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Restoring landscapes of fear with wolves in the Scottish Highlands

Adrian D. Manning, Iain J. Gordon and William J. Ripple

The absence of an organism from a landscape for a long time can be a major barrier to the restoration of that species due to factors such as environmental conditions changing since extinction. This can make it difficult to assess the feasibility of reintroduction when an extirpated species cannot, by definition, be observed in the landscape of interest. In such situations, two important options for conservation scientists include: (1) to draw on insights from analogous ecosystems where the organism is extant, or where it has been successfully reintroduced and (2) to undertake research into the reintroduction in the location of interest under controlled experimental conditions.

The idea of reintroducing wolves (Canis lupus) to the Scottish Highlands provides an excellent case study of such a situation. A key argument for reintroduction has been that native red deer (Cervus elaphus) numbers, considered by many to be ecologically unsustainable, would be reduced through wolf predation. To date, research into the ecological value of reintroduction has focused on this important issue. However, new research, emerging from wolf reintroduction projects in North America, suggests that nonlethal ‘behaviourally-mediated’ effects of wolves also have a profound effect on deer behaviour and consequently on the ecosystems in which they live. In short, deer avoid places or browse less where there is a high risk of wolf predation, which allows previously inhibited tree regeneration. The implications for wolf reintroduction in Scotland are that changes in deer behaviour could be as important as lethal effects, and that fewer wolves may be needed than indicated by predator–prey modelling to have significant positive impacts on ecosystems in the Scottish Highlands. Understanding the relative likely contributions of both lethal and nonlethal effects in the Scottish context will be challenging because nonlethal impacts result from an interaction between deer behaviour in response to wolf predation and particular landscapes and ecosystem features. While a full reintroduction may be far off, research must begin in the near term. There would be considerable scientific merit in establishing a large, controlled experiment (for example on an island or in a fenced area) in the Scottish Highlands to examine the relative lethal and nonlethal effects of wolves on deer and ecosystem restoration. In this paper, a long-term pathway for scientific research to provide sound ecological evidence to inform future decision-makers is proposed.

Keywords: Behaviourally-mediated effects; Density-mediated effects; Elk; Landscapes of fear; Lethal effects; Nonconsumptive effects; Nonlethal effects; Predation risk; Red deer; Reintroduction; Scottish Highlands; Wolves

 

For more information see:

Manning, A.D., Gordon, I. J., Ripple, W. J., 2009, Restoring landscapes of fear with wolves in the Scottish Highlands. Biological Conservation 142(10): 2314-2321 doi:10.1016/j.physletb.2003.10.071 abstract

 

The concepts of stretch goals and back-casting are also relevant to wolf reintroduction.

 

Wolf photo courtesy of Mark Hamblin http://www.toothandclaw.org.uk/

 

Media coverage of this paper can be found here

 

 

 

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