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NY: Hanging out with wolves in Wilmington

By NAJ WIKOFF Lake Placid News
The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington held its annual Adirondack Habitat Awareness Day on Saturday that featured a lineup of speakers including Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager speaking about climate change, Dan Hall on evolution, and Christina Eisenberg, author of “The Carnivore Way and Wolf’s Tooth” on re-wilding the environment.

Located in the home of the late portrait artist Slayton Underhill that includes 50 acres of land along the West Branch of the AuSable River, the refuge is home to over forty raptors, a dozen mammals, and a variety of snakes, snapping turtles, and other reptiles with the mix changing based on what’s brought in and what is released back into the wild. There is also a variety of domestic animals which includes a goose who seems to feel he is on guard duty, several chickens, and a number of wild animals, a few ravens in particular, who seem to feel this is just a neat place to hang out and get a free meal from time to time.

Bringing it all together is Wendy and Steve Hall, their kids and extended family, and a devoted following of volunteers who operate an 24-7 emergency care unit for wildlife and an occasional exotic specie that shows up, a brightly colored golden pheasant originally from China being the latest import arriving from Keene, no doubt some pet that got loose. Activities are not restricted to the refuge itself as they are constantly giving educational presentations in schools and other venues as part of their ongoing effort to educate humans about the neighbors in their back yard who have needs and whose well-being is critical to our own.

A major focus of this year was on the importance of predators, the kind that Hollywood and fiction writers love to demonize, such as wolves. Skins of one of the last pairs of timber wolves in the Adirondacks hung on the wall of parent’s ski lodge Happy Jack’s Bar. These two had been shot by my great-grandfather the guide Harvey Alford subsequent to the famous Reuben Cary which wolf dispatched by him in 1899 and now displayed at the Adirondack Museum. The skins of Alford’s pair were sewn and mounted together to create a two-tailed and two-headed blanket, a marvel to all who saw it.

“We have three wolves, three foxes, two bobcats, the lynx, porcupines, coati, and a few others,” said Steve Hall. “We have three eagles, an osprey, we must have six red-tailed hawks, four great-horned owls, four barred owls, a couple screech owls, and couple saw-whet owls – a lot of owls. We specialize in predators. Their life is very simple. Can you make a living? Can you hunt? If you can’t, the bad news is you could end up living with us in an enclosure. The great news is you get exercised every day. The really great news is since starvation is the number one killer of all wildlife you’re going to live twice as long as you would in the wild. Animals in nature don’t die of old age, except some elephants and that’s becoming rare because of increased poaching of ivory.

“In my opinion, the great-horned owl is the greatest predator that has ever lived in terms of efficiency pound for pound, feather for feather. In the wild, they live for fifteen years, with us 30 years easily. Wolves are lucky to reach their fifth birthday in the wild. If you are a wolf your job is to attack animals that are anywhere from your size to 20 times your size. Good luck with that. The day comes and you picked the wrong moose and the moose kills you, and that happens all the time.”

“My work as a scientist and the message that’s through the books that I write is that re-wilding landscapes by restoring the top carnivores will create eco systems that are far healthier and far more resilient to things like climate change,” said scientist and author Cristina Eisenberg.

Eisenberg described how watching the impact of wolves moving into the land where she lived dramatically changed the natural environment within a few short years.

“We used to sit there in the evenings watching deer and elk browsing very peacefully in our meadow eating scrubs and young trees. We thought this was so lovely. I wasn’t an ecologist then and I didn’t know that there was something really wrong with this picture. The wolves came back and the deer and elk had to get really wary to stay alive, they couldn’t standing around eating and looking like lawn ornaments or domestic livestock. They now had to take a quick bite, put their head up, look around, and move on. Within a few years all the shrubs they had mowed down to ankle height grew up and when that happened all these songbirds returned because the shrubs now provided a home for them.

“The wolves would eat about one deer or elk a week and they could adjust to that with out any significant decline in their population. So what we got was a system that had greater biodiversity, a lot more energy running through it because the wolves might kill an elk, but then all these eagles would show up the feed on the carcass, and grizzly bears too. The whole system became a lot more resilient, healthy, and vibrant.

“This place, the Adirondacks, has very precious places of biodiversity, live vernal pools and mountain plant communities found nowhere else. By re-wilding this place we can insure those communities of plants and those special habitats will continue to exist for hundreds of more years. If we don’t re-wild the Adirondacks, it is very likely that by the year 2100 some of those species and communities will be gone. Top carnivores can help make ecosystems a lot more resilient and able to adapt and adjust to climate change.”

“I have gone on calls with Wendy,” said Laura Dikovsky Smith. “I’ve watched her shove fish down a great blue heron’s throat to get this heron eating again. It’s outstanding to watch what they do. It’s 24 hours a day for a while to get those animals back on track. What they have done is created such awareness with the public that the educational benefits have been just incredible. They’ve got a great relationship with hunters, with so many people, it’s just tremendous.”

“It’s been the busiest rehab season I have ever seen in my 40 years in this business,” said Wendy Hall. “The day went great. Tons of people showed up. The release of the merlin, the banding of the other birds, the presentations on the goshawk went very well, and our Facebook page is filled with positive reviews of the day. Our purpose and goals are pretty simple, connectivity between species and habitat. We use the species that we can’t rehab to do outreach presentations on the conservation of their habitat, the environment, the connectivity, and co-existing between humans and wildlife, which is the big thing for me. If we can’t co-exist we will loose our diversity and that would be tragic for a myriad of reasons.”

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