The wolf wars of the second decade of the third millennium anno domini have spread from their most recent ignition point in the northern Rocky Mountains through the Great Lakes and across the Atlantic into Scandinavia, Western Europe and the Balkans and onto Siberia and Alaska, where the killing has never really stopped. Russian officials want to kill 3,000 wolves out of an estimated population of 3,500 in Yakutia, Siberia, the heart of the Gulag, on the grounds that they are decimating the reindeer of the indigenous people at an alarming rate. Poison might be used, the Moscow News reported on January 15, 2013. It appears that wolves are being blamed for all problems plaguing Siberia’s native people, alcoholism and poverty foremost among them.
Writing in the Guardian on January 18, 2013, George Monbiot says that Norway and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia have joined the wolf killing frenzy. They too claim to be protecting some other wild species or livestock, while they, in fact, are using wolf hunts to shatter wildlife protection programs.
As 2012 entered its last month, Michigan alone among states with sizable wolf populations had no sanctioned wolf hunt. But then the legislature passed and the governor signed legislation granting state wildlife officials authority to permit wolf hunting in the state’s Upper Peninsula, ostensibly to reduce the wolf population enough to prevent conflict between humans and wolves. The legislation passed despite polls showing strong public opposition to wolf killing.
The current assault on wolves in this country represents a prime example of the way, even in a “democracy,” that a minority, driven by fear, hatred, and ignorance, seasoned with more than a little hypocrisy, can put into place policies that run counter to the “will” of the majority. In this case they are helped along by wolf experts, scholars and journalists who express dismay and concern when wolves do not behave according to their expectations. Wolves, it appears, adjust to people far better than people to wolves. Specifically they show a capacity to live among people even in relatively crowded quarters, which as ‘wild animals” they were not supposed to do.
The situation is ripe for conflict, say the experts, repeat the journalists, because wolves are ‘wild animals,’ and we no longer are. The same people who decried that wolves could not tolerate anything short of wilderness, now say that their ability to live in close quarters with people makes conflict inevitable and thus they should be pre-emptively hunted. L. David Mech, one of the foremost wolf experts in the world, has repeatedly made this argument, which reduces to a simple formula---in order to preserve the wolf, we will sacrifice thousands of wolves because if they come into conflict with people, they will die.
Wildlife biologist George Wuerthner suggests a more cynical, political calculus at work, at least in Montana. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks , he says, approved a hunt with a higher than needed quota in order to defuse an issue that was potentially damaging to Democratic politicians, including Senator Jon Tester, and thus to Democratic control of the U. S. Senate. Tester is the senator who introduced the budget rider mandating that wolves be delisted. The wolves were not consulted.
Many scholars proclaim that humans and wolves have always been in conflict, because they have always hunted the same game. This bit of academic and popular received wisdom is demonstrably untrue. Even when they prey on the same species, wolves focus on the young and elderly, while humans take mature adults. Humans and wolves and dogs hunted bison for centuries without major conflict; indeed, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark called wolves the shepherds of the bison for their habit of sitting and watching over their herds. Evidence suggests that the Indian dogs regularly crossbred with and were indistinguishable from wolves.
While generalizations about wolves and dogs, as well as other canids, are best avoided, it is fair to say that most hunting cultures celebrate, or at least do not fear wolves. They recognize the wolf not as a competitor but as a fellow hunter. In this sense American hunters who call for annihilation of the wolf betray their cultural heritage. Long hunters along the frontier often had dogs that were all or part Indian dogs and wolves.
The hunters who opposed wolves were medieval nobility who wanted to keep deer populations high for their own pleasure and later ‘sport’ hunters, whose idea of “sport” most closely resembled slaughter. They no more wanted to share with wolves than with subsistence hunters—poachers by any other name.
It is not even fair to say that pastoralists and agriculturalists unanimously find wolves problematic. For millennia, pastoralists in some parts of the world have deployed dogs with shepherds to guard their flocks. Usually, they have been large mountain dogs wearing spike collars, ferocious enough to defeat wolves in mortal combat. But smaller dogs are sometimes used to good effect.
Where wolves routinely prey on livestock, it is often the case that the ranchers or herdsmen fail to follow best practices –corralling the stock at night, preferably behind electric fences, working with the dogs to thwart wolf attacks. Wolves are formidable predators, but they are unlikely to press an attack that makes them expend considerable energy for scant return.
It is also clear that hunting wolves destroys the social cohesion of a pack because unless the entire pack is wiped out, a shattered family remains. If the breeding pair is killed, the culture of the pack is destroyed, and the survivors are left to make do with limited skills. In that event, sheep or calves look like easy targets. It takes generations for a pack to regain cohesion if it does at all.
Wolf haters show no evidence of listening to reason. But it is not unreasonable for the public to demand a comparison with all other predators, including the two-legged biped to determine who among them is the most destructive and thus most in need of removal from the range.
Unfortunately, statistics needed to make an informed assessment either do not exiist or are difficult to find and untrustworthy when they do appear. Nonetheless, we can ask some questions. First, we might ask what wolves are eating. In Spain, in the Carpathians, in Italy and in other wolf territory, researchers have collected and examined scat to find out what wolves were eating, especially whether they were eating sheep, goats or other human food. The surprising answer for the researchers was that less than 20 percent of the wolf diet was livestock. Dogs were bigger threats to livestock. Late last summer hunters for the state of Washington spent $77,000 killing 7 wolves said to be killing cattle on one ranch. Now, sources tell me that necropsies of the dead wolves found no evidence that they had eaten livestock. In Alberta, officials approved wolf slaughter to protect woodland caribou, but scat analyses has indicated Alberta wolves eat deer not caribou.
The real killers were not even listed among predators on the range in order to keep them categorically different, and they would be the gun-toting biped—ourselves in the form of livestock rustlers, the traditional scourge of ranchers. Being human, they target mature animals who will fetch the highest prices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps statistics on all other types of predation. But it has nothing on rustling. That can hardly be an oversight. Rather it reflects a deep cultural bias against comparing, much less equating, human with animal behavior. Still, by all indications rustlers pose a far greater threat than wolves.
The number of “wolves” killed who are really dogs or coyotes also goes unrecorded and unestimated, yet persistent reports of dead wolves turning out to be dogs raise the question—how many of the wolf hunters know what they are shooting?
In the northern Rocky Mountains, hunters drive the opposition to wolves, claiming that they are decimating elk and deer populations, artificially maintained for the pleasure of sport hunters. There are plenty of elk and deer, of course, more than there were before the return of wolves; hunters just might have to go farther afield with all the lifting and carrying that entails.
Some people will say that these questions are tangential to the main issue, which is keeping the wolf away, but that is only because we want to ignore the real top dog among predators on the range. Perhaps if we came clean we would have fewer problems with our old friend, le lupe.
As if on demand, Jim and Jamie Dutcher’s new book, The Hidden Life of Wolves has just been published. (Here is a review by my fellow Psychology Today essayist, Marc Bekoff.) The beautiful full color photographs in this book, two of which illustrate this posting present wolves as the sentient creatures they are, but they also disprove forever the myth that wolves are stone cold killers incapable of social interactions with people. Jamie Dutcher is photographed with three black wolves from the Sawtooth Pack the couple studied for years, and Jim is shown camera to nose with another wotf. A pair of wolves is shown running and playing with a stick the way dogs do. Those are just a few of the images that fill this book, which is also noteworthy for its informed and informative text, The Dutchers cover the myths, legends, science, and politics of wolves and humans. Photos and text combine to present wolves in ways that make them comprehensible to us. They are astounding beings. Their portrayal is clearly an act of devotion, admiration and love.
[Note: The Dutchers and their son Garrick have formed a group, Living with Wolves, devoted to educating the public and public officials about wolves in the hope that the knowledge will lead all of us to seek ways to live together. The wolf after all stayed in the wild while its close cousin hung around to try to help humans manage in the world. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I serve on the scientific/recovery advisory panel for that group. It is volunteer work, which I agreed to do because of my desire to help wolves and other predators not only survive but also to flourish.]