The recent proposal to remove Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf (Canis lupus) is almost entirely about politics. The American alligator and the bald eagle, to use two examples, were not delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until they had repopulated their former ranges, while wolves have repopulated only a fraction of their former ranges, and are already under heavy hunting pressure by the state governments of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
How many Americans are aware of the fact that in 1915, the US Congress, acting, as usual, under pressure from special interests, in that case, the ranching and hunting lobbies, provided funds to the Interior Department, to eliminate wolves, mountain lions and other predators from the United States? The Interior Department set up their “Animal Damage Control Unit”, and spent millions of taxpayer dollars to shoot, trap and poison wolves over several decades, with the only survivors being in the Boundary Waters area of Northern Minnesota, one of the most inaccessible regions of the U.S., not to mention a paradise for kayakers, canoeists and fisherman.
Wolves are “keystone predators” who help control over population of wild ungulates like deer, moose and elk, essentially culling the very old, very young, sick, lame, and basically animals which are genetically challenged, in other words, animals whose removal keep the ungulate breeding pool healthy and strong. Wolves also control their competition for food, keeping coyote numbers down, and cougars up in the highlands where they won’t be caught out in the open by wolves.
Not surprisingly, the removal of wolves was followed by an explosion of white tailed deer (sound familiar?) as well as dramatic increases in elk. Wolves also prey on very young and very old moose, but moose have much bigger problems than wolves, their principal tormenter being the increase in Winter tics, enabled by too many warm Winters, this Winter notwithstanding. As a result moose are in decline across the northern states. I haven’t seen DEC estimates for 2013, but I won’t be surprised if we turn the corner, and see those numbers begin to decrease.
The wolf issue out west is primarily about economics, but in its political expression, it is largely driven by bad information. For example, two of the most important businesses in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are big game hunting and ranching. Out of state hunters spend money on hotels, restaurants, guide services, etc. Over the last 20 years, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and Idaho, and their subsequent spread, have returned the naturally varying range of elk numbers to what they were in the functioning ecosystem of the past, when wolves were the key controllers of elk numbers. The folks who wish to eliminate wolves again claim that wolves are causing the extinction of the elk, but fail to acknowledge the fact that wolves and elk and moose shared the lands that became the American west for at least 3 million years prior to our arrival on the scene. If wolves could cause the extinction of elk and moose, they would have done so long ago.
They also claim that the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone are Canadian wolves, larger than the wolves exterminated in Yellowstone a century ago. There is extensive forensic evidence published in 1995 by wolf taxonomist Ron Nowak which debunks this claim. There is no genetic difference between the wolves trapped in Alberta and British Columbia, and released in Yellowstone, and the wolves who lived there in the past.
Wolf detractors also refuse to recognize that wolves draw tourist dollars. The towns of West Yellowstone, Silver City and Gardiner are to Yellowstone National Park, what Lake Placid, Wilmington, etc. are to the High Peaks areas, towns largely dependent on tourist dollars. Surveys indicate that at least 7% of Yellowstone tourists would not have come to Yellowstone, but for the hope of seeing wild wolves in the in places such as the Lamar Valley. This translates into about $30 million in revenue for the towns surrounding Yellowstone.
There are outfitters in the Yellowstone area who specialize in guiding tourists to areas where they are likely to see wolves, grizzlies, etc., just as there are outfitters who specialize in guiding hunters in season. Wendy and I have visited former hunting camps in British Columbia, which discovered that greenies have money too, and their visits during the hunting off season have the added benefits that hunting with the camera, does not remove the animal, or, as one guide told us, “I can show that same grizz to multiple tourists!”
Wolves are also very important to tourism in the Boundary Waters area, as well as in Canadian Parks like Algonquin, Banff and Jasper, or Denali in Alaska. The irony is that wolves tend to avoid people, so the chances of seeing wolves in these Parks, at least for more than a few seconds at a time, are not that good. Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley, with its wide open vistas, remains the best bet for wolf lovers, but be sure to bring your spotter scope. What is inescapable however, is that wolves mean tourist dollars. I assume that many of the hunting outfitters, who see hunting wolves as a business opportunity, will expand into the camera hunting business in the off season.
Many ranchers are nearly religious in their hatred of wolves. About a quarter of western livestock is grazed on BLM lands (public lands owned by the taxpayer) at anywhere from 10 to 50% of the private market going rate. This is a large entitlement program for ranchers, who howled in protest when the Obama administration suggested raising the cost of an “animal unit” by a buck, from $1.35 per unit per month (e.g. one cow and calf, or five sheep), to $2.35, which would still leave it far below standard private land grazing fees. Thanks to incompetent management of BLM lands, 23% of the ranchers using BLM lands for grazing were not even billed by the government. Ironically, many of the folks who support the ranching lobby, are the first to level the charge of “socialists” at those who don’t see things the way they do.
In fact, “open range” laws demonstrate that there is a very clear culture of entitlement for ranchers out west. Open range laws vary from state to state, but basically, they say that if you wish to protect your property from the grazing of your neighbor’s cattle, it is up to you to put up fences to keep the cattle out, and not the other way around. In the wide open spaces, land tends to be less expensive than it would be in suburban New York, so many folks who do not raise livestock, own large tracts of land. Imagine the cost or fencing in, not to mention maintaining, one hundred acres of land just to keep your neighbors livestock out. Other aspects of open range laws govern who is responsible for livestock struck by cars on public roads. In many cases, the driver is legally at fault. There are actually court cases out west, going on now, in which homeowners who shot their neighbor’s cattle, which were caught in the act of eating the homeowner’s vegetables, are being charged with destroying the rancher’s livestock.
The USDA keeps records on the reports of livestock deaths, for purposes of understanding what health issues need to be addressed. In 2012, respiratory problems, digestive problems and calving problems were by far the overwhelming cause of death amongst cattle. In 2008, wolves were responsible for killing 569 cattle and sheep, less than 1% of livestock losses. The government responded by killing 264 wolves out of the 1,600 estimated to be in those states at the time. Coyotes kill 22 times as much livestock as wolves do, especially sheep. Domestic dogs kill five times as much livestock as wolves do, but I don’t recall any campaigns to kill all the dogs.
Politics generally involves compromise, and as part of the agreement to allow wolves back into Yellowstone and central Idaho, the government agreed to compensate ranchers for livestock lost to predation. Now consider how complicated this would become. One of your cows dies out on a remote stretch of BLM land. While you use a combination of range riders and employees in four-wheel-drive vehicles to patrol your widespread herds, you don’t discover the death right away, but the noses of wolves, bears and cougars do, and they come to feed.
Predators like wolves will always prefer to eat dead animals, rather than go after live prey. Elk, moose and bison, for example, are five to twenty times larger than an average wolf, so even if you are one of several wolves attacking a moose or elk, there is considerable personal risk involved. One of the of the main causes of wolf deaths are when they are killed by their intended prey. The rancher discovers the dead animal, and seeing that its carcass has been chewed on by predators, calls the USDA, who sends out an animal pathologist, who delivers the bad news that the rancher is only compensated when the predators were the cause of death. (Defenders of Wildlife has a special fund, which compensates ranchers who have lost livestock to predators).
By the way, “Animal Damage Control” has shifted from Fish and Wildlife to the USDA, under the more benignly named “Wildlife Services”, and in these times of alleged austerity, still spend millions of tax payer dollars, shooting, trapping and poisoning predators on Bureau of Land Management lands (public lands), to benefit ranchers and farmers out west. Visit PredatorDefense.org for more of this story. Good understandings of the politics of wolf tolerance out west, may also be found at National Geographic’s Wolf Wars website, or by reading the book by the same name, or Wolfer (Bottlefly Press, 2012) by Carter Neimeyer.
At Adirondack Wildlife Refuge, we are not opposed to hunting wolves under any conditions. What we’re opposed to is allowing politics as usual to drive the policy. This has been evidenced by state governments, which ignore their own scientists’ reports on the issues, and allow hunting to reduce wolf numbers to unsustainable levels. They also ignore the public will, as recently happened when Michigan sanctioned wolf hunting in defiance of 80% of polled Michigan residents. As with so many other political issues today, what is the point of paying scientists to analyze an issue, and then discard their findings?
Among the pro-wolf factions, there are also unfounded claims, the most popular of which is that wolves never attack people. Statistically, this is accurate, in that the number of verifiable wolf attacks is insignificant when compared with how many people see wolves. In the half century up to 2002, there were 8 fatal attacks by wolves in Europe and Russia, and none in North America. But statistically, these facts extend to more dangerous animals like grizzly bears, which average five or six attacks on humans in an average year in North America.
Thousands of people see grizzlies every year, many fairly up close, still others closer than is obviously prudent, but we only hear about the sows who occasionally kill a tourist, responding to what they interpret as threats to their cubs, or other grizzlies who suspect a threat to a carcass they’ve been guarding and slowly consuming. All of this makes for exciting media fodder, but doesn’t change the fact that when you are camping in grizzly country, you are far more likely to die of a bee sting, or a broken leg if you’re hiking alone, than any encounter with wildlife.
Unfortunately, Hollywood does its best to manipulate our fears by creating fantasy horror movies like “The Gray”, or the old “Bart the Bear” movies like “The Edge”, which encourage us to forget that Hollywood is trying to entertain us, not educate us. I’ve seen dozens of Grizzlies in Canada and Alaska, and their reactions ranged from ignoring us, to detached curiosity, to fleeing.
If you’d like to learn more about wolves, their roles in nature, their history with man, and how that relates to your dog, not to mention meet some wolves up close, visit us in Wilmington at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge.