The Success of Wolves

By Michael Du’Lyea
August 23rd, 2020

The opionions expressed in this essay are the sole opinions of the author
and are not to be associated with any other person or entity.

For the past twenty-five years, wolves have been living successfully in the wilderness of the Northern Rockies.    Their contributions to the ecosystem have now been taken for granted, as they reintegrated into the ecosystem so quickly and successfully.  There was a time when the ecosystem in the Northern Rockies was not such as it is today.

Back in the 1980s, wolves had not yet been reintroduced.  By today’s standards, the ecosystem was a disaster.  Ungulate populations were unchecked, and their content was extremely weak, due to the taking of more ‘desirable’ animals by hunters, who served as nearly the only control of the herds.  A disease called “mad-elk” disease was rampant, nearly destroying all elk in Montana in the first year of this century.  Also suffering were other species, such as carrion eaters and other small order predators.  Wolves provide a source of meat for carrion eaters, which in turn act as a source of food for the small order predators.  Before wolves, there were very few carcasses on which these animals could feed.  Subsequently, the small order predators, which relied on these carrion eaters, suffered from a lack of prey-base.  A significant effect was on coyotes.  Their population had skyrocketed since the demise of the wolves in the middle of the century, and their lack of competition allowed them to far exceed their normal numbers.  They became a nuisance to ranchers and rural residents.  It is ironic that the people most affected by coyotes and saw the best benefit of wolf reintroduction were the very people most against wolves.

Wolf reintroduction began as an effort to try to restore the balance of nature, primarily to Yellowstone National Park.  Park officials had begun their policy of maintaining the park in its natural state.  They quickly found that without the historic balance of nature, this policy would do more harm than good.  It was decided that wolves were needed.  This represents a significant milestone in our understanding of wolves, as the park service had just a few decades earlier followed a policy specifically to eradicate wolves from the park.  Twenty years after this decision, wolves were transplanted from Canada back into Yellowstone.  Thus began the greatest political battle the wolves would ever face.

 Ignorance is a powerful enemy, and was the greatest factor in the fight to restore wolves to the northern rockies.  People actually believed that their lives would be in danger if wolves were brought to the forests near their homes.  The greatest organized threat to wolves, believe it or not, was ranchers.  Back then, ranchers did not see the benefits to their operations that wolves have been providing.  This is largely owed to the fact that ranchers practiced their trade in a much different manner than they do today.  Ranchers raised their voices against reintroduction stronger than any other group.  In fact, an organization called “The American Farm Bureau,” which at the time claimed to represent the American farmer and rancher, actually sued to stop the reintroduction, claiming such things as the wolves were not native.  In Arizona and New Mexico, wolf reintroductions were met with wolves being killed, and the New Mexico Cattlegrowers association was even indicted for offering bounties on the wolves.  Soon, ranchers individually began to see the reality, and a movement was started.  This movement, though largely represented a change in the thinking and practices of ranchers, also led to the demise of the American Farm Bureau, and many Cattlegrower associations, including the ones in New Mexico, Arizona, and Montana.  Other cattlegrower associations, which were made up of actual ranchers, and not politicians, changed their ways of thinking and were able to spread this new way of thinking, along with the reformed methods to the ranchers.

When reintroductions began, ranchers, probably due to fears brought over from Europe and fostered for hundreds of years, perceived the wolves as a direct threat, not only to their livelihoods, but actually to their lives.  It was a stigma that cost the lives of many wolves.  Radical ranchers and hunters shot wolves.  For a time, sympathetic judges levied only trivial fines.  The penalty was $100,000 and six months in jail, and most early offenders received $500-$1,000 fines, if any and jail time was never given.  As attitudes changed and public pressure increased, judges eventually saw the light.  In February 2000, a man from Catron County New Mexico, the county infamous for the rampant rumors of revolution against the federal government and home of the “County Government” movements, was convicted of killing two Mexican Wolves in 1998, was fined $200,000 and ordered to serve 1 year in jail, the maximum penalty.  This represented the beginning of the end of wolf killing.  Very soon after this, the movement among ranchers began that revolutionized their way of thinking.  Threats of legislation that would force ranchers to change their ways, which were of course met with organized opposition, were proposed in 2000 and 2001. This legislation were seen as threat to ranchers as they would have restricted their abilities, and resulted in stiff penalties for not following them.  The American Farm Bureau voiced their opinion against the legislation, but proposed modifications to the legislation that was supposed to be a comprimise, that actually favored the large “corporate” ranches, and greatly and negatively affected the smaller ranchers.  This was discovered by a group of ranchers from Idaho, and exposed.  A nationwide movement was formed that led to the demise of the Farm Bureau.  As a side effect of this movement, ranchers proposed their own legislation based on information gathered at many roundtable meetings.

A major contributor to this movement was the ideas presented by Dr. Andrew Gustavson.  A physician from Los Angeles, he was the son of the pioneer of this revolutionary idea.  For those unaware, Conditioned Taste Aversion, commonly called CTA, is the means by which an animal is ‘trained’ not to eat cattle, sheep, and pets.  CTA was not used in the first years of the reintroductions.  Political motives were the primary reason.  Wildlife Services was the primary opponent to this idea, as many in Wildlife Services actually believed that CTA was a threat to their existence.  Back then, Wildlife Services did not practice what they do today.  Many felt the name “Wildlife Services” was ironic, as their primary method of dealing with conflicts was to actually kill wildlife.  You can see the irony.  Little did they know that they would actually see the benefits of CTA that they do today.  Threatened with dissolution of the organization, administrative staff fired many people, and initiated contact with Dr. Andrew Gustavson about CTA.  Wildlife Services grew 400% from those days, due mostly to CTA.  CTA requires strict policies for deployment, much support for reconditioning facilities, and a large staff of people to administer it, and license and train ranchers.  Wildlife Services now does actually provide service to wildlife.

Ranchers eventually saw the wrong in the way they thought, and the methods that they practiced.  It was actually the reintroductions, which led to the major reforms in the way ranchers raised livestock.  As many ranchers were also hunters, they also led the movement among hunters that led to the reforms that we see in effect today.  Nowadays, ranchers, as you know, are the stewards of the wild lands on which they graze their cattle.  Their new methodologies, coupled with the ideals brought about by the hunter movement, were actually applied to National and State park management policies.

It was the wolf that led to the policies of wildlife management that we see today.  It was the wolf that changed our way of thinking about nature, and of our part in it.  Perhaps we should have listened to the words of Native Americans when they spoke of the wolf as a role model for us.  We owe our thanks to the wolf for opening our eyes to our part in Nature.  The next time you are out in the woods camping, and hear the wolf howl, give him a howl back, and thank him for opening our eyes, for indeed, if it were not for the wolf, you wouldn’t be able to go camping in the first place.