The debate continues between those who see wolves as natural predators that bring vitality to their surrounding ecosystems, and those who see them as violent killers that decimate game and livestock herds.
Reader Robin Rick wrote a letter to the editor about our article Keystone Species: How Predators Create Abundance and Stability, and about the destruction that wolves cause to wildlife and cattle. The article’s author, Douglas Chadwick, responded.
First let me say that I love your magazine and all the informative articles that you normally publish. That being said I must tell you how extremely disappointed I was with the keystone species article in the June/July 2011 issue! It was the typical one-sided propaganda that the unknowing public is being fed about the wolves.
I live in Cody, Wyo., just east of Yellowstone and while I’m not a biologist, I’ve been a professional guide in the mountains here for 11 years and have watched firsthand the devastation that the wolves have brought to our big game herds during that time. Our once healthy Moose population is nearly gone, and the local elk herds here have been cut by more than 60 percent. They have changed the way the elk have migrated for generations and caused them to abandon traditional calving grounds. The elk have left much of their traditional ranges and headed out onto the surrounding agricultural grounds causing damages to crops and spreading disease among the livestock in surrounding areas, and the wolves follow.
The wolves are not huggable backyard pets. They harass the wildlife 24/7/365. They do not eat just the old, injured and sick. Their preferred catch is the young, vulnerable and tender to eat. In the first years they would catch the cow elk coming to the traditional calving grounds, kill them, and eat nothing but the fetuses out of them. The calves that survive to be born are the easiest to panic and separate off from the herd to catch and kill. They chase herds to exhaustion and the young are the first to drop out. Most of the herds in our area have less than 10 percent, and sometimes less than 3 percent calf crop going into the fall and winter, let alone to survive the long harsh winter to come. The wolves get into chasing and killing frenzies and will kill individuals or whole herds and eat only a small portion of an individuals or none at all. Sometimes they only hamstring them and leave them to die a slow death as they can’t travel to graze or get to water, but a bear will usually get them within a week or so.
Due to the constant vigil for wolves and ongoing harassment, the cow elk are going into winter with little to no fat reserves and thus are experiencing very low conception/pregnancy rates. The bulls typically get something of a reprieve while they have their horns, but when they shed their horns in March and April they are fair game again. We’ve found bulls that didn’t make it 60 yards past their fallen horns in the spring.
The wolves get into the local cattle and will eat a new calf while it is being born and usually just enough of the cow to keep her from being able to rise to her feet again. Only later will she be put out of her misery by some cowboy who happens to find her, or she will die of thirst or gangrene if she is unlucky enough to be found. And shredding friendly pet dogs are another favorite pastime as well, so hikers: Beware, keep your dogs on leash in the great outdoors.
I could go on for pages about the destruction that the wolves have brought with them and the devastation that I’ve personally witnessed in their wake. All this being said, I’m not against the wolves, only their uncontrolled numbers and the destruction that continues under unreasonable protection from the government.
Out West where I live, I see plenty of material reciting example after gruesome example of killing by wolves — especially of baby livestock and wildlife. In fact, there are entire organizations, newsletters and websites in the West devoted to vilifying wolves. I’m not questioning the sincerity of the emotions expressed. What seems unfair is the way Canis lupus are portrayed not as natural predators, not as part of a natural community, but as abnormally savage creatures given to wanton killing for the sheer twisted joy of it.
I’m also bothered by the way folks imply that wolves inevitably proceed to kill off entire game populations unless dealt with harshly. I have a question: Back when there were tens of thousands of wolves and no white men whatsoever in North America, why were there so many more wild, hoofed animals than there are today? Wolves and native herds flourished together for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet from reading the anti-wolf tirades, you would think this continent’s game animals must have been just hanging on by a thread and doomed to certain extinction until Europeans with firearms arrived to colonize the place and save them. Tell that one to the 60 million buffalo that roamed here. Tell it to the elk herds that used to inhabit the Appalachians. Or to the woodland caribou that grazed portions of New England, the Great Lakes, Rockies and Pacific Northwest before settlers showed up.
A lot of ranchers passionately dislike wolves, and that’s understandable. Although wolves cause only a very small percentage of livestock deaths in general, particular families in certain areas can and do suffer serious financial pain. Many hunters feel much the same antipathy toward wolves. They don’t see a native species of canine out there doing what comes naturally; they see a direct and very effective competitor for meat. Hunting guides are often among the most vocal wolf-haters of all, because the guides’ business depends on having surplus elk and deer for clients to shoot.
I never tried to portray wolves as cuddly or harmless to hoofed animals as the letter-writer implies. I was simply trying to get past the centuries-old pattern of focusing exclusively on what some view as the wolf’s destructiveness. Researchers are discovering that top predators influence wildlife communities and entire ecosystems in a surprising number of positive ways, and I think people deserve to know more about how that works.
Author and naturalist David Petersen adds his opinion and response to the article. A shortened version of this letter originally appeared in the Dear MOTHER department of the December 2011/January 2012 issue.
Coming from my varied viewpoints as a wildlife and wild lands advocate and book author, naturalist, campfire philosopher and gonzo-traditional bow-hunter, I found Douglas Chadwick’s overview of the role of apex predators in top-down ecosystem management and trophic cascades to be informed, accurate and in no way pushing any “liberal,” “conservative,” or other political or emotional viewpoint. Scientific fact speaks for itself.
Consequently, reflecting on the predictably varied and often emotive reactions to Chadwick’s article among readers, I’m reminded that, when it comes to our personal worldviews, we tend to take one of two polarized positions. Either we attempt to generalize our limited experiences and personal wants to become “the truth” (a human-centric, or selfish worldview) or we give priority to a healthy, balanced natural world and the needs and “rights” of future generations, making do with any surplus that exists after a healthy, balanced ecosystem and solid future are assured (a bio-centric, or altruistic worldview). While I strive for altruism, as a semi-self-sufficient “back to the lander,” I have personally experienced, thus understand and to some extent sympathize with, self-centered cravings when it comes to the availability of game animals I can “harvest” for my family’s winter meat supply. This is the basic cause for the commonly expressed sentiment among hunters where wolves or other apex predators abound: “They’re killing my deer!”
The term deep ecology describes a bio-centric philosophy that says all living things have worth in and of themselves, aside from any value they may hold — or inconvenience they may create — for humans. Although Chadwick doesn’t use the term, deep ecology is precisely what he’s attempting to help us comprehend. In these days of overwhelming human dominion, deep ecology requires an almost perfect-world scenario, like a national park, to function unfettered and within the realm of public and political acceptance. It’s when apex predators — wolves and grizzly bears are the most charismatic and controversial examples in North America — wander beyond the protective bounds of parks and deep wilderness that frictions, jealousies and honest problems arise.
It’s true that in some specific areas, known to biologists as “predator pits,” wolves have substantially reduced elk herds. While some hunters say “kill them all,” I say let’s manage our wildlands and wildlife wisely and charitably, so that we and future generations can enjoy the best of what’s left. A wolf howl in the forest night (like a coyote’s yap in a moonlit desert, or the eerie nocturnal call of loon on a mountain lake) to me is well worth sacrificing a few elk in the freezer, if not all. Sadly, our population often isn’t sufficiently bio-educated or philosophically oriented to take the long view that’s required when it comes to predators, which mandates a token amount of self-sacrifice.
There is, however, a workable way. Let’s return wolves to every still-wild ecosystem where they once served in the balancing role of apex predator while wisely controlling their populations as necessary, allowing hunters, guided by scientific wildlife management, to play the lead role in that management. That affected states or the federal government have so far refused to designate wolves as a big game species and allow hunting on a regulated basis is not good biology, not good stewardship, not good people-management. It’s just good ‘ole bad politics.
Anyhow, this lifelong hunter loudly applauds an excellent article by Chadwick, and applauds MOTHER for publishing solid scientific information for the edification of open-minded readers, knowing the stink it would raise among many.
San Juan Mountain, Colorado
David Petersen is the former Western Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, a “recovering” Marine helicopter pilot and the author of several acclaimed books focusing on “wildlife, wild places, wild people, and wild ideas.”