Update August 16th, 2019: This morning in King County Superior Court, wolf advocates were successful in getting an injunction to stop the slaughter of the OPPT pack. However, while the advocates were in court, it was announced that WDFW sharpshooters had killed four of the five remaining wolves in the OPPT pack.
Researching a chipmunk article made me realize how crucial even the smallest animal can be to an ecosystem. This made me wonder what animals are at risk in our state. After a little research, I found Washington State has classified 45 species as endangered, threatened or sensitive. These include mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates.
I wondered what the consequences would be if we lost any or all of these creatures. In the interest of space and time, I concentrated on only land mammals but you can see the entire list here. As I fell down my usual rabbit hole of research, I stumbled across the Keystone species conceptand a University of Washington zoology professor, ecologist named Robert T. Paine.
According to Paine, like the central locking stone in an arch, a keystone species is one that plays the same role in an ecosystem by maintaining the structure and integrity of the community. He hypothesized without that species; many ecosystems would fail to exist. Keystone species can be large or small and depending on the size of the environment, herbivore or carnivore.
To understand how this works, look to Africa where in some places; elephants are considered a keystone species. Elephants eat shrubs and small trees that grow on the savannas. This keeps the savanna a grassland and not a forest or woodland. They sustain the grazing animals, such as zebra, and provide prey for larger predators like lions. In addition, they create corridors in the brush that prevent wildfires from spreading and dig deep holes that fill with water for other animals to drink. Elephants are endangered and have “low functional redundancy.” This means if they disappear, reported to be possibly as soon as 2025, there is no species to fill the void they leave behind. Paine hypothesized that this void could cause a “trophic cascade”, defined as dramatic changes in ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling. Removal of a primary consumer, like an elephant, could cause a bottoms up trophic cascade. Removing a predator, like the gray wolf, could cause a top down trophic cascade. You can read more about Paine and his concept here.
So, circling back and popping up out of my research rabbit hole brings me back to Washington’s list of endangered or threatened land mammals. There are nine and I took a look at what they do for their individual ecosystems. The first was apparently in the hole with me the entire time-he was just so small I didn’t see him.
- Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit: Once was used as a food source for 8 different predators and as important link in the shrub-steppe system as a burrower that keeps soil mixed. There are approximately 250 individuals in the state. Find out more about this tiny adorable bunny here.
- Canada Lynx: Important in regulating the population of their prey who are agricultural and silvicultural pests. There are thought to be less than 200 Lynx left in Washington State.
- Fisher: Only known animal to successfully predate porcupines, that, does damage by debarking and killing trees, fishers help the timber industry by maintaining forest and timber health. Once considered extinct in Washington, the state has been working to reintroduce fishers to the wild since 2008
- Grizzly Bear: Important predators and seed dispersers in the ecosystems in which they live. No resident populations live in Washington State but up to 12 may roam back and forth from Canada.
- Woodland Caribou: Through their foraging activities caribou have a dramatic effect on vegetation in their environments. Also, important prey species for bears and wolves. The last of the Washington population was captured in early 2019 in an effort to rescue the animal from extinction.
- Western Gray Squirrel: Help to disperse and plant trees by burying seeds in uncollected caches. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service the population is now between 468-1405 individuals
- Mazama Pocket Gopher: May play an important role in the aeration, mixing, and drainage of soil. They also contribute to the distribution and succession of plant species and communities. They are a source of food to many mammals and birds. Their burrows are used and inhabited by many other species. There are up to 100,000 of these creatures in total with most residing in Oregon and California. Only 2000-5000 remain in Washington
- Columbian White-tailed Deer: Can influence plant communities through grazing. Important prey for large predators. According to the WDFW, as of January 2014, the entire Columbia River population totaled about 600 deer.
- Gray Wolf: Regulates populations of prey animals. Keep deer and elk populations in check which can benefit other plant and animal species. The carcasses of their prey feed other animals and redistribute nutrients.
So, where do we prioritize our attentions? They all need our help. Wolves are federally listed as endangered in the western two thirds of the state and delisted in the eastern one-third of the state. Delisting the wolves federally puts the management of these animals in the hands of the state and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The WDFW gave an order to kill wolves of the Old Profanity Territory Pack. This was in response to livestock losses on grazing allotments on public land in the Colville National Forest. One ranch, the Diamond M Ranch, and their grazing allotments have been the site of multiple livestock conflicts with wolves and the reason for most of the wolf killings. After much legal back and forth with the state, the department and environmental groups, the bid was lost to block the WDFW from culling the OPT pack in the Kettle River Range. It appears the TOGO pack is next in line
We have 126 wolves in Washington State and two entire packs may be wiped out over cattle grazing rights. The motivation for removing predators is easy to understand, but will doing so achieve the desired results? I am neither a hunter nor a wildlife biologist. I am simply a lay person who is relatively well read in the subject of wildlife in Washington State. I’ve spoken to more than a few wolf and bear biologists over the years. These are people who are highly educated about the animals they study. They all agree, this new Washington State policy to kill many predators has thus far not resulted in fewer depredations. The OPT pack seems to be a prime example of this – one pack was lethally removed and another recolonized the area. One of the oldest ways of dealing with predators is to cull or remove them and time after time, it just doesn’t work.
Tell the WDFW’s director Kelly Susewind what you think about the state moving backwards in terms of wildlife management by writing: Director’s Office PO Box 43200, Olympia, WA 98504-3200 | 360-902-2200 |firstname.lastname@example.org. or Governor Jay Inslee at Office of the Governor PO Box 40002 Olympia, WA 98504-0002, or call 360-902-411 or 1-800-833-6388 and leave a message to stop the killing of wolves now.
[Contributing writer Melissa Grant is a pet trainer, wildlife enthusiast and North Bend resident]