The Science of Sustainability

Fear and Loathing in Wolf Country

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wolf with elk

When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the 1990s, researchers had a rare chance to study the top predators' effects on the ecosystem after a long absence. They found that wolves help buffer the impact of deteriorating environmental conditions by providing food for scavengers. (Photo: Dan Hartman via PLOS Biology doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030132)

The first rays of daylight have just reached the banks of Southeast Alaska’s Chilkat River when I hear the unmistakable cries of the world’s most hated predator.

The distinctive yowls—at first plaintive then veering toward gregarious—seem to rise from the bowels of the mountains beyond the river, echoing miles across the valley to tickle the hair on my very cold head.

Wolves live throughout the Chilkat Valley. You can sometimes see their tracks in the snow. But as night turns to day, they head for the hills.

“You won’t see those wolves come down to the flats,” a visiting biologist tells me. “They know they’ll get shot.”

Alaska Fish and Game officials guess that some 7,000 to 11,000 wolves inhabit the state. Yet even though the agency has no protocol to produce “meaningful estimates” of wolf abundance in the Chilkat Range, it extended hunting and trapping seasons there in 2005. And state officials still shoot wolves from helicopters under a euphemistically named “intensive management” program to appease hunters who blame the predators for declining ungulate populations.

In 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the embattled canine from the endangered species list in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, setting the stage for a legal killing spree that claimed at least 850 wolves in the Northern Rockies in less than two years. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the fast and furious killings have wildlife experts here worried about the fate of OR7, the only wolf to set foot in California since the 1920s.

The three-year-old solo lobo (the seventh wolf to get a radio-tagged collar from Oregon wildlife officials) left his pack in Oregon, as young males are wont to do, to strike out on his own and find a mate, a new pack or perhaps unclaimed territory. His brother, OR9, was among the unlucky wolves killed by Idaho hunters.

canada lynx

The loss of wolves may have set the stage for an ecological domino effect: no wolves, led to more coyotes, which eat the lynx's preferred food, the snowshoe hare, and more ungulates, which eat the vegetation that shelters and feeds the hare.

Though Ecology 101 tells us that healthy ecosystems need top predators, researchers are just beginning to understand how the presence—and absence—of wolves affects other species. One study found that wolves may buffer the effects of climate change in Yellowstone National Park, where winters have been getting shorter, by leaving their moose and elk leftovers for eagles, ravens, coyotes and other scavengers. Another paper suggests that the absence of wolves may explain the precarious status of the Canada lynx. No wolves means more coyotes—which hunt snowshoe hares, the lynx’s favorite food—and more elk and deer—which eat the shrubby vegetation that sustain and shelter hares. And a 2011 paper in Biological Conservation supports earlier work showing that wolves in Yellowstone influence the behavior of deer and elk, releasing grazing pressure on vegetation, which in turn increases songbird habitat and diversity.

As scientists slowly uncover the top predator’s secrets, deliberations over its management are notoriously contentious. Still, for all the ink spilled on high-pitched battles to control the wolf’s fate, researchers know surprisingly little about the cognitive roots of our attitudes toward Canis lupus.

Why do we hate and fear the wolf?

Imnaha wolf

The alpha male of the Imnaha wolf pack–where OR7 came from–awakes from being tranquilized after being refitted with a working GPS collar by ODFW, May 19, 2011. (Photo courtesy of ODFW)

In a paper published last year in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife, researchers found that people who view wolves and bears as dangerous and unpredictable were more likely to fear them. And whether you see carnivores like wolves as a fearsome threat to life and property or a vital link in a healthy ecosystem depends on your cultural roots, as a 2011 study of wolf conflicts in Wisconsin makes clear.

By 1960, extirpation campaigns had eliminated wolves in Wisconsin (and nearly everywhere else in the United States). The population rebounded by 2009 under a policy of protection. But as wolves increased, so did reports of attacks on livestock and hunting dogs.

Most non-Indian residents in Wisconsin support public hunts in retaliation. But no one had bothered to ask the Bad River Band of Chippewa Indians (Ojibwe, or Anishinabe, in their language), researchers noted, even though treaty rights give the tribe an interest in land that includes a large swath of wolf territory.

In the Ojibwe creation story, the Creator gave Original Man a brother in the form of a wolf to “walk through the world together.” When the pair was forced to part, the bond would remain, the Creator told them, and whatever happened to one would happen to the other.

Not surprisingly, Ojibwe tribal members, who grew up hearing these stories, had far more positive views of wolves, and were less likely than non-Indian respondents to support killing them for taking livestock or pets. In the survey, one tribal member wrote:

Wolves were harvested [historically] by Native Americans, however the wolf selected was harvested compassionately. Usually it was those wolves disconnected from the pack and scavenging. Those wolves were less likely to survive without the pack; just as an Anishinabe would less likely be Anishinabe without the tribe.

You don’t have to embrace the wolf as a brother—or hear what wildlife biologist Durward Allen called “the jubilation” in their howls—to appreciate that the people who walked with wolves for thousands of years before Europeans showed up might suggest a path toward coexistence.

Wisconsin wolf managers have already enlisted Ojibwe tribal members to work with them to resolve human-wolf conflicts with positive results. Wildlife officials throughout wolf country—which could include California if we give OR7 and his fellow travelers a chance—might consider a similar approach.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Blog, Environment

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://twitter.com/reellifejane Reel Life With Jane

    Love wolves. We don't see a lot of them where I live – Traverse City, Michigan – but my brother encountered one near his cabin in the Upper Peninsula. They parted ways amicably, thank goodness. It's always amazing how when one animal's existence is threatened, it ripples out to so many others.

  • lupusposse

    Thank you for a well-researched and insightful article.

    A more expanded version might be in order, as issues of fear, anxiety, and what members of a social species (members of our particular primate species in particular) do, cognitively and socially, to assuage fear and maintain or advance social status, are relevant.

    Certainly sport hunting is a vestige of perceived social status and power among Euroamericans, as are attitudes toward possession and acquisition. The wolf is vilified in great part due to its being an apex predator, uncontrolled except through lethal means, due to a cultural belief in a necessity for controlling and removing perceived obstructions to maximizing social gain.

    Our cognitions follow our beliefs. The tangle of beliefs in which an individual is enmeshed make it difficult for anyone to substantially change, unless removed from social evaluation. Since the wolf has no status for Euroamericans, it suffers from the fate of all outcastes: persecution, death without recourse.

    The wolf was the apex predator of this continent, coming to accommodation with the grizzly or brown bear only. The technology of projectile weapons has allowed an otherwise rather less-endowed omnivore to supplant that species, upsetting the balance of the numerous ecosystems originally affected by that keystone species, the Gray Wolf.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lonna.oleary Lonna O'Leary

    What a great article you have written.

  • Tammy

    I have always loved wolves and their beauty but never realized the impact to not having them in Yellowstone. I watched a documentary on Yellowstone and the effects it had on so many things was absolutely amazing to me! They are definitely need to keep a healthy ecosystem. Hopefully more will be done to save them before they are all gone once again.

  • http://www.facebook.com/amanda.keene.9 Amanda Keene

    What a great article.I have been lucky enough to see wolves in the wild, hear their howls.I am very hopefull that Journey(OR7) will help to promote coexistence,and tolerance.Not come to the finality of the wedge pack in WA state.Wolves of the Yellowstone ecosystem need more protection,not killed because they cross a boundary.Education is the key to success for this important apex species.

  • http://www.facebook.com/terriannjo Terri Jones

    My impression of the people that participated in the Wisconson wolf hunt , or who supported it, were macho males who gave no thought whatsoever about anyone except themselves and their testosterone. Of course this article makes sense , and government state agengies should be at least a little more educated than their constituants.

  • Julie

    Great article. Always loved wolves and am glad the Wisconsin officials are finally working with the Native American tribes to find a better way to manage the situation. Hope the same happens in California…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lynne-Jaquith-Lowe/1027116546 Lynne Jaquith Lowe

    The inhabitants of wolf killing states thrive and make their decisions based on misinformation and hatred. The wolf haters are motivated by money and power stemming from cattle ranchers and the hunting businesses along with very corrupt state governments who are in the back pockets of both! This slaughter isn't management and these sub-humans know it!

  • Trap&Hunt

    I love wolves , deer , ext, "all wildlife" I'm a hunter and trapper and your views are senses less , you know America was settled by fur traders it wouldn't exist w/o trade of fur , and man is a predator , if u eat meat your no different than a hunter that gets his meat himself ! Hunters provide 99% of the money used in conservation and management of game all wild game is needed , predators like wolves do kill livestock and animals when there numbers are to high so just food for thought !

    • http://www.facebook.com/karen.byington.96 Karen Byington

      Just because america was settled by fur traders and that is how it was done doesn't make it right. Back then there was little else. We are educated now, unfortunately not more civilized so things need to change. The only reason wolves and other predators kill livestock is because you "hunters" killed their natural prey they would leave your lousy animals alone other wise. If livestock people didn't have such lazy husbandry practices they wouldn't have to worry about carnivores coming to their place. I know that they loose more animals to bad weather then predators.

  • Trap&Hunt

    If wolves killed your cattle or horses an that is how you made your living and that money lost paid your house payment you might to want the wolves removed ! and often this means taking the animals life , because even when relocated they find more farm animals , cattle, chicken , horses and continue to kill animals in the new location , real hunters and trappers have the deepest respect for animals and wildlife , we are a chain in the circle of life ,

    Don't tread on me !
    I won't tread on you!

    • http://www.facebook.com/karen.byington.96 Karen Byington

      First question why don't you have insurance? My father was in business for himself and he had insurance. He didn't grovel to the government every time something went wrong. FACT: if all you people didnt kill all their natural prey they would leave your lousy animals alone. FACT: If you didn't have such lazy husbandry practices you wouldn't have to worry about carnivores coming to your place. FACT: I know that you loose more animals to bad weather then predators.

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