Who Are These Wolves?

When it comes to wolves, we tend to see what we want to see.

Posted Sep 08, 2012

L. David Mech, dean of American wolf researchers, asks in the June issue of Biological Conservation “Is science in danger of sanctifying the wolf?”  In Mech’s view that means ascribing to wolves various positive attributes, including an ability to restore ecosystems that they may not have but that risks casting them in a saintly light. Since wolves are neither “saints nor sinners,” that more positive view is bad because it makes “management” of wolves difficult.

I am not sure why that should be unless Mech is referring to the use of state sanctioned wolf hunts as a means of managing expanding wolf populations that are coming increasingly into conflict with people—or so we hear more often than not.  I would prefer that people have more positive than negative attitudes toward wolves and other animals with whom we share the planet, especially when they are making management decisions. But Mech apparently finds that mindset problematic.

Equating positive attitudes with seeing wolves as “saints” and negative ones as “sinners” reveals how thoroughly Christian cultural values permeate and bias the proceedings.  Put another way, I can recognize someone as a sinner and still feel positively toward her, just like I can feel negatively toward a saint.

Problems abound with this editorial disguised as an article.  Mech relies on carefully selected evidence and examples to argue that an unspecified number of scientists and journalists let their fondness for wolves color their treatment of the facts.  Indeed, it often appears that Mech’s entire piece is a slapdown of strawmen he has created.

He begins his essay, for example, with the observation that prior to the late1960s, most Americans, including early ecologists, reviled wolves and wanted them dead. Since then, he says, wolves have become iconic symbols of wild nature and the Endangered Species Act that provided them the legal protection they needed for a come back.  Blind positivism has replaced knee-jerk negativism in evaluating wolves, and both are wrong.    

Without recounting the massive slaughter of humans and animals that marked Western expansion following the Civil War and later focused on predators, I would remind Mech and his reviewers that many people in North America, including Native Americans, did not share the view that all wolves should be killed.  More than a few of them, in fact, revered wolves and coyotes.  That became manifest again last spring when Ojibwe in Wisconsin and Minnesota objected to state plans to permit hunting of an animal they hold sacred. State officials ignored them.

That is not to say that any animals were safe in the late 19th century when gentlemen travelers blasted away from trains, steamboats, horses and wagons, engaging in the most wanton forms of destruction. On just one three-week hunt southeast of Fort Dodge, Kansas, in 1874, three touring British gentlemen, accompanied by two U.S. Army officers, killed 1,262 animals.  Army Lieutenant Richard Irving Dodge included in his take 127 bison, 2 red deer, 11 antelope, 154 turkeys, 3 geese, 223 teal, 45 mallards, 49 shovel-bills, 27 wigeons, 6 cranes, 287 quail, 32 grouse, 33 yellowlegs, 12 jack snipes, 1 pigeon, 9 hawks, 3 owls, 8 butter ducks, 3 sheldrakes, 17 herons, 143 songbirds from meadowlarks to doves and robins, 1 bluebird, 2 badgers, 7 raccoons, and 11 rattlesnakes.(1) Elsewhere packs of dogs were used to hunt wolves, cougars, and grizzly bears.

In the 20th century, government predator control programs, relying on science, drove wolves out of the lower 48 states except for their last redoubt in extreme northeastern Minnesota. That campaign against wolves was conducted not because people feared and loathed them but because the U.S. government decided all predators even vaguely threatening to livestock interests had to be removed as threats to profit. But when bounty hunting and massive poisoning of wolves stopped, the animals began to return to the Northern Rocky Mountains from Canada and to repopulate the Upper Midwest. 

In bringing wolves under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service created discrete populations and established for them minimum numbers that once reached would trigger delisting.  Thus, wolves in the Upper Midwest were officially Western Great Lakes gray wolves. 

Inexplicably, Mech dodges the controversy surrounding the removal of those wolf populations from the list of endangered species, making it sound as if it happened because they had reached “biological recovery levels.”  That is true only if all scientific, political, and legal disputes that delayed delisting for years are ignored.  Mech does not even mention that in 2011, Congress passed and President Obama signed an order to remove Rocky Mountain gray wolves from the endangered species list that was widely condemned as the triumph of politics over science. Minnesota's, Michigan's, and Wisconsin's wolves were delisted in 2011 without Congressional intervention. Wyoming's wolves were delisted this year.  But disagrreements remain.

Mech makes no mention of a public argument he had starting in 2007 with Robert K. Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA specializing in canid genetics and evolution, over whether the current western Great Lakes wolf had hybridized with coyotes in the past 100 years and should be considered a separate population for conservation purposes.  An attempt might then be made to recover and preserve its genetic uniqueness.

Perhaps, more significant, there is no hint of an even broader discussion over whether any current population should have been delisted since wolves dispersing from them are repopulating their former range.  In that view the wolf is far from recovered.

I would think that anyone interested in how science and journalism influence the debate over wolves would look there.  A rudimentary Lexis/Nexis search for “wolf delisting” produced 108 hits, the vast majority since 1990 while “trophic cascade” produced 28 stories about trophic cascades, not all of them dealing with wolves.

But Mech is set on trophic cascades—events at one end of the food chain that cascade through the ecosystem, re-forming it.  They are one of three areas in which the effects on wolves have been exaggerated by scientists and journalists to such a degree that they might have contributed to the emerging positive image of wolves.  Basically, a number of scientists studying the wolves dumped into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 concluded that by coming in and chowing down primarily on elk they affected plant distribution, which affected everything from beavers to song birds. 

Mech also focuses on reports that wolves killed coyotes, and thereby reduced the coyote population while opening the way for smaller, mesopredators, like foxes. More recent research shows that pack numbers have returned to pre-wolf levels, Mech says, although with fewer coyotes in each pack, which would seem to hint at an overall reduction

Mech argues that in many cases the initial science made overly broad claims that reflected positively on wolves and media and internet reports followed suit. Subsequent correctives, usually in the form of qualifiers did not receive as much play.  Without going into all the details I think it fair to say that Mech’s corrections to the initial reports were not sufficiently contradictory to warrant another long story.  Besides, that kind of incremental crawling toward an elusive truth is what science is about.  Why criticize it for being what it is?

More important, a major study of press reports on wolves from 1999 to 2008 directly contradicts Mech’s central argument that the media are biased toward wolves.  They are in fact more negative toward wolves than positive.

“With wolf recovery has come an increased polarization between those lay people who revere the animal and those who revile it,” Mech says. “Establishing a more-accurate public and scientific image of the wolf is important so that authorities can better manage the species and promote accurate public understanding about the rationale for various kinds of wolf management.”

That  statement assumes that authorities are using the best science to manage conflicts between wolves and people.  With few exceptions--and this essay is not one of them--evidence for that is scarce, and that should frighten everyone.


1. Richard Irving Dodge, The Plains of North America and Their Inhabitants, ed. Wayne R. Kime (Newark, Del., University of Delaware Press, 1989, from 1876 edition), p. 135.