Scientists urge wildlife officials to reintroduce wolves to local landscapes

ITHACA, N.Y. — Wolves often get a bad reputation as predators who gobble up local livestock and threaten people living nearby. On the other hand, many environmental advocates argue that wolves and other predators help to restore the order in local ecosystems. Now, a new study says wildlife officials should reintroduce wolves to local landscapes — even though both of these beliefs likely won’t come true!

“The hopes and fears that we have on both sides of the debate – neither are realized. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow the wolves, the mountain lions, to return to their traditional landscapes – they’re a part of it,” says Cornell conservation biologist Bernd Blossey, professor of natural resources and the environment in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in a university release.

“Based on the currently available evidence (not just from the United States) large predators, despite their ability to kill ungulates and livestock, will not eliminate deer, threaten people or lead to intolerable losses of livestock – the myths,” the study authors add. “On the other hand, large predators are unlikely to right all wrongs humans have inflicted on ecosystems – the wishful thinking.”

Are wolves really bad for local ecosystems?

When it comes to the myths surrounding these predators, researchers say there’s actually little evidence that wolves, bears, and mountain lions pose a major threat to ungulate populations — including white-tailed deer, mule deer, and elk.

When the U.S. government took the wolf off the endangered species list, however, hunters, livestock producers, and even government officials in certain states called for action to combat a “threat” to local wildlife.

Despite those fears, study authors say it’s nearly impossible to validate the claims. Moreover, they add that several other factors contribute to the death of livestock, including lightning strikes, extreme weather, parasites, diseases, and poor conditions for foraging and breeding.

The team adds that there are easier ways of protecting local livestock from wolves. Those include hiring more staff, deploying guard dogs, and adding more fencing. Moreover, the study finds local hunters don’t have to worry about wolves competing with them for deer. In fact, U.S. deer populations are at historic highs, thanks in part to humans providing these animals with ideal living conditions in recent years.

“What we do to landscapes, whether that’s forestry, agriculture or gardening, provide deer with a perfect landscape for them to live in,” Blossey says. “Hunters don’t remove enough deer, cars don’t remove enough. Their populations exploded, because the living conditions were just absolutely wonderful.”

So, are wolves really good for local ecosystems?

As for the wishful thinking some conservationists express when talking about bringing back wolf populations, the study finds little evidence this will happen too. Researchers say that when wolves and other predators are around, deer and other herbivores simply wait to graze when they’re off resting. Therefore, wolves would not provide much help in controlling soaring wildlife populations.

“Meaningfully reducing deer populations in Wisconsin alone would require tens of thousands of wolves, at least temporarily until deer populations decline – an ecologically and socially impossible scenario,” the authors explain.

Additionally, Blossey says wolves can’t undo the ecological damage humans are causing all by themselves. Although the video “How wolves change rivers” may be wildly popular online, receiving over 43 million views, Blossey says reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park did not miraculously save the entire ecosystem.

“I was as fooled like everybody else by the lovely stories that came out of Yellowstone saying, you bring wolves back, and you restore the rivers, and everything’s hunky-dory,” the study author continues. “Once I started digging like an archaeologist into the literature, I found things that were not supportive of what I thought I knew.”

Instead, other factors including hunters, grizzly bears, mountain lions, bison, beaver, rainfall patterns, climate, and the quality and quantity of vegetation appear to have also helped Yellowstone. With all that in mind, researchers say wolves should return to the U.S. landscape — but people shouldn’t expect this to lead to some drastic ecological change.

“As long as people learn to live with and tolerate the new (old) neighbors,” the authors conclude, “a careful but not fully conflict-free existence appears possible.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science.

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