Center for Conservation Biology

Wolf Recovery in the South Cascades

 

 

Art Wolfe Photography© Art Wolfe

 

Apex predators are now returning to many ecosystems after a long absence. During that period, these ecosystems underwent considerable changes in human land use patterns and corresponding changes in the abundance of multiple species. Given that humans now occupy a larger portion of landscapes than ever before, it is important to understand how changes that occurred in response to human land use during apex predator absence impact the cascade of changes that occur when the apex predator returns.

 

Wolves have been naturally and rapidly recovering in NE Washington since 2008, after an 80-year absence. During that period, the area underwent significant human land use changes in timber harvest, housing development, mining, agriculture and land conversion. Now, an area along the eastern side of the Cascades, south of Interstate 90, is beginning to show signs of wolf immigration. This has created a unique opportunity to acquire baseline information on the abundance, distribution, diets and health of the medium to large predators and prey occupying the south Cascades, beginning prior to the actual wolf recolonization. The baseline data provide a reference to gauge changes in these populations throughout the wolf recolonization process, as well as how best to manage wolves in a landscape that requires coexistence with humans.

 

More broadly, we are interested in knowing whether an apex predator, returning after a long absence, can still fit in? How does the established ecological community, including humans, the most dominant species on the planet, impact the recovery of apex predators such as wolves? And conversely, how are the distributions and habits of other predators and prey species impacted by wolf recovery?

 

To address these questions, the center’s Conservation Canine (CK9) teams are collecting longitudinal data on the South Cascades predator and prey communities.

 

 

The study goals and objectives include:

  1. Capture the initial recolonization of wolves into a 6,000 km2 study area in the south Cascades of Washington, monitoring change in wolf abundance and distribution over the landscape as well as their diet, health and pregnancy rates.
  2. Collect baseline data on coyote, cougar, and bobcat abundance, distribution, diet and health and how these change with localized wolf densities.
  3. Document changes in human-wildlife conflict throughout this process.
  4. Monitor changes in the microbiome of each mid to large carnivore species with diet, habitat and competitive pressures.
  5. Document changes in rare species such as red fox, wolverine, lynx, and snowshoe hare. (Larger prey species are already being monitored by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in a complementary study.)

 

 

 

EVALUATION AND BROADER IMPACTS

Natural recovery of an apex predator can help restore ecosystem stability and health. However, recovery can be complicated by the many changes in human land use that occurred during the predator’s absence. Fortunately, the impact of wolves on mesocarnivore and cervid communities has been identified as a research priority by the Washington state legislature and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) wolf management plan (http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf/mgmt_plan.html). The comprehensive methods employed in this study hold some of the greatest promise for guiding course-corrections early in the wolf recovery process, when opportunities are greatest for having maximal impact with the least amount of effort.  As a collaborator on this study, WDFW is helping to ensure that our findings are translated into effective policy for use in the conservation and management of large mammals in Washington State.