How Wolves Change Rivers

Wolf

The wolves changed the rivers of the Yellowstone. Picture by photographer Ronan Donovan, NG.

 

In 1926, there were no longer wolves in Yellowstone, once the natural habitat of this species. Between 1977 and the re-introduction in 1995, we have reliable reports of wolves being seen throughout the park. Most of them were either lone wolves or pairs, probably only transiting. Finally, in 1995, grey wolf packs were reintroduced in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park and Idaho.

 


“How Wolves Change Rivers” produced by Sustainable Man and narrated by George Monbiot.

 

Before the extirpation, the wolves living within the park belonged to the subspecies Northern Rocky Mountains wolf, Canis lupus irremotus. The reintroduced species of 1995 belong to the subspecies Mackenzie Valley wolf, Canis lupus occidentalis.

The reintroduction of the wolves has shown a greater impact on the biodiversity of the Yellowstone than anticipated.

The wolves’ predation on the elk population, until then unchallenged, produced a significant increase of new-growth in various plants. Aspen and willow trees, previously grazed by the elks more or less at will, got suddenly a chance to grow. With the presence of the wolves, the elks stopped venturing into deeper and for them dangerous thickets where they could easily be surprised. They began to avoid areas of low visibility, which would increase the chances of wolf attacks.

The elks began avoiding open regions such as valley bottoms, open meadows and gorges, where they would be at a disadvantage in case of an attack from a wolf pack. William J. Ripple and Robert L. Bestcha dubbed this process top-down control. In ecology, top-down control denotes that top predators regulate the lower sections of the trophic pyramid. In other words: a top predator controls the structure or population dynamics of a particular ecosystem.

With new vegetation growing and expanding came subtle changes in the waterways running through the park. That had an impact on other species as well. Various bird species came back to Yellowstone with the increased number of trees. The beaver, previously extinct in the region, returned to the park. Their dams across the rivers attracted otters, muskrats, and reptiles.

Probably due to the wolves keeping the coyote populations at bay, the red fox got suddenly a chance to survive because the number of rabbits and mice grew considerably. The raven, always the wolf follower, came back to the park as well, now able to feed on the leftovers of the wolves.

The wolves changed the rivers, in as much as they readdressed the lost balance within the region, one we had created when we exterminated them. With a better balance between predator and prey, top meat eaters and top grazers, came the possibility for other species to thrive. With the increased vegetation growth, erosion decreased and the river banks stabilized.

Every time we produce drastic changes in nature, we interfere deeply with the whole eco-system.

Nature is indeed a beautiful act of balance.

 

References and further reading

"Ethology" by Roger Abrantes

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The Wolf Within—The Truth About Why We Fear the Wolf

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Our love-hate relationship with the wolf, the animal that shares 15 thousand years of common ancestry with man’s best friend, the dog, suggests a deep conflict, one that is well hidden and maybe closer to each of us than we dare to admit. Are we hiding a skeleton in the closet? Why do we take great pains to understand and be good to our dogs whilst we hunt the wolf mercilessly?

 

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

 

Back in time, there were no wolves or dogs, only Canis lupus perantiquus (my name), the common ancestor of Canis lupus lupus, Canis lupus familiars, and 37 other subspecies. Humans, by then Homo sapiens sapiens, developed, not surprisingly, a particularly healthy relationship with this Canis lupus perantiquus. Both shared common interests, and humans were still just one of many species. The relationship was mutually beneficial and resulted in some humans favoring certain perantiquus and certain perantiquus finding human company particularly rewarding.

Natural selection favored the fittest and, as usual, species changed over the years. These changes can be so extensive that some species turn into new ones; others only into new subspecies. The Canis lupus perantiquus changed under selective pressure from humans and their environment and became Canis lupus familiaris. In a sense, we created this subspecies and all its variations to serve and protect us.

Some species react strongly to stimuli they have not experienced for thousands of years, the scent of a predator, for example. These alarming and life-saving key stimuli remain in the species’ gene pool, a kind of genetic memory. It is very unlikely that our fear of wolves stems from this kind of genetic memory; if we were that afraid of the wolf, we would never have gotten as close to it as we did. Perhaps we were afraid of the wolf in primitive times, but thousands of years of living in close proximity and cooperating would have changed that, as the least fearful members of both species would have benefited from the other. In those days, we can presume that the wolves that were least afraid of humans and capable of cooperating had better chances of survival and propagation (and ultimately turned into dogs); and conversely, the humans that were least afraid of wolves and were better at cooperating were more successful hunters, therefore survived and propagated (and ultimately turned into dog owners). Our fear of the wolf makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but perhaps it does from a psychological one. After all, we seem to fear what most resembles us—the enemy within!

Our fear and hatred of the wolf began long after the domestication, when humans took the first steps to distance themselves from nature, to enslave and exploit it—it happened when we invented agriculture. In the beginning, there was no war, only small-scale feuds provoked by the occasional domestic animal being taken by a wolf. The large-scale extermination of the wolf is not due to a single factor, but to an intermingled combination of factors that include mythology, religious zeal, environmental changes, economic incentives, and a deep psychological scar, as we shall see.

Mythology, such as Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables, evoke the wolf as evil, untrustworthy, conniving and cowardly, a greedy thief that will go to great lengths to devour a poor, little lamb, child or old person. Tales of Werewolves also exacerbated our fear and hatred of the wolf.

Religious convictions support our hatred of the wolf. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-29). European farmers and American settlers were devout Christians, and they didn’t need a clearer incentive to declare war on all that crept upon the Earth. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-29)—and the wolf became the ultimate target and symbol of their mission.

There is a clear association between the wolf and the wild, the wilderness and the untamed. As Burbank puts it, “The New World wilderness, where the Pilgrims found themselves, was a sinister adversary, home of tribal savages who practiced evil. The Puritans regarded the wilderness itself as a howling beast, a wolf inspired by the Devil. In their desolation, they sojourned and their journey reminded them that believers wandered in a world of sin, a spiritual wilderness replete with Godless enemies and insane beasts that wanted only to consume the righteous.” (Burbank 1990:80)

Farming and the keeping of domestic animals in enclosures combined with the decimation of the wolf’s natural prey, forced the wolf to get closer to human settlements and to feed upon the occasional livestock. Today, most wolves avoid livestock when they have enough wild prey, but the wolves of the 1800s faced extreme food shortages and preyed upon cattle and sheep. That wasn’t a problem for rich farmers. Even the smaller family farms could have survived the subsequent economic loss. Nevertheless, governments attempted to solve the supposed problem by creating bounties in return for the head of a wolf. Besides shooting them, wolf hunters used traps, poison, denning (excavating a den and killing the cubs) and biological warfare (infecting captive wolves with sarcoptic mange and releasing them into the wild)—and so wolfing became a lucrative business.

Mythology, religious zeal, and the economy go a long way towards explaining the hatred but don’t explain everything. One thing is to control competition (it happens all the time in nature). Another is to embark on radical extermination and, what’s more, find pleasure in the practice of torture (such as setting wolves on fire, skinning them alive, hanging them, etc.). Such barbarism suggests the real reason for our hatred is well hidden and maybe closer to our hearts than we care to believe or dare to face.

As with all organisms, human evolution happens quietly and slowly unless some sudden, drastic environmental change prompts the selection of unusual traits. The human brain was the sudden, single, dramatic cause that prompted a huge leap in the evolution of the species—and it was not an external cause, it came indeed from deep within us. The human brain enabled man to devise farming, then science and technology, and ultimately an anthropocentric religion. Farming enabled us to multiply far beyond the average rate up until that time and to colonize the entire world. Advancements in science and technology gave us the tools to subdue all life on the planet. Religious convictions provided us with motive and momentum beyond all rationality.

There is a high price to pay when evolution equals revolution. The (relatively) quick adoption of dualism and a mechanistic view of the world forced us to part with holism and animism, and left us with deep scars. In order to obey God, conquer the world and subdue all that crept upon our planet, we had to sever our connection with the natural, unruly, uncivilized world. To live up to the moral laws of Christianity, we had to go against our nature, denying who we were and where we came from. We had to cover our tracks. All that reminded us of our holistic past had to be oppressed, suppressed, forgotten. The wilderness in general and the wolf in particular reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. It became them and us. They were symbols of the unruly, the untamed and we, the purveyors of God’s wishes and civilized order. They symbolized what we were, not what we wanted to be. We had to subdue our own wild side, a legacy from our ancestors from many millions of years ago, which had proved highly efficient for survival, yet was despised and denied by the Holy Church. We were imprinted with religious zeal, which elicited the need to stifle the symbolic wild wolf inside each one of us; and we denied our origins, a strategy that was always only going to work on a short-term basis. A conflict of identity was inevitable; the werewolf represents perhaps our struggle to switch from an organic to a mechanistic worldview.

While the dog represents what we aspire to be, the wolf stands for what we refuse to acknowledge as part of us. The dog represents control, reminds us of our power, and is testimony to our ability to tame the wild. The wolf is our guilty conscience, it reminds us of our humble origins, represents the freedom we gave up, the togetherness we abandoned.

Through his fables, Aesop contributed to the creation of many myths that were detrimental to the wolf by depicting it with all the characteristics we despise most. Unknowingly, hence most ironically, in one uncharacteristic fable, he epitomizes our age-old conflict. In “The Dog and the Wolf,” the dog invites the starving wolf to live with him and his master, but when the wolf discovers that it involves being chained, the wolf replies, “Then good-bye to you Master Dog. Better starve free than be a fat slave.”

We became fat slaves by our own choice; and the wolf poignantly reminds us that there was a time when we had other options—herein the dog (wolf) lies buried*.

“Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy was in us,” says Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon from 1986. Echoing Taylor, I’d say: we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us. As long as we will remain in denial of our inheritance, the scar won’t heal, and the enemy will remain well entrenched within us—and so will we keep fighting the wolf.

Keep howling!

 

* “That’s where the dog lies buried,” means “that’s what lies behind.” This idiomatic expression exists in many languages, e.g. “da liegt der Hund begraben” (German), “siinä on koira haudattuna,” (Finish), “där är en hund begraven” (Swedish), but not in English. Most interestingly, the Swedish expression “att ana ugglor i mossen” (to suspect owls in the bog) meaning almost the same, comes from the Danish expression “der er ugler i mosen.” Originally, it wasn’t “ugler,” but “ulver” (wolves), which makes more sense since an owl in the bog is nothing special. Since the two words in some spoken Danish dialects are difficult to distinguish from one another, it was translated incorrectly into Swedish, and the expression re-introduced in Denmark with owls substituting wolves. The expression and its history was too good for me not to use it in the context of this article. I hope the native English speakers will regard it as an enrichment of the language, rather than a nuisance.

 

He Told Me a Story of Freedom and Eternity, Togetherness and Solitude

 

Wolf Eyes

 

I don’t have preferences. Life fascinates me, and I’ve been a student of life, as long as I can remember. I have no favorite animal as such. I have enjoyed equally the many days (and nights) I’ve spent studying dogs, horses, cats, ducks, bees, sea-horses, and wolves. All have taught me valuable lessons that I carry with me, within me.

I was only a boy, by then. It was a late-summer afternoon, and I had been exploring the forest and the mountain all day like I always did, curious about all life forms, big and small. The creek behind the pines was not that large that time of the year, but its water, slowly running down the slope was crystal clear and deliciously cold. After filling my canteen, I raised my eyes, and there he was just across me on the opposite bank. He looked at me, drank some water, then looked up again. I did the same. I didn’t feel any fear, though I should have, for they—the adults—told scary stories about this bloodthirsty and merciless beast.

He looked at me with his deep eyes, and for a time we stood still, barely daring to breathe and break the magic—as if time had ended, and we were but memories of an era bygone. We looked at one another for a moment barely, one which remains imprinted in my mind, one that made me what I am. I have no idea what my eyes told him, though his glance told me a story of freedom and eternity, togetherness and solitude. I went home with my secret; and a strange, warm feeling like when one made a new friend, I reckoned, for I didn’t know, then, how it felt to be in love. I never told my parents, my grandparents or anyone. I knew he was in danger, and you don’t betray a friend, do you?

A few days later, maybe more, there was some commotion in the village. My grand-daddy and I went down to find out about the uproar. On the old market square, laying there on the ground, dirty and bloody, there he was. A farmer had shot him. His eyes were open and serene. They had lost the spark I guess is the gift of life, but they talked to me nonetheless. I held back the tears I felt were building up. Big boys don’t cry, and my friend the wolf didn’t cry, so I wouldn’t either. My grand-daddy grabbed my hand and led me away while I listened to my friend the wolf’s stories, stories I carry with me, within me, and made me what I am.

RAA and Wolf

I listened to my friend the wolf’s stories, stories I carry with me, within me, and made me what I am. (Photo by Monty Sloan from Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana, USA.)

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The Most Powerful Training Tool

Roger Abrantes in 1985 working with Silas, the wolf cub.

Roger Abrantes in 1985 interacting with Silas, the wolf cub—creating a relationship.

Those were the days—yours truly in 1985 with Silas, the wolf cub. Notice the whistle hanging around my neck. I used it as a conditioned positive reinforcer (yes, the precursor of the clicker). Silas preferred, though, my own verbal reinforcer (“dygtig”)* because I always associated it with a friendly body language and facial expression. It meant acceptance. For wolves, much more sensitive to social situations than dogs, acceptance is the ultimate social reinforcer; for the cubs, it is vital.

These were the first observations that led me to suspect that the verbal and the mechanic conditioned positive reinforcers were by no means the same. Since parts of the verbal reinforcer (the body language and facial expression) were untaught,  I later coined the term “semi-conditioned reinforcer” and classified it as such.

If you ask me today, I’ll answer you without hesitating that the most powerful tool you have when working with animals is yourself. If you control yourself, your body language, your facial expressions and the little, you say, you’ll achieve what you pretend and more.

After all, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Interacting with someone is not merely a question of conditioning a series of behaviors—it is, foremost, creating a relationship.

You can see me illustrate this in the DVD “The 20 Principles All Animal Trainers Must Know” shot by the Tawzers in Montana at a seminar I gave. Watch the trailer here. You will also find other short movies demonstrating the same, various places on this site. Feel free to browse as you please, watch the movies and read the free articles.
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* “Dygtig” [ˈdøgdi] is a Danish word and means “clever.” It is, apparently, a good sound as a reinforcer, I discovered many years ago.

Animal Training My Way

Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism by Roger Abrantes.
This book is about making simple things simpler but not simpler than necessary. It’s about knowing what you want and what you need to get it. It’s about training animals, changing their behavior and creating harmonious relationships, but it’s foremost about training ourselves and changing our behavior.


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