The TRI Carnivore Advocacy Program

The presence of large carnivores tends to promote plant and animal diversity and ecosystem complexity, which makes ecosystems more resilient to disturbances and longer term changes such as the consequences of climate change.

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Why should we care about carnivores?

A large body of research supports the conclusion that large carnivores are critical components of healthy and biologically diverse ecosystems. The presence of large carnivores tends to promote plant and animal diversity and ecosystem complexity, which makes ecosystems more resilient to disturbances and longer-term changes such as the consequences of climate change.

The removal of large carnivores can unleash a cascade of effects and changes throughout all ecosystem trophic levels reducing biological diversity, simplifying ecosystem structure and function, and interfering with ecological processes. Their return to impoverished ecosystems can reverse the “trophic cascade” and restore diversity and complexity to ecosystems.

Dave Parsons, TRI’s Carnivore Conservation Biologist

We are witnessing such ecological healing in Yellowstone National Park following the return of the wolf to that ecosystem in the mid 1990s. Riparian willows and cottonwoods are returning because over-populated elk were reduced to ecologically sustainable numbers and now spend more time moving and hiding to avoid becoming wolf scat. With their streamside buffet restored, long-absent beavers are returning to Yellowstone’s streams.  These “ecological engineers” provide homes for myriad critters from aquatic insects to fish, waterfowl, and songbirds. The extent of changes is certainly far more complex than we can observe or document.  Research often yields surprising results.

Who would have thought, for example, that the return of wolves to pronghorn habitat in Grand Tetons National Park would increase pronghorn fawn survival 4-fold and reverse a declining population trend?  Coyotes are significant predators of pronghorn fawns.  Wolves detest coyotes and kill them or drive them out of their home territories.  Pronghorn fawns are too small a meal for wolves to bother with and adult pronghorns are too fast for wolves to catch—they evolved to outrun cheetahs in earlier times.

It has been said that “ecology is not rocket science;” it is much more complicated than that.

The critical role of carnivores kicks in when viable populations are allowed to persist at ecologically effective population densities over large areas—really large areas.

Areas apparently needed to maintain viable populations [of large carnivores] over centuries are so large as to strain credibility; they certainly strain political acceptance.” Noss et al. (1996:950)

We’re talking about thousands to tens of thousands of square miles of suitable core habitat areas (safe havens) connected by hospitable linkages (safe passages). The scale of carnivore conservation drives the ecoregional and continental conservation vision and mission of The Rewilding Institute. This is the scale of conservation required for preserving ecological and evolutionary processes, without which Nature would be little more than uninteresting scenery.

What is TRI doing to conserve carnivores?

TRI’s carnivore conservation work is implemented by Dave Parsons, our Carnivore Conservation Biologist and the former head of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Additionally, TRI staff and fellows spread the word about the importance of carnivore conservation through lectures, articles, op-eds, letters to editors, radio appearances and other venues. We take positions on agency proposals in support of carnivore conservation.

Through our Fellows program, we can fortify our positions with the signatures of nationally and internationally recognized experts in conservation biology and related fields of expertise.

Mexican Wolf Recovery in the Southwest.

The Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) is the most critically endangered subspecies of gray wolf in North America.

About 50 years following its extirpation from the Southwest, Mexican wolves were reintroduced to the 7,000 square-mile Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (BRWRA) in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona in 1998. At the beginning of 2010, the wild population of Mexican wolves was estimated at 50 animals.

The most significant factor inhibiting the success of Mexican wolf restoration in the BRWRA is the conflict between livestock and wolves on the 95% of the BRWRA that is public lands within the Gila and Apache National Forests.  To date, the agencies have resolved most conflicts by removing or killing wolves—a policy that we opposed and have worked hard to change.  Today, the agencies are placing more emphasis on resolving conflicts in ways that support leaving wolves in the wild.

TRI has teamed up with other conservation organizations to find legally, sociologically, and politically feasible and achievable solutions to the seemingly intractable clash of values that result from agency policies that attempt to graze livestock and restore wolves on the same public landscape, while continuing to give priority to livestock grazing.

Financially compensating willing grazing permit holders and permanently retiring public grazing allotments is a key strategy promoted by TRI.  This strategy is often referred to as “voluntary grazing permit retirement.”

Recovery of the Mexican gray wolf is a high priority for TRI’s carnivore conservation program.  More information can be found at www.mexicanwolves.org.

See Dave Parsons' lecture about wolf ecology and trophic cascades explained at a high school level.

See the following links for more information on the ecology and conservation of carnivores:

Wolves: Essential to Rewilding

Both scientific research and realities on the ground show how large carnivores keep natural systems diverse, healthy, and more resilient in the face of climate change and other pressures.

At the top of the food chain, animals such as wolves, coyotes, bears, and mountain lions help regulate populations of grazing animals like deer and elk. This reduces pressure on trees and plants, which are critical to the survival of birds and smaller animals.

Yet humans have persecuted carnivores out of fear of the wild, insistence on raising livestock in wilderness areas, and the belief that they kill “too many” of the animals that people want to eat. Vital habitat and the landscape connections carnivores need to hunt and find mates have been greatly reduced by development for housing, industries, and roads.

Such problems and widespread myths brought wolves to the brink of extinction. Thanks to the hard work of conservationists, scientists, and advocates, wolf populations have finally begun to recover in North America and around the world–a true rewilding success story. 

Yet keeping wolves alive and giving them the space they need to thrive is an ongoing battle. Today, the survival of wolves is threatened by states promoting rampant wolf killing, such as Idaho, Montana, and Wisconsin. This modern-day persecution is largely the result of removing wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA); scientists and advocates agree that wolves must be given ESA protections once again. In addition, humans must learn to coexist with wolves and other wild neighbors.

The Rewilding Institute is working to achieve protection for wolves everywhere. Our carnivore conservation biologist Dave Parsons is helping to lead efforts to recover the Mexican Wolf, or Lobo–the most endangered subspecies of gray wolf in North America. Once numbering in the thousands throughout Southwestern US and northern Mexico, the population was decimated by the 1970s. 

Thanks to protection under the ESA, a handful of Lobos from Mexico were placed in captivity through a federal program to breed the animals and restore them to the wild. Under Dave’s leadership, reintroduction of Lobos in the Southwest began in 1998, yet the recovery program has serious shortcomings that must be addressed to ensure the future survival of Lobos in the wild.

For more information:

Posts by Dave Parsons, the Rewilding Institute’s Carnivore Conservation Biologist: 

Lobos of the Southwest

Project Coyote

International Wolf Center

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