Laura Prugh Receives CAREER Grant to Study How Wolves Impact Smaller Carnivores in Washington

Professor Laura Prugh was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant for $898,551—provided through the Faculty Early-Career Development (CAREER) program—to support a new project in northern Washington, “Integrating positive and negative interactions in carnivore community ecology.”

Laura collaring a wolf in Denali.

Large carnivores are key components of ecosystems, and as wolves naturally recolonize Washington, their presence could have cascading effects on a variety of species, including smaller carnivores, known as mesopredators. While wolves can reduce populations of mesopredators through killing and intimidation, they may also benefit these smaller carnivores by providing easy meals in the form of carrion. This study, in turn, will focus on the movements and population dynamics of two common mesopredators, coyotes and bobcats, as part of a collaborative investigation of wolves, cougars, deer and elk—with the ultimate aim of improving carnivore conservation and management.

“I’m fascinated by the fact that large carnivores provide food to small carnivores in the form of carrion, and yet they also kill small carnivores,” says Laura, an assistant professor of quantitative wildlife sciences in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). “Scavenging and intra-carnivore killing have been treated as separate phenomena, but I’ve proposed that they are in fact closely linked: carrion could be an ecological trap that makes small carnivores vulnerable to being killed by their larger cousins. I’m looking forward to testing this ‘fatal attraction’ hypothesis and learning more about complex interactions at the top of the food chain.”

The project—which will run from June 15, 2017, to May 31, 2022—includes several collaborators, including Professor Leslie Herrenkohl from the UW College of Education; Professor Jonathan Pauli from the University of Wisconsin; Angela Davis-Unger from the UW Office of Educational Assessment; the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; the Alaska Native Science and Education Program (ANSEP); and Symbio Studios.

These partners will use a powerful combination of animal-borne GPS and video tracking technology, stable isotope enrichment of carcasses, fecal genotyping, and cameras at kill sites to jointly examine facilitation and suppression. This research will be integrated into a wildlife course at SEFS with 150 students per year—ESRM 150: Wildlife in the Modern World—by creating new inquiry-based labs using photos from carcass sites. In addition, this study will involve Alaska Native students in field and lab research in partnership with the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, and video vignettes about carnivore ecology will be created in partnership with Symbio Studios to reach 2 million K-12 students per year for five to seven years.

Photos © Laura Prugh.

A coyote scavenging a wolf kill site in Alaska. This study focuses on coyotes and bobcats as study subjects because they differ strongly in their scavenging activity but are otherwise ecologically similar.