Wildlife restoration has seen both triumphs and challenges in the past few decades, but challenges will dominate the future if biologists can’t learn to forge new relationships to overcome intolerance, according to leading Montana biologists.
This week in Missoula, some of the finest wildlife researchers in Montana are attending an annual state meeting of The Wildlife Society to discuss their latest projects and learn of new research on everything from bison to bighorn sheep and beavers. The conference theme is wildlife restoration, so during Wednesday’s kick-off session, experienced conservation leaders told their younger colleagues that future restoration efforts need to focus on large landscapes owned by several entities so the most important part of a biologist’s job would be building relationships with a wide array of people.
“We’ve got to think big,” said Keith Aune, Wildlife Conservation Society bison program coordinator. “We did all the easy stuff. All that’s left is the hard things. And we’ve got to deal with this social stuff – how do we increase the social tolerance for wildlife?”
Of the four speakers, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Ed Bangs had it easiest as he recounted the history of the successful reintroduction of the wolf to the Northwest. Bangs highlighted how the tentative reintroduction plan turned into a play-it-by-ear operation because of biological surprises, political interference and lawsuits.
“Biologically, wolf restoration was a howling success. But why? Large tracts of public land had already set aside; wild ungulate populations had been restored; livestock are only grazed seasonally; and public attitudes about wildlife and wild lands had changed. All these were in place before anyone started talking about wolf restoration,” Bangs said.
In fact, wolves were already finding their way into Montana in the 1980s as the USFWS worked on a reintroduction plan that was supposed to put wolves on the ground quickly and just as quickly give management responsibility back to the states. It didn’t come off as planned, Bangs said, causing him to stay on the job 12 years longer than he anticipated.
After the Yellowstone National Park reintroduction in 1995-96, wolves spread throughout the inter-mountain region. The states were supposed to take over management, but some of their recovery plans were unacceptable to the USFWS. Then environmental groups challenged the delisting in court and eventually Congress stepped in and delisted the wolf in 2011.
Meanwhile, ranchers’ and hunters’ frustration and hatred of wolves grew during all the delays until hunting was finally allowed in 2012. Then animosity dropped noticeably within a year, Bangs said.
“Conservation is science, policy and politics,” Bangs said. “You learn from your mistakes and sometimes you make a lot of them. That’s the way it is with any program, and if you get it right the first time, you are highly unusual.”
USFWS biologist Randy Matchett didn’t have as much leeway for mistakes as he tried to restore black-footed ferrets to their prairie home. And he has a lot more challenges as he tries to establish a population of 3,000 ferrets spread across 12 states.
First, he’s had to bring ferrets back from the dead. At one time, they were thought to be extinct, and the population that exists now is descended from only seven survivors.
Thirty generations of ferrets have done OK in captivity but were highly vulnerable when released. So Matchett and others had to run costly experiments to learn ferrets survived better if they were reared in outdoor enclosures near where they'd be released.
While wolves hunt elk, ferrets depend on one main prey that people love to poison and shoot: prairie dogs. Contrary to popular opinion, prairie dogs don’t reproduce quickly, so it’s hard to keep enough around to support thriving populations of ferrets. Matchett’s research indicates ferret populations die out if they aren’t near prairie-dog complexes of 5,000 acres or more, demonstrating the need for large landscapes.
“The challenge of ferret recovery is managing prairie dogs,” Matchett said. “The human side of it is a challenge, whether it’s shooting, whether it’s poisoning or whether it’s plowing them up. But the human intolerance of prairie dogs is one thing that we could control. The one that’s really a struggle is plague.”
Both ferrets and prairie dogs can die from plague carried by fleas. Plague has recently wiped out ferrets in South Dakota. So biologists dust chemicals into burrows to kill fleas, vaccinate ferrets they release and try to remotely vaccinate prairie dogs. A seven-state study is currently underway to study the effectiveness of vaccinating prairie dogs. Then the next step is figuring out how to distribute little vaccination pellets across 5,000 acres, Matchett said.
“We have huge challenges. Even if the vaccine works, shooting restrictions are highly contentious,” Matchett said. “All of this is incredibly intensive, and it’s not very satisfying at all. But without doing it, we know the outcome will be zero. So it’s a really tough place to be.”
Aune must also overcome human intolerance, but with bison, it’s often due to misunderstanding. Over time, ranchers have developed inaccurate beliefs that all bison carry brucellosis and that a brucellosis outbreak can destroy a cattle herd and cripple Montana’s beef industry. That’s not the case, so biologists need to work at communicating the best science to overcome repeated rumors, Aune said.
Native Americans had to reconnect with the bison and relearn the traditions that they’d been denied when they were constrained to reservations. But they are now trying to find bison to manage.
Many Montanans already approve of bison. Three surveys conducted by the WCS found 70 to 76 percent of Montanans think it’s important to advance bison conservation and restoration.
With increased human tolerance, the next step is finding large landscapes that can support bison herds of at least 1,000 animals. After that, it will take a lot of work to build relationships between federal, state and tribal entities and private landowners that own the land to create shared stewardship, Aune said.
“Bison conservation in the 21st Century – we got to be thinking large-scale and we’re going to be talking long time-frames. That’s just the way it is,” Aune said. “Individuals championed the recovery of bison. It is up to us to stand up and champion the cause wildlife conservation. It’s not going to be a government agency that really gets it done – it’s going to be the work of individuals like you.”