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NY: Should we bring wolves and cougars back to the Adirondack wilderness?

Up until two hundred years ago, wolves and cougars vitalized the ecologic landscape of the Adirondack Park, flourishing throughout New York as the state’s largest predators. Unrestricted hunting and bounties drove these animals to the north, to the west, and into the ground in the 19th century. Today, experts debate the viability of the Park as a potential habitat for the recolonization of these predatory species, in the interest of restoring balance to the Adirondack food chain.

Algonquin Park wolves. Photo: <a href="">JDB Photos</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Algonquin Park wolves. Photo: JDB Photos, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

News intern Charlotte Crawford spoke with Peter Bauer, the executive director of the wilderness preservation group Protect the Adirondacks, about the idea of scientists working to re-introduce wolves or cougars. The organization is calling on the DEC to amend their most recent Wildlife Action Plan, which doesn’t call for new research into the feasibility of predator reintroduction.

Potential impact on North Country economy and ecology

Charlotte Crawford: In what ways would the reintroduction of wolves and cougars benefit the ecology of the Adirondacks?

Peter Bauer: If you look at what happened in Yellowstone, there have been some significant changes, in ways that scientists never anticipated, from the reintroduction of wolves. It used to be that elk browsed wildly through Yellowstone Park, and a lot of the river corridors were denuded of riverside vegetation, but once wolves were reintroduced that changed the browsing habits of elk. They stopped going down to the riverside to graze because it was a very vulnerable place for attack by wolves, and what happened is all along the riverside, shrubs and small trees reappeared, and once the shrubs and small trees started to grow in, the birds came back. Once the birds came back, nesting in those shrubs and small trees, small rodents came back, and once the small rodents came back, foxes and coyotes came to hunt them.

I imagine there would be similar types of very subtle yet profound changes on the ecological landscape of the Adirondacks.

CC: Would you say that there might also be some beneficial consequences for the economy?

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. Photo: Protect the Adirondacks

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks. Photo: Protect the Adirondacks

PB: Well, this time of year Algonquin Park [in Ontario has] hundreds of cars at night lining the roads to hear the wolf howls at night. You go out to Yellowstone today and the single biggest reason that people are coming to Yellowstone is to try and see the wolves. So I think there certainly could be a significant economic value to this type of reintroduction. It would be a major event, and a highly visible event, probably the biggest event in the Adirondacks since the winter Olympics if wolves were returned to the North Country.

CC: Can I ask what you might say to those who feel that their property or their animals might be endangered by such predatory wildlife?

PB: Anybody who is concerned about their livestock, that is a genuine concern. There have been a number of programs put in place to protect both the wildlife and the livestock on both sides of the fence, all around Yellowstone. Payments for livestock that were injured or were killed as a result of wolves, changes in some barnyard practices for the disposal of dead animals so that the wolves did not become habituated to eating the carcasses. So there are a number of things that could be put in place, but clearly protection of livestock would certainly have to be a priority, and we’ve learned a lot from the Yellowstone experience.

Restoration or recolonization?

CC: The DEC’s 2005 Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy called for additional studies of the social and biological feasibility of restoring cougars and wolves, before restoration work could begin. Do you know what their findings were?

PB: They didn’t get very far, and unfortunately that same language does not exist in the 2010 plan. To undertake a serious study on the ecologic viability of the park to support a wolf or cougar population is no small undertaking. We need to look at the ecologic viability of the Adirondacks to support wolves and cougars, we also need to look at the social acceptance—what it would take to build support for the reintroduction of wolves and cougars, and also the potential economic impacts. These would be multi-year, very complicated studies that would be scrutinized heavily by the public, as well as by the peers of the scientific folks that are leading this effort.

DEC has some very good wildlife biologists but they would certainly need the help of various organizations and various academic institutions to do a comprehensive study. We’re hoping not only to see that language restored, but also hoping to see meaningful studies move ahead, and just organizing for the studies would be a large feat for the DEC.

CC: The Adirondack Council claims that the Adirondacks have viable habitat for the natural reestablishment of these predators [without human intervention]. Would you say that that’s untrue?

PB: I think it’s going to be a very tall order for the natural recolonization of wolves and cougars. It’s open season on any wolves that come out of Algonquin Park. That means that they can be hunted 365 days a year and they can be hunted in a variety of measures, some of which are illegal in the U.S., such as snares. So it’s going to be extremely difficult for a wolf to travel the couple hundred miles through this landscape to get across the St. Lawrence River and into the Adirondacks. Some have certainly done it, there have certainly been lone wolves, but it’s going to be very difficult for an intact pack. And the restoration would take the release of several intact packs into the Adirondacks. So we just don’t think that natural recolonization is a viable long-term strategy for wolves.

Young, male cougar in a tree in northwest Wisconsin. Photo: <a href="">Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Young, male cougar in a tree in northwest Wisconsin. Photo: Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

For cougars, the odds are even higher. There are fewer cougars that are venturing east, and while there still are significant reports all through the Mississippi Valley of cougars getting hit by cars, cougars getting captured by wildlife agencies, being captured on backyard video cameras, cougar tracks and cougar scat being found regularly, these are often the proverbial “lone male.” It’s very rare that a female ventures far and wide looking for new territory or looking for a mate. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to see females make it to the Adirondacks, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to see enough males and females make it here at the same time to establish a breeding population

Can large predators be effectively protected?.

CC: So if [the DEC] were reintroduce wolves or cougars, do you think that [state officials] would be able to protect them?

PB: They would be monitored very closely. Clearly there would be people who would injure the animals, who would be dealt with, but I would certainly hope that through a robust public education effort, we can allay people’s fears and we can try and build public excitement about what a terrific opportunity this would be—to restore the keystone species to the Adirondack park. I think the upsides are far greater than the downsides for the environment as well as the economy of the park. I think we could build public support for that in a way that, hopefully, will limit any urges by people who may want to harm them.

Impact on current predators

CC: Some researchers believe that New York State’s robust coyote population has compensated, at least in part, for the lack of big carnivores like wolves and cougars. How would those different species interact with or influence each other upon reintroduction?

PB: Well, we don’t know exactly what would happen. The prediction is that coyotes have been able to thrive in the Adirondacks because of the absence of wolves. You have to remember that part of the wolf population in Algonquin Park, the eastern grey wolf, is a hybrid with coyotes. Some rightfully ask, should we take a wolf in Algonquin park that’s 70% wolf and 30% coyote, and bring it to the Adirondacks to displace or impact coyotes that are 30% wolf and 70% coyote? The other thinking on wolves is that if you brought in intact packs, those packs would remain as social units in and of themselves, and they would displace coyotes, and they would hunt coyotes, and they would kill coyotes. When I talked about the snare hunting that captures entire packs outside of Algonquin, it’s frizzy stuff but it’s been fascinating for scientists because they can examine these animals. When somebody captures 4, 5, or 6 wolves at one time and they can do a DNA analysis, what they find is that you’ve got wolves that are nearly 100% wolf in a pack and then you’ve got other animals that are half-wolf, half-coyote. That could happen here, we just don’t know, but we do know that the release of an intact pack is the best way to pursue a restoration. But that’s not something that we have a lot of examples to point to east of the Mississippi, so it’s really a lot of educated guesswork.

CC: Would you say that there are any potentially negative consequences of manipulating this artificially, to fix a problem that we created to begin with?

PB: Well, it’s too bad we never talk about what the negative consequences are for artificially manipulating the landscape when we talk about clear cutting or major housing developments or putting in new roads and shopping centers, or spewing things into the atmosphere. Clearly, we would look at this more as a restoration rather than an artificial manipulation. Wolves were eliminated because they were hunted off the landscape. All through the late 19th century, after the Civil War into the early 20th century, there were wolf bounties in all of the Adirondack counties. So wolves did not cease to exist in the Adirondack landscape because they somehow could not function here—they were hunted off of the landscape, and that clearly is an artificial manipulation.

The changes from that are very significant, and we think that this, far from being some type of manipulation, it’s really a restoration, and to restore wolves to this landscape is really a way to complete and perfect the ecologic order.

CC: So you’re saying that it’s one of hopefully many steps that we’re going to take to reverse the damage that we’ve done?

PB: Well, right. I mean, right now in the Adirondacks we’ve protected a landscape that was heavily damaged in the 19th century from over cutting and from large forest fires that occurred as a byproduct of that over harvesting. We’ve restored the landscape through a variety of public measures to protect land in the Adirondacks. What we haven’t done is brought back the animals that were also eliminated as part of that dramatic change. And we think it’s one thing to restore the great open spaces and the great forests of the park, but we also need to restore the wildlife that was there as well, and we think that it’s very long odds and not sound public policy to place your bet on natural recolonization.

Which wolves were native to the Adirondacks?

CC: From what I understand, the biggest conflict at this point isn’t actually the debate over whether or not wolves should be reintroduced, but actually what species of wolves were here to begin with. Is that correct?

PB: Clearly that question would be part of a comprehensive study, and there’s a spectrum of opinion about ‘Was there a grey wolf, was there a red wolf, was there an eastern wolf? What was the level of coyote DNA present in the historic wolf?’ So there’s a number of questions having to do with the genetics of what type of wolf would best be reintroduced, and whether or not that wolf even exists anymore.

CC: Okay, so at this point there haven’t been any definitive findings on what species that might be, if we were to reintroduce?

PB: Yeah, different academics have different thoughts. As I understand the genetic argument, that’s where it stands now but I have always taken the position of ‘Let’s tackle that question as part of a number of questions that we have to look at when we think about the idea of bringing wolves back to the Adirondacks.’ The genetics question is a big question, as is the habitat viability, as is the impact on the deer herd, as is the question of the impact on coyotes, as is the question of social acceptance, as is the question of human-wolf incident possibilities, as is the question of economic impact.

CC: Right. So if you were to find that there was one species, and not another, that was inherent to the Adirondacks—that was originally here—you wouldn’t advocate for ‘reintroducing’ the one that wasn’t originally here, because that would be an introduction and not a restoration? Does that make sense?

PB: That does. Depending on how good that historic research is.

CC: So if there were to be more definitive findings in the study that you’re trying to have done, that would be how you would proceed, to restore the one that was originally here?

PB: If scientists believe that it would be easier to trap intact packs of grey wolves in the year 2016 or 2017 just because they’re of more abundance and there would be a greater success of a reintroduction with those wolves, and the science believes that grey wolves were more of a transitory population as opposed to a permanent population, I don’t think that we would oppose that. I don’t want to close the door on the reintroduction of any particular wolf specie without having done a full spectrum of research. I think there’s practical realities that there may be wolves of certain species that are more abundant in certain places where whole packs could be captured so that they stand a better chance of succeeding on reintroduction.

CC: So a species that had been more, sort of, nomadic and had less of a permanent presence here in the Adirondacks but definitely was here in, as you said, a more transient way, they would still be a viable option?

PB: All I’m going to say is that it’s a big question, let’s look at it, and let’s see where we come out at the other end, because there could be a dozen different things that come up as the genetics question is tackled that I can’t even envision right now. Nobody has taken a serious look at the genetic issue in the park in light of what would be the best species to reintroduce to the Adirondacks, so you know, I’m not going to advocate for one over the other. I think that’s a premature debate.

CC: In North Carolina, wolf reintroduction efforts got pretty complicated, including the killing of coyotes to make room for wolf packs and to minimize interbreeding. After nearly three decades of work, there are still only about 50 red wolves living in the wild in North Carolina. Does that track record give you any pause about how wolf reintroduction might work here?

PB: You know, it’s always going to be a balancing act. The habitat is very different, and the red wolf is very different in North Carolina. I look at how wolves have expanded into Michigan and Wisconsin and the Yellowstone experience as more of the possibilities around what could happen in the Adirondacks. You could certainly envision that wolves are going to be killed, but if you can maintain a viable population, that may be a cost of management. That’s certainly been the experience in Yellowstone and in the upper Midwest, but in both of those places viable populations have been sustained over a period of time even though wolves have been killed. As far as going in and clearing out coyotes, I’m not sure what more we could do. I mean, it’s open season on coyotes in the Adirondacks. People kill lots of coyotes already in the Adirondacks.

What comes next?

CC: Do you have any idea of how your push for having the study done is being received, or going to be received, or do you have to wait until the next Wildlife Action Plan?

PB: Well, the DEC people that have talked to me off the record have said ‘Geez, we really have got a lot of comments calling for reintroduction to be studied. We weren’t expecting that.’ And actually when you look at the Wildlife Plan the single—what I’m told anyway, is the single most frequent comment is ‘study extirpated species’. So it’s going to be a political decision for the DEC and for governor Cuomo about whether or not they want to commit to a study. If the governor commits to it it’s probably not going to be an empty commitment, right? If the DEC commits to it now, people will be expecting to see the actual report, and that report will be scrutinized.

I think it’s still going to be controversial amongst sportsmen’s groups, still going to be a lot of local government people who are automatically against it, a lot of sportsmen who are automatically against it, a lot of statewide senators and assembly people who are automatically against it. But you know, I think the possibilities for the positive media attention for the Adirondacks for a wolf reintroduction are just enormous. Absolutely enormous. So I think we shouldn’t close the door on it without looking very closely.