It’s no secret that the large carnivores have been killed off over much of Europe. Along with the great forests, they have faded into folklore.
In mountainous northwestern Spain, however, wolves and bears are still vital facts of life. Alberto Suarez Esteban grew up in the Asturias region of the northwest where a fascination with wildlife led him to a career in conservation biology – and to the Yukon.
Today, as a post-doctoral fellow at Yukon College, Suarez Esteban is sharing his compassion for animals and his professional skills with Whitehorse residents. He hopes to help end the carnage that too often results when the interests of bears, coyotes, foxes, wolves and humans collide.
“It’s mostly a question of fear,” says the biologist, when asked why there are so many sorrowful endings to human-carnivore encounters. “If you don’t understand how animals behave and you don’t know how to react, there’s going to be a conflict and an animal may be killed because of that.”
He is working to improve our understanding of how animals, including humans, use the green spaces around Whitehorse – a spreading metropolis that takes pride in being tagged The Wilderness City. To that end he and some college colleagues have distributed 15 remote cameras on local wildlife trails.
Those trails run through a variety of habitats, Suarez Esteban says. The cameras have been placed at varying distances from settlements, roads, rivers and streams. “That variability is key,” he adds.
First, however, Suarez Esteban contacted local biologists who had experience with placing remote cameras in the woods. They confirmed that public privacy is a concern, so cameras were positioned to show only the human hikers’ feet. “We’re not going to be able to identify people,” Suarez Esteban says, but adds that having an idea of how many humans pass by is important in determining the likelihood of cross-species encounters.
Suarez Esteban has been in the territory a year and has a good idea of the sort of cross-purposes animals and humans come up against. Pets can become a food source for hungry wolves and coyotes. Foxes raid chicken coops. And bears scare people … or worse. “I truly believe that a deeper understanding of what drives bear behaviour will help reduce conflict,” he says.
Understanding can lead to an honest appraisal of human strategies for removing large carnivores from the encounter equation. For instance, if a bear is trapped and relocated, that bear is not defending its territory anymore and the area can be quickly occupied by another bear. “In such a case, we would be expending resources without taking care of the problem,” says Suarez Esteban.
That has also been demonstrated with foxes, he says. If you kill an adult fox you may end up with double the density of foxes because two smaller foxes can move into an area once dominated by one fox, “which was bigger and older and had more experience.”
Wolves are in the news again in the Northwest, this time in British Columbia, where government and conservationists are at odds over another massive cull. “Wolf management is very tricky,” says the biologist. “It is not advisable to kill wolves, because they play an important role in ecosystems. They control the population of ungulates that have a big effect on plants.”
He mentions the case of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, where managers decimated wolves in the 1960s and subsequently discovered the ecosystem was undergoing very unwelcome changes. The moose and elk grazed out the riparian forest. Stream structure changed. Without plants holding soil, riverbanks washed away and the rivers grew wider and shallower. Beavers lost their trees. Other animals that benefited from beaver dams and ponds lost their own habitats.
“There’s a cascade of local extinctions when wolves disappear,” says Suarez Esteban.
In the case of Yellowstone, most of the negative changes reverted in the 1990s – after wolves were re-introduced. That fact further emphasizes the ecological importance of carnivores.
Meanwhile, wolf kills can backfire in another way. If an alpha animal is destroyed, the pack can destabilize, break up and disperse. Without the co-operation of a large pack, it behooves a lone wolf to forgo the elk and moose and concentrate on more easily killed livestock and pets.
Coyotes present their own challenges to human ingenuity. They are generalists as far as diet goes. They aren’t particularly afraid of people, are drawn by our garbage and can readily adapt to our behaviour patterns, says Suarez Esteban. If they have access to food sources they can breed very quickly.
“Killing is not a good strategy for reducing conflicts – we’ve got to go to the root of the problem.”
Suarez Esteban’s first goal is to map where carnivores are seen. Then he plans to mark where conflicts are likely to happen. And he hopes to discover just what forces are motivating carnivore behaviour: What kind of habitat do they select? What happens if we change that habitat with our varying land uses – build houses and roads on animal trails or otherwise alter plant cover?
How will the answers to those questions be used?
“As a researcher my main task is to inform people and to increase our knowledge,” he says. “I’m not involved in decision-making. Decisions will depend on what people want and that is not necessarily connected to the information I’m trying to give them.”
“The hope of every scientist is to bring in the best information available for decision-making,” says the biologist.
This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/research/publications/your-yukon