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Rebuttal to "Do Wolves Help Pronghorn?"

Rebuttal to "Do Wolves Help Pronghorn?: Yellowstone Pronghorn Find Refuge in the Shadow of the Wolf" - WyoFile, July 24, 2012


The first flaw in this story is that Mr. Dawson can't decide which "herd" of pronghorn he is talking  about. The title refers to the pronghorn that live in the Yellowstone valley. But throughout the article he bounces between using the Tetons and Yellowstone as a reference, pulling statistics or examples from one or the other, without giving full details of either one. You've already got your readers confused. If you doubt me, just run a check on Google Earth. Teton Valley and Yellowstone Valley are two distinct places. So which one are we talking about?

Research done in the late '90s and early 2000s by Joe Riis and Emilene Ostlind showed that there were far more than 2-300 pronghorn that would winter in Teton Valley, and migrate to the Upper Green River Basin.

Mr. Dawson also states that the population of pronghorn has been fairly steady since the early 1990s - fluctuating between 200 and 300 pronghorn. Dropping numbers was only accredited to coyote predation and the growth of human development in the area. (Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.) He lists increases in recent years but not how recent, and then states that they dropped the last year of record, by more than 20%. That's a pretty big drop, but the author glosses it over by stating that the count was "not up".

Dawson dismisses the fact that pronghorn is a suitable meal for wolves - equating wolves dining on pronghorn to you and me feeding a family on one single Big Mac - yet acknowledges that bears prey on pronghorn, especially fawns. The last time I looked bears were larger than wolves, and while bears do not travel in packs, they'll pick up a pronghorn for a snack, the same way a wolf will. He also did not say anything about the increase in the number of Grizzly Bears that live in the Yellowstone area. Grizzlies are on the threshold of being removed from the Endangered Species List.

The wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone are not indiginous Grays, either. They are Canadian Grays - a larger, more aggressive animal. This wolf can get to be up to around 200 pounds, as compared to a 50 lb wolves which originally inhabited the region.

Mr. Dawson sites a study done by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) - and again, in the Teton Valley, not Yellowstone - that showed where coyotes were present (but relatively few wolves) there was only a 10% survival rate for pronghorn fawns, but that where there were more wolves, which had presumabely chased out the coyotes, the fawn survival rate was closer to 35%. Again, the waters were muddied by the location reference. The WCS study was done on the Teton herd of pronghorn. But the claim is made that the pronghorn herd increased by 50% after wolves were reintroduced in 1995.

Mr. Dawson quoted a 2010 report in The Journal of Mammology that stated, "the park’s pronghorn are exhibiting uncharacteristic behavior of heading for higher ground to seek refuge from coyotes while birthing. They also state that in winter, coyotes limited in their movements by deep snow allows for high-elevation sanctuary for young pronghorn." NOw think of this logically - Coyotes have been preying on pronghorn for generations. Why would they only recently retreat to the high altitudes for birthing? The leap to that conclusion doesn't make sense. What does make sense is that wolves have returned, which ads a "new" predator to the mix, and has caused the antelope to change their behavior and move to higher ground, seeking refuge from the wolves, not the coyotes. Antelope have natural defenses against coyotes, and none against wolf packs. Protective behavior in response to a more aggressive predator is more reasonable than seeking shelter within the range of an aggressor that will take out a Pronghorn mother who is birthing just as quickly as they'll take out a fawn.

The study quoted also tagged fawns up to four days after birth - the first three days are the time of greatest vulnerability, because they are the period during which the fawn cannot run with the mother, and is at the weakest point of their life.

There is no acknowledgment of massive declines in elk populations (now below the sustainability point for surviving young), and similar declines in mule deer. When larger prey disappears, wolves move en-masse to smaller prey, which is more likely to account for the previous year's declines than higher than average snowfall which would have resulted in better than normal grazing, and increases in herd populations.

The numbers recorded in the study were too low to be representative of any kind of meaningful statistic. Less than 20 predation events were studied, and of the 13 recorded, 4 of them were "unknown predators", which is such a high percentage that it skews any interpretation of actual facts.

The article is very thin on valid science, ignores logical animal behaviors and patterns, and has the feel of someone trying very hard to make thin bits of incomplete information from non-correlating sources fit together into the pie that he wants it to be. It does not have the feel of a credible conclusion based on all available data instead of just the pieces he wants us to see.