Shawn Lynch, Natural Resources Conservation
Ashley McElhinney, Environmental Science
John Martin, Natural Resources Conservation
It was a relatively calm night in November of 2012 when Todd and Christine Plank of Gardners, Pennsylvania were traveling home in their reliable 2000 Toyota Tundra. Christine was a local dental hygienist who grew up in the area, and Todd was her loving husband. They had a lot of family that admired them greatly, along with their two recently acquired pugs. Everything seemed to be going very smoothly with their lives. Todd was driving the vehicle when all of sudden this comfortable life that they had made changed forever. A native white-tailed deer jumped out in front of the Tundra, hit the top of the hood, and smashed through the windshield. Todd only suffered minor injuries, however his wife was not so lucky. She was taken in an ambulance to the local hospital before being pronounced dead only a few hours later (Kellar, 2012).
Although this short story is only one example of thousands of deer-related car accidents that occur each year, it serves as a microcosm of a much larger problem at hand. In New England, and many other regions of the United States, deer populations are expanding in uncontrollable numbers (Pursell, 2013). The general public does not think too much about this problem until they are directly affected by an incident like that of Todd and Christine Plank, but that needs to change. Our proposal is to re-introduce the gray wolf to an area in the northeast where they once thrived, in turn helping hunt and lower the deer population. Gray wolf reintroduction offers many environmental, economic, and social benefits to New England.
Wolves are generally disliked and feared by farmers, who believe wolves will deplete their livestock through consistent attacks. This misconception could be due to a period of time in the late 1800s-early 1900s, in the northern Rocky Mountains (Bangs, 1994). Westward expansion brought settlements destructive to the habitats of bison, elk, deer, and other ungulate species, dramatically depleting their populations (Bangs, 1994). Without their common prey, wolves and other large predators were a threat to the newly expanding livestock industry. Government predator control programs, in place by 1930, completely wiped out the gray wolf population from the western U.S (Bangs, 1994). Seeing as we rarely see such cases of wolf populations repeatedly preying on livestock, it can be assumed that they only act in this manner when they have no other prey. In New England, there is a large abundance of deer, which should be a great reassurance to farmers. Government funded wolf-control programs exist that compensate farmers for livestock harmed by wolves (Bangs, 1994). “Since the program began in 1987, the organization has given $800,000 to ranchers for herding dogs, mules, and other livestock that have been killed by endangered animals, such as wolves or bears,” said Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife (Smuclovinsky, 2007).
Other concerns regarding wolves were how they would impact the wide variety of current species residing in their natural habitat. In many cases around the United States, the wolf is one of the few, if not the only, members of the mammalian biotic community that was present in historic times that is currently missing from the ecosystem. Although an ecosystem may seem natural without them, they were originally meant to inhabit their native areas. When present, wolves would act as a large predator in the food chain, making predator-prey relationships more complete (Bangs, 1994). The reintroduction of the gray wolf would cause changes in plant and animal populations, but in the grand scheme, would cause the ecosystem to return to its previous, historic state.
One of the main reasons why people should be concerned with this issue is because gray wolves are no longer found in New England. This species once was native to the area and offered astounding aesthetic beauty. Packs of gray wolves used to thrive in the dense forests of New England, and contrary to popular belief, they are not very harmful to humans as they are more abundant in forests than residential areas (Gilman, 2006). National parks could open areas for ecotourism of this animal in New England and regulated hunting seasons of the gray wolf could add a recreational aspect.
Farmers will benefit economically from the reintroduction of the gray wolf. Since wolves tend to hunt the most vulnerable species, for instance, the diseased livestock of the herd, disease will begin to be less and less of an issue for farmers. Wolves kill only the weak, sick and old (Mader, 1991). Wolves realize the risk of hunting big game prey, such as elk and moose, both of whom could kill a wolf. Therefore, they often make the conscious decision to go after easy targets. A recent study of wolf predation on elk in Yellowstone National Park, for example, found that wolves tend to kill calves and older animals – adult elk killed by wolves were about 7 years older than elk killed by hunters (Gray Wolf Biology, 2006). Generally, with wolves in the picture, livestock will be healthier, meaning more sales for farms and more revenue. This will also have the potential to lower diseases being transported into the food market and aid in the general well-being of consumers.
In terms of the environment, large deer densities comes with the overgrazing of native vegetation in New England, ranging from shrubs and trees to grasses and flowers. Since the deer population is continuing to grow, vast amounts of vegetation are declining and the problem is only getting worse. Also, deer tend to target certain species of plants that they find preferable. These plants are almost always native to the region. This allows other exotic species to thrive (EarthSky, 2014). A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explains an example of this, in which the garlic mustard plant is aggressively invading and (brought to the U.S. as a cooking herb in the 1860’s) is displacing important native plants such as the trillium (flower) (EarthSky, 2014).
Like white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), who are known to carry parasites, lyme and chronic wasting disease (Pierce & Flinn, 2013) coyotes (Canis latrans) are also susceptible to disease such as rabies, parvo virus and canine distemper (Henke et al., 2002). In addition to deer passing disease to domestic bovine and ungulate species, coyotes present the most significant risk to livestock in the United States. Coyotes are one of the main predators of livestock in multiple regions of the United States. Main (2008) presents that predation on livestock in Florida is most likely to occur from coyotes, while Jay Loven a USDA Animal Damage control specialist cites the coyote as “the most adaptable predator ever,” and “worse than a wolf [in regards to threats toward livestock],” (Smith, 2010) The gray wolf and the coyote are competing co-predators who engage in aggressive behavior towards one another. In North America, wolves “have been known to kill coyotes,” (Newsome & Ripple, 2015) Such aggression can be likely be interpreted as competition for territory and corresponding food sources. As a result, the population densities of wolves and coyotes often display an inverse relationship (Merkle et al., 2009).
A decrease in the populations of coyote and white-tailed deer in North America could result in fewer diseases being passed from wildlife populations to domestic animals and livestock. A reduction in coyote population density could also result in the decrease of livestock predation. The prevention of early demise in livestock and domestic animals could result in annual savings of tens of millions of dollars (Adams, 2010). This figure does not account for other indirect costs such as veterinary bills and changed behavior (infertility, weight loss, etc.) potentially experienced by mentally or physically damaged (though surviving) livestock.
The amount of car crashes deer cause in a given year is currently a concern for New England residents. “According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there are about one million car accidents with deer each year that kill 200 Americans [and] cause more than 10,000 personal injuries” (Rice, 2011). This is a concerning problem that can be solved through Gray Wolf reintroduction. Decreasing or eliminating these figures is not only important, but also an economic benefit as well. Less car accidents means less damage costs, estimated at a staggering one billion dollars a year (Rice, 2011). Also, Conover (2001) estimates that nearly 700,000 deer-vehicle collisions occur in the United States each year, resulting in damages amounting to greater than $1.6 billion annually. (Conover, 2001, p. 102) These collisions also result in approximately 200 human fatalities per year. (“Deer in the Headlights…”, 2013) A reduction in deer density to its historical levels, approximately a tenth of its present size, could significantly decrease these figures.
In addition to economic strain placed on the human population in the United States because of deer abundance, environmental effects have begun to take shape and the nation is experiencing an overgrazing effect on forests and other vegetation due to an uncontrolled deer population. The effects of deer overgrazing have been noted throughout the United States, with documented effects in all of the continental United States and Alaska (Cote et al., 2004). Deer abundance is currently causing an overgrazing effect in American forests, and their continued population growth and presence is preventing the natural regeneration of this vegetation. Changes, including loss of biomass [fewer plants in general], vegetation diversity, and selection towards premature seeding, have been documented (Horsley et al., 2003). Each of these effects can be interpreted as degradation of a forest as the consequences of such can include less oxygen production, alternate and non-natural landscapes, floral species loss, faunal species displacement and a lesser forest production.
The effects of deer overabundance and forest overconsumption are not all direct however. The eradication of natural floral species from deer consumption allows for the introduction and spread of non-native species. (McShea et al., 2009) Abundance of several maple, birch, and beech species have shown a negative correlation to increasing deer populations in Pennsylvania (McShea et al., 2009) while invasives such as stilt grass, barberry, garlic mustard and tree-of-heaven have seemed resistant to deer browse (Rawinski, 2008). Deer also tend to avoid consuming the invasive flora that replace native vegetation, this further prevents the natural regeneration of native species (Cording, 2006). The eradication of native floral species also serves as a reason for the decline of native avian species whose preferred habitat are made up of several functionally-related vegetation species. The loss of food sources and nesting sites have had a large impact on woodland bird species, specifically migrating avian species that require habitat continuity throughout their range (Fuller, 2001). Because deer consume what they can (this is to say, within strict height parameters) browse often consists of saplings and young trees. The loss of these young individuals limits recruitment in an area, interrupting the cyclical pattern of vegetation regeneration. Ground nesting birds have also been impacted by deer browse as they are heavily reliant on the existence of a thick understory which is often absent in the presence of large deer populations (Cutright & Kearns, 2010).
A return of deer to more historic levels could allow for the regeneration of native forest composition while preventing the loss of native faunal species. Because the level of deer population is so disproportionate to what existed prior to human interference, there is a large amount of selection pressure placed on the deer’s food source (native herbaceous plants) and the other species that rely on them.
The negative consequences of deer overpopulation in New England can be mitigated
by the stabilization of deer abundance through gray wolf reintroduction. Through thorough research and analysis, this reintroduction holds the potential to both cause positive impacts to the ecosystems, while decreasing the negative impacts of deer overpopulation. We can use case studies, such as the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan, to create a method of reintroduction that would be successful in New England. Through the influence of this plan, we have decided to propose the placement of ten breeding pairs in each of five different locations, and monitor them for a minimum of five years.
Bangs (1994) states that the 1987 Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan recommended wolf populations established in three populations- northwestern Montana, central Idaho, and in/around Yellowstone National Park. Wolves have been observed to travel down to northwestern Montana from Canada and establish populations, but there is no such evidence in Idaho or Yellowstone (Bangs, 1994). The proposal did not include this natural establishment.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), proposed this idea with the intention to recover, and eventually delist the gray wolf. This proposal was initially set in motion in 1991, when Congress directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a draft Environmental Impact Statement on gray wolves in central Idaho and Yellowstone (Bangs, 1994). In order to restore this population, FWS decided to maintain a minimum of ten breeding pairs, in three recovery areas, for at least three successive years. Their plan was to allow wolves to naturally colonize in their recovery areas, all the while monitoring them to make sure they succeeded (Bangs, 1994). As of 2002, this plan effectively recovered the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population to exceed recovery goals for ten consecutive years (Northern Rocky Mountain, n.d.). This success has inspired the structure of our proposal. We hope to maintain a minimum of ten breeding pairs, in five recovery areas, for at least five successive years, with close monitoring. We decided to reintroduce the species to five different areas, instead of three, because of the variety of habitats found in New England. For instance, the flat land of eastern Massachusetts greatly differs from the snowy Northern Vermont mountains, and it would be reasonable to see where the wolf populations most flourish, once reintroduced.
In addition to the FWS, a 10-member committee was appointed by Congress, with members representing the National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and several local conservation, hunting, and livestock groups (Bangs, 1994). These members collaborated to make recommendations to the reintroduction of the gray wolf, presenting their consensus (that seven out of ten members agreed with) to Congress. The collaboration between members of these different groups was necessary to assess conflicting opinions and ideas, making a well-rounded proposal that pleased the majority of people, in contrast to one group carrying out the reintroduction in the way they found to be fitting.
Bangs (1994) explains how the method of “scoping” was used; this involved the public in the planning process to identify issues and consider different solutions. This was done by reviewing developed recovery plans of the past. Additionally, 2,500 groups or individuals who had previously shown interest in recovering wolf populations were contacted to give their input. A detailed brochure was sent to 32,000 individuals who had requested information, and over 50 meetings were held to address any public concerns or questions (Bangs, 1994). Since this is a controversial proposal, great, and necessary, lengths were taken to ensure the public that it was beneficial to all.
The collaboration, education, and the manner of addressing the resistant audience are all key factors into the success of the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan. We propose to do the same, if not more, to appease as many people as possible in New England. Frequent town meetings, question and answer sessions, an informational website will be used to educate and ease the worries of any residents.
The reintroduction of gray wolves in New England is vital to reducing the abundance of problematic deer. Not only will wolves decrease the negative impacts of deer, but will also restore the given ecosystems in a positive way. By resolving the public’s concerns, showing the economic, environmental, and social benefits, and carrying out the proposal in a strategic and effective manner, the reintroduction of the gray wolf could be a success.
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Very insightful, informative, and knowledgeable article. It provides a different perspective how we see the wolves.
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wow what a vicious circle, there used to be a long time when they had to kill wolves, and now it’s the deer’s turn, and after killing the deer it’s the wolves’ turn!
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