Wolf population management – problems in every direction

The wolf is currently quite the hot potato in Finland. In fact, wolves are such a burning topic, that finding neutral information on the current state of the species and on hunting it can be difficult.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_wolf

Wolf pup in Polar Park, Norway. © Sari Holopainen

Wolves form packs of several individuals to optimize their ability to hunt moose and deer, their staple food. A pack is run by an alpha pair, or a male and female wolf that have mated for life. The other individuals in a pack do not produce offspring, and young individuals may wander between packs to find mates or raise their position in the hierarchy. Alpha pairs are what keep a pack together.

The wolf is designated an endangered (EN) species in Finland, and strictly protected in the European Union (EU). The Finnish wolf population grew during the early 2000s, due to increased protection and additional individuals moving in from Russia. This increased both the incidence of damage caused by wolves (e.g. to hunting dogs) and the number of wolf sightings around human habitation, leading to dissatisfaction in wolf conservation measures and increased poaching. The wolf population began declining in 2007 due to widespread poaching, which in turn angered conservation organizations and the EU. Since then the wolf population size has seesawed back and forth, and confrontations between various interest groups have escalated.

To alleviate the wolf conflict, the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry decided to implement a two-year trial wolf hunt in 2015–2016, aimed to control the population. The effects of the cull will be evaluated after this period. The trial cull is based on a wolf management plan, which attempts to incorporate both the requirements of people living in wolf territory and that of wolf conservation. The management plan is territory-based, meaning all actions are planned per wolf pack and territory.

The management plan determines the smallest viable wolf population as 25 breeding pairs. The Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) will produce an estimate for the country’s total wolf population, and based on this evaluation the Ministry determines the largest yearly quota that can be culled using population control permits. However, this quota does not automatically have to be reached.

Population control permits are granted for hunting young individuals, which most likely have the smallest impact on the vitality of a pack. These permits can also be granted for hunting problematic individuals that e.g. repeatedly enter yards or come close to humans. Population control permits can only be granted to target wolf packs that produce litters, or in special conditions on packs in areas where the species has a stronghold. In addition to population control permits, wolves can also be hunted with special permits granted for damage control or by law enforcement. These two permit types are granted only when dealing with problem wolves.

Wolf population fluctuations and management will continue to cause problems in the future. Various interest groups have lost trust in each other and in the Ministry’s wolf management plan. Accommodating both the protection and management of an extremely endangered top predator is very difficult in a situation where said species also causes damage to and fear in certain interest groups. Additionally, protecting the Finnish forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus), another extremely endangered species, requires straightforward action plans in terms of the wolf. Population levels of the Finnish forest reindeer are believed to have suffered because of the dense wolf population in the district of Kainuu.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_wolf_hunting_management

Wolf in Polar Park, Norway. © Sari Holopainen

The complete protection of the wolf, a management regime in practice at the beginning of the 2000s, obviously failed to work. The population grew initially, but was quickly bulldozed by unsustainable poaching. The population decreased up to 15% a year between 2006 and 2010. The population was approximately 250–270 individuals at the end of 2006, but by the end of 2007 the level had dropped to 200. Complete protection of the species crossed a line in Finnish society, after which poaching was used as an excuse for preventing future damage – a situation that should not be allowed to form. Returning to a similar conservation model would require intensive intervention to stop poaching.

The two-year trial cull was completed at the end of February. Luke evaluated the Finnish wolf population at 220–245 individuals prior to the trial period in 2015. Two hunting seasons later, in March 2016, population levels were estimated at 200–235 individuals. When looking solely at these numbers, the cull has managed to keep the population fairly level. However, 43 wolves were shot during the two-year cull, and over half of these (24) were over two-year-old individuals. It is easy to see that the cull has not met its goal of only targeting young individuals. In fact, a staggering 21% of the culled individuals were alphas. And this level may still increase once age determination is complete for all the culled individuals. Such a high number is unsustainable in terms of future hunting management.

Culling each of these alphas has either caused the weakening or disbanding of a pack, leading to higher numbers of individuals or small groups of wolves roaming around unable to optimize their hunting. This is exactly the way to create more problem wolves that willingly come close to human habitation or begin killing hunting dogs. Additionally, several worrying cases have surfaced, where wolves have intentionally been driven towards habitation or have been deliberately wounded to gain more population control or damage control permits for hunting these “problem individuals”. The goal of the wolf management plan is to uphold a viable population in Finland, but at this current rate, the trial wolf cull also appears to have failed.

What next? The future of the wolf cull will be determined during the fall of 2016. The wolf is obviously a species that causes so many societal conflicts, errors in management, and people taking the law into their own hands, that we need to question whether the wolf should remain a species that can be hunted by the general public. Nevertheless, the wolf population does need both management and protection in the future. Perhaps Finland should consider a model where wolf hunting is carried out solely by the (game) authorities. The population control process could remain the same as before, which would allow the cull of problematic individuals and the regulation of pack sizes. But the professional skills of the proper authorities would ensure that overreactions and the killing of alpha individuals could be prevented, which in the long-term could help stabilize the whole population and mitigate wolf-human conflicts.

Advertisements

Hunters and conservationists – with shared cause

Do hunters conserve nature? This seemingly controversial issue seems to be a source of never-ending debate. I recently found a text discussing this issue, published in the “Finnish Nature” (Suomen Luonto) magazine as early as 1944. While conservationists and hunters may sometimes be in direct conflict, some shared targets were recognized already in 1944.

Extensive red fox hunting makes it possible for the rare arctic fox to breed successfully in Sweden and Norway. Red fox in an arctic fox habitat in Varanger Peninsula, northern Norway. © Sari Holopainen

Extensive red fox hunting makes it possible for the rare arctic fox to breed successfully in Sweden and Norway. Red fox in an arctic fox habitat in Varanger Peninsula, northern Norway. © Sari Holopainen

O. Hytönen (1944) raised the very same observations that are still apparent. Although hunters kill animals, prey animal populations should not be eradicated by responsible hunting practices. Some hunting actions are straightly connected to nature conservation, such as feeding animals during harsh winters, habitat management and predator control. Currently discussed effect of trophy hunting as an important conservation tool in development countries is an example of an indirect connection: by paying for hunting permits hunters help to maintain local animal diversity. As noted in a recently published paper, banning of trophy hunting can lead to exacerbating biodiversity loss.

In 1953 “Finnish Nature” (Suomen Luonto) published another text on the subject, this time written by G. Bergman. Bergman wrote that the relationships between hunters and conservationists has not always been smooth in Finland, or in other Nordic countries, while no benefits could be gained from these conflicts. Bergman noted that modern game management has several shared principles with nature conservation. He also pointed out that nature conservation and hunting have successfully been managed together in the US. As during Bergman’s times, Europe is still somehow on separate paths, and the situation has become particularly inflamed in some countries. Ironically, Bergman wrote that if we refuse to understand the interests of others, nature conservation aims may be disturbed.

The good old American way

What were the good manners already mentioned by Bergman in America? Maybe he meant the Federal Duck Stamp system established already in 1934. All US hunters must buy a Duck Stamp on a yearly basis, however, whoever can get one. With this small cost the buyers contribute to bird habitat conservation. The US Fish and Wildlife Service advertises that the stamp is “among the most successful conservation tools ever created to protect habitat for birds and other wildlife”. About 1 500 000 stamps are bought yearly, and 98% of the profits are given to the National Wildlife Refuge System for wetland conservation.

Coldwater River National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi provides great circumstances for wintering ducks. The park is protected, but bird watching is aloud in some parts of the park. Duck hunting is possible outside the park in private lands. © Sari Holopainen

Coldwater River National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi provides great circumstances for wintering ducks. The park is protected, but bird watching is aloud in some parts of the park. Duck hunting is possible outside the park in private lands. © Sari Holopainen

Another traditional American actor smoothly combining conservation and hunting is Ducks Unlimited (DU), founded by a group of hunters in 1937. DU targets habitat conservation, and is now claimed to be the world’s largest and most effective private waterfowl and wetlands conservation organization according to their website. Most DU members are still hunters.

The land of a thousand lakes

Wetlands have been destroyed for a long time due to differing human interests, also in Finland. Some areas have been lost altogether, while some have lost their value due to e.g. vegetation overgrowth. We still have many lakes left, but shallow eutrophic lakes – the waterbird lakes – are the ones that have been lost most often. Hunters are a group with an interest to construct and restore wetlands. According to a report by the Finnish Wildlife Agency, hunters have constructed or restored about 2 000 wetlands during the past decades. In addition to benefitting game animals, the entire ecosystem benefits. Wetlands also offer several other ecosystem services, including water purification and erosion control.

Many wetlands have been established in Finland to support game animals. Saarikko-wetland in southern Finland is a small, yet very productive duck habitat constructed by the REAH-project (active management of game animal habitats). © Sari Holopainen

Many wetlands have been established in Finland to support game animals. Saarikko-wetland in southern Finland is a small, yet very productive duck habitat constructed by the REAH-project (active management of game animal habitats). © Sari Holopainen

Methods matter

Sometimes hunting itself supports animal populations. For example, hunters can help to maintain animal communities through ecosystem engineering pushed by hunting and the co-evolution of animals and humans. In 2013 a scientific paper showed that in Australia Aboriginal hunting was one of the cornerstones supporting monitor lizard populations. Monitor lizards occur most densely in areas where they are hunted, because of the hunting method used; the burning method creates a patchy mosaic of regrowth in the landscape. In areas with no hunters, occasional lightning strikes burn land in a more homogenous way, and thus also lizards are scarcer. The same practice might also benefit several other desert species. However, in many cases Aboriginals have lost their traditional hunting possibilities, and the loss of these traditional practices sustaining habitats might have contributed to decreasing populations of several desert animal species.

While the debate between hunting and nature conservation has already lasted a long time, and is still on-going, common targets have been raised throughout the process by cooperative actors of both sides. There has always been, and currently still are, differing hunting methods for concerning conservational effects, but it is self-evident that all these practices are not against conservation targets.

Read more:

Enrico Di Minin, Nigel Leader-Williams & Corey J.A. Bradshaw: Banning Trophy Hunting Will Exacerbate Biodiversity Loss. 2015. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Online.

Connecting Aboriginal Land Use Management Strategies, Mammal Extinction Rates and Shifts in Fire Regimes in a Changing Climate: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Inform Conservation Strategies for Threatened Species in the Australian Western Desert

An interdisciplinary approach to understanding the role of anthropogenic fire in the desert grasslands of Australia

Eradicating species – an occasional necessity

If Finland is to obey the EU strategy on Invasive Alien Species (IAS), 10 000 North American beavers (Castor Canadensis) are to come under the trigger. Why is this eradication necessary?

Although invasive alien species, e.g. the American mink (Neovison vison), the ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) and the Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), may seem adorable and interesting novelties, they nearly always threaten the survival of native species. Invasive alien species are harmful to agriculture and forestry, and at their worst can even threaten human health. Sometimes we face the inevitable: the eradication of an animal or plant species.

The most efficient way to minimize the risks is to prevent it spreading to an area in the first place. Australia is probably the most famous example of preventing the spread of alien species, as they even clean the shoes of tourists at the airport before allowing them into the country. Unfortunately no nation has been successful in averting the spread of IAS.

Not that a tough fight isn’t being fought the new EU strategy on invasive alien species took effect earlier this year.

The main aim of the strategy is to aggregate a list of the most pernicious invasive alien species and to repulse them in different ways. Finland has 160 harmful IAS. Whether each of them will be on the EU’s black list remains unclear.

The North American beaver is first in line

The North American beaver is one of the most potential mammal alternatives for the list. The species was brought to Finland in the 1930s to save Finland’s beaver population. Back then the genetic differences between European and North American beavers were unknown, although we now know that the species differ even more than humans and chimpanzees.

The niches of both species are identical. They eat the same nutrition and their damming activities are the same. Both species have identical effects on ecosystems.

There are approximately 12 000 beavers in Finland. Most of them (10 000) are North American beavers, while European beavers comprise only a fifth of the North American beaver population. The North American beaver threatens the existence of the European beaver in Finland. It might eventually competitively exclude the European beaver. Adhering to the precautionary principle and seriously considering eradicating the North American beaver from Finland and Eurasia is essential. An eradication plan has nevertheless been conspicuously absent. An eradication plan for North American beavers would abide to the guidelines of both the IUCN’s and Finland’s National Strategy on Invasive Alien Species.

How to eradicate a species in practice?

A large scale eradication of the North American beaver is possible, at least in theory. Several possible methods could be used simultaneously, such as hunting, live capture, sterilization, reintroduction of the European beaver and population monitoring.

Beaver hunting is also financially tempting. Beaver furs have once again become popular in China, so their markets have a demand for beaver furs. After the sterilization or dead trapping of North American beavers, they should be replaced with European beavers.

But this is not a straightforward process. Although the two species differ genetically, they have a similar effect on the ecosystem. Beavers act as ecosystem engineers and benefit several other species in Finland and elsewhere. The present population size of the North American beaver ameliorates e.g. the green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus), the moor frog (Rana arvalis) and the Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii). However, if all North American beaver individuals were removed and replaced by European beavers, the eradication would be harmless to Finnish nature. Unfortunately, there is nothing to guarantee the success of the reintroductions.

Finland must begin eradication if the North American beaver is placed on the EU strategy plan on Invasive Alien Species. The activity of citizens and hunters will determine the eradication outcome. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in concert with the Finnish Advisory Board for Invasive Alien Species are in charge of the decisions and eradication procedures.

Where do the ducks come from? (The European view)

Ducks and geese can be seen in huge flocks and high densities in the temperate zone during the winter. Both are also heavily hunted in their wintering areas. But during the summer, many of the ducks and geese head far north, to the taiga and tundra, to breed in very low densities. They spread out into the millions of wetlands located at high latitudes. Ducklings are reared in barren wetlands, where food limits their survival.

Ducks that breed far, far away in north

Boreal wetlands are the main breeding areas for several European duck species. Without Russian breeders, over 90% of the common teals and common goldeneyes breed in boreal area covering Finland, Norway and Sweden. In addition, more than half of the European goosanders, red-breasted mergansers, pintails, wigeons and tufted ducks breed in these three countries.

Picture Seppo Leinonen www.seppo.net

Picture Seppo Leinonen www.seppo.net

Large share of the ducks hunted in western and southern Europe is thus originated from the boreal wetlands. Guillemain et al. (2014) conducted an isotope research of the teals hunted in France during the winter. These small ducks turned out to spend their summers mainly in the area reaching from Finland to Siberia. Teals are thus mainly produced in the boreal biome, but most of them are hunted in the temperate zone. Such source – harvest area – knowledge is not concerned in the European duck management, but in North America the process is better known, and work as a tool of the adaptive harvest management.

Changing boreal wetlands

It is expected that climate change will affect the wetlands, especially in the boreal biome, where the warming is rapid (IPCC). Alaskan wetlands are currently becoming smaller and their quality from the biodiversity and productivity perspective is declining. Some areas in Russia are expected to suffer drought while some should get more precipitation. How these changes affect the biota of the wetlands, especially concerning seasonal wetlands, is poorly known. In addition to the direct changes in the wetland habitats, the changing phenology of the spring due to climate warming might cause a miss-match phenomenon with ducks and their invertebrate food. Invertebrate availability is especially important for the females before egg-laying and for the young ducklings. If the phenology of ducks and invertebrates differs, it might have a negative effect to the ducks breeding success. However, an increasing temperatures might compensate the lack of food to some extent.

Wintering population of tufted duck has increased 24 797% in Finland. At the same time the populations in Western European countries have declined ~40% (Lehikoinen et al. 2013). © Sari Holopainen

Wintering population of tufted duck has increased 24 797% in Finland. At the same time the populations in Western European countries have declined ~40% (Lehikoinen et al. 2013). © Sari Holopainen

The numbers of wintering ducks in the boreal are increasing due to a milder winter climate. Several species that were scarcely wintering in Finland some decades ago are now common and numerous. Correspondingly their numbers in their old wintering sites have decreased. Some migratory species might not reach their old wintering areas anymore; a phenomenon that has been observed for instance in the UK. This shift in wintering areas will affect the quarries of the species in question.

 

Read more

Guillemain et al. 2013: Effects of climate change on European ducks: what do we know and what do we need to know? Wildlife Biology

 

Preserving by killing?

Conflicts between humans and space demanding big game make sustainable management difficult. This is because sustainability must be reached at three level to be successful: ecological, economic and social. Problems are caused especially by big predators, which test local people tolerance. One possibility to reach sustainability of all three aspects is to use ecosystem services animals’ offer. This way a value is given for the animal. However, using animals for commercial purposes might be controversial.

Wolf puppies in Polar Park in Norway are familiarized with humans already in early stage. They also get used to visitors and their habits, for example photographing. Thus, later one they won’t stress about park visitors. © Sari Holopainen

Wolf puppies in Polar Park in Norway are familiarized with humans already in the early stage. They also get used to visitors and their habits, for example photographing. Thus, later one they won’t stress about park visitors. © Sari Holopainen

Commercial use of animals, watching and especially hunting is controversial issue especially for nature conservationists. Many people think this kind of use is cruel (see e.g. Kevin Richardson). Common anger has risen in social media after pictures (by young western women) about sport hunting in Africa, both in North America (story in Fox News), and Europe (The Independent). Question raised is, how can one protect animals by hunting them.

During the human history, many big animals have been hunted to extinction. The sad fact is, that with current rate of killing, outside the reserves many large mammals of Africa and South-East Asia will be extinct during the next few decades. Currently some species are numerous in ranches, where they offer ecosystem services, like trophy hunting. This is the case for many African species like white rhinos, lions and grazing antelopes.

Cheetah population has dropped to emergency low after losing its habitats and poaching by livestock owning farmers. Could trophy hunting be the solution? Cheetah in Base Zoo.  © Sari Holopainen

Cheetah population has dropped to emergency low after habitat loss and poaching by livestock owning farmers. Could trophy hunting be the solution? Cheetah in Basel Zoo. © Sari Holopainen

Many people see commercial farms as the only way to preserve big game of Africa, because preserving is expensive and requires constant fight against poaching. Responsible trophy hunting might be a tool for successful conservation (Save the Rhino). Outside the ranches animals could get killed by poachers or enraged local people. For instance, inside the ranches less than a hundred white rhinos are hunted every year, whereas outside the farms the number is around thousand. To put the numbers in frames, there are c. 5000 ranched white rhinos, and the rest 15 000 are in national parks. Due to poaching, rhinos have poorer surveillance in national parks, even though they are guarded (Reuters). So far commercial hunting in ranches has been sustainable, and the number of rhinos is increasing.

If an animal has a value, it is beneficial to use it in sustainable way. This is what has worked in Africa, and is now suggested by Finnish game managers. Currently in Finland wolves are causing conflicts. Even though wolves where totally protected during several years, their number decreased due to poaching. In a debate many stakeholders brought up an idea, that wolves should gain their value. Another Finnish carnivore, brown bear, is already valuable game and its population size is sustainable. It is suggested, that if people are legally allowed to hunt, they would tolerate wolves better. Small scale hunting could replace uncontrollable poaching, and wolf population could increase to sustainable size again.

Ecosystem services of predators exploited by Wildlife Safaris Finland. Bears, wolves, wolverines and eagles are attracted by carcasses to certain places where people can photograph them. © Sari Holopainen

Ecosystem services of predators exploited by Wildlife Safaris Finland. Bears, wolves, wolverines and eagles are attracted by carcasses to certain places where people can photograph them. © Sari Holopainen

In an imaginary world all the species, even predators, could roam free and humans would let them be. But in real world one must work in those frames that are given. Large animals and humans are easily in conflict. To prevent total eradication local people must get some profit from the animal. If incomes are depended on animals’ sustainable use, sustainable management should be in ones best interest.

More in Finnish:

WWF: Afrikan metsästysmatkat voivat olla myös hyödyksi. Helsingin Sanomat 2.9.2014.