Wolves, seals, whales, and when will the winter end?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2001:

OSTERDALEN, Norway–Twenty-three hunters sent by the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management to kill nearly half the wolves in Norway were expected to seek a court order, as ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press on February 21, 2001, to close the Osterdalen Valley to all people not associated with the killing.


On February 19, nine days after setting out, the hunters shot one of the nine wolves they sought, but failed to massacre the other eight members of her pack. Activists raised on stories of how the Nordic skiers of Norwegian Resistance kept Adolph Hitler from developing an atomic bomb repeatedly swooshed into the hunters’ gunsights, forcing them to hold their fire. Less speedy but just as determined, other activists camped along wolf trails, staged songfests between the hunters and the wolves, and destroyed tracks by holding noisy dog sled races on top of them.

One 30-member wolf defense team hired a light plane to keep them informed of the wolves’ location, 27-year-old mail carrier Svein Soerli told Reuters, between ski missions. News media helicopters also helped to keep wolves and hunters apart. The hunters too had helicopters, plus snowmobiles and a wolf-killing budget of $240,000 U.S. Except on their first day and on February 19, however, they rarely so much as saw the wolves they were after. They were authorized to continue hunting until April.

Located 125 miles north of Oslo, the Osterdalen Valley is the last place in Europe where wolves, brown bears, wolverines, and lynx all co-exist with moose, red deer, roe deer, and reindeer. But the Osterdalen also has sheep farmers. In January the farmers accused the wolves of killing from 612 to 827 of their sheep during 2000, among total alleged losses to predators of about 9,000.  The wolves were blamed for the rise in predator losses from 8,650 in 1999. The wolves have learned to resist guard dogs, reportedly attacking and injuring a Norwegian elkhound named Hera in her kennel as recently as February 8.

The NDNM dispatched the hunters to kill nine of the 20 wolves believed to be in the area despite the advice of predator experts that the farmers’ claims were improbable, and that the sheep had more likely been scavenged after succumbing to harsh weather. Originally the NDNM considered killing all 20 wolves, but downsized the hit list after receiving diplomatic protests from Sweden.

Warned World Wildlife Fund Norway chief executive Rasmus Hansson, “Exterminating these two family groups of wolves will not solve the conflicts. The government has targeted wolves who prey almost entirely on moose. It rather suggests that party politics set the agenda.” Killing two wolves in 1999 who allegedly preyed upon sheep apparently had no discernible effect on the losses.

A joint Swedish/Norwegian wolf recovery panel believes Scandinavia needs at least 500 wolves to ensure the survival of the species. Recent surveys estimate that the entire Swedish/Norwegian wolf population includes only 51 to 120 individuals, divided among eight to 12 packs. Only five packs have intact alpha male/female pairs, says Norwegian Carnivore and Raptor Society information advisor Viggo Ree, and only three packs live entirely in Norway, including the two packs slated for death. Wolves have been legally protected in Sweden since 1966 and in Norway since 1973.

Wolves, seals, and whales have been the three major icon species of wildlife protection in the Northern Hemisphere since the 1960s, when all varieties of wolf and all but the most common seals and whales had been extirpated from most of their range of just a century before, and were in imminent peril of extinction. Seals have recovered most rapidly, wolves with the most controversy, and although some whales varieties have recovered, others continue to decline.

Since Russia suspended commercial whaling in 1988, in compliance with the global moratorium declared in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission, Norway is the only nation killing wolves, seals, and whales in connection with commerce. Some indigenous Americans, Canadians, Laplanders, and Russians also hunt all three species, but they are not allowed to sell the remains.

Sealing

Ironically, Norway is the only sealing nation to respond positively to protest– even in a small way–in recent years. That came in November 2000, when the Norweg-ian Environment Department refused to allow Norwegian Polar Institute director of research Pal Prestrud to kill 20 each of crabeater, Weddell, leopard, and Antarctic fur seals, along with 20 each of snow petrels, Antarctic petrels, adelie penguins, chinstrap penguins, and south polar skuas. Prestrud wanted to look for pollutants in the animals’ livers. The cancellation of the study, however, did not affect the commercial seal hunt in Norway itself.

Other major sealing nations, lately indifferent to protest, include Canada, with a spring 2001 seal quota of 275,000, triple the actual number of pelts landed in 2000; Greenland, killing about 80,000 seals per year; Namibia, whose fisheries minister, Abraham Iyambo, has promised a “drastic” increase in seal-killing this year, up from circa 40,000; and Russia, killing an unknown total.
The anti-fur groups Bont voor Dieren and Coalition Against the Fur Trade U.K. have designated March 13 as a World Day of Action Against Seal Hunting, with protests scheduled at Canadian and Norwegian embassies and consulates in ten nations.

Whaling & fat meat

Activists scored another small victory in Norway on December 7, 2000 when Ole Mindor Mykebust, 51, captain of the whaling ship Kato, was fined $2,100 plus court costs and drew a six-month suspended jail sentence for allegedly shooting at an inflatable boat occupied by two Greenpeace protesters in July 1999. The protesters were trying to get between the Kato and a harpooned whale. “It is reassuring that the court has ruled it is unacceptable to shoot at rubber boats, even if they are from Greenpeace,” said Greenpeace spokesperson Frode Pleym.
Any jubilation over the delayed courtroom win, however, dissipated in January, as Norwegian foreign minister Thorbjorn Jagland and fisheries minister Otto Gregussen claimed that a reservation Norway entered against the 1988 global moratorium on commercial whaling confers an exemption on having to refrain from international sales of whale parts. Therefore, Jagland and Gregussen held, Norway can sell an estimated $1 million worth of stockpiled whale meat and blubber to Japan.

Japan annually consumes up to 5,000 metric tons of whale meat, some of it from “research whaling,” but most from small toothed whales, including dolphins, who are not protected by the International Whaling Commission. “Japan’s dolphin hunt kicked into high gear in 1986, the year the ban on commercial whaling went into effect,” Sea Shepherd International founder Paul Watson explains. “Hundreds of boats are licensed to kill dolphins, and they have severely depleted, in sequence, populations of striped dolphins, pilot whales, beaked whales, and Dall’s porpoise,” landing an average of more than 20,000 small whales per year.

But Japan, hoping to persuade the IWC to reopen commercial whaling soon, may not be interested in the aging Norwegian stockpile. Research done by the Japan Fisheries Agency, published in November 2000, found that some dolphin meat on the market contained unacceptably high levels of toxins, including mercury, and Japanese public health monitors expect that the Norwegian stock will be more contaminated still.

“It is scientifically proven that whale meat, especially blubber, accumulates dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals such as dioxin and PCBs,” Consumers Union of Japan chair Yoko Tomiyama told media on January 19. “We are calling on the Norwegian government not to export what is clearly contaminated. If the Japanese government moves to allow imports of whale meat, we will pressure the government to reverse its decision.”

Four other citizens’ groups, including Safety First, the Food & Agricultural Network, the Women’s Democratic Union, and the Tokyo Network of Local Consumer Groups, jointly delivered a protest letter to the Norwegian embassy in Tokyo. They found an unexpected ally a week later in Kristin Faerden of the Norwegian Food Control Authority, who told the British-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society that studies by the Norwegian National Veterinary Institute and Norwegian College of Veterinary Medicine found concentrations of PCBs in the fat of Atlantic minke whales at more than seven times the maximum allowed under Japanese food safety regulations. Faerden reportedly said she would recommend against eating large amounts of blubber unless it was proven PCB-free.

Land of Gaston

Public opinion–except among commercial fishers–now firmly favors seals and whales in most of the nations that once hunted them, including the U.S., but the Norwegian wolf drama echoed similar conflicts in France, Siberia, Quebec, Alaska, and parts of the U.S. Lower 48 where wolves have re-established themselves, 75 years after they were totally extirpated by government hunters.

Near Allevard, in the French Alpines, an unknown person on November 21 shot the first wolf killed in France since 1954. The remains were hung by the hind legs from a tree, with a sign stating, “This we can do, when we have had enough of wolves.” Farmers drove wolves from the French Alps into Italy during the early 1950s by burning as many as they could trap alive, as warnings to their packs, but some wolves returned in 1992. About 20-30 wolves now form two packs in Mercantour National Park, ranging toward Grenoble–where as a magnet to ecotourism their presence could be more economically valuable than the entire French Alpine sheep industry.

Dzud

Farmers in central Siberia south of Krasnoyarsk as of January 20 claimed to have shot 40 wolves from snowmobiles, of an estimated 300 who had reportedly begun coming into villages and pursuing livestock from snowbank to rooftop during an unusually harsh winter which to the south, in Mongolia, killed more than a million cattle and sheep and at least 27 people during mid-January alone.

Up to six million cattle and sheep are expected to die in Mongolia before the spring grass grows tall enough to eat–a consequence not only of the dzud, as the severe winter is called, but also of Mongolians responding to the introduction of free enterprise by leaving state-run collective farms to run larger personal herds on grazing commons than the habitat has ever supported.

There were no indications that the starving wolves of Siberia were finding their way south to the carrion. In earlier times wolves followed wild prey north and south across Asia with the seasons, but the ancient migratory routes were cut by 19th and 20th century development–much of it short-lived.
Howling
In Quebec, Clan des Loups d’Amer-ique du Nord founder Benoit Ayotte spent the winter trying to regain for wolves the protected status they and other furbearing species enjoyed on provincial wildlife reserves until 1984, when as an election ploy a doomed Quebecois nationalist government opened the reserves to trapping for 19 species.

“Trapping in the wildlife reserves is a privilege granted within a social, cultural, and economic context very different from that of today,” Benoit reminded officials and politicians. “The number of trappers in Quebec has declined by 62% since 1980, and trappers now account for only 1% of the population. Trapping, however, remains the leading cause of wolf mortality,” killing a recent average of 480 per year, among about 237,000 animals trapped per year in Quebec.

“The government is blindly jeopardizing the wolf’s survival by allowing the species to be killed without knowing the status of its population,” Ayotte continued, arguing that wolves should be seen as the signal species for all the furbearers, who since 1984 have been virtually without legally protected refuge within Quebec.
[Contact Ayotte c/o 1232 Chute Panet, St. Rayomond, Quebec, Canada G3L 4P3; 418-337-6546; fax 418-337-4875.]

Predator control

Serving as signal species for all officially endangered animals and plants in the U.S. red wolves won a round in Washington D.C. on February 20. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected without comment an appeal of a June 6 ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, that the wolves retain federal protection and may not be shot without compelling reason even when they enter private land.

Theodore Olson, constitutional lawyer for George W. Bush in the Supreme Court case that won Bush the U.S. Presidency, had tried to use the case to overturn key parts of the 1973 U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Noting the successful reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho, and the natural recovery of wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, the Interior Department in July 2000 proposed downlisting the species from “endangered” to “threatened,” except for the Mexican gray wolf subspecies, recently reintroduced to New Mexico. However, on January 24, the fifth anniversary of the first Yellowstone wolf releases, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery chief Ed Bangs announced that the Yellowstone region wolf population had not quite met the target of 30 breeding pairs needed to begin the
countdown to delisting. Delisting is to be assured when there are 30 breeding pairs for three consecutive years.
“Illegal killings probably put us below the mark,” Bangs said. “If we hadn’t had that, we’d probably be at 30 or above.” Idaho hunters and outfitters blame the wolf restoration for
allegedly declining elk numbers–although formal studies of the elk herd have not confirmed any loss.

As the wolves are still federally protected, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission has contracted with USDA Wildlife Services to kill other elk predators instead. According to the project description, Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement and Conservation president Bob DeGroot told ANIMAL PEOPLE, 75 or more black bears and 10 or more pumas are to be killed in the Clearwater National Forest after April 23 “to determine the effects of predator reduction on elk calf survival.”

Noted DeGroot, “The proposed ‘removal’ period coincides generally with the period in which bear sows are leaving their winter dens with young cubs. Killing sow bears will obviously result in the death of the cubs by starvation or predation. “There is little or no scientific evidence that predation is behind any decreased rate of elk calf survival in the area,” DeGroot continued. “Winter kill, overhunting, and loss of habitat were not considered.”

DeGroot predicted that the final Environmental Assessment on the predator killing would probably be released by March 15, followed by a 30-day public comment period before the killing begins.

In Alaska, where hunter demands for predator control are perennial, a task force appointed by Governor Tony Knowles on February 1 recommended baiting and killing black bears, as well as wolves, to protect moose in the vicinity of McGrath. The Alaska Board of Game maintains that the McGrath region should support more than twice as many moose as the task force agreed is feasible.

Earlier, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Craig Gardner reported that sterilizing 34 wolves from 15 packs had brought a 50% rise in the Tok-area caribou herd since 1997. Trappers who killed 208 wolves in the vicinity in the two preceding winters claimed the killing had more to do with it–but the herd recovery did not begin until after the sterilizations started.

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