Wildlife Ecologist Taylor Ganz About Recolonizing Wolves in the American West

Taylor Ganz is a wildlife ecologist working on the Predator-Prey Project, a collaborative research project between the University of Washington and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Within the project, she studies how recolonizing wolves impact the broader ecosystem. With her expertise on wolves in the American West, Taylor assisted conservation photographer Ronan Donovan on his Discovery mission for Jack Wolfskin in the Yellowstone National Park (you can read more about that adventure here). 

We had a chance to talk to Taylor about humans’ impact on the natural world,  why assigning human moral values to predators and prey is problematic, and the wolves’ rare positive story in ecology.

tent and gear

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Los Angeles, left when I was 14, and went to boarding school back east at my own request. And I have been pretty much all over the map since then. I spent a lot of time in Colorado and Idaho. I was based out of Lander, Wyoming, for five years. Now I’m based in Seattle, but I spend about half my year in Eastern Washington for my research.

Why did you ask to leave for boarding school?

I wanted to go to boarding school because LA was not my scene. I’m not a huge city person. I’ve really come to appreciate cities. And I love going back to visit LA and see my family there. I love the food and music scene, but ultimately I’m most at home, most happy when I’m outside, whether for work or play.

Did you already know as a child that the city was not for you?

I think so. I was lucky enough to have gotten to do a lot of outdoor things. And that really resonated with me always. I grew up fishing and skiing and knew I wanted that to be more of a part of my life. I didn’t know immediately how that would happen, but I have been on that outdoor-oriented track for as long as I can remember.

wolf one

It seems like when you get to experience it as a kid, it never leaves you. Somehow you’ve turned your love for the outdoors into your profession. I heard you were once a ski touring guide?

In undergrad, all my summer, I worked outside, and when I graduated from college, rather than following where my majors would’ve led me, I started working at NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. I worked in a few different skill areas there: backpacking, fly fishing, skiing, rock and alpine climbing, and mountaineering. And so I really got to explore a lot of Wyoming and all over the American West. In the winters, I worked in ski touring and backcountry skiing, and winter camping.

What in your life makes you feel trapped or bored, or frustrated?

Dealing with the administrative side of projects is never the most exciting. It’s necessary, an important part of it, but it’s not as fun as being in the field, collecting the data, coming up with cool research ideas, or analyzing the data. It’s really exciting to see what you’re finding out and to be the first person who knows whatever little thing it is from the data.

wolf two

Can you remember a moment when you were examining data that you were like, “aha!” 

One of the interesting parts of the research I’ve been working on lately is looking at how different predator species and their different activities impact deer. Looking at how these predators interact is an important first step in considering what it means for deer. And so one of the things we’ve been seeing is that at large scales, coyotes seem to be avoiding areas where wolves are, and that’s not uncommon. It means that wolves could be impacting deer, not just by killing and eating them but also by their impact on the coyote population, who likewise kill and eat deer. And so we have to consider those indirect effects, which I get very excited about. Anytime we’re considering interactions between predator and prey species, we have to consider all the factors there: the food that’s available to those animals but also humans and wildlife predators who could kill and eat them. And then the ways all those different elements interact. It’s complex but really interesting. You have to understand all those linkages and all those effects, or you might change one thing and then have an unexpected outcome.

wolf three

What would an unexpected outcome be?

One example from the American West is that folks might not want coyotes. They might view them as pests, but if they actively remove them, you might have rodent populations increase drastically. That could be problematic for people’s crops. But all these things are interconnected. If you tweak one part of the system somewhere down the line, something else could react.

What is the relationship between the natural world and our impact on it?

That’s an interesting question because you have to decide whether you consider humans part of the natural world or not.

Do you?

That is very much the case in some places, and humans are part of a balanced ecosystem. A prime example of that is indigenous peoples who lived here for thousands of years and were able to live in a dynamic balance with these wildlife populations. Now I think that’s less the case, we have a very strong, top-down influence on many wildlife populations, but it’s a tricky line to draw. Where is that boundary?

wolf family

Are there examples in your region where the impact of humans on the ecosystem and species is clearly noticeable?

Yes. The area where I work is interesting because there is so much human activity. One of the exciting things about our Predator-Prey Project is that we’re looking at it from many different perspectives. Our study hasn’t been going on long enough to really be able to do a real before and after comparison. That takes a really long time. But in the areas I work in, we see many human impacts from timber harvest. So we have very contrasting areas of dense forest and then thinned areas. And a lot of ranching and agriculture as well. Different species will use those different habitats. Removing timber in some areas can improve the forage base for deer at elk.

Another way that humans have impacted the landscape is through climate change and increased wildfire activity. In Northern Washington, where I do research, over 40% of the area has burned in wildfires in the last 35 years. We’ve just done an extensive analysis of how deer and their predators use those landscapes to understand what fire means for these species as fires get hotter and bigger across the American West.

Why is the Predator-Prey Project important?

Because as we recover large carnivores across the landscape, they’re not going to persist if it’s just in protected areas. They need to travel between protected areas and use a mosaic of different habitats, from ranches and forests to parks and protected zones. And so, we need to understand how humans impact those dynamics if we want to sustain both predator and prey populations.

What’s the importance of roaming for the animals?

Many of these species, especially large carnivores, just need a lot of territories to cover to secure the resources they need. And many species are migratory. They have to connect separate ranges that may be 30 or 40, or even 60 miles apart. They’re cut off from key resource supply if they can’t travel from their summer range to their winter range. Those populations likely will decline as migration roots are lost or if they’re not conserved and protected.

When juvenile or teenage wolves are ready to disperse and leave the pack, they need to be able to find their own territory. And we’ve had wolves in Washington travel all the way out here to Wyoming, Montana in just a few months. And so being able to travel through those connected habitats is critical for them to persist and find new territories.

wolf howling in snow

Why are predators important?

They help to structure the ecosystem, and different predators play different roles, but primarily they can help keep the prey population down, so they don’t overgraze and damage the landscape. That’s not always the case, but historically in the American West, there are many areas where predators were lost. Then the prey population increased, ran out of forage, and that population crashed. So it helps keep that prey population in check. And there are two ways predators can do that. One is by killing and eating prey. Another way is by just changing the behavior of the prey. Predators can cause the prey to feel threatened and thus be more vigilant, eat less, or change habitats. 

It’s funny, just the perception of predator and prey. People seem to feel good and evil, like predators are the bad guys, and prey are innocent victims. What do you think about that? I think it’s a problematic perspective to assign human moral values to predators and prey and say that predators are bad or even good. I believe that in the case of wolves, many people personify them, but they’re just animals doing their role in the ecosystem. Part of the prey’s role is to turn forage and plants into food for predators. And part of the predator’s role is to consume that prey population. These things are dynamic. I don’t think either is good or bad, but part of the bigger system.

Humans impart their vision onto what the natural world should do, be, and act like.

Yes. And I think it’s fair to talk about potentially invasive or non-native species being good or bad for an ecosystem. Still, I think assigning a moral value to the species is problematic.

tent taylor ganz

What’s your sense of a human’s impact on the natural order and our responsibility to repair it?

I think that in light of the massive amount of biodiversity loss and the current rate of extinction that is happening because of humans, both through habitat alteration and development and climate change, we have a massive responsibility to protect as many species as possible. And as much wildlife and wild landscapes as possible. There are places where humans have fostered and stewarded those relationships for long periods, and many indigenous communities have sustainably lived in those environments.

And then there are places where humans have driven a significant decline of wildlife. We need to do whatever we can to protect that, learn from our mistakes, improve, and try to bring things back to a more sustainable place. I think it’s crucial to remember that these species have evolved together. I don’t think we always need to step in and make sure the ratios of one to the other are appropriate, but over the long term, many of those would return.

Have you seen extinction in your region?

Extinction isn’t something I’ve worked on firsthand, but Northern Washington used to be home to caribou and woodland caribou. And in the period that I’ve been doing my research, those last caribou have been lost. 

However, the wolf recolonization and its impacts on the ecosystem is a rare positive story in ecology. There have been many challenges for wolf recovery, but they have come back, persisted, and expanded into new areas. So that’s actually an inspiring story.