What Really Controls MN Wolf Populations?

November 20, 2008 at 5:48 am 2 comments

Parvovirus and the year 1978 will forever be bound together in my mind. That was the year I lost a kitten and my wonderful 5-year old pet Chinchilla to the disease. As soon as the kitten got sick I contacted my vet. He assured me that Chin wouldn’t catch the disease from Mandy… But a couple of days later my sweet boy sickened and then quickly died.

I never went back to that vet again. But – was it his fault my pet died or was Chin the victim of a newly mutated disease that had not affected chinchillas – or canids – before?

From today’s StarTribune:

About half of the wolf pups born in Minnesota each year are killed off by a highly contagious disease called canine parvovirus, according to new research published by a team of Minnesota researchers in a national journal.

The disease has stunted the growth of the state’s gray wolf population at a time when wolves are increasing rapidly in number and expanding their range in Wisconsin, Michigan and western states.

“That’s not happening in Minnesota, because there aren’t quite enough of these wolves to do more than just maintain the population,” said David Mech, senior research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author of the study.

According to most sources, parvovirus first began to affect canine populations in 1978. Since it first appeared, canine parvovirus has spread to every continent in the world (except Antarctica – where dog teams are no longer used to protect seal populations from the disease). The virulent spread of the disease is partly related to its incredible hardiness. The bacterium is resistant to extreme hot and cold temperatures and it’s not harmed by detergents, alcohols or common disinfectants. Add to this the fact that it can be transmitted directly when an infected dog, its stool, or a flea that bit that infected dog comes in contact with a healthy dog and that virus particles also spread easily on shoes, hoofs, paws, clothing and other inanimate objects that come in contact with infected animals or their feces — and you have a pretty good recipe to create an epidemic.

Add to that the difficulty impossibility of keeping wild canid populations separated from domestic ones and of keeping them immunized against the disease — and frankly it’s a wonder they haven’t been wiped out already. And… not everyone agrees with Mech that parvo is the primary factor controlling Minnesota wolf populations. From the same StarTrib article:

It’s true that Minnesota’s wolf population grew steadily until the late 1990s and has stabilized over most of the past decade, said Stark, but disease may not play the largest role in keeping the population in check. Wolf pups also die of starvation and attacks by black bears and raptors, he said. An increase in roads and human interference also probably limit wolves from expanding into agricultural areas to the west and south, Stark said.

Before the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the natural dynamics in predator and prey relationships keep both types of species in balance. But that balance was dynamic – not static. One did not go to a specific area of – say the paleolithic midwestern prairie and find the same proportion of wolves to mule deer year in and year out. Some years wolf populations thrived and others deer populations thrived. And in some years – neither fared well.

That’s the thing with natural systems – they’re dynamic, not static. And it’s those changes in balance that create the interesting stuff – the mutations, the extinctions, the catastrophies and the discontinuities. For some reason modern humans seem to be obsessed not with that interesting dynamic stuff  that is the true basis for all the good and wonderful new things that arise in the universe – but with a bastardized form of static sameness that we think will insulate us from all risk.

So when things change, we freak out. Whether we need to or not.

And one of the things that’s changing in a big way right now are the dynamics controlling wolf populations in Minnesota. To get a handle on this first you need to understand that a wide range of factors interact to control wild animal populations and, like it or not, you also have to accept that today those factors are all affected by humans. For wolves, being hunted, exposed to the effects of habitat fragmentation, having a greater risk of disease, dealing with changes in prey animal populations and population densities, competing with other predators (including domestic dogs) for resources, dying as road kill and being trapped, poisoned or hunted as pests are all consequences of living in an ecosystem dominated by men.

So — is it really parvo that’s controlling wolf populations here in Minnesota – or is it an ecosystem that has been changed in nearly all aspects by man?

Entry filed under: health, minnesota, science, wildlife. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Arzate  |  November 20, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Interesting Read! Very detailed blog,thanks for sharing

  • 2. Toby Bridges  |  March 15, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    How is it that the Minnesota gray wolf population has “failed” to grow and expand, as stated in the article, as well as the wolf populations in Wisconsin, Michigan and the western states? From an etimated 200 or so wolves in the 1970s, Minnesota’s wolf numbers have grown to right at 3,000. In fact, there are more wolves in this state than in any other.

    And that’s a factor that’s currently contributing to the serious decline of the moose population in northern Minnesota – whether the MN DNR “wildlife experts” are smart enought to realize it or not.

    As for man’s impact…we probably just need to pack up and get the heck out…so wolves can just freely roam the country, killing and eating everything left behind at will. Perhaps we can push all of the folks out of Mexico…on into Central and South America…and take over just like the wolves are here in the U.S.

    Toby Bridges

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