The Stuff That Wolves Are Made Of

Not that I don’t like wolves, but if it had been up to me, I’d have built a (metaphorical) fence along the border with Oregon to keep the wolves out of our state. I didn’t want to add wolves to the list of problems we have related to managing our deer and elk.

So, now it’s time to adjust.

Deer and elk are the stuff that wolves are made of. If you worship wolves you have to love deer and elk. They are inseparable.

Now that the wolf is a listed species in California, I see two possible choices – ignore the critters and wait to see what happens or prepare for them by building up our elk and deer habitat.

I’d prefer to be proactive, but it will take a lot more than my support to make a wolf plan successful.

We need more of the stuff that wolves are made of.We need more ungulates and we need them in a big way.

If we set the table and prepare the venison, the guests will arrive and be happy.

Ungulates are to wolves what grass is to elk and buck-brush is to deer. Current California does not currently have enough food for wolves. Our habitat is fragmented, neglected and unproductive. Without large-scale habitat manipulation, neither deer, elk nor wolves will be successful in California  – wolves listed or not.

Ask any hunter and he’ll tell you that deer numbers are declining in California. and that we have few elk. Ask and old hunter and he’ll tell you about the good-old two-deer days when you could hunt the Sierra Nevada mountains from the Oregon border to Mono Lake with one deer tag during a season that lasted from August to November and also purchase a second deer tag to hunt blacktail in the Coast Range.

However, now that wolves have been elevated to a status of “Endangered” under the California Endangered Species Act, there may be an improved chance to fund habitat improvement on a landscape scale for their primary source of food. Deer and elk thrive in young habitat. The best example of that is habitat that has been hit by fire. Old shrubs that have reached maturity don’t have nearly as much food value as shrubs that have recently sprouted. A forest that has burned can provide exceptional habitat for several years after the fire and that habitat can continue to be treated by mechanical means to extend the period of productivity indefinitely.

Deer and elk are capable of expanding their numbers rapidly in response to optimum habitat conditions. This is prime time for building deer and elk herds.

Although setting fire to the woods can be accomplished as part of a habitat project, there is liability and also human-related environmental issues to deal with. Accidentally burning down a private residence cannot be justified by a desire for increased habitat. And, air quality concern as monitored by the air quality people trumps many potential fire projects in California, but not all.

Policy changes are sometimes better than cash. A fire doesn’t have to be prescribed in order to be an effective habitat producer. An awareness of how we recover forest from wild-fire could generate progress in the habitat production arena.

Policy changes by forest managers could have a significant impact upon habitat recovery after wildfire. If habitat improvement could become a primary concern during the first years after large wildfires, prescribed burning could be replaced by, or augmented by, unplanned natural fire – a good example of turning lemons into lemonade.

At this point it is unclear as to whether current law under the California Endangered Species Act or Environmental Quality Act will be an effective tool for funding habitat for ungulates and wolves on a meaningful scale. But during this period of flux, between a Fish and Game Commission commitment to list and the effective date of the listing is a time to be opportunistic. The rules are being formulated right now.

And, we must not forget that wolves are still federally listed in California, so maybe there’s opportunity for funding at that level.

Another avenue to consider is to lobby for legislation that would require mitigation to offset any loss of habitat for wolves, deer or elk. The listing creates support for legislative activity and lawmakers are watching. How about a statewide policy of “no net loss of habitat for deer, elk or wolves.” Such a statewide policy should be attractive to deer hunters.

Forest grazing practices are another large-scale habitat consideration. When properly managed sheep and cattle can contribute to a healthier forest  by making more habitat accessible and palatable to ungulates. Is California’s range-land functioning optimally?

Private land can be a very important niche in wildlife management. The private sector can manage habitat  while avoiding the limitations of government bureaucracy.

Before hunters take a leap of faith in full support of California’s new wolf era, I’d expect them to require that a commitment from all parties to the sanctity of the hunting culture and the proven value of regulated hunting as a game management and habitat-funding tool.

Exactly how can habitat improvement be funded? How can forest management policies be changed? The details are the question. A status of “Endangered” can only turn into funding or improved policy if the public pushes for it. The public outcry to list the wolf will be fruitless if that same public does not lobby for the funding and policy change necessary to make the listing successful.

Is it possible that hunters and non-hunters could join forces to create an unprecedented mandate for habitat improvement in our state? Could traditional conservationists and environmentalists become an undeniable force that rocks the wolf-ungulate ecosystem?

For years conservationists have unsuccessfully attempted to elevate the quality and quantity of deer and elk habitat in California. The wolf listing could be the catalyst that allows meaningful large-scale habitat improvement to happen. It’s time to choose our course.

It’s too late to build the fence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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