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Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?

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Photo by Michael Lorenzo Photo by Michael Lorenzo

The bogeyman of the woods is less dangerous than dogs, rustlers and fairy tales

On March 6 of this year, former rancher turned U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar of the Obama administration, upheld the Bush administration’s eleventh-hour delisting of gray wolves from the U.S. Endangered Species List. In Idaho our governor, Clement Otter, immediately chimed in, reiterating an earlier assertion that he wanted to be the first to get a wolf hunting tag. Governor Otter’s statement is the capstone of a concerted effort over the past few years, by a variety of “stakeholders,” to paint wolves as the ultimate bogeyman in the woods.

Bonner County’s Daily Bee, probably unwittingly, has been an instrument of this ongoing vilification campaign. Articles in the Daily Bee concerning wolves over the past year have ranged from utter non-stories to outright demonization. In December there were two wolf-related stories. The first one could be summarized entirely, with no other substance, as an Idaho Fish & Game supervisor offering his opinion that “we simply can’t keep piling wolves on top of each other.” The second story featured several paragraphs on a woman who heard noises in the wood, speculated that it was wolves killing a dog and therefore brought her dogs indoors. This was reported as news despite the fact that no missing dogs were reported and that an IDFG officer could find no evidence of either wolves or a dead dog.

A January 25 article in the Bee featured one-liners from IDFG director Carl Groen, Senator Jim Risch, Rep. Walt Minnick, and Governor Otter about the pressing need to kill wolves. A February 13 story reports on a man who spotted a “big black thing” near his dog kennel and fired on it after concluding that it was a wolf. The investigating IDFG officer could not confirm much of anything and was of the opinion that the reported behavior was “more dog-like than wolf-like.”

This ongoing history of wolf vilification is at least 5,000 years old. It began when humans first domesticated livestock. Wolves, quite obviously, found the livestock to be easier prey than chasing down their wild cousins. Evidence of this human-wolf vendetta is readily seen in something as commonplace as children’s stories—stories such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or Peter And The Wolf. This primal fear of wolves manifests itself in modern-day wolf “management” plans dictated primarily by ranchers and secondarily by hunters. The irrational hatred of wolves is promulgated by the vitriol of modern-day anti-wolf prophets, such as Ron Gillette, who spout babble such as “wolves are the most cruel, vicious animal in North America... the only predator that eats its prey alive because they like the taste of warm blood!”

Incredibly, ranchers in states with wolves are either ignorant or misinformed of the relatively limited extent of wolf predation. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2005 only 0.11 percent of all cattle losses in the country were due to wolf predation in 2005. In the same year attacks by domestic dogs and theft by rustlers were each responsible for five times as many cattle lost as those killed by wolves. In states with wolf populations, an average of less than 2.5 percent of sheep loss was due to predation by wolves. IDFG themselves state that in 2008 wolves were only responsible for killing 212 sheep in Idaho. This figure is a mere 2 percent of the 10,900 total sheep killed in Idaho 2004 (2008 sheep kill totals are unknown).

While wolves remained on the Endangered Species List ranchers anywhere in the United States who had losses due to wolf-predation were able to receive compensation from the Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf Compensation Trust run by Defenders of Wildlife. In neighboring Montana, the Montana Department of Livestock has picked up the Defenders compensation program for losses in Montana. An identical program in Idaho would cost the state a pittance—but apparently not a pittance that the rancher-controlled legislature wants to endorse.

The Idaho legislature, controlled both by ranchers and by people beholden to the interests of ranchers, has, instead, come up with a management plan whereby wolves will be arbitrarily maintained at levels of 500 to 700 wolves in the state. Sadly, IDFG as the enforcing organization is beholden to hunters who provide almost 98 percent of IDFG’s operating budget. It appears, based on what I heard at the Sandpoint public hearing last year, that most hunters view wolves both as competition and as yet another animal that they can shoot for “sport.”

IDFG’s wolf management plan is not based on an objective analysis of carrying capacity, nor of the role of wolves in the context of a balanced ecosystem, nor on an objective poll of the general populace’s attitudes towards wolves. What hunters’ desire is what IDFG strives to provide. It is revealing that, this fall, IDFG is going to open an unheard of seven-month hunting season on wolves—this for an animal fresh off the endangered species list. In the Lolo Pass area alone, IDFG is planning to virtually exterminate wolves with a plan to kill 100 wolves—supposedly to protect elk. It is readily apparent, as writer George Wuerthner observes, that “state wildlife agencies are not the objective, scientific, wildlife managers that they claim to be” and that they “only tolerate predators as long as they are not permitted to play a meaningful ecological role.”

According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service (and IDFG) the current population of about 5,500 gray wolves in the continental U.S. is “healthy.” Apparently an increase in the numbers of wolves will result both in dramatic reductions in populations of elk, deer and moose and harm the overall health of wolves themselves. It is worth observing that estimates of the pre-Columbus gray wolf population in the U.S. range from one million to 1.5 million. A “healthy” 5,500 wolves is a mere 0.4 percent of that original population. By contrast the pre-Columbus population of white tailed deer is estimated to have been about 30 million and today at about 25 million (83 percent). The pre-Columbus population of elk was estimated at 10 million and today at one million (10 percent).

In his superb book, Where The Wild Things Were: Life, Death, And Ecological Wreckage In A Landscape of Vanishing Predators, science writer William Stolzenburg lays out 100 years of painstaking scientific observations that convincingly demonstrate how crucial top predators, such as wolves, are to the complete well-being of ecosystems—including healthy populations of deer, elk, and moose. Famed ecologist Aldo Leopold poetically wrote “just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” Leopold’s words are borne true as observations at Yellowstone National Park demonstrate that the diversity of species and the overall health of the flora and fauna in the Park has dramatically increased since the reintroduction of wolves over ten years ago. It should seem glaringly obvious that IDFG’s, or indeed, any state wildlife management agency’s predator management plan, is a very poor substitute for of millions of years of co-evolution.

Finally, it is worth noting that in the past 300 years there have been a sum total of four possible wolf-related human fatalities in the United States—all of them prior to 1911. By comparison there are 4.7 million dog bite victims annually in the U.S. with 33 fatalities in 2007 and 23 in 2008. It is also worth noting that despite 5,000 years of demonization about 60 percent of Americans do not perceive wolves as the ultimate bogeyman in the woods and are in favor of rational wolf recovery. Sadly, the opinions of those 60 percent are hardly ever heard because they are neither hunters nor ranchers, but just ordinary people.

To learn more about wolves visit the International Wolf Center  which provides objective educational programs on wolves.


Stephen Augustine is a member of the Northern Rockies Wolf Group. Wolf photos by Michael Lorenzo, used with permission.

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Stephen Augustine is a member of the Northern Rockies Wolf Group

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