Building a better dingo house

Dingo (Canis lupus dingo)

Dingo (Canis lupus dingo)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen that dingoes play a variety of roles in the environment, and the extent and importance of those roles is hotly debated by researchers. Dingoes may help native wildlife by keeping exotic predator numbers down, but they may also prey upon threatened species in Australia. Dingoes are apex predators who can regulate herbivore numbers and therefore their presence may be worth protecting, but, if they are hybridizing with feral dogs, how can we be sure that true dingoes are being protected? Given the number of questions here, questions which in many ways are applicable to wild dog species around the world, it seems that more research is needed. However, some studies can take years or even decades, and that may be too long to maintain stable dingo populations in some areas. I think that a two-pronged approach is needed here and with other canids, and I think it will take direct action on the part of private individuals to move this process along.

Getting the data we need. (And please feel free to substitute ‘wolf’, ‘dhole’, ‘wild dog’, etc. for ‘dingo’ as you read through this post- you may not live near dingoes, but there probably is a wild dog that was/is present in your area.) A large part of unraveling the dingo problem is figuring out how these animals fit into various ecosystems, and that means conducting research, but the dingo occupies an interesting space within Australia’s laws and regulations, so doing research can be a bit complicated. I think that landowners in areas where dingoes have some level of protection should offer scientists the opportunity to conduct studies on their property if it does not directly endanger themselves or their neighbors. Contacting surrounding universities would be a good place to start the process- sometimes researchers have a great plan but are still looking for the right location- the Works Cited section in previous posts mentions student thesis at several universities, including the University of Western Australia and the University of Adelaide. The research process could benefit from changing the status of dingoes in Australia. The Australian Dingo Foundation has put together a petition to give protection to dingoes at a federal level, which could then be used by landowners who wanted to challenge the requirement that they kill dingoes on their property. There is no doubt that changing the way dingoes are managed has some risks- and particular attention needs to be paid to areas where remnant populations of native species exist, since those small groups, even if not heavily predated by dingoes, may not be able to withstand even small increases in predator populations- but after reading Wallach (2011), I do believe that current practices are not getting the large-picture results that people want.

Restoring apex predators. I think that people tend to view carnivores, especially those bigger than a house cat, with an element of fear, and that can make the discussion of coexistence more complicated. But larger predators have evolved into critical parts of ecosystem processes that help regulate prey and smaller predators- removing them from the system can cause a wide variety of problems. (And lest you think that I’m all about dogs, mountain lions started avoiding the growing number of human visitors to certain sections of Zion National Park, and mule deer quickly realized that those areas were now safer places to hang out (Ripple & Beschta 2006). Because the deer could congregate in those locations indefinitely, they over-browsed cottonwood trees- the result was stream bank erosion and fewer aquatic and terrestrial species overall. Mountain lions can be dangerous, but they also help provide balance.) I do think we need to reassess the way that we try to keep larger carnivores away from us- maybe we feel better about hiking or letting our kids and pets play outside, but we’re altering the ecological webs around us. And I think that predator re-introduction, especially in areas where smaller exotics are wreaking havoc, needs to be an option. I’m not saying that there should be a huge release of lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!), but I do think that there should be planned reintroductions in specific locations (with the understanding that populations do spread) and changes to the way that numbers are controlled in other locations (if baiting kills indiscriminately and may cause population instability which can lead to more problem animals, what about contraceptives to keep numbers down without breaking up packs?). And I’m not alone in my interest in re-introduction- in addition to ideas for dingo re-introduction, groups are working to restore wolves to a variety of habitats (check out the Maine Wolf Coalition for one example).

Education and public involvement is important. Helping people understand that predators can have positive impacts on the environment is a huge part of creating a balanced discussion- I’m not advocating for wild dogs at the expense of humans, but it shouldn’t be the reverse either; we’re all in this together. And since so many of these species are regulated, one way or another, at the state and federal level, politicians need to hear that there is a discussion and that there are a variety of options available. So it really is up to us to speak out, both about carnivore roles and the visions that we have for conservation work. I’m not expecting everyone to say the same thing, but maybe we can find some common threads for a starting point.

Other sites you might be interested in:

Photographers for Conservation– with the understanding that so little is known about some species and sometimes photos alone represent a leap forward in information, this group has launched specific projects to document species, including the dhole, so that the rest of the world can share the knowledge.

International Wolf Center– located in Minnesota, the Center focuses on carnivore education and works to further wolf re-introduction efforts. (They even have slumber parties!)

Wild Dog Foundation– this group is based out of NY and works to advocate for all wild dog species- it was hard to determine how active they are, but there is great background information about the different species.

Works cited:

Ripple, WJ & RL Beschta. 2006. Linking a cougar decline, trophic cascade, and catastrophic regime shift in Zion National Park. Biological Conservation 133: 397-408.

Wallach, AD. 2011. Reviving ecological functioning through dingo restoration. PhD thesis, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide.