Biological deserts in Siberia and northern Canada

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By Dr. Valerius Geist

Predator pits are biological deserts in Siberia and northern Canada

The show about the work and ideas of Sergei Zimov and his son Nikita, is very interesting and significant, and I for one am glad that such magnificent eccentrics exist. . All the power to their Pleistocene Park! However, please note the taiga beyond, is a biological desert. And we have their word for it. I concur. It is now an ecological desert. In Siberia, that is!. However, do look closer. You see coniferous trees in a sea of shrubbery, mainly willow bushes, here and there fire weeds, some dwarf birch, a mosaic of taiga, sedge meadows, lakes, and rivers. Looks like great moose country? However, we are informed that he will have to import moose into his Pleistocene Park. We also see later that there are ungulates, reindeer herded and protected by native tribesmen. Please note: They mention troubles with wolves and bears (same as our grizzlies). Now, in virtually the same landscape in the central Yukon, when I and colleagues were looking for ecological reserves in the 1970”s, I saw one group of moose, all young bulls, 19 in numbers. Same day I saw a group of massive antlered old bulls, seven in numbers. And I saw lots of Osborn’s caribou, and saw – at lest – the tracks of Stone’s sheep in the adjacent mountains. Our Super-cub kept flushing out coveys of willow ptarmigan. No biological desert in this, much the same taiga! In fact, almost identical taiga!

A few days earlier I watched – in growing amazement – the hunts by Jim Schockey for three subspecies of snow sheep in Eastern Siberia. In every one of the three cases, superlative sheep habitat as far as the eye could reach, and range after range of it. The hunting party walked – days – without seeing a single head of wildlife. When they did see sheep, it was a handful of ewes and lambs, and tiny clusters of rams, 2-4. (By comparison, in the Spatsizi with virtually identical landscape, the 1st ram band I found and studied for about 8 weeks, uninterrupted, in summer 1961, numbered 22 rams. Another ram band about 5 miles away numbered 15. In September 1961 my wife and I saw in one day hundreds of Osborn’s caribou bulls in rut. In 1963-65 in Banff National Park, then wolf free, the largest spring ram congregation was over 90 rams). And yes, Jim’s party saw two brown bears and shot one – for food. And there were the parallel trails that revealed that migratory reindeer used to pass through these – vast – mountain ranges. In each case Jim got his ram – barely. And, I noticed that Jim, for all his experience, did not notice, or would not tell, what was wrong with these huge barren landscapes. At least Sergei Zimov called the vast area about his Pleistocne Park a “biological desert”. Spot on! And, of course, all these vast Siberian landscapes were totally free of people, which is another very important point.(I then found two more YouTube shows about hunting snow sheep in the Koryak Mountains [J. Alain Smith} and Kamchatka [Asif Ilyasov] respectively. Again, fantastic habitat void of wildlife. Each party saw only on ram band, 4 in one, 3 in the other, respectively. And they saw one reindeer. And these were pre-scouted hunts!)

Sorry, but I have to drag this out a little bit more! I saw a Russian film of two biologists studying year round in the Putorana Mountains of north-central Siberia. The Putoranas are the western most mountains with snow sheep. So, I am interested. The Putoranas are from the Bering Straights as far as Point Barrow is from the tip of Baja California. The film showed the very same barrenness of wilderness without wildlife, but punctuated by brief pass-throughs of migratory reindeer. And last, for now, but not least, is the YouTube series about self reliant life in central Siberia, Yenisei River, filmed year round The people depend almost entirely on very abundant fish. A capercaillie (giant forest grouse) is brought back for Christmas out of the taiga where the trappers stay and trap otherwise. Nobody eats moose or reindeer. Bears are mentioned, but not shown or eaten. There is great moose country everywhere – to my eyes – but no moose.

So, what goes?

You are looking in Siberia at enormous predator pits, caused by uncontrolled wolf populations, ably assisted by calf-, fawn- or lamb-killing brown bears, in a landscape virtually unpopulated by people.

In the late Pleistocene, some 40,000 years ago, wolves were controlled by cave lions, tigers, leopards and in North America, by predacious short-faced bears and probably by Dire wolves. In addition: wolves suffered a severe genetic bottle neck with the entry of modern people into Eurasia about 40,000 years ago. This implies effective wolf control by people. If so, the release of prey populations should allow not only the luxury life style of people, which is found, but also the superlative body growth of the remaining wolves. That is also found. This also explains the scarcity of wolves in the Pleistocene fossil record. The dense late Pleistocene big game populations, 30,000 years ago, in Siberia that Zimov refers to, would be in good part a consequence of control of wolves along the southern edge of the mammoth steppe by people and large cats (the 56th parallel north in Siberia).

We have had or also have predator pits in Canada and the US. Chadwick hunted his famous record Stone’s ram in 1936 in a predator pit on the Prophet and Muskwa Rivers of British Columbia. The German count Lothar Graf Hoensbroech and his party hunted in a predator pit on the Prophet and Muskwa Rivers in 1939. So did my friend Alex on both, bis bighorn hunt in Alberta’s northern Rockies, and on his Dall’s sheep hunt in the Yukon Territory. A predator pit had developed in Yellowstone and Banff national parks after wolf entry, with moose quickly going extinct in both parks. I was there, to ride through and about Yellowstone National Park on horse back, for a week, from morning till night. We saw not a single moose while never out of sight of the finest moose habitat imaginable.

So what is the explanation of the obscene numbers of wildlife in the 1950’s and 60’s in western Canada which we then took for granted?

  1. Northern Canada was home in winter to some 60,000 trappers, and – then – probably not more than 30,000 wolves. That’s not counting native people, white residents, and seasonal hunters and outfitters. The mode of transportation then was with dog sled, well before the age of the snowmobile. Sled dogs and wolves do not get along. In addition, wolves follow trap lines destroying fur. They alienate game, causing hardship for trappers. Wolves were thus constantly meeting hostile people.
  2. There was no closed season and no bag limit for wolves.
  3. In settled lands, wolves and coyotes were controlled or exterminated by government paid predator control officers. Killing wolves with poison was then allowed.
  4. There were bounties on wolves. After the hunting season, game wardens often went wolf trapping. There was an incentive for everyone to kill wolves.
  5. Outfitters and guided brought horses into their guiding territory, often at great cost and under difficult conditions. They could not afford loosing horses to wolves in winter.
  6. The traditional method of controlling wolves by native people was to visit dens and kill, and consume most of the wolf pups. (One or two could be left, probably to preclude the wolf female from abandoning the den the following year).
  7. In addition, there was the government sponsored aerial broadcasting of poisoned horse meat, dropped on frozen lakes and rivers, trying to control wolves, to minimize the spread of hydatid disease. This was terminated in British Columbia in 1964.

In short: we humans took over the role of controlling wolves, which was previously done for millions of years by large cats and bears. The result was very abundant wildlife, while wolves were very shy, shunning all contact with humans, the wolves grew into giants and still lived in packs, there was no hybridization of wolves and coyotes as wolves in packs kill coyotes. There was no depredation of ranched livestock, and confrontations between people and wolves were totally unheard of.

The Satsizi, my study area, in 1961-1965 was a wildlife paradise. It then became a provincial park, including a large ecological reserve, and wolf control ceased. Today it is a wildlife desert, a predator pit.

Bottom line: Post-Pleistocene wildlife and biodiversity in North America and Siberia will thrive only in the shadow of man through intense, knowledgeable hands-on management of carnivores.