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The Challenge and Opportunity of Recovering Wolf Populations

Wolf Management Zoning

With natural habitat in so many areas greatly fragmented and wolves adapting to travel through relatively settled and open areas, some disjunct wolf populations are developing where wolves can live without causing livestock damages. For example, about 90 km northwest of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, a pack has lived and bred for at least two years on a wildlife management area surrounded by agricultural land without killing local livestock. Similar instances are known in Montana (Diamond 1994) and other parts of Minnesota (Fritts & Mech 1981; Fritts et al. 1992). This suggests that management zoning could allow wolves to inhabit areas where they can feed on natural prey while the are kept out of agricultural areas.

The approach is to designate zones of potential wolf habitat and distinguish them from areas that should be kept wolf-free. Zoning is common in regulating wildlife harvesting and has been applied on a large scale in wolf recovery plans (U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1975, 1987). If public attitudes continue to lean toward protectionism, pressure may develop to apply zoning on local levels such that small sanctuaries are maintained and control is applied only outside these areas.

The scale of zoning is important. Wolves could be zoned out of entire states or zoned into only large national parks or nature preserves. Or they could be allowed to inhabit any area they naturally colonize as long as their sole prey is wild species. For example, in a wildlife refuge of only 100 km² surrounded by farmland including livestock, wolves could be protected in the refuge but destroyed immediately outside it. This is similar to the situation in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, which, although a much larger area, is an island of wilderness in a sea of agricultural land (Carbyn 1982).

The main advantage of large-scale zoning is simplification and efficiency of management. Any wolf in a designated no-wolf state or outside any large wolf refuge would be subject to legal taking, while those inside would be protected or managed through regulated taking. This scenario could allow wolf populations to remain in the Lake Superior states and much of the mountainous regions of the western U. S., depending on how large the zones are.

The main disadvantage of large-scale zoning is the need to protect livestock that would inevitably live inside some of the larger zones. In Minnesota this would perpetuate the current situation in which close to 150 wolves are killed by government controllers annually for about $1225 each. A second disadvantage is that wolves would probably not be allowed in many areas where they really could live. This might mean banishing wolves from the state wildlife area mentioned above where one to two packs have been living without causing livestock depredations. Furthermore, in most of Europe where there are few if any large, remote regions left, large-scale zoning would be very difficult.

With small-scale zoning the main disadvantage for management agencies is complexity. At one extreme even single wolf packs in areas without livestock would be protected, while immediately outside wolves could be taken. This could present difficult law-enforcement problems, although such problems are not unlike those that currently exist for other species in wildlife refuges, national parks, and other protected areas. A small-scale zoning proposal in Italy (Boitani & Fabbri 1983) was opposed by wolf protectionists because of the difficulty of law enforcement and the feeling that wolves would be relegated to areas too small to maintain viable populations.

Such a fine-grained approach would probably require management agencies to identify possible wolf areas so that when colonized they would be recognized as wolf sanctuaries. Geographic information systems would greatly simplify this task. Furthermore, identification of such sanctuaries could be incorporated into ecosystem management plans, biodiversity initiatives, and similar strategies as they are developed for other reasons.

The main advantage of small-scale zoning would be to allow wolves to live in enclaves throughout much of Europe and the United States, similar to the way they currently inhabit Wisconsin and Michigan (Hammill 1993; Wydeven et al. 1994). For several reasons, this approach would not require the very large-scale land and habitat protection visualized by the Wildlands Project (Mann & Plummer 1993). Although dispersing wolves would be subject to persecution while passing through nonprotected areas, those moving primarily at night or outside of hunting seasons would stand a reasonable chance of survival. With enough small enclaves of wolves, there should be large numbers of such dispersers to colonize new areas, resupply reduced populations, provide sufficient outbreeding, and thus comprise regional metapopulations. Furthermore, inbreeding depression, while a problem among some captive wolves (Laikre & Ryman 1991), probably is not in most wild populations because of the high natural turnover and ensuing selection. Deleterious alleles should get cleansed from the population quickly.

The Isle Royale wolf population is instructive. Isle Royale is a 538-km² national park in Lake Superior some 25 km from Ontario. It was colonized by wolves about 1949 (Mech 1966), probably by only two unrelated wolves (Rothman & Mech 1979). Genetic testing after 40 years indicated a single female founder (Wayne et al. 1991). Nevertheless, the population stabilized at about 23 for a long period and increased to 50 in 1980, the highest wolf density on record (Peterson & Page 1988). Although the population then crashed, raising concerns about inbreeding depression and disease (Peterson & Krumenaker 1989), the wolves survive. In 1994, eight 1993 offspring survived (Peterson 1994). Thus, with just two founders and 50% loss of genetic variability (Wayne et al. 1991), this population has survived for 45 years. Had it been on the mainland, chances are good that some outbreeding would have occurred.

Biologically, wolves could inhabit parts of almost all regions of the U. S. and many European countries. Since protection, they have been recorded in nine and possibly ten U. S. states. If biology were the only relevant factor, however, wolves would never have had to be declared endangered. Throughout the wolf's former range, it has been persecuted because of its tendency to prey on livestock and pets. Even though it is currently on the endangered species list in the U.S., control has been applied in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Montana. Thus there is every reason to believe that wolf control will parallel wolf recovery wherever it takes place (Mech 1979; Fritts 1993).

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