An Essay about Responsibility
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.
Wolves were wiped out from at least 95% of their historic range in the United States over a period of more than 100 years. Our European ancestors brought with them an unreasonable fear and paranoia which manifested iteslf in ways that were harmful to the wolf, and indeed, to the very ecosystem of this continent. The need for domestic livestock, the fear of predators, the need to assert our dominance over animals, the word of God, prejudice, and downright maliciousness were all reasons that our ancestors felt were compelling enough to take the life of one of nature’s balancing forces. After all, we were above nature, weren’t we. This is not right. Mankind is not above nature. We do not have the right to set our own balance. We never had legitimate reasons to take the wolves from the land. There was never any need for the eradication of the wolf. Hunters and ranchers were wrong to do so, the government was wrong to do so. It is possible for domestic livestock to coexist with wolves, and in fact, wolves can benefit ranchers and do benefit hunters. Indeed, the wolf was a vital part of the ecosystem. There are ways that we can learn to exist with wolves. It is also the responsibilty of the ranchers, hunters, and anyone else including the government, to find a way to coexist with wolves, and with other wildlife as well.
Wolves used to number in the hundreds of thousands in the ‘lower 48.’ Lewis and Clark remarked about their numbers in their journals, indicating their regard for this animal. One species they saw was the now extinct Plains Wolf, or Buffalo Wolf. This was the largest species of wolf, easily weighing as much as 160 pounds or more. They had to be big, as they hunted buffalo. These majestic animals once numbered in the thousands. You and I will never see a Buffalo Wolf. Though the buffalo did survive the slaughter, the wolves did not. Other species of wolves followed the same fate, their numbers being decreased dramatically until almost none remained in the United States, save for Alaska and the upper reaches of Minnesota, where man’s dominion over nature has yet to reach levels found elsewhere.
Wolves were not the vicious killers that people made them out to be. Legend used to speak of wolves carrying children off into the night and devouring them. Stories told in Europe survived to be told anew in this country. Stories such as Little Red Riding Hood. Stories which portrayed the wolf as a killer, a man eater. Their haunting howls would send chills up the spines of those that heard them, for fear of the fate of those that wandered into the woods, fears brought on by legends, legends that were not true. One such legend was the imfamous wolf attacks in France. It was said that wolves would come into the cities at night and take children and smaller adults. It was later found that these were not in fact wolves, but rabid dogs, or perhaps hybrids, the dangerous mix of a wild wolf and an domestic dog. But legends like these cannot be easily overcome, especially when it is convenient to groups of people to believe them. Ranchers and hunters are the biggest benefactors of these legends. They look like heroes, hunting down and killing the “big bad” wolf. As hard as it is to believe, these legends and beliefs are still true today, and ranchers and hunters foster them. They truly believe that they are ridding the world of an evil creature. But don’t believe me, ask a rancher or hunter yourself.
Out of fear for their children, their pets, and their livestock, ranchers and hunters began killing wolves. The help of the government was sought, and programs of eradication were employed. The office of the president himself even decreed that wolves should be removed from Yellowstone National Park. Bounties were even paid on wolf pelts. The killings lasted for over a hundred years, stretching into recent history, when the last wolves were finally seen in Arizona and some parts of Montana. Various methods of killing were employed. Methods ranging from shooting, to trapping, arial hunting, torture, and by far the most succesful method, poisoning. Carcasses of livestock and native ungulates were laced with any kind of poison imaginable. Not only were wolves killed, but other non-target animals such as American Bald Eagles, condors, other carrion eaters, mountain lions, bears, even domestic pets and sometimes, people died as a result as well. Many of these poisonings were by goverment agents, such as those employed by Animal Damage Control, a now useless and over-budgeted arm of the Department of Agriculture. Deparment of Agriculture! Killing wildlife? Yes, for the sake of ‘protecting domestic livestock.’ Government trappers, at the expense of the taxpayers, were even employed to kill wolves. At one time the department of defense even tried to have wolves killed for their fur, to line the parkas of soldiers. So many pelts were needed that it was estimated that all of the wolves in North America would not have been enough.
The poisons, traps, rifles, and other methods, some too gruesome to describe, were very successful with wolves. Though wolves were not the only targets, they were the most successfully eradicated by the ranchers, hunters, and government agents. By 1970, less than 1% of the population of wolves had survived the slaughter. Where they used to range over every state, they now were limited to Alaska, Minnesota, Some states in the south in very small numbers, a few in Montana, and only 5 in the southwest. By this time, the goverment, having seen the error of their ways, decided to try to undo their damage. Studies were launched into how to restore wolf populations. These studies were focused primarily on Yellowstone National Park, where park officials had to come up with a way to stop the damage that unchecked populations of elk and deer were causing to the parks grasses, which was causing countless other side effects. The damage to the park had to be stopped. It was suggested, in keeping with the parks ‘natural control’ policies, that wolves were the only viable solution. This thought was the beginning of a new era for the wolf, for it eventually led to the most successful species reintroductions to ever take place. A plan for repopulating Yellowstone with wolves was derived that also included Montana and Idaho. The thought was that wolves would eventually naturally return to the northern rockies on their own, but this would not be quick enough to mitigate the damage the ungulate populations were causing. Montana was already home to a few dispersing wolves (wolves disperse from their pack for various reasons and can travel as much as 500 or more miles in search of a new pack, or territory in which to start their own.) A reintroduction plan was developed that identified success as 10 packs in each state producing litters. The plan also labeled the animals introduced as “experimental non-essential” in order to allow for exception to the Endangered Species Act in cases where wolves needed to be destroyed.
In 1995, wolves were captured in Canada and taken to a holding facility in Yellowstone National Park. Canada, not having the same attitudes toward wolves as we do, but primarily, not having enough ignorant ranchers, is home to more wolves than any other place in the world. As these were the closest wolves to Yellowstone, they were brought down to repopulate the park. In parallel to this, wolves were also taken to Idaho and Montana. The wolves were kept in the holding pens for a few weeks, to allow them to acclimate to the environment, and to try to lessen the shock of being relocated from their homes. Today, there are a few hundred wolves in the area, and the goal of 10 breeding packs in each state has almost been reached.
Wolf reintroductions took place in other parts of the country as well. Another program, not quite as familiar to most, but another hugely successful progam is the Mexican Wolf reintroduction program. A trapper, one of the very trappers who had been previously hired to eradicate wolves, was hired to round up the remaining Mexican Wolves. Mexican Wolves, Canis Lupus Baleyi, the most distinct subspecies of wolf in America, numbering only 5, were trapped and taken to locations where they were captive bred. Today there are over 200 Mexican Wolves in captivity. This is touted as one of the most successful comebacks of a near-extinct species ever! To add to the glory, there are at the time I write these words, 22 Mexican Wolves in the wild, with the first wild born pups in over 50 years among them.
Red wolves, a relative to the grey wolves and Mexican Wolves, were reintroduced in various states in the south. There has been success with this program, though not as much as with the Northern Rockies project.
Though the government has ‘officially’ seen the error of their ways, it appears that ranchers and hunters have not. They still kill wolves. Wolves are still killed by government agents. In Arizona, where mexican wolves were released into an area about 1% the size of their original habitat, half of the original wolves released into the wild after nearly 40 years were killed by gunshot wounds.
There are other factors involved that are killing far more wolves than poachers. In 1999 alone, 22 wolves were killed as a result of livestock depredation by Wildlife Services officers. More recently, in Central Idaho, two entire packs were wiped out as a result of approximately 9 calf deaths. This is the heart of the matter. While it is true that depredation of livestock can not be tolerated, the question is can wolves be 100% to blame for these conflicts?
Ranchers have been raising livestock the same way since the west was opened up to grazing in the 1800s. Common practices of ranchers include open-range grazing, where animals are released onto vast tracts of often mountainous lands. As cattle are not generally herd animals by nature (except when herded by man), they spread out on these tracts of most often public land. Cows, calves and bulls are spread out in random fashion. Unlike native species such as elk and deer, the cattle do not protect their young, or herd together for protection. This offers an easy target to predators such as bear, mountain lions, and even wolves. By the way, more cattle were killed in 1999 by bears and by mountain lions than wolves. Far more cattle, roughly 10 times as many, were killed by dogs, than by all other predators combined. One can only assume that the nature of cattle is the greatest cause for their losses to predators (including dogs). As ranchers do not tend their livestock when they are on range, except to occasionally check on them (usually only weekly)