Thursday, August 31, 2017

Wolves hunting moose undeterred by tailings ponds and pit mines

Wolf behavior undeterred by tailings ponds and pit mines

Study shows wolves hunt moose as usual in the Athabasca Oil Sands
University of Alberta
IMAGE
IMAGE: Two wolves peer into a wildlife camera in Alberta's Athabasca Oil Sands region. view more 
Credit: Wildlife Habitat Effectiveness and Connectivity, 2014


Wolves do not avoid areas of human disturbance when hunting moose in Alberta's oil sands region.
New UAlberta research shows that predation rates of moose have increased near areas of high human disturbance, but low human activity, such as tailings ponds and pit mines.
"Wolves are not avoiding these features," explained UAlberta PhD candidate Eric Neilson, who compared the population density of moose to the distribution of wolf-related moose deaths in the region. "In fact, they are using space near mines as they usually would, demonstrating that these spaces are not a deterrent."
If anything, Neilson says these spaces provide effective hunting ground for wolves.

Environmental changes
When habitat is cleared for mining or oil extraction, there are large changes to the landscape that create barriers around which wolves move. A similar effect, Neilson said, is shown around rivers.
"Wolves are coursing predators. This means that they like to move across the landscape to encounter their prey. It could be that the edge of the mine provides a feature similar to rivers that they can move along and around in the same way," he said.
However, the intensification of wolf activity and moose kills near the edges of these mines and tailings ponds is not shown near camps or upgrader sites, likely due to the presence of humans.

Future investigation
"There is a lot more research to be done in this area," said Neilson, adding the impact upon moose populations is not yet clear. "With any change in habitat that causes changes in animal behaviour, there are many factors to consider and much more we can learn about what is really going on here."

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

An alternative to wolf control to save endangered caribou




What happens when invasive and native species are eaten by the same predator? If the invasive species is abundant, the native species can go extinct because predator numbers are propped up by the invading species. This process is called "apparent competition" because on the surface it "appears" that the invading and native prey directly compete with each other, but really the shared predator links the two prey.

Apparent competition is an increasing problem, causing endangerment and extinction of native prey as abundant species colonize new areas in the wake of human-caused change to the environment. This is exactly what is happening to the iconic woodland caribou across North America. Prey like moose and white-tailed deer are expanding in numbers and range because of logging and climate change, which in turn increases predator numbers (e.g. wolves). With all these additional predators on the landscape, more caribou become by-catch, driving some herds to extinction.

A short-term solution would be to kill wolves but this can be seen as just a band aid, and is no longer politically acceptable in many jurisdictions. As a more ultimate solution, Serrouya and colleagues used a new government policy and treated it as an experiment, to maximize learning. The new policy was to reduce moose numbers to levels that existed prior to widescale logging, with an adjacent reference area where moose were not reduced. The results of this research are published in an article titled "Experimental moose reduction lowers wolf density and stops decline of endangered caribou," and is published today in the peer reviewed and open access journal PeerJ.

Following the reduction of moose using sport hunting, wolf number numbers declined, with wolf dispersal rates 2.5 × greater than the reference area, meaning that dispersal was the process leading to fewer wolves. Caribou annual survival increased from 0.78 to 0.88 for the Columbia North herd, located in the moose reduction area, but survival declined in the reference area (Wells Gray). The Columbia North herd probably stabilized as a result of the moose reduction, and has been stable for 14 years (2003 - 2017). By expanding their comparison across western Canada and the lower 48 states, they found that a separate herd subjected to another moose reduction was also stable, whereas at least 15 other herds not subjected to moose reductions are continuing to decline.

The results obtained by Serrouya and colleagues are similar to other studies that used more controversial approaches. For example, in Alberta, 841 wolves were removed in the Little Smoky caribou herd over 7 years, but results were as good or better using the less controversial approach of reducing invasive prey (moose). But, population stability is insufficient to achieve recovery goals for caribou, which require population growth. This conclusion suggests that several limiting factors and management levers must be addressed simultaneously to achieve population growth for caribou.

These levers include habitat protection, reducing invading prey, and if needed, short-term and focused predator removal.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Baits may be bolstering bear populations



New research reveals that baits used by hunters have become a substantial portion of black bears' diets. In northern Wisconsin, over 40% of the diet of harvested animals consisted of bait subsidies.
The widespread availability and consumption of these calorically rich baits--often high-sugar foods, such as cookies, donuts, and candies--may be bolstering the bear population density in the region. 
Thirty states permit hunting black bears, 12 of which allow baiting prior to the opening of the hunting season. However, the findings indicate that the goals and consequences of baiting policies should be re-evaluated.
"It's not surprising that bears are eating bear bait, but what is notable is the extent. Not only are these bears consuming bait just before they are harvested, but also throughout their lifetimes, which makes them one of the most highly subsidized populations of bears," said Dr. Rebecca Kirby, lead author of the Journal of Wildlife Management study.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Study doesn't support theory red and eastern wolves are recent hybrids, researchers argue



A team led by University of Idaho researchers is calling into question a widely publicized 2016 study that concluded eastern and red wolves are not distinct species, but rather recent hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes. In a comment paper that will publish Wednesday, June 7, in the journal Science Advances, the team examines the previous study and argues that its genomic data and analyses do not definitively prove recent hybridization -- but rather provide support for the genetic and evolutionary distinctiveness of red and eastern wolves.

"The history of these species is complex and certainly contains evidence for hybridization in the past. The question is timing," said Paul Hohenlohe, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the UI College of Science and the lead author of the comment paper. "The data and analyses aren't actually a good test of recent vs. older hybridization. In fact, the data are consistent with red and eastern wolves having a long evolutionary history as distinct lineages."

Hohenlohe co-authored the paper with an interdisciplinary team that included co-lead author Linda Rutledge, a research associate in the biology department at Trent University in Ontario, Canada; Lisette Waits, a Distinguished Professor in UI's College of Natural Resources Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences; UI research scientist Jennifer Adams; UI postdoctoral researcher Kimberly Andrews; and other researchers from Trent, the University of Georgia and Northland College.

The team agrees with one conclusion of the previous study: Admixture is a part of the evolutionary history of North American canids, and conservation policy needs to take into account naturally occurring hybridization and population admixture. But they urge policymakers not to close the case on the origins of red and eastern wolves when making conservation decisions.

"Policymakers are making decisions about how much money, effort and energy to put into recovery and management efforts of the red wolf and eastern wolf," said Waits, who has served on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovery teams for the red wolf. "It is important for them to understand that the conclusions stated in the vonHoldt et al paper are not universally supported by the scientific community, and there are alternative interpretations and remaining questions about the evolutionary history of canids in North America."

The UI-led team addresses several concerns with the previous study, which was led by Princeton University's Bridgett vonHoldt and published in Science Advances in July 2016. The team questions the vonHoldt study's use of genomic data from a few individual coyotes and eastern wolves that may not be the best representatives of those groups, as well as the authors' conclusion that genomic data demonstrate a lack of unique ancestry in red and eastern wolves.

The team's review of the vonHoldt study's analyses of genomic data finds the data do not establish definitive evidence for a recent hybrid origin of red and eastern wolves, but rather are consistent with multiple evolutionary possibilities. These possibilities include red wolves originating from a hybridization event tens of thousands of years ago, or diverging as a distinct lineage as long as 100,000 years ago and experiencing some subsequent hybridization.

The UI-led team finds that other data from the previous study, such as the amount of unique genetic variation found only within red or eastern wolves, further support the genetic distinctiveness of these taxa.

Hohenlohe, Waits and their collaborators are conducting further analyses about red and eastern wolf origins, and expect to continue to generate new data and hypotheses about the evolutionary relationships among these species, the gray wolf and the coyote.

"Genomics is an exciting new contribution to wildlife conservation, but it brings with it a responsibility to provide a coherent interpretation of complex data within the context of natural history," Rutledge said. "This is especially important for species at risk of extinction where the consequences involve the permanent loss of evolutionary potential. We get closer to the evolutionary truth when we use a holistic approach that includes multiple sources of information."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Wolves need space to roam to control expanding coyote populations


Wolves and other top predators need large ranges to be able to control smaller predators whose populations have expanded to the detriment of a balanced ecosystem.

That's the main finding of a study appearing May 23 in Nature Communications that analyzed the relationship between top predators on three different continents and the next-in-line predators they eat and compete with. The results were similar across continents, showing that as top predators' ranges were cut back and fragmented, they were no longer able to control smaller predators.
"Our paper suggests it will require managing for top predator persistence across large landscapes, rather than just in protected areas, in order to restore natural predator-predator interactions," said co-author Aaron Wirsing, an associate professor at the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
Gray wolves historically lived across vast swaths of North America, particularly in the western states and Canadian provinces. Coyotes, a smaller predator kept in check by wolves, appear to have been scarce in areas once dominated by wolves. As human development shrank territories for wolves, however, the wolf populations became fragmented and wolves no longer had the numbers or space to control coyotes, whose populations in turn grew.
The same story is at play in Europe and Australia, where the researchers examined the relationship between gray wolves and golden jackals, and dingoes and red foxes, respectively. As with America, when the top predator's range was slashed, the second-tier predators ballooned and ecosystems became imbalanced.
"This research shows that apex predators like dingoes and wolves need large, continuous territories in order to effectively control the balance of their ecosystems," said lead author Thomas Newsome of Deakin University and the University of Sydney in Australia. "Humans need a greater tolerance of apex predators if we want to enjoy the environmental benefits they can provide."
Only in the northern regions of Canada and parts of Alaska do wolves still roam across the large landscapes they once occupied. Elsewhere in North America, patchwork conservation efforts have brought wolves back in areas such as Yellowstone National Park, the northern Rockies, and eastern Washington and Oregon. Though wolves are on the upswing in these regions, their populations are likely too isolated to control the pervasive coyote and other small predators.
In some areas, the increase in wolves is actually helping some predators that might be a couple of rungs lower on the food chain, like the red fox. But regardless of whether the presence of more wolves helps or hurts other predators, that effect is likely dampened when wolf populations are fragmented.
This calls into question what makes for effective conservation. At least for wolves, Wirsing said, prioritizing activities that connect landscapes and attempt to rejoin isolated populations should be considered, he said.
"This reframes the debate ? what we really need to do is connect areas if we want predators to play their historical roles," he said.
The researchers used bounty hunting data from all three continents to map the top predators' historical ranges. They then mapped the range over time for the three smaller predators, looking to see where they overlapped. The researchers found that top predators such as wolves and dingoes could suppress coyotes, red foxes and jackals only when the top predators lived at high densities and over large areas. Additionally, wolves and dingoes exert the most control closest to the core of their geographic range.
In places like Yellowstone and eastern Washington and Oregon, however, smaller wolf populations are too far removed from the remaining core of the species' distribution to really make a difference in controlling coyote numbers.
Fewer wolves aren't the only reason coyotes have proliferated everywhere in North America. Coyotes are generalists that can live almost anywhere and have basically followed humans, eating our food and, in some cases, household pets. There have even been sightings in many metropolitan areas, including downtown Chicago.
"Coyotes have essentially hitched a ride with people," Wirsing said. "Not only do we subsidize coyotes, but we also helped them by wiping out their predators ? wolves."
The researchers plan to test whether similar patterns occur for other species pairs that compete strongly. They also call for more research comparing the ecological role of top predators on the edge of their geographic range, especially in human-modified environments.
"It will be interesting to see the influence of large predators on smaller predators in other parts of the world, especially the role of the big cats such as jaguars, leopards, lions and tigers," said co-author William Ripple of Oregon State University.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Measuring the impact of a changing climate on threatened Yellowstone grizzly bears



Climate change is altering the environment in Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding region and scientists at the University of California San Diego and Unity College are studying its impacts on the diets of threatened grizzly bears.

A study published May 11 in PLOS ONE focused on modeling the diets of grizzly bears in Cooke City Basin, Montana, part of an area designated as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). Evidence from the team's research in the study area and a recent habitat-selection study by Montana State University indicates that grizzly bears continue to forage for whitebark pine seeds as a diet staple. Diet proportions derived from isotopic data, however, suggest that some bears could be responding to reductions in whitebark trees by consuming more plants and berries.
Once ubiquitous in western North America, the slow-growing whitebark pine trees have declined in recent decades and are now listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Warming temperatures have led to shorter and milder winters, increasing beetle infestations and further threatening whitebark pine mortality. Other potential food sources for grizzlies such as trout and ungulates have also declined in the region. 
"Whitebark pine trees have declined due to an introduced fungal disease called blister rust, and, more recently, to increased infestation by the mountain pine beetle, which is exacerbated by climate change," said study coauthor Carolyn Kurle, an assistant professor at UC San Diego's Division of Biological Sciences. "Such declines further highlight the need to monitor diets of grizzlies as the environment continues to change."
Lead author Jack Hopkins, a former postdoctoral researcher in Kurle's lab at UC San Diego and currently an assistant professor at Unity College, and his team measured stable isotopes in bear hair and related their abundances to those found in their foods.
"Stable isotope analysis is a powerful ecological tool for reconstructing the diets of animals," said Hopkins. "Instead of investigating the diets of animals based on what's eliminated (feces), we estimate the importance of major food sources to animals based on what's assimilated into their tissues. Using stable isotope analysis to conduct a retrospective diet analyses can shed light on how animals, such as Yellowstone grizzlies, have responded to changes in food availability on the landscape."
Previous research has shown that whitebark pine seeds--often cashed in large middens by red squirrels--are raided by grizzlies in the fall, fueling reproduction and ensuring the survival of grizzlies in the region. A main reason threatened grizzly bears have remained protected for decades is because it has not been clear how declines in whitebark pine trees, and thus the seeds they provide bears, will impact population trends over the long term.
Because their inferences are limited to a small area in the region and a small number of bears, the researchers recommend a large-scale study and urge others to use their new modeling framework to investigate the diets of other species of concern.
"Such analyses could be used to monitor grizzly bear recovery efforts and inform other wildlife conservation and management programs worldwide," Hopkins added.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Only two Isle Royale wolves


For the second year in a row, the Isle Royale wolf population remains a mere two. Researchers from Michigan Tech say that as the wolf population stays stagnant, the moose population will continue to grow at a rapid pace. And this could have a significant impact on the island's famed forests.
According to Rolf Peterson, a research professor at Michigan Tech and co-author of the report, the Isle Royale wolves are no longer serving their ecological function as the island's apex predator--the creature at the top of the food chain. With only two wolves left on the island, the moose population has grown to an estimated 1,600. 
Without wolf predation, says John Vucetich, a professor of ecology at Michigan Tech and report co-author, the moose population could double over the next three to four years. And more moose means more vegetation is eaten. The observations were reported in this year's Winter Study, which marks the 59th year of monitoring wolves and moose on Isle Royale, the longest running predator-prey study in the world. 
Wolf Genetics
Where have all the island wolves gone? The answer lies in genetics. The population crash on Isle Royale is the result of inbreeding--the remaining wolves are not only father and daughter, they are also half siblings who share the same mother.
Researchers believe the two have probably mated at least once in the past: in 2015, an approximately nine-month-old pup was spotted with the two adults. That pup, however, did not appear healthy. Researchers noted a visibly deformed tail, small stature and possibly abnormal posture. Peterson and Vucetich were not surprised when the pup failed to appear with the adults in 2016.
The remaining wolves are not expected to successfully reproduce in the future, either. Both animals are approaching old age--the female is seven years old and the male is nine--and no one can predict how much longer either wolf will live. Further complicating matters, the female wolf has been observed aggressively rejecting the male as a mate.
But even if the pair were to produce a healthy pup, it would likely have little impact on the Isle Royale ecosystem. In the case of these wolves, extreme inbreeding makes the population's natural recovery unlikely. The wolves' numbers started plummeting in 2009, declining by 88 percent from 24 to 2 wolves. Vucetich and Peterson believe this is a result of inbreeding, and all geneticists who have studied the situation agree that recovery is unlikely without new genetic material.
At the end of 2016, the National Park Service published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) to determine how best to manage the wolves on Isle Royale. The DEIS discussed four potential courses of action. According to the document, NPS would prefer a time-limited introduction of new wolves--up to 20 to 30 wolves selected to maximize both genetic diversity and restore predation to the ecosystem. NPS estimates that the process to introduce the number of wolves identified in the plan would take between three to five years. Public review of the document concluded in mid-March, and the NPS is reviewing all comments. A final decision is expected in the fall.
More Moose 
The 2017 moose census puts the Isle Royale herd at approximately 1,600 members. According to the report, the multiyear trend shows the moose population has been growing at a six-year average rate of 21.6 percent. Peterson and Vucetich credit this rapid growth to several factors: high reproduction rates, low rates of mortality due to wolf predation, mild winters and an abundance of forage. 
But this abundance of forage may not last. According to recent findings, under the island's current conditions, the moose population could double over the next three to four years. If this happens, the number of Isle Royale moose would reach an unprecedented high for the project's six-decade history. And this could result in high levels of browsing on the island's vegetation.
"Everything we're seeing on Isle Royale is consistent with our past understanding of the ecosystem's dynamics," says Vucetich. "We have every reason to expect the moose population will continue to grow and increasingly impact the forest."
Moose aren't the only Isle Royale residents experiencing a population boom with a dwindling number of wolves. The report notes that the number of beaver colonies has increased dramatically over the past six years, from approximately 100 to nearly 300. 
"Wolves are the only significant predator of beaver on Isle Royale," says Peterson. "Beaver were nearly extinct across North America 200 years ago. At Isle Royale, they're now at unprecedented levels."
With wolves no longer serving their predatory function, Isle Royale's ecosystem could soon look dramatically different.