Large Carnivores on the Rise

Source: Carricondo-Sanchez, D., Zimmermann, B., Wabakken, P., Eriksen, A., Milleret, C., Ordiz, A., Sanz-Pérez, A., & Wikenros, C. (2020). Wolves at the door? Factors influencing the individual behavior of wolves in relation to anthropogenic features. Biological Conservation244, 108514. DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108514

In the past, the number of large carnivores, such as wolves, brown bears, and black bears, has decreased as they have been hunted and have lost food sources. However, they have recently been making a comeback. As their numbers have increased, the human population has also increased, leading to areas of overlap between humans and large carnivores. Large carnivores generally want nothing to do with us, so they change their behavior and adapt to the landscape to avoid human interaction. Likewise, most humans do not want to come across a large carnivore. Even with this avoidance, encounters still occur, often resulting in attacks on livestock or attacks on hikers or hunters. This leads to conflict between large carnivores and people, ultimately causing higher mortality rates, and large carnivore population decline. Large carnivores are often key members of an ecosystem since they help to control the population sizes of their prey. Therefore, management and planning are very important to ensure that we can coexist with these animals.

Wolves in Scandinavia

The grey wolf is one species in particular that is making a comeback, especially in Scandinavia, where humans are the main cause of wolf mortality. The landscape there is heavily influenced by people and the wolves have been observed to purposefully avoid human interaction. However, while the species as a whole generally avoids people, individuals or packs may react differently. In Norway, one wolf pack was observed close to a human settlement on a regular basis. The Norwegian government wanted to investigate the behavior of these wolves with respect to people in order to better conserve the wolves and manage the situation. Carricondo-Sanchez et al. (2020) conducted a study to answer that question.

This is a Grey Wolf, or Canis lupus, which is the type of wolf found in Scandinavia. Source: WikiCommons

The researchers observed the movements of the wolves and their behavior toward human-related variables and then used computer models to help explain behaviors that deviated from what was observed to be normal. The study was conducted across Norway and Sweden and included heavily managed forests with many roads. The wolves had GPS collars placed on them, to track their movements over time. Using random locations that the wolves visited, the researchers calculated the distances to the closest human settlements, forests, and roads.

Wolves and People Can Coexist

Carricondo-Sanchez et al. (2020) found that wolves consistently avoided settlements with the exception of three individual wolves. However, those three wolves travelled close to the settlements at night indicating that they tried to avoid people. The wolves also stayed far from main roads, but ventured closer than expected to forest roads. During winter and during the night, they went closer to roads than other seasons and times of day. Except for winter nights, they also stayed closer to forests.

The above image shows the range of wolves in green. Norway and Sweden are the two upper left countries and share a wolf population. Source: WikiCommons

Overall, the researchers saw very little variation in wolf behavior; they all tended to avoid settlements and roads with the exception of winter nights, when prey moved towards settlements and the chances of human interaction were lower. Variation from this behavior was seen in the northern part of the study area where the wolves consume moose instead of deer. Therefore, the differences in behavior can be explained by differences in the ecosystem and in the wolves’ personalities.

It is important to understand why these animals may be coming closer to settlements and roads during certain parts of the year so that the behavior can be seen as normal rather than a purposeful attempt at conflict. Understanding the behavior of wolves with respect to human settlements can also help land managers and conservationists plan for the successful coexistence of these large carnivores and people in the future.

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Elisabeth Lang

I recently graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a Masters degree in Environmental Science and Policy. My undergraduate education was at McDaniel College, where I majored in Environmental Studies and Biology. My undergraduate research focused on land use change and its impacts on biodiversity in Central America using GIS-based research. My graduate research examined potential sea level rise impacts on National Wildlife Refuges in the Mid-Atlantic region using GIS. I am currently working at the US Army Public Health Center where I analyze environmental samples. In my spare time, I enjoy traveling, reading, and running.

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