When I was younger and developing this obscure passion for creatures I had never even seen with my own eyes, I began to recognise that wolves certainly were a hated species by many. To this day they get some extremely bad press – just look at the recent film ‘The Grey‘. Despite any good exposure wolves may get, the bad always seems to outweigh it. Fairy-tales like Three Little Pigs, Little Red Ridinghood and Peter and the Wolf portray the ‘bad’ character as a big, scary, intimidating wolf. Tuck your children into their beds tightly, or else the scheming, evil wolf will come to gobble them up in the dead of night.
The reality? Wolves aren’t man-hunting, merciless killers. They don’t catch the scent of a human and track him for mile and miles, psychologically terrorizing him as they do so. They are naturally shy, cautious creatures. Aggressive? No. Not unless you corner one and take away its preferred option of ‘flight’ as opposed to ‘fight’. I can guarantee most stories you hear about a “wolf attack” will actually be based on a wolf-dog hybrid (which have far less ‘fear’ of humans than pure wild wolves do), a captive animal, or a diseased, starving or threatened wild animal – not a healthy, unprovoked wild wolf. The only recorded cases of wild wolves killing a human in North America were in 2005 (Saskatchewan, Canada) and 2010 (Alaska, USA), and I will add more information to the blog about these events at a later date.
So, you see, all of this fuss about the “big, bad wolf” is actually misguided urban legend. And yet, when most unfamiliar people think of wolves, they automatically associate the creatures with something aggressive and to be feared. Shouldn’t we be over this by now? There is more than enough information to liken the wolf to a cautious, shy traveler who takes only what he needs, yet we still insist on portraying them as ruthless, terrifying, greedy monsters.
One group of people who generally see themselves as ‘against’ wolves, so to speak, are ranchers. In many states of the USA, agriculture is a high-grossing industry. Where I’m from (New Zealand) our agricultural industries are a huge part of our national economy, and we are the world’s largest dairy and sheep meat exporter. Our ecosystems, however, are very different to those of places such as the United States. We have no native large mammalian land carnivores, thus our livestock is generally free to graze without the pressures of such (although domestic dogs and the like – introduced species, of course – have been known to injure and even kill livestock occasionally).
One of the things I find most fascinating about the USA is it’s incredibly diverse wildlife. While New Zealand’s only native land mammals are bats (the long-tailed bat and the short-tailed bat), the United States has countless. These species range from tiny, hibernating herbivores to large apex predators. The wolf is one such native predator, and their populations were surviving until humans declared war on all wolves in the lower 48 states (“the lower 48” refers to the continental states of the USA excluding Alaska). They were very successful, and brought indigenous wolf numbers down from a potential +400,000 pre-European settlement, to less than about 500 animals in the whole of the lower 48 states in the 1960’s. Years later, legislation changed and wolves were listen on the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and were slowly reintroduced to certain areas with incredibly ecosystem-beneficial results (I will go into this in more depth in further posts). You may have heard of documentaries such as ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’ – information like this is now being shared in the mainstream population, and is helping the general Joe Bloggs to start understanding the principle that indigenous species are all important to their natural habitats in some way.
“Livestock”, as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, can be “Any cattle, sheep, goats, swine, poultry, equine animals used for food or in the production of food, fiber, feed, or other agricultural-based consumer products; wild or domesticated game” – meaning ‘livestock’ does not only refer to cattle, but can also refer to sheep, poultry and game such as deer. In the USA, livestock is grazed on 155 million acres of public land annually – this comes from a total of 245 million acres of public land in the whole of the United States. (Note that neither of these figures reflect privately-owned land.) Public land, of course, is land that is not owned by any one private entity, and encompasses thousands and thousands of different ecosystems. These ecosystems are home to innumerable species, and many do of course act as natural habitats for predators. Predators aren’t just generically big ‘ol scary beasties, but include animals like the Bald Eagle and Trapdoor Spider; creatures that are more or less only a danger to smaller species. The big ‘Rancher vs. Wolf’ controversy has historically come from livestock owners believing that their financially-viable animals get killed off by wild wolves. They would prefer wolves to be nowhere near grazing sites – that is if they have to be kept around at all. It’s a tricky situation. Economics make the western world go round, and any threat to economics is one that tends to be disposed of swiftly.
Wolves are natural-born carnivores, who spend much of their time sourcing meals. But it isn’t an easy picnic in the park for them; wolves only make successful kills an estimated 10-20% of the time, and commonly get injured in the process. The hunt is often a long, tasking process that requires the involvement of multiple pack members. The wolf’s diet consists of 100% fresh prey, but they can also digest plant material if need be (i.e. in times of prey scarcity). They have also been known to survive for months entirely on human leftovers and trash when they are desperate – but is this the best diet for them? Absolutely not! Fresh prey is their #1 choice. Interestingly enough, when given the option between wild prey such as elk or deer, and domestic prey such as livestock, studies have shown that they tend to select the wild option when they can. We, as humans, are of course encroaching further and further into natural animal habitat. Grazing livestock through public land is an example of this – livestock has even been grazed through known wolf denning sites. Some US states have Wolf Depredation Compensation Programs, where livestock owners will be reimbursed for livestock losses due to wolves. In 2005 the USDA National Wildlife Research Center and Utah State University published an article reporting that of all annual losses of cattle and calves due to predation in the USA in 2000, less than 1.1% of kills could be attributed to wolves. Most livestock attacks are actually carried out by coyotes and domestic dogs. And yet, in this ‘Lines of Defense: Coping with Predators in the Rocky Mountain Range’ article, much of the publication was focused on deterring wolves. It absolutely blows my mind that despite accurately reported statistical facts and figures showing wolves aren’t as much of a threat as they are made out to be, they are still incredibly persecuted. I have heard the term “shoot, shovel and shut up” on more than one occasion, where people just can’t be bothered going through the appropriate legal avenues and decide to take matters into their own hands.
As I said, New Zealand doesn’t have such an issue with livestock predation as is seen in many other countries, but turning wolves into a scapegoat just isn’t valid. In fact, so much counter-evidence exists to show that not only are wolves less of a threat than they are made out to be, but they also actually positively benefit their natural ecosystems, shouldn’t we by now be carrying out actions with this education in mind? I think for some people on both sides of the ‘Rancher vs. Wolf’ debate it has just become overly emotional and is almost impossible to cease. This is incredibly unfortunate because the result is one extremely ecologically-important animal that is constantly prosecuted, and its populations do not have secure time to be stable. Someone said to me the other day that it is “Survival of the fittest”. Does that mean we have the right to kill off every species on our planet unless it economically benefits us? I know where I stand on this thought, and I suppose a lot of it comes down to personal belief and ethical view. There are many non-lethal predator control methods, which I shall explore here at a later date, but for many ranchers it is more convenient to do as they have done in the past instead of attempting to co-exist with natural, native predators.
PS – Ironically enough, as Lois (White Wolf Sanctuary director) points out, this rescue center goes through hundreds of dollars worth of meat for the wolves a week – she jokes that we’re one of agriculture’s biggest customers!