CONSERVATION & ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
Ironically, the species once regarded as a threat to our survival is turning out to be a test of how likely we are to achieve sustainability and coexistence with the elements that sustain us.
― Paul Paquet
WHY CONSERVE WOLVES?
Wolves are highly intelligent and sentient animals that have evolved a unique set of physiological and behavioural characteristics over millennia. They have persisted through climate and habitat changes over millennia and have endured despite hundreds of years of human persecution that continues today.
There are many reasons why we feel compelled, and even obligated to protect wolves as part of a greater wildlife community. Some are based in ecology and environmental sustainability, while others lie more within the ethical and moral realm of conservation.
Deliberate conservation efforts are needed to ensure that wolves can continue to thrive as an essential part of healthy ecosystems where they remain. Moreover, conservation efforts afford the wolf its innate right to flourish in what is left of our planet’s wild spaces. Protecting wolves not only enriches ecosystem health, but also enhances our own sense of what is still wild in this world.
THREATS TO WOLVES IN CANADA
While we often think of wolves as being adaptable and resilient, wolves require large territories, live in low densities and are sensitive to human disturbances. Widespread habitat loss and fragmentation combined with direct human persecution of wolves puts this intelligent and social animal in critical need of conservation efforts and education programs encouraging coexistence in the remaining areas of its range.
but habitat loss and direct persecution continue to compromise the ability ofwolf populations to persist in many parts of the country. Current management practices for wolves are outdated in Canada and include aerial gunning, bounty killing, poison programs and extremely liberal hunting and trapping.
Despite this, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that lethal removal of large carnivores, including wolves, can exacerbate conflicts with humans (1 - 9). Killing carnivores to “manage” them is not considered a sound practice by scientists who understand ecological processes and how they are affected by apex predators such as the wolf. Aside from ethical concerns, killing wolves has negative ecological consequences and is not a long-term solution to environmental issues, including low prey populations.
Today, the main threats to the survival of wolves and their prey include loss and fragmentation of habitat due to destruction, development, and encroachment of humans. There is an urgent need to align Canada’s wolf management practices with evidence-based science, ecology, and environmental ethics, however, the preservation of intact wilderness is also vital to the successful conservation of wolves.
Wolves have been decimated or completely extirpated from most of their former Holarctic range. Canada is an important final stronghold for wolves,
As an apex predator, the wolf provides many ecological services and benefits to other organisms, including our own species. The decline of wolves and other large carnivores around the world has disrupted ecosystems, causing cascading changes that have resulted in decreased diversity and impoverished systems (10,11).
A serious biological threat facing North America includes emerging prion pathogens such as Bovine Tuberculosis and Chronic Wasting Disease – lethal for members of the deer family. Scientists suggest that healthy wolf populations contribute to reducing and limiting the spread of the diseases (Hobbs 2006, Stronen et al. 2007, Wild et al. 2011). The threat of disease warrants evidence-based wildlife management decisions. Removing wolves is counterproductive to management efforts seeking to minimize disease transmission and may have serious impacts on both wild and domestic animals.
Continued exploitation of wolves through hunting, trapping, and government culling disrupts the social tendencies wolves have evolved in order to structure family packs, thus hindering their ability to carry out their ecological role effectively.
CONSERVING WOLVES FOR ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY
PROTECTING WOLVES AS FAMILY UNITS
Like humans, wolves are social animals that live in complex and yet structured families. Apes, dolphins, and elephants are some other animals that reflect this evolutionary adaptation. In order to preserve wolves, we must protect naturally-functioning populations that contain socially stable packs (15,16).
Some of the altered behavioural patterns observed among exploited versus protected wolf populations include the very things that make wolves, well – wolves. Lethal control disrupts the social structure of wolf families which can result in marked changes in family sizes, survival rates of other wolves, pack hunting abilities, territory size and stability, social behaviours, genetic diversity, breeding rates, number of lone or dispersing wolves, density of wolves, population demographics (age and sex).
Where wolves are hunted, learning opportunities for young pups and juveniles may be lost if the chance to pass on important information is taken or disrupted. Cultural lessons like cooperative hunting techniques, location of important hunting grounds, or good den-sites for reuse are lost when experienced elders are killed.
In addition to being evolutionarily important, researchers believe that socially stable wolf family units have fitness benefits which may also affect other trophic levels (16). When wolves are properly managed with consideration for the family as a unit the entire ecosystems benefits.
ETHICAL AND MORAL REALM OF WOLF CONSERVATION
Wolves have adapted to various environmental conditions and have evolved to survive in a wider variety of habitats than any other carnivore. Aside from being ecologically and evolutionary admirable, wolves have an inherent right to live in harmony with the Earth that has supported their survival for so long.
Thousands of wolves are killed across Canada each year, and most of these individuals suffer an inhumane death: aerial shooting is not an approved method of euthanasia under current guidelines put forward by the Canadian Council on Animal Care. Neither is the use of the poisons Compound 1080 or strychnine, which have likewise been condemned by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, and yet remain in use. Neck killing snares, which lack the ability to bring about a swift death, are commonly used to kill wolves, alongside the non-target animals they capture. Concerns surrounding animal welfare can not be disregarded when it comes to conservation.
EDUCATION = CONSERVATION
With much of their habitat fragmented and destroyed, it is not surprising that wolves and other wide-roaming carnivores are encountering humans and the areas we occupy more frequently. No amount of science or management can protect the wolf without being accompanied by educational efforts that aim to shift attitudes in a positive direction toward this incredible animal.
Science and education go hand-in-hand, as a better understanding gained through sound research can help guide informed education programs that enlighten us on the true nature of the wolf and how we can best protect it through our own actions.
For example, many people mistakenly view wolves as competition for human food resources. On the contrary, wolves and humans generally target different individuals within “game” animal populations, and in this way wolves also help to limit the spread of infectious prions and diseases. A better understanding of the ecology and behaviour of wolves is one example of how people can shift attitudes away from the notion of the wolf as foe and toward acceptance.
While wolves still face heavy persecution, we have seen a slow shift in perceptions of this animal from fear to acceptance. For example, livestock owners who historically viewed wolves solely as a threat to their property are finding ways to coexist with these animals, using practical solutions that benefit both wildlife and domestic animals (See Coexisting Among Livestock, People and Wolves).
As with many large carnivores, the key to wolf conservation lies in coexistence, or to take it a step further, co-flourishing. The idea behind co-flourishing is that if we not only tolerate but purposefully act in ways that protect wolves and their habitat, the environment and thus both the wolves and people that depend on it, will thrive.
Spread the Howl
Many of us may have a desire to protect wolves, but either feel removed from them and the issues that threaten their survival, thus feeling unable to contribute to their conservation. However, the power of personal engagement on an issue that matters to someone must never be overlooked. Education is accessible to anyone and if the right message is spread, each of us can make a positive contribution by helping to foster positive attitudes towards wolves and other large carnivores which will in turn influence future management and conservation practices for wolves.
Being able to counter anti-predator arguments with basic scientific knowledge can go a long way. Being informed and educated about evidence-based research can help ensure that your engagement is meaningful when discussing
wolf conservation concerns with government representatives and peers, or when trying to share awareness in social media dialogue or through a Letter to the Editor. Those of us who venture into wild spaces where wolves live can significantly benefit wildlife by making simple choices that ensure we are minimizing our impact on these animals.
Spreading awareness of current campaigns that deal with wolf conservation is also a great way to personally contribute to the cause. In this critical era of last-move wildlife conservation, each of us can play an important role in protecting what is left. In fact, we must, as the fate of wolves and other wildlife remains entirely in our hands. Collectively, we can co-flourish with carnivores.
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Cooley, H. S., Wielgus, R. B., Koehler, G. M., Robinson, H. S., and Maletzke, B. T. (2009b). Does hunting regulate cougar populations? A test of the compensatory mortality hypothesis. Ecology, 90(10), 2913-2921.
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