A National Ideology
Since the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the 1990’s, predator management in particular has seen its fair share of stark debate. Wolves, bears, cougars and coyotes have all seen heavy focus from hunting critics determined to prove that these apex predators do not need human management to sustain their healthy existence. The ideology has more recently trickled down to mesopredators like foxes, bobcats, fisher, and even mink; with regular demands for full protection from hunting/trapping consistently called upon by activists.
How Wolves "Changed" Rivers:
In order to fully comprehend and understand the heated debates about predator management, one must go back to the 1990's in America's mid-west. Environmental ecologists were eager to reintroduce top predators like wolves back into the ecosystem. A seemingly noble and understandable desire to re-establish indigenous species to areas of previous extirpation. What was actually reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 is still steeped in heavy debate today. Some say it was a native gray wolf species reintroduced to it's natural territory, while others argue that ecologists actually reintroduced the wrong gray wolf subspecies; replacing the once indigenous timber wolf subspecies (Canis lupus irremotus) with the larger Canadian subspecies (Canis lupus occidentalis). It has been debated that the latter is far larger and more aggressive than their southern relatives, and reportedly twice as effective at hunting and killing prey. This has led to decades of turmoil in the mid-West with regard to managing wolves.
Whatever side of the argument you're on, the reintroduction of "a" wolf species to Yellowstone ushered in a new wave of ecological thought process. When wolves were reintroduced, the longstanding belief was that they began to extensively prey on the elk population, which in turn decreased browsing of aspen and willows, which in turn caused beavers to re-establish the area, which in turn created new ecosystems for blooming wildlife diversity. This event, referred to as a "Trophic Cascade" presented a new concept of wildlife "self-regulation". With growing popularity stemming from the Yellowstone “tropic cascade phenomenon”, scientists have long been at odds over its actual relevance. Scientists like Utah State University ecologist Dan McNulty.
"It's a really romantic story," McNulty stated in a report published by Accuweather.com. "It's a story about a world that doesn't really exist."
Scientists contend that while the benefits of wolf reintroduction are debatable in varying schools of thought, the wild canid’s reintroduction role in a trophic cascade is less than immense. The facts surrounding mid-west wolf reintroduction and their examples in arguments against sustainable wildlife management have been badly abused ever since. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has developed a reference guide in the form of an open letter with several references refuting many wolf recovery claims.
It has also been debated for decades that predatory canids like wolves and coyotes shouldn’t be managed by humans at all. Special interest groups like the Humane Society of the United States have long rallied for elimination of coyote management based on the theory that they “manage themselves” through a process dubbed “responsive reproduction”. As I discovered after researching modern coyote management concepts, the sciences behind concepts like “responsive reproduction” are far from what gets spun into newspaper editorials and political inboxes.
Responsive Reproduction is the theory that coyotes who are hunted regularly will respond to that hunting pressure by sending their reproduction systems into hyper overdrive, in turn causing a hunter or landowner to be left with more coyotes then they started with. There are several different variants to the theory, depending on which circle you follow – some theorize it’s more closely related to removal of alpha members within a coyote “pack” that will turn subordinate females into breeding machines. This concept seems to distort facts from decades-old research mirroring similar findings. Biologists behind these studies have laid out that their findings were based on “perfect condition” scenarios, and while there is some truth behind the sciences of the responsive reproduction argument, it has been twisted and marginalized from its original intent and meaning.
Many of the early studies we’ve uncovered regarding “responsive reproduction” in coyotes links directly to man’s old-world attempts to fully eradicate the species. Bounties and hunting contests were promoted extensively to quell the expanse of coyote populations Nationwide throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Several studies were churned out from the 1970s to the 1990’s suggesting that full-scale eradication of the coyote was failing miserably, due in part, according to some, to the “responsive reproduction” theory. While it is pretty apparent wide-scale eradication of the Eastern Coyote is not feasible based on modern science, this shouldn’t negate the secular regional management of the species from a sustainable standpoint.
Almost every examination of coyote reproduction traces back to an extensive study conducted by Longhurst and Connolly in 1975 (known in wildlife management circles as the “C.L. Model”). Guy Connolly himself contends that those who use his findings to oppose coyote management do so “inappropriately and out of context”. Connolly further suggests there is little correlation between removing coyotes, and heightened reproduction, and states “people who claim otherwise are just damaging their credibility.” Dr. Eric Gese, Professor (USDA National Wildlife Research Center, Predator Behavior and Ecology) comments that the suggestion of responsive breeding is “over simplified and unproven.”
We dive deeper into the “Responsive Reproduction” theory in our 2019 column: Northeast Coyote Management (read more).
Predators, Prey & Lyme Disease:
The latest trend in controversy over predator management in North America appears to be the relationship between predatory species and rodent control. More specifically, the control of Lyme Disease vectors such as white-footed-mice and chipmunks. The argument is pretty self-explanatory. Some feel as though state game agencies shouldn’t be supporting the regulated harvest of predators such as foxes and coyotes, since the more predators gorging on mice, the less mice there will be to carry Lyme infecting ticks, thus slowing the spread of Lyme disease, and by proxy, the passing of Lyme to humans. But as any good researcher knows, the wild kingdom will seldom play by such black and white rules. After animal rights activists petitioned Vermont F&W in 2018 demanding an immediate closure on all measurable fox management (hunting and trapping), the Department released their findings in a study titled “Fox & Lyme Disease - Is There A Connection In Vermont?”
Wildlife professionals across the nation tend to echo similar sentiments that nature is far too complex to conclude foxes and other predators are solely responsible for curbing rodent populations. Arguments against predatory wildlife management procedures hinge on the misconception that nature is seemingly “out of balance” when regulated by humans.
According to professionals with the National Wildlife Control Training Program, “while it is true that populations of many top-level predators have been reduced dramatically, it is unlikely that restoring their numbers to precolonial levels would solve human-wildlife conflict situations”. The authors of the program contend that “Human tolerance of damage by wildlife is quite low. Homeowners do not want fewer squirrels in their attic; they want NO squirrels in their attic. Predators typically do not control populations of prey. If a predator substantially reduces prey populations, the predator would threaten its own existence by eliminating its source of food.”
To suggest that predatory species such as fox and bobcats feed on “just mice” is taking quite a big leap of faith. The reality - wild animals are opportunistic. They feed on what’s available. Voles, shrews, rats, mice, muskrats, woodchucks, birds, trash, plants, insects, roadkill, squirrels, each-other; there’s no golden rule to survival. Additionally, very few predators will put in the effort to stalk and chase down, say, chipmunks, when more “sluggish” prey is readily available. Yes, foxes and other predators eat prey species that humans consider to be pests, but they eat a lot of other stuff too.
People who champion predator abundance as a Lyme disease reduction asset also tend to misinterpret “which” predators are more benefiting the argument, versus those that aren’t. A study from the Carry Institute is often cited as the smoking gun as to why predators like coyotes and foxes should be left completely un-managed. These arguments tend to negate the fact that the eastern coyote (canis latrans var) is a direct territorial competitor with red fox (vulpes vulpes). The study found that sites with high mesopredator diversity had lower infection prevalence in nymphal ticks than sites dominated by eastern coyotes. Taal Levi, of Oregon State University, Corvallis notes in the study:
“Coyotes can exclude foxes and other smaller carnivores, which should reduce predation rates on key small mammal hosts for pathogens. This can result in larger small mammal populations, reduced turnover rates that allow infected individuals to live longer and infect more ticks, and changes to rodent behavior that make questing ticks more likely to feed on rodents, amplifying the infection rates of ticks."
"Coywolves" and Canid Hybridization:
Battles have erupted in the scientific community over attempts to re-categorize various wild canid species as their own individual subspecies; thus opening the door for additional protections based on reclassification of species. What was once known as the Eastern Wolf was listed as a “concern species” when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 2008. It was renamed the “Algonquin Wolf” and subsequently re-classified as “threatened” in 2016. Canada’s “Status of Species at Risk” Committee concluded that the Eastern Wolf is “no longer the appropriate common name”. Although there was once a distinct species referred to as Eastern Wolves, a long timeline of hybridization between Eastern wolves, Gray wolves, and Coyotes, has led to a supposed hybrid taxon that is evolutionary distinct from other canids, based, primarily on locale. As a result, these committees believe a new name (the Algonquin Wolf) is appropriate. The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks in Ontario states the following: “It is difficult to distinguish the Algonquin Wolf from other species. Because of this we are prohibiting hunting and trapping of wolves and coyotes in the core Algonquin Wolf occurrence areas. When outside of these areas, you are exempt from s.9 of the Endangered Species Act while hunting and trapping Algonquin Wolf, as long as you’re in accordance with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act and its regulations.” Ontario has “core Algonquin Wolf occurrence areas” where hunting and trapping of wolves and coyotes is prohibited.
Similarly in the U.S., ecologists have been at odds over the classification of the Eastern Coyote (canis latrans var). This has promoted a few to demand reclassification of the eastern coyote to a subspecies “coywolf” label which would be worthy of “protected status”. These attempts have been challenged by reputable scientists and biologists who question the basis for such claims. Those of us in the Northeastern United States are well aware of “coywolf” and “coydog” debates. Coyotes in the Northeast are mostly (60%-84%) coyote, with trace amounts of wolf (8%-25%) and domesticated dog (8%-11%). If one were to move regionally south or east, the DNA mixture varies slightly. Modern science has revealed no examples exist of just coyote and wolf makeup, although there are some eastern coyotes that have almost no wolf traces at all; which leads most to believe there is no single new genetic entity that would be considered a unique species. Most scientists and biologists concur that the Eastern Coyote is a title given to the eastern species of coyote which harbors this “genetic soup” of varying DNA traits and hybridization.
Wild canid expert Roland Kays, for example, has been one to challenge such claims that a “coywolf” exists as a recognizable “new” species, in a response study of his own.
“We strongly oppose the proposal by Way and Lynn (2016) to recognize the coyote (Canis latrans) in northeastern North America as a unique species, “canis oriens”(Latin for "eastern canid"), the study concludes. “There is no reproductive isolation from surrounding coyote populations. Genetic data show continued gene flow throughout the eastern half of the continent, and morphological data show a pattern of clinal variation expected for a broad-ranging species.” (Northeastern coyote cannot be a distinct species without isolation: a response to Way and Lynn, Kays & Monzón 2017.)
Bottom line, the Eastern coyote is in fact a hybrid canid - but the “coywolf” moniker is grossly oversimplified, according to professionals, and recognized as nothing more than hyperbole.
The ideology that predatory mammals are on a God-like plain of existence higher than other organisms is deeply rooted in corners of the conservation community today. Its an ideology that can have detrimental consequences for wildlife conservation if taken wholeheartedly at face value. Furbearer Conservation recognizes that predatory mammals are a beneficial and necessary component of the natural world. We also recognize that these mammalian predators should be regulated and managed for the greater good of natural biodiversity on a human-inhabited continent.
It should be strongly emphasized that we do not necessarily dismiss the regulation of predator hunting and trapping outright. Additionally, it is not our intent to necessarily demonize, discredit, or demoralize those in the scientific community who oppose regulated hunting and trapping activities. We do, however, wish to establish our immense concern with how the above-mentioned concepts are flaunted to the public as perceived facts, are taken at “face value”, and how they should (or shouldn’t) be applied to ethical wildlife management and conservation procedure. Science is validated with one important factor - context. Science seeks to inform and comprehend understanding. It’s a concept that is independent, and asserts “the chips will fall where they may.” Pseudoscience, by contrast, seeks to scrounge for little bits and pieces of data to correlate and reinforce an agenda, then herald a perceived discovery whether the pieces of the puzzle actually fit together or not.
The Furbearer Conservation project will continue to monitor, research, and advocate for sound science. More importantly, we will criticize pseudoscience and comments derived from misinterpreted data as we see fit, and as it pertains to the ethical, sustainable, and non-biased approach to wildlife management fundamentals. Wildlife management should seek to balance wild species and man’s direct impact, not stack the deck in favor of wild predators.