Haunted By Howls
The evening’s tranquility was abruptly interrupted by a lone, distant, wolf. The echoes resounded off the steep canyon walls seeming to multiply.
One camper remarked, “Isn’t that a beautiful sound to hear once again after all these years?” Others nodded their agreement but were cut short by an obviously angry man.
“Beautiful hell, I’ve got sheep grazing over that way! Pray to God I can get there in time!”
His urgency was clear as he slammed down his tin cup and ran from the fire.
Having been absent from the majority of the continental United States for over 60 years, the wolf has been restored to a portion of its original habitat. The discussion of wolf reintroduction is often fraught with extremely emotional opinions.Considering the significant role wolves play in their ecosystems, continuation of their endangered species listing is warranted. The history of wolf policy concerning wolves is unconscionable.
Human-wolf relations in North America have not always been amicable. The modern eco-revolution demands progressive efforts in order to repair our damaged natural world. Wildlife management as conservation has replaced government agencies that once aided in wolf eradication. Many social conditions have changed but one ancient primal human instinct has not; the enmity between man and wolf.
Approximately 12,000 years ago when humans began to give up hunting and gathering for farming and herding, competition between man and wolves began as Europeans transplanted their ancient fears concerning wolves to the New World. Ranchers and bounty hunters commenced an all-out campaign to eradicate all wolves. They would have succeeded if not for the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Signed into law by then President Richard Nixon, this statute contains many provisions to assist threatened species such as the wolf. The act authorizes the listing of species as threatened, prohibits taking, sale or transport, provides authority to acquire land for conservation, and assesses penalties for violations.7
With this protection in place, government efforts toward wolf reintroduction commenced. Although listing of the wolf as endangered meant protection, one needs something to protect that did not exist at that time. It was not until 1991 that Congress appropriated $350,000 to fund an environmental study on wolf reintroductions.6
The current status of the act concerning wolves is disquieting.
On January 14, 2009 the Bush administration moved to de-list the gray wolf from endangered status only 14 years after the first reintroduction efforts.2 The efforts to de-list the wolf from endangered status would leave reintroduction programs incomplete, without funding, and lacking leadership. This regression to past destructive policies is even more alarming when considering all we have learned of the importance of wolves to their ecosystem. Wolves have been found to be extremely important to their surrounding habitat as a “keystone” species.
Head of Yellowstone’s reintroduction effort Doug Smith said, “Not having the wolf here has caused an imbalance”.
Being an apex predator, wolves mainly prey on ungulates, or more simply, a pawed or hoofed animal. With the absence of the wolf, animals such as deer and elk have existed without the fear of this predator. Coming down from the safety of the mountains these animals were able to browse woody vegetation without fear of predators. This series of events eventually threatened many tree and plant species resulting in an altered natural balance. Following restoration of the wolf to these areas many species including the willow returned to their natural state,. Established wolf reintroduction programs have significantly added to our knowledge of how top-down predators impact their ecosystems. For example bear, raven, coyote, among other scavenger species rely on unfinished wolf kills. Wolves typically consume 20-40 lbs of meat in any given feeding. What initially seems wasteful is in reality natures well designed food bank. Wolves also benefit the herds of the animals themselves on which they prey. It is extremely difficult for a pack to take down a healthy animal. However, sick or diseased animals are culled from the herd on a regular basis promoting an increase in its overall health. Wildlife conservators regularly study the carcasses of wolf kills to determine their general health. The benefits of wolf reintroductions into their ecosystems far outweigh the impact they have on livestock in surrounding areas.
At the center of every debate concerning wolf conservation is the controversial subject of losses to ranchers from livestock predation. Forty percent of respondents in a recent survey mentioned livestock predation as the greatest threat posed by wolves. Many ranchers raising sheep or cattle have embellished loss claims over the years to promote the eradication of these animals. The reality is that disease kills more livestock than predation. Studies show that wolves prey on only 1% of the livestock available to them. 1
Wolves actually prefer to hunt wild game animals over domesticated livestock. There was a time that the solution was open war on the animal through bounty systems. Hunters were usually provided room and board as well as paid up to $50 per wolf. There was even one proposal to attach machine guns to a plane to speed up the process. These efforts were generally paid for by livestock growers associations and were pursued with great vigor up until the passing of the Endangered Species Act.
The act intensified the fears of the livestock producers since wolves know no park boundaries or property lines, some livestock predation in surrounding areas is expected. The modern solution to address losses due to wolf predation has usually been for private wildlife conservancy organizations to pay predation loss claims. Recently Congress has joined the cause to offset the economic impact of wolf predation. In 2009 a federal program was approved that provided $700,000 to Minnesota Farmers through a fund set aside to off-set their losses. The realities of livestock predation numbers are in severe contrast with the claims of the industry. With reimbursement programs in place, supporters of reintroduction programs have taken the economical impact out of the equation. But is it too late for the wolf?
Some say that it is. We are responsible for eradication of this highly symbolic animal. Responsible conservation requires restoring what was removed. Allowing an individual species such as the wolf to expire harms many inter-connected subordinate species. Eco-system stewardship transcends any single individual element of its whole. Reintroduction efforts have shown considerable inter-species benefits following the wolf’s return. We stand at a crossroad in this country regarding conservation.
When do we consider a species recovered? Most land once used by the wolf as hunting ranges has been rendered unusable for wolf reintroduction by human development and encroachment into the wilderness. Wolves, along with many other truly wild creatures have either been displaced or eradicated. With this in mind the continuance of reintroduction efforts into the remaining suitable habitats suddenly becomes more urgent. Statutes such as the Endangered Species Act produce limited results. The law is under attack by opponents of reintroductions who demand delisting of the wolf as endangered. We have enjoyed successes through wolf reintroduction programs. We now realize the essential role wolves perform in their ecosystems as keystone species. Efforts toward complete wolf restoration should not only continue, but be amplified.
I wish to one day sit at a campfire with my grandchildren. I wish to hear the wolves in the distance. I will share the facts that wolves exist where once there was none. I will tell of my contributions. We shall walk among the willows and I will teach them of the wolves’ impact on many species around them. I will credit a modern movement of responsible human beings that were consistent, determined, and never ceasing in their aim. I wish to explain to them that it exist because of consistent pro-active efforts of which I was part. I will walk among the willows and appreciate the fact that they too have benefited. I will explain the totality of ecology beyond an individual species. The environment will never exist in its original balance unaltered by man. But we can strive toward improvement of the natural balance to the extent which we are able. Then knowing I have done all that I can, and only then will I be satisfied. Seated round a flickering campfire, child in lap, I hope we are always unsettled by the distant sounds… haunted by wolfs howls.
Resources consulted to create this article:
Askins, Renee. "Releasing wolves from symbolism." Harper's
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Capitol Report Staff. "U.S. House funds wolf predation program
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Hampton, Bruce. The Great American Wolf. New York. Henry Holt &
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