On the Prowl ~ A Better Understanding of Wolves with Dr. Cristina Eisenberg
As many of you already know, I love animals. And not just puppies and kitties, but all animals. At six or seven years old, I found this tiny creature by a tree in our backyard in upstate New York. I picked it up and brought it inside my house to show my mom. She screamed. It turned out to be a baby skunk. We brought this little thing back outside and fed it every day for about two years. Ever since then I have rescued about 57 animals of all different species.
I love meeting people who make it their life’s work to help animals. One such person I had the privilege of getting to know, is Dr. Cristina Eisenberg.
Dr. Cristina Eisenberg is the author of The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity. She studied forestry and wildlife at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry where she is currently a post doctoral fellow, studying food web sytems and the factors that shape plant communities and ecology. She resides in a remote part of Montana where wolves and bears outnumber humans, an incredible habitat for research. Currently at work on her second book “about the ecology and public policy underlying large carnivore conservation in the West” (LivingWithWolves.com), she is also The Director of Research at The High Lonesome Ranch in Colorado, where she researches the ecological effects of wolves on landscapes in the Rocky Mountains and the ways humans can live sustainably with large carnivores. In the course of this work she often encounters wolves and wolf packs. Despite continued myths of “the big bad wolf,” she and her field crews have never been threatened by aggressive wolves. As an ecologist, she emphasizes peaceful coexistence with large carnivores. Since her work also brings her into frequent contact with grizzly bears, she has found ways to communicate effective boundaries while researching these predators. Her publications and presentations demonstrate how every day human actions and habits affect wildlife, and how to modify our own behaviors for their conservation and successful habitation in the wilderness. In addition to her research, her stunning photographs bring us closer to these magnificent animals in their natural environments.
Dr. Cristina Eisenberg’s dedication to the study and preservation of wildlife serves as an inspiration to us all.
Here is the email interview I conducted with Dr. Eisenberg this past Spring:
Arwen: What made you want to study forestry and wildlife? What originally drew you to focus your work towards wolves?
Cristina: I moved to northwest Montana with my family nearly 20 years ago. We live in a cabin in a very remote area. We saw wolves return to our area about a decade ago, and then everything changed—the deer and the elk started behaving differently. We used to have a large meadow on our land, and the deer and the elk used to stand around eating shrubs and young trees in the meadow. We thought that was normal and enjoyed watching the deer and elk browsing. Then one day we saw a pair of wolves run through the meadow, chasing a deer, and then three years later or so the meadow had grown in. We still had lots of deer and elk using our land, but they could no longer stand around complacently eating shrubs and trees. Now they had to be wary and stay on the move—or they would get eaten by deer. Observing these ecological relationships, and how wolves have the potential to touch the entire food web with their presence, made me deeply curious and compelled me to get first a master’s degree in environmental studies and environmental writing (my book The Wolf’s Tooth is my master’s thesis) and then a doctorate, to learn more about these relationships. Now I know that there is a scientific term for the relationships between an apex predator and its prey: “the ecology of fear.” And that is what I study with my science.
Arwen: You stated that is it “not exactly safe to be a wolf in Colorado”. Why is there a low tolerance for wolves in Colorado and other places for that matter?
Cristina: The low tolerance we have for wolves throughout the American West is nothing new. It is part of a long-standing tradition to wipe out predators, which began about 2000 years ago. We killed all the large predators, especially the wolves, in Europe, by the end of the 18th century. We came to America and began a similar extermination program. This was one of the first orders of business in the Plymouth Colony. The book Vicious, by Jon T. Coleman, is an historical work (the book was originally his dissertation at Yale) that explains our dark relationship with predators. Fortunately today we have made great progress, thanks to the work of Aldo Leopold and others, and we have wolves coming back to many, many places. We even reintroduced them. Although the road to wolf recovery is a bumpy road, because old ideas can die hard, particularly in rural areas, I have great hope.
Arwen: This may seem silly, but why did the wolf pups poop on the skunk’s back? Is that a normal behavior for wolves and their prey?
Cristina: Wolves use scat to scent mark—it’s a form of territorial behavior. Wolves often mark the area around a fresh kill with scat—it’s rather like claiming ownership of the carcass. In the case of those pups, they were learning through play how to behave like adult wolves, including claiming ownership of a carcass. Adult wolves don’t typically eat skunks or rodents in any significant amount. Their primary food sources are elk, moose, and deer. But young pups often spend hours digging up ground squirrels, learning to hunt.
Arwen: What can happen when two or more predator species share an area? Is it more beneficial to have one dominant predator species in an area or is competition healthy for an environment?
Cristina: What you are referring to is termed a “full suite” of carnivores. This means a suite of species, not just one, whose roles overlap a little, or may be complementary, but who serve the same ecological role. This creates a healthier and more resilient food web. For example, where I live, we have wolverines, wolves, lynx, grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, and coyotes all present abundantly. This creates a vibrant food web. Of these, wolves are the apex carnivore—the one species capable of triggering trophic cascades— like the situation with the elk and deer in our meadow. The other species are either generalist (bears) or not primarily carnivores (bears again), or have very specialized habits (lynx and wolverines), or are small (coyotes), so do not drive the ecology of the system the way wolves do. But they all work together.
Arwen: What makes a good wolf habitat? Why isn’t Two Dog Flats a good habitat for wolves even though there is an abundance of elk?
Cristina: Good wolf habitat requires abundant ungulate (hooved animal) prey, such as elk and deer, and as importantly, human tolerance. Two Dog Flats is good wolf habitat in that it is elk winter range, but immediately outside the national park are ranches, and the wolves in that area have gotten into trouble by very frequently depredating on cattle. This situation makes Two Dog Flats perhaps not the best place to be a wolf. There is very little tolerance for wolves that eat cattle in our society.
Arwen: What would happen if wolves became extinct? Why is it important for people to try and save endangered species?
Cristina: It is highly unlikely that wolves will ever become extinct. They breed vigorously, they produce large litters that have one of the highest survival rates per species. They are a very resilient species. They are generalists, in that they can live just about anywhere, but cities. They can travel widely and will find a better home if their current home is less than ideal. They are unlikely to be impacted by climate change. In our country we have environmental policy that ensures wolf persistence as a species, even in areas with low human tolerance.
Arwen: Do you support HSS’ hypothesis or do you support the scientists that have questioned their hypothesis?
Cristina: Nothing in this universe is utterly black and white. There are always shades of gray, complexities. We life in a world that is top-down and bottom up. The notion that things are one way or another is an artificial human construct. We live in a world of relationships that are non-linear and anything but simple. So wolves are an important part of the system, but so are things such as fire. We will not be very effective at advancing conservation if we don’t acknowledge the complexity of this world and quit drawing lines in the sand.
Arwen: In your book you had talked about Joel Berger and research on fear of predation. What is fear to you in the context of predators and prey? How does it affect ecosystems? Do you think it is more beneficial for an ecosystem to have a higher fear rate among prey?
Cristina: Fear is an essential and very healthy force in nature. We (including humans) co-evolved as species that lived in a landscape of fear. This kept us in check and enabled a form of equilibrium in the natural world. Go for a walk in a forest that has grizzly bears in it. Then go for a walk in a forest that does not have grizzly bears in it. Your behavior, the way your senses feel, everything will be different between the two places. Take that fear away, and we are removing wildness, part of what makes us humans, and an essential part of what make the world function (remember the deer and elk in our meadow, complacently mowing down the shrubs and saplings).
Arwen: What affect has the overpopulation of the world had on wolves in particular?
Cristina: Most of the large carnivores need lots of room to roam. Wolves are no exception to this. They may long-distance dispersals and can easily travel 20-30 miles in a single day. They tend to be shy of humans. The burgeoning human population means there are fewer and fewer places where wolves and the other carnivores can live. National parks and preserves are not the answer, because even a place like Yellowstone amounts to being little more than a postage stamp of protected land in the scheme of things. Conservation biologist Michael Soule has written much about the importance of continental-scale connectivity if we are to have healthy populations of large carnivores. There is no easy solution to this, but perhaps limiting unbridled growth, and bringing together private landowners who are committed to conserving large carnivores on their lands. This means working with ranchers and people from a variety of walks of life.
Arwen: My family has a summer home in West Yarmouth, MA on Cape Cod and right in front of our house is a conservation piece. I love sitting outside and watching all the different animals that live on it. What do you think would happen if every area designated conservation pieces?
Cristina: Conservation pieces are critically important, but they are only part of the solution, because their amount to small fragments of protected or safe habitat for wildlife. The big picture—how these habitat patches relate to one another and connect—is important. Not only for large mammals, but for songbirds and butterflies and smaller species.
Arwen: What do you think will happen if government agencies do not acknowledge the relevance of keystone predators?
Cristina: Government agencies are in the process of acknowledging the ecological importance of large carnivores. I work closely with government agencies on this topic. Persons directing our agencies are very progressive, and from what I see, are indeed considering best and newest science in making decisions.
Arwen: How can we help?
Cristina: The only way I think we will every find a solution to conservation of wildlife, particularly endangered species that are lightning rods for conflict (e.g., grizzly bears, wolves), is by learning to listen to one another. Over and over I have heard ranchers hurl insults at environmentalists and environmentalists hurl insults at ranchers. This would be a far different debate if we all sat down together and treated each other like the human beings that we are, and listened to what each person has to say, without judgment. In an ideal world, if we respect one another and listen, we can go quite far at finding solutions to even the toughest conservation problems. Part of the work I do as a scientist involves helping build bridges between stakeholders who come from very different world views. Survival of wolves and other endangered species depends on collaboration.
“Under normal circumstances, wild wolves are not dangerous to humans. That is a misconception. I try to teach peaceful coexistence with large carnivores, as one of the biggest conservation challenges is our superstitious fear of these animals. Large carnivores are essential to the health of whole ecosystems–that is what the science that I do investigates, but as long as people keep fearing them and killing them, we will never be able to reap the ecological benefits of coexisting with them.”
-Dr. Cristina Eisenberg
It was an absolute pleasure working with Cristina. Her love for these animals is evident through her knowledge and work. The fact is that we need more people like Cristina in order to really make a difference in protecting all animals. I strongly recommend her book, The Wolf’s Tooth, which provides great insight as well as ways to help. Please visit the links below to learn more about Dr. Cristina, her book, wolf preservation, and how you can help.
Red Wolves at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, NY
Wolves at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary – Do not attempt this in the wild!