wolf remains under the management control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until at least January 4, 2021, when the proposed removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections would take effect. At this time, CPW continues to monitor the area and take sighting reports and game camera images from citizens, sportspersons and others on the ground.

    “The federal delisting discussion has caused some confusion in the state about the status of gray wolves in Colorado,” said Dan Prenzlow, director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Regardless of the USFWS listing status, gray wolves remain listed as a state endangered species, and killing a wolf in Colorado for any reason other than self-defense remains illegal.”

    While protected under the ESA, killing a wolf in Colorado can result in federal charges, including a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, per offense. As the gray wolf remains a state endangered species, severe penalties will still apply when CPW regains management control in the state.

    Wolves are elusive in nature, making visual confirmation more challenging than some other species. Despite this, game camera images, as well as tracks and fur, have been detected in the field throughout the summer and into November.

    “As recently as last week we have confirmed the presence of wolves in Moffat County via pictures and recorded howling. Staff will continue monitoring the area as part of our overall wildlife management and conservation duties, and we will share information when we have updates or can help clear up any misunderstanding of wolf activity in Colorado,” said Prenzlow.

    The public is urged to contact CPW immediately and fill out a report if they see or hear wolves or find evidence of any wolf activity in Colorado. The Wolf Sighting Form can be found on the CPW website.

    At the November 19, 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting, the commission discussed their next steps in undertaking the planning efforts directed by Proposition 114. To stay updated on wolves in Colorado, visit the wolf management page of our website, or sign up for the CPW eNews newsletter.


    • Here is what I’d always heard.
      “The origin of CWD is unknown, and it may never be possible to definitively determine how or when CWD arose. It was first recognized as a syndrome in captive mule deer held in wildlife research facilities in Colorado in the late 1960s, but it was not identified as a TSE until the late 1970s. Computer modeling suggests the disease may have been present in free-ranging populations of mule deer since at least the 1960’s.

      Scrapie, a TSE of domestic sheep, has been recognized in the United States since 1947 and it is possible that CWD was derived from scrapie. It has been hypothesized, though not proven, that deer came into contact with scrapie-infected sheep either on shared pastures or in captivity somewhere along the front range of the Rocky Mountains where high levels of sheep grazing occurred in the early 1900s. This may have occurred in other areas as well. For example, the region in Norway where CWD was found in a wild reindeer population also is an area where significant sheep grazing occurred. This raises the possibility that CWD has originated in more than one location rather than exclusively spreading from one state or region.

      It also may be possible that CWD is a spontaneous prion disease that arose in deer in the wild or in captivity and has biological features promoting transmission to other deer and elk.”

      This is one of the those situations where no one knows for sure, and scientists disagree…

      “The absence of wolves throughout much of the West may also have allowed the disease to take off. “Taking the sick and weak removes chronic wasting disease from the population, because any animal showing any signs of it will get killed and eaten by the wolves,” Dr. Dobson said. “The rest of the carcass gets cleaned up by the coyotes, the bald eagles, ravens and bears.”

      “Without predators and scavengers on the landscape, animal components last much longer, and that can definitely have an impact on the spread of disease,” Ms. Brandell said.

      Restoring the population of predators in national parks and wild lands would go a long way toward healthier ecosystems with less disease, Dr. Dobson said.”

      But there are predators on the landscape… mountain lions..so I guess it specifically has to be wolves?

      “Or Ken McDonald, chief of the wildlife division of Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, expressed doubts that wolves would prevent chronic wasting disease.

      “Wolves help remove sick animals, but animals don’t get visibly ill for about 2 years,” he said. “So they are carriers and spreaders but don’t get the classic symptoms.”

      Mr. McDonald said that maintaining a large enough wolf population outside of Yellowstone to control chronic wasting disease would require so many wolves that it would be socially unacceptable, especially to ranchers and hunters.

      The state’s approach to controlling the disease, he said, is to increase the number of deer that can be killed in places where the disease is growing.

      Ms. Brandell, however, said that wolves may detect the disease long before it becomes apparent to people, through smell or a slight change in the movement of prey, which could be beneficial.

      “Wolves wouldn’t be a magic cure everywhere,” she said. “But in places where it was just starting and you have an active predator guild, they could keep it at bay and it might never get a foothold.””

      There’s a lot of “may” and “might” by these different folks. My headline would have been more of a question mark ” will increasing predation by wolves (instead of mountain lions) and (instead of/in addition to) hunting have effects on incidence and transmission of CWD (and/or other animal diseases?)

      Ms Brandell says that wolves may be able to detect them before they show symptoms.. but if being weak is what makes them attractive prey and they are not weak…???

      If we go back to the calf mortality observed in SW Colorado, doesn’t seem like more things to kill calves or scare cows would have a positive effect on the populations.

  6. See also: https://youtu.be/fZqyQzKxRmA

    Can Mountain Lions Slow the Spread of Chronic Wasting Disease?

    In this video clip from episode #31 of the Green Root Podcast, Dr. Michael Miller, wildlife veterinarian with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, describes his study where mountain lions were found to prey on mule deer infected with Chronic Wasting Disease.

  7. Check out a photo of the current “greeting” a person receives from a notorious anti-wolf group called the “Foundation for Wildlife Management” when visiting the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest in Idaho. That’s right, this sign is currently placed on public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho. 

    The “Foundation for Wildlife Management” also pays trappers in Idaho a $1000 bounty for dead wolves, a bounty that is also funded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I wrote about the $1000 wolf-trapping bounty on this blog a few years ago.


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