Restoration or Destruction: The Controversy over Wolf Reintroduction
The audience sat on the floor quietly in a big circle, squinting in the dim light. Wolves find large groups of standing people intimidating, and they dislike loud noises and sudden movements. Finally, we were deemed quiet enough, and the representatives from Mission:Wolf, a Colorado nonprofit wolf rescue facility, brought in two of their ambassador wolves on leads. As the wolves walked around the circle, occasionally sniffing audience members or licking someone's teeth (a standard wolf greeting), we were told that these are teenage wolves. They are already starting to lose interest in humans, and when fully grown they will probably ignore us.
After a few minutes, the Mission:Wolf representatives called the wolves to the middle of the room, had them jump up on tables to show us how agile they were, and do a few tricks. Finally, the wolves lay down on the floor, looking bored.
I was one of those lucky enough to have my teeth licked, which isn't as bad as it sounds. I couldn't imagine how people could look at these amazing animals and see nothing but cruel, vicious predators. My attitude is common among people who have grown up in urban environments, far from the people whose lives and livelihoods are affected by wolves.
The reintroduction controversy
The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has deemed reintroduction of the gray wolf to Idaho, Wyoming, and several other northern states successful. Reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf to New Mexico, however, has been less successful, and still faces strong public opposition, as does discussion of reintroducing wolves to southern Colorado.
Unlike other large predators, such as grizzly bears and cougars, wolves are frequently labeled by the public with anthropomorphic terms such as "cruel" and "vicious," and often considered mere killers with no valuable role in the ecosystem. Ralph Maughan, a professor of political science at Idaho State University and president of the Wolf Recovery Foundation, thinks this is because grizzlies and cougars were never eradicated by humans and reintroduced the way wolves were they were always here.
"It's a narrative of decline, like you might see in some newspaper stories: a ranching family who's lived on the ranch for generations," says Maughan. "Their forebears eliminated the wolf threat, and now the government dumps wolves back on their land because of people far away, and carnage occurs. Reintroduction of wolves is a symbol that people in occupations who don't like wolves are no longer respected."
Although wolves killed 500 sheep in Montana in 2003, coyotes killed 11,800, and disease, weather, eagles, bears, and foxes each proved to be greater threats to livestock. Yet wolves inspire even stronger feelings of anger in ranchers than grizzly bears.
In a Defenders of Wildlife press release about a July meeting in Albuquerque to discuss the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf, Fred Galley, owner of Rayny Mesa Ranch, described an attack in which wolves grabbed a cow and "proceeded to eat on her till she bled to death."
At the same meeting, Jane Ravenwolf of Sandia Park asked why death by wolves is more reprehensible than death by slaughterhouse, a question many wolf activists share.
The federal government currently does not compensate ranchers for livestock killed by wolves. Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit wildlife organization, only provides compensation for confirmed wolf kills.
Overall documented losses of livestock to wolves are less than one percent, considerably less than losses to weather, disease, and other dangers. Wolf kills are difficult to confirm, and the losses a small ranch takes from unconfirmed, and thus uncompensated, wolf kills can be significant. Small ranches can easily lose tens of thousands of dollars to wolf depredation if located near a wolf den.
Many ranchers distrust the motivations of Defenders of Wildlife, and maintain that their methods are ineffective. The Colorado Wool Growers Organization, for example, released an official position statement on wolf reintroduction, which called the Defenders program a "publicity ploy."
For the most part, livestock loss due to wolf predation is small. Careful ranching such as changing grazing areas, using more guard dogs, and other techniques can reduce wolf kills, but little can be done to change many people's negative attitudes towards wolves.
"After wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, a wolf attack on a cow calf received more space in the media than a local homicide," Maughan says.
Although there are no recorded wolf attacks on humans in the US, wolf reintroduction will eventually bring wolves into conflict with expanding human territory. Maughan thinks that wolves will eventually injure someone and it will make more news than 20 bear maulings.
Restoration, not extermination
On the other side of the debate, scientists and wolf lovers support a restoration movement. They speak of returning the ecosystem to its natural state, and of the beauty, loyalty, and other admirable qualities of wolves. For some, such as Native Americans, wolves are an important spiritual animal.
Contrary to the beliefs of people who dismiss wolves as vicious killers, wolves do play vital roles in the ecosystem. After wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming scientists found that aspen and cottonwood groves recovered not because wolves were killing all the elk, but because elk stopped standing around grazing like domestic livestock.
Similarly, wolves, by preying on elk and moose populations, have helped willow and fir groves to recover in other parts of the US and Canada. Willows, aspens, and cottonwoods all grow in fragile stream areas, which are extremely sensitive to over-grazing.
Now that the elk are not eating the trees to the ground, beavers have become more common in Yellowstone. The beavers create more ponds, which provide habitat for streamside trees, which creates more habitats for nesting birds, and so on. This is what ecologists call a "trophic cascade", where one organism can create cascading effects in a complex ecosystem.
Contrary to the fears of hunters, wolves do not seem to cause significant declines in elk or deer populations.
A recent study by Chris Wilmers, a UC Berkeley doctoral student, and Wayne Getz, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy, and management found another important trophic effect of wolves on the ecosystem. Like many predators, wolves do not eat their entire kill. Unlike grizzlies or cougers, though, wolves leave the remains of their kills behind. This makes wolf kills available for many species of scavengers, ranging from bald eagles to coyotes.
Without wolves, scavengers are largely dependent on harsh winters to provide food. Global warming makes harsh winters rarer. Now that wolves live in Yellowstone again, however, wolf leftovers provide a steady food source throughout the winter for scavengers.
"When wolves are around, you no longer get this boom-bust cycle in carrion availability," said Wilmers in a recent UC Berkeley press release.
"We're finding that ecosystems that have lost a keystone predator may exhibit less resilience to the impact of climate change," added Getz. "Because wolves ameliorate the effect of weather, the scavenger community will be better able to adapt to changing conditions."
Wilmer, Getz, and other researchers had previously compared wolf leftovers to leftovers from human hunters. They found that hunters tended to concentrate their efforts at the end of winter, while wolf kills occurred relatively regularly.
"For a long time, people thought that human hunting was a surrogate for large carnivores," said Douglas Smith, chief scientist of the Yellowstone Wolf Project in a 2003 UC Berkeley press release. "This line of research clearly shows that that's not true. Human hunting is not the same as having wolves in the ecosystem."
What should be done?
The vital role wolves play in the ecosystem is clear, and scientists generally agree that wolf reintroduction is an important goal. Controversy is not easily avoided, however.
"I think it's very important that wolves are part of the ecosystem and continue to be protected," says Getz. "But it's complicated when they leave Yellowstone and impact ranches."
Because wolves threaten their livelihood, ranchers are the main opponents of wolf reintroduction. One solution is to pay ranchers for their losses, which Defenders of Wildlife does. This doesn't really solve the underlying problem, however, and it is expensive.
"The Defenders of Wildlife also work with interested ranchers to change their ranching strategies to reduce losses to wolves," says Maughan. "This is effective, and it probably has as much effect as paying people for their losses. One of the most effective things that can be done is to convince several ranchers to change their views, because they have more influence with other ranchers."
It is possible for humans to learn to live with predators. Rural dwellers have already learned to deal with bears, cougars, foxes, and coyotes without eradicating them. However, people are currently prohibited by law from killing or harming wolves that threaten them, their livestock, or their pets, which increases resentment towards wolves, wolf activists, and wolf-friendly government programs. Although some wolf activists would prefer otherwise, effective wolf management does require killing wolves that cause problems.
Emotions run strong on both sides, and this is not a simple case of following the science. While wolves are a natural part of the ecosystem, that should not make the concerns of ranchers unimportant. Wolf recovery efforts to date have been largely successful; much of the controversy in Idaho, for example, has died down.
Misinformation is widespread, but with communication, thoughtful efforts, and more people experiencing a wolf greeting with open minds, we may yet learn to live with wolves.