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Wild Possibilities: Wolves, Frogs and Living Northwest

Plus meet Dr. Robert Long, WPZ’s first Senior Conservation Fellow

Posted by: Dr. Deborah B. Jensen, President and CEO

President Jensen. Photo by Matt Hagen.
December 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, a successful, complex and at times controversial federal law that has protected many of our most prized wildlife species from extinction. As we enter the New Year, the future of two native Northwest species hangs in the balance. Currently, gray wolves are being considered for delisting from the Federal Endangered and Threatened Species protections, while Oregon spotted frogs are being considered for listing. Under other circumstances, it would be hard to find a stage, outside of a Grimm brothers’ fairytale perhaps, in which both of these species shared a national spotlight.

At the zoo, kids are learning all about wild wolves and other carnivores, including humans’ misconceptions of them, in our Zoo Crew and new Coexisting with Carnivores education programs. Nearly all but extirpated in the U.S. by mid-20th century, federal protection has enabled gray wolves to gradually repopulate their historic range. Indeed, a new pack formed in the zoo’s Northern Trail too, in 2011.

The zoo’s wolf pack. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Recovery efforts so far have generated hope for this top predator and for the health of our ecosystems. But has this iconic carnivore progressed enough to warrant delisting? As a science-based organization, Woodland Park Zoo believes the answer is no. Current scientific evidence strongly suggests that gray wolves need more time to recover, across larger portions of their historic range, to sustain viable populations for the long term. This is especially true in the North Cascades, where gray wolves have been repopulating suitable, native habitat for under a decade, and very small areas of it at that. The zoo applauds the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s efforts to date in recovering the gray wolf, and we continue to support Washington state’s Wolf Recovery and Management Plan. Evidence from other states, unfortunately, suggests that within one year of delisting gray wolves, hard-won recovery gains can and do turn into significant losses. We are concerned that removing federal protections for gray wolves now poses too great a setback to this valuable species’ future. I invite you to read WPZ’s full statement to Secretary Jewell at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

A crew releases Oregon spotted frogs reared at the zoo into a protected wild site. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

It’s a different scenario for the Oregon spotted frog. This early indicator species’ precipitous decline tells scientists a lot about the health of Pacific Northwest wetland ecosystems. Hope lies in its possible inclusion on the federal list of endangered species because that would engender more strategic, collaborative action to restore critical wetland habitats and to recover populations to sustainable levels, actions your zoo has been involved in since 2009.

Regardless of where you stand on these species’ proposed delisting and listing, we all can agree that good science, sound policy and thoughtful public dialogue are essential to shaping such decisions. Your zoo plays a vital role in informing this dialogue. I’m proud to be part of an organization in which keepers, educators, volunteers and conservation staff engage thousands of people every day in discussions about the invaluable place wild animals have in our world, including gray wolves and Oregon spotted frogs. The fact is that whatever our GPS coordinates are on the rural-urban or coastal-inland span, our fate, ultimately, is connected to the fate of wildlife. A mutually successful future hinges on our embracing a meaningful, life-long relationship with animals and habitats. Not someday, but now.

Woodland Park Zoo is helping our community take meaningful steps to do that right here in our own “backyard.” This year, we reorganized our regional field conservation programs into one platform which we call Living Northwest. To match our growing role in Northwest conservation leadership, we strengthened the links between the conservation we do with animals at the zoo and the health and sustainability of our bioregion. Under this umbrella, we are engaging more visitors, species experts, educators and funders in collaborations to save animals in the wild; protect critical habitats; educate families and communities; and reduce conflicts between animals and people.

Living Northwest programs include (clockwise from top left): Raptor Ecology of the Shrub Steppe, Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project, Western Wildlife Outreach, Northwest Amphibian Recovery Project, and Butterflies of the Northwest

Sustaining a healthy Pacific Northwest requires balancing the needs of both people and animals. So, we’re advancing a scientific research program to study how best to meet those dual needs. The science and how it’s done, of course, is constantly evolving. That’s why I’m pleased to share with you that Dr. Robert Long has joined our team as Woodland Park Zoo’s first senior conservation fellow. He is highly respected for spearheading innovations in non-invasive wildlife research techniques, an approach he has honed for the last 12 years as a carnivore research ecologist in the northeastern and northwestern U.S.

Robert Long has led the Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project, evaluating and enhancing habitat connectivity for carnivores in the North Cascades Ecosystem of Washington. Photo: Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project.

These techniques help Dr. Long answer questions about the occurrence of bear, wolverine, bobcat and coyote populations, among other animals, especially how they use and move across landscapes where human infrastructure, such as roads and highways, are encroaching. This kind of on-the-ground science is key to informing effective strategy and policy decisions to help conserve wildlife in areas where human activities exist.

If you encountered Dr. Long out on the North Cascade trails, you probably wouldn’t see anything unusual at first. But you’d sure smell it! The scent lures he uses—things such as putrefied fish carcasses, mixed with blood and smeared over piles of sticks or on tree trunks—are delicacies not to be passed up by the carnivores he studies. He and his team hike for miles with foul-smelling supplies on their backs, putting up with the stench because the rewards are so great.

A research team member pours a concoction of animal scents to attract nearby carnivores to a study site. Photo: Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project.

It’s fascinating work. Non-invasive survey techniques creatively attract animals to study sites within the animals’ natural habitats. Once safely rigged up, hair-collection devices and remote cameras, as well as scat detection dogs and other tools, “capture” data as animals travel by. This kind of sampling eliminates the need to handle, anesthetize or outfit animals one by one with collars or other attached tracking devices. Capture and radio-tracking remain highly useful tools in some circumstances, and are sometimes mixed with newer approaches. But for many purposes non-invasive methods are yielding critical information about genetics, breeding, home-range size and movement for larger sample populations, not just single animals. And they’re pretty cost effective. Scaled up, non-invasive monitoring increases the quantity and distribution of data, thus increasing the ability to predict how animals use their home ranges and disperse into other areas as their populations grow or dwindle. 

An adult black bear and a cub visit a barbed-wire corral intended to snag hairs as animals pass over or under the wire. Photo: Cascades Carnivore Connectivity Project.

Dr. Long’s expertise will help us refine and grow carnivore conservation efforts at the zoo and in the wild, strengthening the links among species preservation, education in classrooms, and field conservation and outreach. We look forward to sharing compelling stories about Living Northwest’s evolving work with you. Our zoo’s role in regional conservation leadership is already well established. Continuing to break new ground requires commitment and involvement, and we hope you join us. 

Gray wolves and Oregon spotted frogs, for all their differences, do have something fundamental in common: the will to survive. Just like you and I do. With a little bit of ingenuity, we can make room for wildlife in our lives.  We start by learning, which leads to dialogue and sharing. Ultimately, it means deciding to act on behalf of animals, which, in the long view, is also acting on behalf of ourselves. 

Learn, care and act is the zoo’s mission. I hope it’s yours, too.