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Wolves are a polarizing topic, with many people loving them, and many people hating them. They are very important to the ecosystem they live in, especially when acting as apex predators. In these cases, removing them can result in a trophic cascade, altering the ecosystem as a whole, from the overpopulation of prey animals, land degradation, and even alterations of a rivers path. Yellowstone National Park is a prime example of such a phenomenon. When wolves were removed, there was a clear change in the ecosystem, and surprisingly to those who pushed for removal, it was not a positive one. Yellowstone is a success story, however, as the reintroduction of wolves resulted in the land and its inhabitants being restored to its natural glory. Wolf conservation as a whole has to overcome many boundaries before other places can become success stories like Yellowstone. Captive wolves, with enrichment, can provide education for researchers and laymen alike, but wild wolves can also provide helpful information for research that cannot be found in captive wolves.
Not all people want to support wolf conservation, preferring to keep the wolf population at low, endangered levels. A popular reason that many oppose wolf conservation is the belief that wolves threaten their livelihood by preying on livestock. Shepherds, ranchers, farmers, and all those that keep roaming animals may consider wolves a nuisance, and even a danger, to their livelihoods. This is a misguided perception, however. Wolves are not nearly as commonly preying on livestock as this perception would suggest, and human slaughter is undoubtedly a much higher occurrence. The USDA reported on the causes of death in cattle in 2015, and used data as far back as 1995 for some of their findings. For 2015, about 98% of deaths were due to non-predator causes for adults, and about 89% for calves. As for death by predation, coyotes were the top predator by a landslide, and dogs and vultures were also mentioned above the much lower suspected occurrences of predation by wolf (USDA). Additionally, wild dog groups have been found to hunt similarly to wolves, and are efficient hunters of livestock in areas where abundant wild ungulates are not available. Therefore, in at least some areas, feral dogs could be the real culprits, and exacerbate the problem, but their wild counterparts are blamed most often. If opposers are still not satisfied with these results, then allowing for a stable pack rather than dispersing individuals, allowing for high ungulate populations as prey options, and protective prevention measures in pastures can minimize predation by wolves.
Habitat loss and this villainizing stigma, among other things, has resulted in most surviving wolves being those in captivity. Whether on wildlife refuges, in wolf centres, or in zoos, they are fascinating to see for many. Captive wolves may be used to educate visitors about the species and their importance. However, Riggio et al noticed a problem in the educational value of captive wolves in zoos. These captive wolves are rarely able to express their natural behaviours as predators, as they are given pre-prepared food. This inability to express natural predatory actions can cause captive wolves’ chronic stress, thus leading to them developing unnatural coping behaviours, sometimes referred to as stereotypy. Zoo enrichment programs are intended to stimulate the captive wolves into participating in these natural behaviours. When animals in zoos are able to behave naturally, it improves visitors’ recognition of animal welfare and the educational benefit of zoos. Therefore, they set up experiments studying 4 wolves in a zoo in Italy, called Bioparco of Rome. They observed their behaviour in response to several enrichment devices. On some occurrences they hid the wolves’ food by burying it, suspending it from a tree, or hiding it inside wood piles in the exhibit. Next, they used a new object for the wolves to investigate in order to get the food, by wrapping the food in canvas or inside an Aussiedog feeding ball. The enrichment resulted in the studied wolves having less observed negative behaviours (behaviours indicating dominance, submission, and aggression) as well as more observed positive behaviours (like play, licking/rubbing another wolf, et cetera). For 2 of the wolves, stereotypy behaviours were also lower when feeding enrichment was provided. Enrichment and education in zoos is a great improvement for the status of wolves and peoples’ perceptions of them, but striving for reintroduction is another part of wolf conservation.
Reintroduction can help immensely with the research of wolves, as previously captive animals can be tagged or collared and then released, rather than going through the stressful, arduous task of capturing these wild wolves to put tracking devices on them. The Mech et al team proposes that Isle Royale should push for wolf reintroduction (and this has happened, although after their work had been published), as it is a great opportunity for researchers to study the wolves and their interactions with the prey animals of the isle, namely moose. They propose other potential research subjects that could use reintroduced Isle Royale wolves, such as taking wolves from areas where their main prey is white-tailed deer, so researchers could study how long the wolves took to learn to hunt moose. Additionally, with control over the wolves released there, studies on genetics could be possible too. Some previous researchers spent their time looking for scat to determine the diet of a pack of wolves, but with reintroduced wolves being collared or otherwise marked to make tracking easier, research on their movements, diets, and more will be far easier to find and study.
Enriched captive wolves can provide education for researchers and laymen alike, but wild wolves can provide helpful research and information that cannot be found in captive wolves. Overall, wolves are magnificent, important animals that deserve a high quality of life, whether in the wild or in a captive setting. Not only would reintroducing them help the health and status of the species itself, but it could also change the ecosystem for the better, such as in the case of Yellowstone. Education is necessary to remove the misconception that reintroduced wild wolves will kill off huge numbers of livestock. Even though it is a much less common occurrence than most would think, there are simple suggestions for avoiding predation. Altering husbandry styles, allowing for a stable pack in the area, and allowing for abundant ungulate populations as natural prey for wolves can reduce predation by wolves and open up many more people to supporting wolf conservation. The quality of life of captive wolves can be improved in zoos by implementing enrichment to allow wolves to exhibit their natural behaviours, and better educate the public on wolves. Reintroduced wolves can be valuable sources of research for various things, further giving significance to the push for reintroduction. Don’t believe the demonic image of the wolf exacerbated by media portrayal and misguided conceptions of predation and danger. People should let wolves live, and they can even learn from them in the process.
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