Environmental reporter Josephine Marcotty writes about our place in nature through her coverage of the outdoors, wildlife, pollution and sustainability.

Where will a wolf strike?

Posted by: Josephine Marcotty under Bears Updated: June 2, 2011 - 11:16 AM

 Future risk can be predicted from the past. That's true of traffic accidents, disease -- and now wolf attacks.  Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources have created a new tool to help manage conflicts between wolves and people. They call it a risk map.

 

 

 

 

  Credit: Adrian Treves, University of Wisconsin. atreves@wisc.edu.

Using data on past wolf attacks on livestock and pets, they were able to accurately predict where almost all subsequent attacks would occur. They also found that almost all of them occurred in only 10 percent of the area where Wisconsin's 700-plus wolves roam. In short, only a few wolf packs are likely to be problems, they found.

Strategies to resolve human wolf conflicts will be critical next year when wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are taken off the endangered species list. That means people can kill wolves who threaten their property. Historically, people have viewed all wolves as equally predatory.

"Around the world it is common for people to kill wildlife indiscriminately when they perceive them as threats," they said in the article  published this week in the journal BioScience. "To date, people have been largely unable tor unwilling to discriminate between individual culprits and nonculprits when addressing problems with wild animals. As a result, indiscriminate killing has been perceived as cost effective."

In fact, it often doesn't work, they said.For example, decades of government-financed, lethal coyote control have not succeeded in reducing sheep losses, they said.

Targeting intervention in problem areas, and problem wolves, will be a far more effective strategy, they said.

Minimizing conflicts between humans and wolves serves a dual purpose - it conserves biodiversity and, more importantly, the carnivores who are the top of the food chain and which perform a critical role in maintaining ecological balance around the world. And it would protect  human life and livelihood.

To build the map the researchers first tracked 211 wolf attacks on livestock between 1999 to 2006. Using that data, they were able to predict with 88 percent accuracy where attacks would occur in 2007 and 2009. They also incorporated wolf demographics, land-use and types of vegetation into their model.

The sites where attacks occurred most often were in open areas like pasture or grassland, where livestock were close to a known wolf pack range.  But there were wide open areas without forest that were virtually devoid of livestock.

"Our map suggests bringing livestock into these areas would generate a high risk of wolf attack," they said. But at the same time, open areas with a lot of livestock did not necessarily equate with a higher risk of predation, they said.

Risk maps like theirs could be used all over the world to predict conflicts with animals from bears to lynx to tigers to elephants. Many of these animals are increasingly living in less glamorous landscapes like Wisconsin, rather than wilderness.

Preventing attacks is by far the best solution, they said,  one that would safeguard rare animals. 

"However, a key prerequisite  is for ... the public to relinquish the outdated view that all predators are problems," they said.

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