Senior Wolves Give Elk A Break

social security

Update: June 30, 2012

I posted this in 2009, just as the first wolf hunts were underway in Montana and Idaho. I believed that if we provided  fish and game managers with scientific fact about the detrimental effects of wolf hunting it might have some effect. How naive I was! The only thing they care about is pleasing two groups of people (hunters and ranchers) and “managing” wolves down to a shadow population of 100 to 150 animals per state.

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November 5, 2009

It turns out wolves age just like people and according to wolf researcher, Daniel MacNulty, by age four, wolves are considered old. This insight into the life span of wolves could have far-reaching implications concerning “managing” them.   The older the wolf, the less threat they are to elk, due to their reduced physical stamina.

The teenagers and young adults of the pack do most of the leg work chasing down prey, while the older wolves are important at the end of the chase, with their larger bodies and heftier builds, they help youngsters with the take down.  It all makes perfect sense.  Dr. MacNulty states hunting wolves to reduce their numbers may backfire.

“It’s been shown in other hunted populations of wolves that hunting skews the population toward younger age classes,” he explains. And, as his research shows, that could spell more deaths, not fewer, for the elk.

The reason hunting pushes a population’s age structure downward is because being hunted is like playing Russian roulette. If, starting early in life, every member of a society had to play Russian roulette regularly, not too many would live to a ripe old age, he says.”

But wolf supporters don’t really believe wolf hunts are about “the science.”  Still I’m hopeful Dr.MacNulty’s research will open a few eyes.

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Washed-up wolves

Surprising discoveries about aging wolves and their effects on elk

washed up wolves

The elk-hunting skills of wolves decline significantly with age, a University of Minnesota study shows.

Photo: Douglas Dance

By Deane Morrison

Contrary to their fearsome, folk tale-rooted image, wolves just aren’t all that good as predators. To bring down big prey, they have nothing but speed and teeth–no claws that can rip flesh, no massive paws to kayo their quarry.

Now, a University of Minnesota-led study of wolves in Yellowstone National Park shows how even that modest ability soon ebbs away. Daniel MacNulty and his colleagues found that the wolves were in their hunting prime at the ages of 2 and 3, but then their skills deteriorated steadily. They lived, on average, till age 6.

Writing in the September 23, 2009 issue of Ecology Letters, MacNulty, a postdoctoral researcher in the University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, and his colleagues reported that the higher the proportion of wolves older than 3 in the park, the lower the rate at which they kill elk, their main source of food. The findings run counter to a belief, held by many ecologists, that wild predators maintain their physical skills as long as they live.

But the study “shows that aging impairs the ability of the wolves to catch elk,” says MacNulty, “The data connect aging with an important ecological process, namely predation.”

MacNulty has followed the Yellowstone wolves since their reintroduction to the park in 1995. He says the lowered hunting ability of older wolves may afford some protection to the elk, which would fare worse if all the wolves were spring chickens.

“For example, when 22 percent of the wolves in Yellowstone were 3 or older, the kill rate was 0.4 elk per pack per day,” says MacNulty. “If the older wolves were 52 percent of the population, the kill rate dropped to 0.22 elk per pack per day.”

In general, for every 10 percent rise in the proportion of wolves older than 3, the Yellowstone wolf population saw a decline in the kill rate of 10 to 15 percent, he says.

“… [W]hen 22 percent of the wolves in Yellowstone were 3 or older, the kill rate was 0.4 elk per pack per day. If the older wolves were 52 percent of the population, the kill rate dropped to 0.22 elk per pack per day.”

MacNulty has also documented the decline of individual aging wolves’ hunting skills. For example:

“Wolf number 21 in the Druid Peak pack lived to about 9,” he says. “Video of 21 over his lifetime showed him slowing down when chasing elk as he neared the end of life.”
As the geezer wolves lose their edge, the study suggests that young adults in the pack shoulder more of the workload and share their kills. This may provide aging members of the pack with a lupine version of social security.

Why wolf hunting may backfire

The number of elk in Yellowstone has declined in recent years, and many believe wolves are the main cause, MacNulty says. But he notes that drought, which has reduced the supply of plants elk eat, and predation of elk calves by grizzly bears have also probably contributed.

Montana legalized wolf hunting after the animal was taken off the endangered species list in 2008. But hunting of wolves won’t necessarily help the elk, and not just because only a few wolves have been taken so far, MacNulty says.

“It’s been shown in other hunted populations of wolves that hunting skews the population toward younger age classes,” he explains. And, as his research shows, that could spell more deaths, not fewer, for the elk.

The reason hunting pushes a population’s age structure downward is because being hunted is like playing Russian roulette. If, starting early in life, every member of a society had to play Russian roulette regularly, not too many would live to a ripe old age, he says.

Currently, MacNulty is working with a colleague at Michigan Technological University to “nail down,” or quantify, the effect on elk of wolf management that involves hunting. 

“We’re modeling wolf-elk dynamics and looking at how changes in wolf age structure affect elk numbers,” he says.

http://www1.umn.edu/news/features/2009/UR_CONTENT_143264.html

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Photo: Courtesy Douglas Dance

Categories posted in: gray wolf,  wolf recovery, wolves under fire

Tags: gray wolf, wolf recovery, wolf research, senior wolves, MacNulty

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m guessing that no matter what the real scientific findings are that favor the wolves, it will be to no effect. Wolf hatred runs deep. Many people are beyond understanding rational discourse or evaluating scientific data when it comes to wolves. They prefer killing, and they are backed by one of the most powerful organizations in the country–the NRA. As for “cooler” heads that may more used to critical thinking, many legislators and wildlife managers are afraid of the NRA. As Luke Russesrt noted this week, it is political suicide to oppose the wishes of the NRA. I wish the outlook were better for the wolves, but it will take more people who feel as we do to combat the current decision makers.

    • I am not even sure the wolf hatred is only toward wolves. There seems to be deep-seated loathing and fear coming out of the souls of the people who are advocates and practitioners of these slaughters. And the more evidence they hear from scientists, the more their rage spirals out of control. If we look to history books we might find similar insanity and bloodlust, perhaps in fHitler’s Germany, or the darker days of ancient Rome. Of course modern protagonists are profit motivated (i.e., gun salesmen, and politicians who want wilderness lands sold out to gas mining). But their followers, and the street soldiers in this “war on wolves” seem to begin with animal abuse which is the most extreme cowardice, and psychologists assure us that such behavior leads to violent cowardly abuse of humans.

      Will there be an end to this, short of the spread to humans of the BSE that is now being reported in the area’s elk population? The more I read of their bizarre actions and statements, the more I wonder if the prion is already in the neurosystems of some of these killers.

  2. I am not trying to diminish the importance of scientific research, but I am afraid that this will be yet another study that will have no impact on the fate of the wolves. The hunts will restart with renewed brutality and cruelty no matter how many times we hear that the number of elk does not decrease because of the wolves, that wolves account for less than one percent of cattle and sheep predation, or that eliminating a top predator can have a devastating impact on the ecosystem. Salazar has his own “scientific” team working for him in the person of David Mech who keeps assuring him that the wolf has recovered and that it has to be hunted. It even does him good!

  3. It makes sense to hunt predators and screw up their age dynamics, which then could cause more of their “precious elk” to die because the average age of pack members has decreased leaving younger and more able bodied wolves to hunt. This in turn gives hunters exactly what they want so they can use the whole “wolves are killing all ‘our’ elk” excuse to get the states to support more murder and violence against these innocent beings of this planet. It’s an endless cycle of violence and lies.

  4. pòrque hacer mentiras sobre los lobos ellos son mas fieles que talves muchos politicos mentiras tras mentiras para ganar un voto mas

  5. Wolf haters will never be swayed by any type of evidence, real or fabricated!!!

  6. It’s hard pressed to tell what’s what unless you get out there yourself. If I didn’t totally suck at math I would love to be a wolf biologist. Yellowstone has an underground volcano and I think that maybe that makes the elk and other animals a little nervous. That is just my opinion.

  7. Nabeki, thank you so much for putting a link on here to donate to the WOLF Sanctuary here in northern Colorado. I am happy to report that the High Park fire is 100% contained and the evacuees are now able to return to the homes which were not destroyed.

  8. Reblogged this on lawyerlex.


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