While the dragons swooped into the plot of “Game of Thrones” and mesmerized viewers, it’s the wolves who’ve been there from the very first episode. The totem animal emblazoned on the flag of House Stark, they are as loyal and intuitive as they are big, brave, and powerful. When wars commence, you want the wolves on your side.
Their positive presence and portrayal in one of the grandest epics in television history continues the convalescence of the image of creatures who gave rise to the first of the domesticated animals that forever changed the human circumstance. Not since Romulus and Remus have wolves been so central to the reorganization of cities and kingdoms in legend and myth.
Myth and lore, on balance however, have been harsh to wolves. In so many allegories, they’ve been characterized as treacherous, rapacious, and malicious. Yet even with lore leading us astray on wolves so badly, it’s still hard to fathom how hateful some are toward wolves in contemporary times – in ways so distorted and disproportionate to their practical impacts.
Wolves prove the principle that we humans tend to fear any species more powerful than us. And, as a corollary, we don’t like animals who prey on the species we want to exploit, whether they are cows or sheep or deer or elk. This may be evolutionary hard-wiring that is difficult for some people to detach and disconnect from when it comes to assessing wolves in our day.
For decades, the federal and state governments had bounty programs for wolves. Our species did quite a number on wolves – a slaughter that stands alongside the massacre of bison as the most wanton of chapters in the history of American wildlife management.
All of that hard-wired, pent-up fear and loathing is at the root of efforts to halt the recovery of wolves in our times in the United States and keep wolves in their place – alive, but barely so, with remnant numbers, across a fraction of their range.
For a couple of decades after the Endangered Species Act established protection for wolves in the mid-1970s, most people accepted their presence, given their sparse numbers and their very limited range in the northeast reaches of Minnesota only.
But as wolves began the slow process of reclaiming small portions of their former range with the government shifting from persecutor to protector, we ourselves have reclaimed, in the worst way, old prejudices. In recent time, the worst blow they suffered came in the Northern Rockies, where trophy hunters and trappers have killed 3,500 of them in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming since 2011. A few western Senators, including some big-name Democrats, pulled a fast one and slipped in a rider to an annual spending bill removing federal protections for wolves there. It was the first time the Congress had ever removed a species from the list of federally threatened and endangered species by political fiat.
That effort emboldened anti-wolf lawmakers to launch dozens of bills, amendments, and other legislative maneuvers to punch a hole in protections for wolves in the northern Great Lakes. Pro-wolf advocates in Congress, working with animal welfare and conservation groups, barely staved off their onslaught.
When the Democrats took control of the House earlier this year – inserting wildlife advocate Raul Grijalva as the powerful chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee – it doomed wolf delisting by the Congress for the politically foreseeable future.
Recognizing that new political reality, the anti-wolf forces pivoted and turned again to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the job done. In mid-March, the Trump Administration’s wildlife agency proposed to delist wolves not just in the Great Lakes region but across their range in the lower 48 states (with the exception of the Mexican wolf in the Arizona and New Mexico). The agency is taking public comments, and the deadline for submitting them is May 14th (see below for instructions on how you can register your opinion).
This isn’t the first such effort by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Their prior efforts have generally been stymied in the federal courts. But after each failure there, the personnel at the Fish and Wildlife Service have refined their efforts to comply with the procedures stipulated in federal administrative and wildlife law. That’s why this latest effort is a life or death matter for wolves.
The idea that wolves have recovered only passes the straight-face test if you believe that “barely hanging on” constitutes recovery. Add up all the surviving wolves in the lower 48 states and they amount to only 5,000 or so animals – fewer wolves ambling over millions of square miles than there are people in the 12-square-mile small town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. There are not more than 200 wolves in any one of the states where they’ve recently stepped foot, including California, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington. If wolves lose federally protected status, then the mass killing of wolves will resume in more than half a dozen states where ranchers, trophy hunters, and trappers hold the balance of power and view them as invaders.
The reality is, wolves play a critical role in their native ecosystems, as anyone who has watched the powerful documentary How Wolves Change Rivers can attest. Biologists in Yellowstone have found that wolves push deer and elk populations from overgrazed areas, enabling aspen and willow to reclaim ground and restore forest health. Restored streams have attracted more plants, songbirds, water-wading birds, and moose.
Wolf predation helps maintain healthy deer populations, lowering the frequency of deer-auto collisions and prevalence of crop losses. This saves private citizens and governments tens of millions of dollars a year. And wolves are a bulwark against Chronic Wasting Disease, a brain wasting disorder that kills deer and has cost the states hundreds of millions of dollars to contain.
Wolves also generate jobs and commerce. The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. contributes $3 million to the local economy annually, and annual visitor spending has increased by $35 million since the reintroduction of wolves in the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
Although some wolves do occasionally prey on livestock, it’s minimal. Wolf kills account for between 0.1 percent and 0.6 percent of all livestock deaths. Of all the world’s top predators, they are among the least threatening to human beings – with no documented attacks by healthy wolves on people in the lower 48 states in the last century.
Wolves are a boon, promoting wildlife-associated tourism, providing a check on prey populations, stemming wildlife disease, and strengthening the vigor of the ecosystems.
In a nation with more than 320 million people and just a few thousand wolves, only a distorted view of reality can lead one to the conclusion that wolves have recovered. The truth is, the entire task of managing wolves is a test of our tolerance and creativity to figure out how to conduct our business and give these animals a chance to have their small place in the sun. The long period of persecution that wolves endured at our hands should be a lesson of history, not a guide for future action.
Please click on this link to register your comment with the Fish and Wildlife Service against wolf delisting. You can also submit by U.S. mail or hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS-HQ-ES-2018-0097; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803. You have only until July 15th to put your comments in motion.