Saving the Gray Wolf

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a story of prejudice, indiscriminate killing, and–hopefully–survival.

One day, I sat in my high school library frantically searching for a topic for my science (or was it social studies?) project. This was before the Internet, so I believe I was flipping through catalogs or magazines. I found an article about the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Perfect, I thought, and whipped out a short report on the topic. It was mildly interesting to me at the time—we killed all the wolves and now were making an effort to re-balance the ecosystem.

Looking back, though, the assignment was the beginning of a lifelong interest in the species and their struggle to survive not only in the wild, but as the target of ranchers, hunters, and just plain wolf haters.

My husband has asked me why they are such a controversial species, and I’ve shrugged. “No, really,” he says. “Why do so many people hate wolves?”

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Really, I have no idea. I know why some people say they hate wolves, but I have yet to find evidence that corroborates their claims. It’s ironic, really—we idolize dogs and vilify their wild ancestors. Can we love only those we’ve tamed?

Some say wolves are a nuisance because they kill livestock. And they do. But—indulge me again with a few numbers—according to the USDA, in 2008 farmers lost 125,000 sheep for one reason or another, including disease, old age, and predation. Coyotes accounted for 31,600 of those losses. Wolves: 1,300. But here’s the real kicker: dogs took 1,400.  Dogs killed one hundred more sheep than wolves killed.

Others say wolves take too much game, leaving less for hunters. But that’s just not true, according to the numbers. Elk populations are holding steady in the West. And we in the Midwest know that deer are in no danger of extinction.

Still others believe wolves are vicious, indiscriminate killers of animals and people. These people aren’t to be taken too seriously, though, because they clearly know little about the animal they so dislike. Yet their hatred can be frightening (just search “wolf hunting” on Facebook).

Over the years, my interest in and love for wolves has grown. On a late spring day in Yellowstone a few years ago, I was lucky enough to watch a wolf stalk a bison calf and then an antelope. (The wolf was unsuccessful.) I also got to see old photographs of my husband’s grandmother’s biplane covered with wolf carcasses from a local bounty hunt, back when our government paid people to kill wolves. I also researched the species for my book, in which wolves play a pivotal role.

Here are some things I’ve found that are true:

  • Wolves are wary of humans. They do not hunt humans. If you’ve ever seen a wolf in the wild, consider yourself lucky. Real life isn’t a cheesy Liam Neeson movie.
  • Wolves play a role in the health of everything from beavers to birch trees. They are a keystone species, so when we negatively affect the wolf, we negatively affect the surrounding world.
  • The government (you and me) reimburses farmers for livestock lost to wolves.
  • There are nonlethal ways to help prevent wolves from hunting livestock.

Hating wolves, best as I can see, is a social decision passed from parents to children, from friend to friend, a decision as old as Red Riding Hood herself. Somewhere along the line, people turned wolves into horrible, mythical creatures. People did. Wolves, of course, have always just been wolves.

In the early 1900s, one government agency in charge of wolf bounties even created false stories about wolves killing livestock at random so they could maintain their funding.

We hunted wolves almost to extinction. Then some of us realized our error and began efforts to save them. We passed the Endangered Species Act. In the 1990s, we reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone, where they had been wiped out.

This reintroduction has been mostly successful, though no nonpartisan animal biologist I’ve read has said wolves are ready to be taken off the endangered species list, which is one of the last, if not the last, protections wolves have. They are already hunted in states like Idaho, Minnesota, and Wyoming, where hunters can take as many wolves as they want. And again, if you’ve done that Facebook search, you know plenty of people are waiting to wipe wolves out again.

Yet taking the wolf off the endangered species list is exactly what the Obama administration has proposed. The public comment period ends September 11.

Indulge me one more time: please go to www.regulations.gov and search “gray wolf.” That will bring you to a page where you can leave a comment to speak out against delisting the gray wolf.

We did it wrong once. Let’s not do it again.

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