Wolves are one of the most controversial animals in the world. They are recognized as intelligent, complex animals with which we have a distinctly multifaceted past. While our best and probably first companions are their descendants, people have long feared and been in awe of their prowess as top predators. Fear accentuated through myth, has allowed eradication from much of their range. Wolves are animals that captured my imagination and passion for nature as a child. As Grey Wolves have been making a comeback in the Northwestern US, they’ve become the topic of intense debate. With Wolves beginning to move back into Washington under the thin protection of federal and state listing it’s been on the forefront of conservation discussions.
The minority, both ranchers and stockmen, are fueled by prejudice and have ill-founded fear that wolves will destroy their cattle (read profits) and terrorize their homes and family. There are cases of wolves taking stock animals but that doesn’t warrant the extreme reaction (and the one wolf already killed in Washington), especially considering these heavily subsidized stockmen even get compensated for losses by organizations like Defenders of Wildlife. There are a myriad of methods for further decreasing predation on stock. And in all honesty I’ve never heard a convincing story from a rancher who actually had a serious problem with wolves. Typically wolves don’t want to have anything to do with us and in places where wolves have learned to prey on sheep and cattle – coyotes, weather, and disease are of much higher concern.
The only cases of wolves attacking people typically involve sick animals or human habituated wolves. In North America, there are only 18 reports of wolf aggression against people in the past 40 years – 11 involved human habituated wolves and 6 domestic dogs (which wolves see as direct competitors and will attack). In 60 years there has only been one fatality in all of North America. Compared to almost any other large mammal (including people). This is basically a non-issue in regard to reestablishment. Attacks in other parts of the world are impossible to disentangle from myth and lies fueled by intolerance, rabies infected animals, and much more convoluted interactions because of longer histories of interspecies interactions. They aren’t really worth comparing to our plans and thoughts about wolves.
Some hunters fear there will be fewer animals to hunt, despite Fish and Wildlife data from areas where wolves have permanently reestablished showing no effect on stable populations of elk and deer. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife makes an estimate that a population of 200 wolves in Washington would take about 2,520 elk and 4,180 deer per year when average recreational hunters take 7,390 elk and 38,100 deer. It’s simply inconsequential.
About a week ago I went to a public comment meeting about Wolves in Washington held by Washington Fish and Wildlife. It laid out the various potential plans for “dealing” with Washington populations to lead them down the path to delisting. As it stands there are two packs in Washington, one in the Okanogan and the other in Pend Oreille County with reports of wolves in the Blue Mountains. A typical pack contains 6 wolves with only two individuals actually breeding – at least you can see why wolves are still on the endangered species list.
This meeting was well attended. Most of our numbers were liberals – environmentalists, scientists, and the like. We obviously want these canids back in the state. But the Ranchers and Hunters also came out of their rightwing holes to voice their opinions, as heated, reactionary, and devoid of fact as they are. A favorite quote of the evening was in response to one portly fellow in Western garb who informed us of the horrors of a wolf kill: “I’m sure a kill isn’t a pretty sight but neither is a slaughter house.” It was an interesting meeting to attend but my point in all this isn’t to tell you all the great quotes of my lefty comrades – I want to present the issue*.
A Working Group of citizens with various backgrounds was established last year to come up with four potential solutions for wolf management for Washington Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). While WDFW will take their suggestions into consideration, it’s up to them to actually put plans into action and public comment is necessary to truly find the right solution. It’s obvious minority ranchers with heavy lobbying power lean toward less protection for wolves.
The general idea of all these plans if that the WDFW wants to get populations to a point where they are stable enough to be de-listed and then managed like any other species. I take issue with this idea that we’ll get a healthy population and then start blasting away at it. But I suspect it will help to alleviate stress from ranchers because there will be straightforward means of management instead of heavily state and federally regulated approach.
I’m not going to describe all the alternatives because like any public, bureaucratic plan – the document is verbose. Of the four alternatives only one has anything approaching a potential for a genetically stable population, Alternative 3. It is also the most expensive and has the least plans for wolf management. The Rancher preferred Alternative 1, as you can guess has a heavy focus on management allowances and recuperation of stock value from kills. It wouldn’t help wolves at all and doesn’t rest heavily on science. The state prefers the most moderate and middle ground, Alternative 2. This is not quite as expensive and doesn’t have provisions for Olympic National Forest reintroduction and falls short of allowing a viable population to establish. At 15 breeding pairs of wolves, that leaves approximately 90 wolves in Washington at the time of de-listing. Not only that but to be considered a competent breeding pair, the pups from that year would only need to survive to December 31st (probably about when things start getting hard). Should say a rabies outbreak occur, we could find ourselves without a population again.
I’ve started to wade through this 300-page document of plans, but I won’t make public comment until I’ve read it all. I do want to encourage people to read the plans and make comment – tell WDFW that you care about wolves and think they are important.
So why are wolves important, beyond seeing value in the animal simply as an entity (which is perfectly valid I might add)? As WDFW puts it, they are a part of our ecological heritage and belong in our state. They used to live all over the West and now they are confined to very small regions south of the Canadian border. In places where wolves have reentered the ecosystem they do a great deal to equate the system. Through taking the least fit prey, wolves help keep ungulate populations healthy – a well established, undeniable fact. With the presence of wolves biodiversity flourishes as well. Because Wolves actively eliminate the Coyote competition, numbers normalize, leaving birds and small mammals able to regain footholds. Elk don’t live the sedate lifestyle so many of us are used to seeing them in, they can’t sit at a riparian area for days on end, playing the role that cattle also do in destroying these zones. Wolves force them to move, to act like they should and the balance of the riparian area is stable again.
Ok, so that’s my LONG two cents on the matter. But hey – I’m just some liberal who loves wolves and wants a healthy environment. I’ve never seen wolves in the wild and one day I’d like to be able to see them in Washington. Check out the WDFW site, their plan, and submit your public comment by the deadline January 8th. Do some research yourself and educate your friends and family. That’s where meaningful change really happens.
Some important resources:
Wolf Haven International a non-profit working for wolf conservation.
International Wolf Center a non-profit focusing on public education.
Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez an informative chronicle of humans and wolves.
*BUT as you can see, I bristle at anti-wolf sentiment almost as much as human discrimination – in fact it’s worse because this is not a socially unacceptable viewpoint – I simply cannot ignore blatant willful ignorance and be politically correct in addressing it.
A final note: both photos of wolves were provided via the creative commons license generously added to these wonderful shots found on Flickr.