Expert Quotes | Social Science | UW news blog
November 21, 2022
The high-profile reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 is widely regarded as a conservation success: gray wolf packs within and outside the park gradually established new populations. In Washington, wolves were largely absent for decades until a pack was identified in the northeastern part of the state in 2008.
But the recovery of wolves has also been controversial. Over time, various safeguards have been put in place at the federal and state levels, then lifted, then reinstated. Conflict often arises when wolves return to rural landscapes that are also used for grazing, where they sometimes attack and kill livestock, and where anti-wolf sentiment is often high. Six gray wolves were found dead in northeast Washington in February and a later investigation found they had been poisoned. Earlier this fall, the State Department of Fish and Wildlife killed two wolves from a pack that had been hunting cattle and mistakenly shot a wolf cub.
Such cases in Washington are relatively rare, but underscore the very specific challenges between humans and wolves, explains Rob Anderson, who studied the issue as part of his doctorate in geography at the University of Washington. He is lead author of a recent article in The Canadian Geographer on non-lethal wolf management tactics, with co-authors including Alex McInturff, a UW assistant professor of environmental and forest management.
“While other states in the American West have been much more aggressive in allowing the killing of wolves, Washington State has gone to great lengths to minimize lethal management,” Anderson said. “That really puts the focus in Washington on the non-lethal techniques of what they often call ‘wolf behavior modification,’ where fear comes into play.”
Anderson, now a research associate at Boston University studying wildlife management in suburban Massachusetts, spoke to UW News about wolves in Washington.
People might think that any way of dealing with wolves, without violence, would be reasonable. What are some considerations for dealing with anxiety?
Rob Anderson: In a sense, it is not the wolves themselves that need to be “managed,” but rather the wolf-cattle conflict. It does this in a number of non-lethal ways, many of which basically involve using wolves’ fear of humans or fear of being chased by humans to reduce attacks on livestock. This can include fences, lights or sirens – or even just human presence on the shooting range – to keep wolves away. There are also other approaches to reducing wolf conflict, such as B. adapting the behavior of livestock to reduce their vulnerability, or changing the way humans manage livestock in terms of where and when they allow them to graze in areas where wolves also live. But in Washington, much effort has really focused on approaches that use wolves’ fear of humans to try to prevent conflict. And yes, many people would agree that the use of fear is sensible, and advocates of wolf conservation would certainly say that it is preferable to lethal control. So my point is not to say that manipulating the fear of wolves is bad, but to acknowledge that people are trying to do this and to better understand how it works and what it means.
For example, there are many ideas about “sending a message” to wolves, whether by using non-lethal tools or by killing a wolf that was attacking livestock. But there isn’t much evidence to show if and how wolves actually get the message. As such, I would suggest that wildlife managers, ranchers, and anyone concerned with this topic carefully consider what they are trying to achieve with these fear-based techniques. People’s ideas about what it means to change wolf behavior vary widely, and it can lead to misunderstanding and greater social conflict over an already tense issue.
Q: Does fear management change animal behavior in the long term?
RA: That’s one of the questions I want to raise in this study! Based on my conversations with wildlife managers, like the staff at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, most would say the goal isn’t long-term change. Usually, when they talk about “changing wolf behavior,” they’re just talking about getting a particular wolf or wolf pack to stop chasing livestock. But they’ll also often talk about how fear of wolves is “innate,” suggesting that the wolf is hardwired to be afraid of humans. There is a tension between the behaviors that can be changed through human intervention and what is instinctive and unchangeable. Many wolf biologists will say that wolves’ fear of humans is an evolutionary adaptation: because humans have tracked wolves for so long and killed the more aggressive (or just plain curious) wolves, more fearful wolves survived to pass on their genes and teach their offspring, how they survive.
It is quite conceivable that modern management interventions could also have such longer-term consequences for the so-called “nature” of the wolf. In this sense, this emblematically “wild” animal responds to, and is ultimately transformed by, human actions and activities. This is a real challenge to the way we think about conservation.
Q: How can stakeholders such as landowners, environmentalists, policy makers and the like incorporate these ideas into decision making?
RA: The protection of wolves is already a very controversial issue, especially when it comes to the lethal removal of wolves. Some people really would like the state to take more action to address wolf attacks on livestock, but many others are staunchly opposed to lethal removal – and conflict over this issue has escalated quite a bit, to the point where some people are even wolves are poisoned. Washington state has invested heavily in non-lethal approaches, but there is still much confusion about how they work and what it means to change wolf behavior, whether through lethal or non-lethal methods. I don’t think there is a single solution to the problem and people have very different ethical values and positions that may not always be solvable. But given the level of social conflict and controversy surrounding this issue, I hope policymakers can use our research to make as clear as possible what the different approaches on the table are trying to achieve.
For more information, contact Anderson at [email protected]
Keyword(s): College of Arts & Sciences • Department of Geography • Rob Anderson