Thursday, May 14, 2015

Predator-prey relationships

There are apparently wolves roaming the streets of L'Anse. A friend had a status update on Facebook yesterday that noted wolves had been spotted at the upper end of the street she lives on, and the comments thread quickly filled with reminiscences and opinions from other town folk about the carnivores they'd seen recently (i.e., within the past year) right in town. One person mentioned seeing a wolf stroll between her mother's house and the next door neighbor's; another recalled seeing wolves ambling down the street not long ago. WTF?!

As I've no doubt mentioned a number of times, the S.O. and I dwell out in what our kids used to refer to as BFE, which is another way of saying the middle of nowhere. We've got 40 acres, more or less (mostly less, because the CN right of way eats up a little over 3 acres), of brush and swamp. In the many years we've lived here, I have never seen a wolf. I know there was a pack that included our area in its territory, but I've never seen any of them. The Younger Daughter said that she was always hoping to spot them during her morning commute back when she was duty-stationed nearby. She'd been told the pack included a white wolf -- and she really wanted to see that particular wolf. Never happened.

I assume that pack is still around and still utilizing basically the same territory, although the membership would have changed. Wolves in the wild can live to a fairly ripe old age for a canid (13 years or more), but most are going to die younger than that. If they are, though, I've never seen them. The closest I've come is seeing a few humongous paw prints in the sand in the driveway. So what are we doing wrong? If people sitting out on their decks in town quietly enjoying a cup of coffee are seeing gray wolves strolling through the neighborhood, why don't I ever get to see any out here in the boonies? Just what the heck are they doing in town that attracts these fairly savvy predators enough that they're ambling down Tuttle Street in broad daylight? And, secondary question, why aren't those people in town who see these wolves doing stuff to make the not-so-wee beasties stay away?

I can understand why some people would freak out at the sight of a wolf, or multiple wolves, right in town. I think I can even understand why wolves might wander through town occasionally. Whitetail deer are a  major nuisance in town; we know people who have given up trying to have vegetable gardens because they couldn't keep the deer out. If there are a lot of deer around, it follows that you're likely to have wolves. What I don't understand is why people are responding to the sight of a wolf by freaking out and dashing indoors immediately. Apparently no one is familiar with the concept of aversive conditioning.

What, you may ask, is aversive conditioning? It's a technique for changing predator behavior so they decide to go elsewhere looking for lunch. U.S. Fish & Wildlife and state conservation departments have been experimenting with aversive conditioning for quite a few years now. Wildlife biologists know that predators learn to hunt from other predators. Kittens are taught to hunt mice by their mothers, for example. In the Arctic, polar bears have been known to starve to death during the summer months because for thousands of years they've lived primarily on seals; they've never been taught that berries and fish are edible. Similarly, wolves learn what's edible, what isn't, and where to find food by observing the behavior of the alpha female in their pack. Teach the alpha female to avoid an area or not to go after certain types of animals (e.g., cattle) and it becomes a lot easier for farmers and ranchers to co-exist with wolves.

Wildlife biologists use shock collars for aversive conditioning out West. It's a little bizarre -- it's kind of like training dogs to recognize invisible fences, except they just radio collar the alpha female in a wolf pack and train her. That's obviously not an option for anyone living in town. But how about making the neighborhood a little less inviting? When you see a wolf, don't slink quietly into your house. Stand up, make yourself look as big as possible (the idea is to have your profile resemble that of a pissed off bear), and do a bunch of yelling while you back through your patio door. If it's really close, throw stuff at it. Invest in some spud guns. I have a hunch that if wolves hear an impressively loud noise accompanied by getting hit by a nice solid potato or golf ball they're going to rethink the route for their morning constitutional.

One of the commenters yesterday said he preferred actual bullets to spuds. Three problems with that solution, in addition to the obvious one of getting your ass tossed in jail for discharging a firearm in a residential area. First, it's always a really bad idea to use something that could potentially accidentally kill one of the neighbors when you're just dealing with a nuisance. Doesn't matter if you're the best shot on the planet -- there's always the risk of the bullet passing right through the animal and into something you didn't intend to shoot. Second, you've eliminated one animal. The lesson it's learned isn't going to get passed on. It's not going to be around to tell the other pack members that it's a bad idea to go into town. Predators are smart, but they're generally not smart enough to make the connection between being in a particular location and one of their packmates dropping dead.

The third problem is that way too many people have no clue what a wolf actually looks like. There is a fair amount of paranoia and hysteria about gray wolves since their numbers have increased in the past few years, and some people now see wolves everywhere. They think they're seeing a wolf when it's actually someone's German shepherd or husky running loose. If you Google "dog mistaken for wolf" you get hits from all over the northern part of the U.S. of incidents where someone shot someone's pet because they were sure it was a wolf. There have even been cases of people walking or skiing with a pet dog and having some idiot freak out and decide it was a wolf despite the presence of a human right next to it. IIRC, there was a case not long ago where the dog was actually on a leash and some moron shot it. So the question naturally arises of whether the people reporting seeing wolves in town are actually seeing wolves or if the critter (or critters) are merely dogs that bear a strong resemblance to wolves (malamutes, for example) and their idiot owner is letting them run loose? Just how stupid would someone feel if they do what they think is the manly thing and shoot a dangerous wolf and it turns out to be a Norwegian elk hound belonging to someone who lives a couple blocks away?

I will give my town friends the benefit of the doubt and assume they are indeed seeing gray wolves in their front yards. I am really curious, though, as to what makes the outskirts of L'Anse so attractive to wolves that they'll amble around there in daylight. Wolves are primarily nocturnal (it was the middle of the night when they ate the neighbor's pit bull), so why are they strolling around at a time of day when people are actually awake to see them? It's a mystery.


  1. I keep reading about bears, deer, coyotes, wolves etc.coming into the cities..nothing to eat in the water..sad.

  2. Food and water aren't issues up here. I think the problem in town is some people (and not necessarily the ones who mentioned seeing the wolves) are careless and do things like leave pet food outside, are sloppy with their garbage, or have something like backyard chickens running around free range.

  3. I have seen wolves, but only at a distance. I love the story 'Never Cry Wolf' by Farley Mowatt. A great perspective on wolves and wolf myths.
    the Ol'Buzzard

  4. We have the same problem with people over in Gogebic County. Wolf sightings all the time! I'm old and have lived here forever and have never seen one! Paranoia at its finest.

  5. Well, do NOT watch the movie "The Grey" starring Liam Neeson and hope to learn anything about wolves. It is so science fiction it should have occurred on Hoth, not Alaska


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