Wolves: Guardians of Nature or Feared Predators?

April 10, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

What is it about wolves that gets people so upset? Before the white man came, when there were 60 million bison roaming the western plains, there were two millions wolves. Native peoples hunted them, wore their pelts and even domesticated them when a den was discovered. Today wild wolves perhaps number 3,500 in the entire U.S. It is difficult to get accurate counts in remote areas of Alaska despite aerial surveys.

People domesticate wolves born in captivity. They change their genetic structure breeding them with dogs. Wolves are loved and hated. Hunted to the verge of extinction, completely eliminated in the lower 48 states, wolves were protected as endangered species. That protection has recently been lifted in states where reintroduced populations have grown.

Few animals have received the same fictional treatment. Often portrayed as deadly, dangerous, supernatural, wolves have been feared throughout history. Most folklore surrounding wolves is based upon fanciful superstition. They are predators but certainly do not have anything to do with Dracula. It is akin to sharks in the oceans. A mystique surrounds them as premeditated killers that stalk their human prey, the stuff of television dramas.

Human greed and arrogance plays a role in what has become a rampant system of ‘nature control.’  The land is ours and every species on the planet must be subjugated. Nothing can be left alone. If it is beautiful we want it, sometimes skin it and wear it. If it is unusual we catch it. If it is feared we kill it. The further people get from being attuned to nature the more they need nature to assuage their cares and psychological woes.

When wolves were reintroduced into national parks in the West, a hue and cry went out from ranchers and hunters. Hunters postulated that the millions of deer and elk, that are their targets, would be killed by these predators. Ranchers didn’t want wolves period. The Defenders of Wildlife found a compromise funding every wolf kill with cash to pay ranchers for any losses incurred. The privately funded program didn’t stop the vehemence.

Wolves range great distances. In the wild wolves can drift 20 miles and more in a single day. The biology of the thing is simple: wolves can pup in 63 days. They don’t breed that often but alpha males and females in the pack do breed. If not interfered with wolves are perfectly adapted to their natural habitats. Their lives in the wild are relatively short due to the harsh circumstances of their surroundings. In nature wolves live about 7 to 10 years. In captivity wolves can live 20 years and more with good food, veterinary care and vitamins.

The issue has become political. One very rich easterner bought property next to Yellowstone National Park. She proclaimed love for the beauty of nature. The first time a bear wandered onto her land she screamed for wildlife authorities to kill it. The wealthy woman made news protesting wild animals that range out of the park onto her property.

People are that way. No need to comment about that woman and her foibles being some eccentric. She is the norm. We want the beauty of the wild but do not like the inconvenience of sharing it with nature’s creatures. Certainly not wolves and other predators.

Often those living on the fringes of wilderness areas accumulate pets. One woman decided she liked ornate, freakish looking chickens. She raised them for their looks and kept them on her property in Montana. Of course foxes and coyotes found out about them. Then she had to hire someone to kill the foxes and coyotes. Without these natural predators voles and rodents destroy crops and eat stored grains. The poisoning of wolves and coyotes in the West saw the death of birds of prey that ate their carcasses. Natural control of crop destroying pests was thus wiped out.

Ranching and hunting interests put millions into Congressional lobbying. The voice is one of ‘victimization.’ They take photographs of their domestic animals killed by wolves. Bloody carcasses appear in news photos. By contrast to their protests, what good do wolves accomplish?

 It is really not a question people of this enlightened century should ask. It is arrogance for some 7 billion people to question the importance of other species that exist in nature. One answer to the question is self-evident: predators exist to insure that fit survive and that a healthy genetic pool is available to breed.

Throughout the West many deer species have developed genetic defects. They have been able to pass these defects on to subsequent generations. The defective members compete with healthy ones for food. Without predators to cull deer with genetic hoof problems they proliferate. This is just one example recently in the news.

Huge tracts of western land have been broken up for development. The beauty of the area attracts wealthy people that have bought ‘ranchettes’ where ranches once were. The new homesteading has made developers rich. Vacation homes worth millions stand as testimony to incursions into wilderness and grazing areas. They build million dollar log homes on ten acre subdivided plots. These folks do not want wolves around any more than ranchers do. They fear that their toddlers will not be safe around the swimming pool for the one-month each year they use their country estates.

What is is about wolves that gives them such a bad rap? Despite what the entertainment industry portrays,  there has only been a handful documented cases of a wolf attack on a human being in the wild in recent history. Most of which happen just in the last few years. They are shy and keep to themselves except when the lure of food brings them into contact with human activities. Anyone who watches television, goes to the movies or reads a newspaper witnesses human social activity that is violent and aggressive. Living in harmony with nature is a lesson we can all learn and be better for it.