A Symphony of Wolves
The Scenic Route
According to our editorial schedule, it’s my turn to rant about something, so let’s talk about—cue the French horns—wolves.
If you don’t get the connection, listen to the classic Soviet-era Russian children’s symphony, Peter and the Wolf (Petya i volk). Sergei Prokofiev’s beautiful work represents various characters by different themes and instruments. Peter is personified by strings, the duck (whom the wolf swallows whole and alive) by an oboe, Grandfather by a bassoon and the wolf by French horns.
The wolf representation by French horns in a communist symphony may seem to certain groups more proof that the critters in question have no place in the United States except in zoos, which is where Peter’s wolf ends up. If this seems ridiculous, consider the argument that wolves, reintroduced 16 years ago along the Continental Divide in the United States, came from Canada, so should be eradicated because they are a non-native species.
Let’s run that out to its (more) logical extreme. Since the wolf was here a long time before the first humans crossed the land bridge from Siberia—oh, my God, more Russians—humans should be eradicated from the Americas because we are a non-native species.
In January of 1996, the gray wolf came back to Yellowstone in cages. These first transplants were trapped in the Mackenzie Valley of the Canadian Rockies and turned loose to fend for themselves in the Park 70 years after the last wolf in the Park was killed in 1926. Since then, the wolves have moved back into their normal place as top-of-the-food-chain predators, and anti-wolf and pro-wolf rhetoric has moved to the top of our national propensity for media hysteria.
The wolf has always been a powerful figure in mythology, from Native American tales to Little Red Riding Hood to Hector Munro’s “The Interlopers.” Canis Lupus is portrayed most often by Western European culture as big and bad. And, evidently, omnipresent. No matter what happens to elk populations, whether it rises, falls or stays the same, it’s the wolf’s doing—depending on who’s telling the story.
Certain hunting groups rail against the wolf for ruining the hunting, and still point to—and take credit for—a 44 percent increase in elk populations between 1984 and 2009. On the other side of the question are those who disdain the wolf hunts of Montana and Idaho in recent years as inhumane or criminal, throwing out emotion-laden rhetoric that demonizes hunting, which is not the point at all. When you move out of the purely emotional aspect of the wolf question from either fringe, it follows that if we are going to manage any successful species by hunting—prey or non-prey—then hunting wolves in a sensible and sustainable way, as we do elk and deer, is a logical extension of reintroduction. Those who advocated for and brought the wolf back from extinction in the lower 48 were aimed in this direction whether they were thinking that far ahead or not.
Those who advocate a return of the wolf to near-extinct, and stand with their ears covered shouting “the only good wolf is a dead wolf,” make themselves appear craven and ignorant. They might get educated, and not by the word of the special interests. Assertions that wolves are ruining the hunting and causing the livestock industry grief unheard of before 1996 are patently untrue. Wolf predation counts for less than 1 percent of cattle losses and less than 3 percent of sheep losses. As far as ruining the hunting, it is good to remember that wolves—and any other predators—aren’t after the biggest bull or the healthiest cow or calf. They don’t hunt horns. They hunt the laggers, stragglers, weak and old. Wolves don’t invest ego in the hunt. By their nature and the way they hunt, they improve the herd. If anyone is ruining the hunting, it might be hunters who insist on taking the most prime animal they can kill by whatever means necessary.
I have a picture of my grandmother taken in 1910 in Yellowstone Park, a decade and a half before the last wolf was killed there. She is standing dwarfed and enwrapped in the cradle of a huge elk rack, bleached and aged by Yellowstone winters, the likes of which hasn’t been taken by a hunter—or a wolf—in the West for a long, long time. That elk lived and died in a system that included wolves as part of the mix, as well as grizzly bears, coyotes, big cats and, yes, humans.
It wasn’t wolves that wiped out the bison or chased the elk from the plains into the mountains. It was humans with superior weaponry and no sense of self control. We, who are so concerned with the populations of other species on this planet, might better be about learning to control our own. Our part in the symphony is no more— or less—important than any other.