The return of the big predators

National Geographic's March 2010 cover story features Cristina Eisenberg's research (Photo: Jess Lee)

As wolves spread across the American West and even into areas of the East Coast, where their official presence has yet to be acknowledged, Ph.D. student Cristina Eisenberg’s findings about their place in the ecosystem could help policymakers answer questions about the best way to manage them.

It’s a timely issue, as their reemergence is predictably eliciting extreme reactions from people. This polarization, as well as Eisenberg’s science, has received a good amount of press lately. Eisenberg’s work has been featured in the March 2010 issue of National Geographic, and the Feb. 15, 2010 issue of High Country News, to name just two.

Eisenberg sees her role in “the wolf problem” as an informer to policymakers. She hopes her data will create common ground in places where conversations between those who love wolves – and those who don’t – are usually considered implausible.

A Family History

It may be that Cristina Eisenberg picked up a reverence for wolves from her father. Growing up on a ranch in northern Mexico, he was assigned the job of killing any wolf he saw.  But he couldn’t bring himself to shoot the animals. Instead, he’d watch them as they trotted through the cattle herds he was minding. Always the wolves left the cattle unharmed – they were on their way, perhaps, to more appealing prey.

So when Eisenberg told her father she was planning to study wolves, he was pleased. “I’m so glad,” he told her. “There’s so much we don’t understand about these animals.”

Eisenberg’s desire to understand wolves unfolded when she and her husband moved from coastal California to northwestern Montana with their two young daughters in the mid-90s. The presence of wolves there was unmistakable, from their howls on the mountain outside Eisenberg’s cabin to their tracks in the snow by her door. When one bolted through her yard in pursuit of a deer when she and her daughters were gardening, she became irrevocably curious.

This juvenile eyed the camera curiously near Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin. (Photo: Tom Leeson)

Her children also asked her questions she couldn’t answer – about trees, plants and the other animals that appeared on her land, which is situated alongside one of the biggest wilderness areas in the lower 48. Her children’s questions, as much as the bolting wolf, catalyzed her transformation from artist and housewife to scientist.

“I saw everything change on my land when wolves returned to that ecosystem. So those connections – the ones Aldo Leopold wrote about so eloquently in his Sand County Almanac and other writings – inspired my master’s degree, which was policy-based. After I became familiar with the policy, I really wanted to understand the ecology of it,” she says.

Studying Wolves

That curiosity led her to Oregon State in 2006 to begin Ph.D. research with forestry professor Bill Ripple. For the past four years, Eisenberg has used a mix of forestry and wildlife biology methods to study the effects of wolves on ecosystems in Montana’s Glacier National Park and Alberta’s Waterton Lakes National Park. Specifically, Eisenberg has looked how wolves’ presence effect elk populations in the park, and in turn aspens and aspen-dependent species like beavers and songbirds.

Her findings, like Ripple’s and Oregon State professor Robert Beschta’s, indicate that wolves have powerful effects on ecosystems—from the songbirds to how the shrubs and trees grow, but that these effects may be related to wolf density and distribution. Her findings, which will be published later this year, suggest that wolves are a complicated and sometimes sticky species to manage.  “You can’t manage a wolf just like it was an elk or any other game animal, because the effects they have on ecosystems can be so complex and profound. You have to look at them in a different way,” says Eisenberg. And that, she says, changes the way people look at their resources.

Because she comes from a ranching background, Eisenberg’s attitude on wolves is pragmatic. “It’s not what people always expect me to say, but I don’t think wolves belong everywhere, and I do think they can be challenging to live with,” Eisenberg says. “I also think they’re fascinating creatures. And they are incredibly intelligent.”

Hunters protest federal management of wolf populations outside the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Kalispell. In a region reeling from lumber-mill and factory closures, wolves are direct competitors for meat to stock the family freezer in winter. (Photo: Michael Gallacher, Missoulian)

Eisenberg’s pragmatic views on wolf conservation have earned her funding from unexpected places, like the hunter-conservationist club Boone and Crockett, and Shell Oil.

The Future

After she finishes her Ph.D. this spring, Eisenberg will be taking a post-doc position at Oregon State with professor Norm Johnson. She is in the process of publishing a book with Island Press based on her Master’s research, “The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades and Biodiversity.”

She will also be working on a five-year project on how top predators affect a mixed-use landscape at High Lonesome Ranch in northwestern Colorado. Usually, Eisenberg says, apex predator studies take place in relatively contained environments, like national parks. But the landscape surrounding High Lonesome is subject to ranching, hunting and oil and gas development. And wolves have begun moving into that territory.
Eisenberg wants to see how the systems change when their numbers grow. What she finds could have bearing in a place like Oregon, where wolves are showing up on forest service as well as privately owned lands. “I want to understand the ecological implications of wolves in a landscape where timber harvesting and ranching are happening,” she says.

Ultimately, Eisenberg’s goal is to answer questions about how wolves affect ecosystems. She credits Oregon State University with providing her an outstanding environment of academic freedom and support to do work that at times is seen as controversial.

*Also in this month’s National Geographic magazine - Oregon State anthropology professor Deanna Kingston on Native American wolf dancers, in the issue’s “Flashback” section.

Photos courtesy of National Geographic magazine.

5 Responses to “The return of the big predators”

  1. Kaysha Rogers says:

    I’m so excited that more research is being done on wolves in land that is not as controlled as National Parks. Wolves are so important to the ecosystem its a shame that not everyone can see that, although with the livestock industry its easy to see why people are leery and even violent towards wolves. I hope more research can bring the bridge between wolf lovers and wolf haters closer together. Good Luck.

  2. petersla says:

    Dear All;
    Please educate people about the wolf, not the student (sorry). Wolves are part of a system. It is the tendency to act before understanding that is causing the loss of eco-balance. Wolves are(functioning within a system) foremost opportunistic; they must choose which food provides the most value/costs the least energy. . .when there is an excess of moles-they eat moles, when there is an excess of voles, mice, rabbits, skunk, they eat those. If we could be still; inclusively observing rather than conclusively jumping we’d learn and understand the workings of this system and allow it to heal itself with us still incorporated.
    If wolves are threatening livestock we must ask if we are overtaxing the land were herding on. If we would be still and think (!), opportunists seek avenues of least energy expenditure, systems maintain balance, look to where the system is focusing and find the system attempting to balance itself; our planet is not surviving our speciocentric responses to what we don’t understand. We really need to get this before the system turns its gyroscope-like balance toward the species that has become “a wrench in the works”.

  3. Gibby says:

    I am happy to see work done on wolves. I have loved wolves since I was young boy. Have learned everything I can about them. They are beautiful animals and are a loving animal. All I can say is how much joy this brings me to see work done on wolves. Thank you vary much.

  4. Michael Herman says:

    I originally came to OSU because I wanted to study wolves. Then I found out the Bio degree I needed didn’t focus on where I needed, and I couldn’t minor in animal sciences. Even though there was a Marine Biology option, there’s nothing for land animals. I soon switched to Mechanical Engineering.

    However, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about wolves. I tried to email Cristina, but I haven’t recieved a reply. What I would like to do is compile all the research I can proving that wolves help the ecosystem and drop it on the desks of government officials to reverse the delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species List, and stop states like Idaho and Alaska from slaughtering them any further.

    my email: hermanm@onid.orst.edu

  5. [...] gave her more of an opportunity to do wildlife research. In 2008 she was hired by then-PhD student Cristina Eisenberg as a field technician on a wolf research project in Glacier National Park. At the time, wolves had [...]