Is there a difference between European wolves and U.
The Hidden Life of Wolves
We really see the two species so differently. But last year, the U. Do we want to keep them completely separate? What do we lose or gain if wolves become more like coyotes? Some of them died by falling into old mine pits made by people. Everyone just thought that he would die alone and it was just this funky anomaly that he had gotten that far. For example, his father, OR-4, is well-known in the Wallowas for being Mister Canny, Cunning, Hard-to-Catch Guy who likes to screw with livestock, whereas OR-7 has never gone after livestock on his own, and kind of hides out in the forests and reserves.
I love the idea that these individual animals actually have personalities and that those personalities can influence the course of wolf reintroduction and the acceptance of wolves. For me, the OR-7 pack is really the tipping point for wolves in the United States. I wrote a piece about this for Slate this summer , about how we need more unstructured play for kids in nature, especially in National Park Service parks. The story that I open with in that piece is about this kid who got told off for taking rocks away from a state park — rock they had brought in to use for road gravel.
You have to have a hell of a lot of kids for a hell of a long time to really, really damage most of these places. But definitely your average forest, rocky beach or something like that — let them mess around. And then we got out of the car and they started picking up pebbles, and they were fascinated. They need to interact, tactilely, with nature. I feel very ambivalent about it, mostly negative.
I came to all these ideas independently. We all essentially love the same things. We want to stop extinction, so we want diversity. We want a green world. We want kids to be able to run and play in the creeks. Humans have become one of the primary drivers on the Earth. Once you acknowledge that, it becomes the starting point for having conversations about, okay, now how do we move forward?
Trappers killed wolves that raided their traplines and sold the pelts for a dollar apiece. Stockmen's associations offered bounties for dead wolves. The slaughter was abetted by an ancient antagonism. Even Teddy Roosevelt, the cowboy conservationist, called the wolf a "beast of waste and desolation" and hunted it mercilessly.
The federal government began subsidizing wolf extermination on federal lands in , and the last known wolf den in Yellowstone—prior to the wolf's recent comeback—was destroyed in By the s, the animals were extinct in the northern Rocky Mountains—shot, trapped or poisoned. Then, at the dawn of the modern conservation movement and "coinciding with the paving of America," says Thomas McNamee, author of the book The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone , the wolf emerged as a symbol of the nation's vanishing wild heritage. It was among the first animals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The idea of returning the gray wolf, Canis lupus which can be gray, black or white , to Yellowstone goes back to the Nixon administration. Proponents have argued that the wolf was a keystone species whose presence would reinvigorate the natural order. Without it, they said, Yellowstone was incomplete, the West a bland facsimile of its old wild self. Wolves fulfill that," said Jim Halfpenny, an ecologist and author who has been leading wildlife classes in the park for nearly 40 years.
Western lawmakers resisted reintroduction at first but eventually agreed to the plan. A loophole in the wolves' endangered species status authorized U. The loophole did not apply to wolves in the park: they remained under the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, as did a small number of wolves that had begun moving on their own into northern Montana from Canada in the late s. About the same time wolves were finally released in Yellowstone, three dozen others were also reintroduced in Idaho's Frank Church Wilderness.
Both groups reclaimed old haunts with unanticipated gusto. Some of the park wolves scaled a ten-foot-high chain-link enclosure around their acclimation pen, and then dug under the fence to let out the rest of the wolves. Two traveled 40 miles within a week of gaining their freedom.
During the first decade after reintroduction, the wolf populations soared. By , an estimated 1, wolves inhabited the northern Rockies of the United States—many descended from released wolves, others from the Canadian immigrant packs—with about in Yellowstone. To many naturalists, the thriving wolf population was a hopeful sign that it was possible to restock wild country with long-lost native inhabitants.
But as the wolves made themselves at home again, old adversaries in the ranching community sought broader license to kill them. By the end of , wolves had been implicated in the deaths of about 2, livestock in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in the dozen years since their reintroduction. They were preying on sheep and cattle at a rate higher than government scientists had predicted. Still, the predation represented a small fraction of all livestock losses.
One environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, which has been a strong advocate of wolf reintroduction, established a fund to compensate ranchers for cows, sheep and other animals killed by wolves.
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The compensation doesn't make up for all the losses ranchers cite, such as the lower prices fetched for thin, wolf-harried cattle or the cost of extra manpower and material to protect livestock from predators. By , many Westerners were insisting that wolves be subject to more lethal control, which would require the animals' removal from the endangered species list. They got their way in early , when the Bush administration ceded responsibility for most of the Rocky Mountain wolves to state officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The states quickly adopted rules that sanctioned wolf hunts and generally made it easier to kill the animals.
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Wolves within Yellowstone's boundaries along with those in northern Montana remained under federal protection. In the first month of relaxed regulation, at least 37 wolves were killed across the three states. By the end of July, more than were dead. Bumper stickers proclaimed "Wolves—Government Sponsored Terrorists. Idaho Gov. Dave Freudenthal of Wyoming questioned whether any wolf packs outside Yellowstone in his state "are even necessary. They asked me would I resist having wolves in Yellowstone. Now, all of a sudden we have 1, wolves. One of 'em can kill 20 of something in a year.
You need to say they can't get into farm and ranch areas. You can't turn wolves loose like they were a bunch of balloons. As the wolves have feasted on the herds, there have been fewer elk for hunters to shoot. But the Yellowstone wolves have attracted a passionate following. Visitors have formed attachments to individual wolves, and certain ones seem to have had a knack for playing to the crowd.
He was shot and killed outside the park last spring. The shooting of Limpy and other wolves spurred conservationists to challenge the new state management plans.
They singled out Wyoming's especially permissive approach to killing wolves. It just allows an animal to be killed for the sake of killing it," said Hank Fischer, of Missoula, Montana, who helped establish the fund to reimburse ranchers who lost livestock to wolves. Twelve environmental groups sued to return management of the wolves to the federal government, arguing that the Yellowstone wolf population would not be sustainable until members mated with wolves in Idaho or northern Montana.
By allowing hundreds of wolves to be killed outside the park, the lawsuit claimed, populations would be cut off from one another, and inbreeding would eventually weaken them, making them more vulnerable to disease, drought and other perils. The court largely agreed. District Court Judge Donald Molloy wrote in a ruling this past summer that effectively overturned the federal move to let the three states regulate wolf hunting. The ruling restored the wolf's status to what it was at reintroduction: only animals that take livestock may be killed. Of all the people who supported easing the restrictions on wolf hunting, perhaps the most surprising was Douglas W.
Smith, a biologist who heads the Yellowstone Wolf Recovery Project and is the co-author of the book Decade of the Wolf. He helped carry the first wolves into the park in crates 14 years ago and has functioned as their head nanny ever since. But he also has sympathy for his ranching neighbors. But ranchers already have a strong connection.
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They don't need wolves for that. Smith agrees that Yellowstone's wolves need to mix with animals outside the park to strengthen their genetic stock. It's just that he doesn't think hunting or stricter predator control laws will prevent that. If they are allowed to, that is. Even if the wolves continue to roam relatively more freely, their future survival would not be guaranteed in a part of the country where human development is quickly expanding into wildlife habitat. For now, the reintroduced wolves appear to be doing the job they were recruited to do—put more teeth in the natural order that had been out of whack since the wolves disappeared in the early 20th century.
By , they were killing around 3, elk every year in Yellowstone, where outsized herds had been denuding the park's vegetation. Much of the elk predation took place in the Lamar Valley in the northeast quarter of the park, a stretch of open space that has been compared to East Africa's Serengeti Plain. For all its magnificence, it has been something of an unbalanced ecosystem, the absence of trees due in no small part to an overabundance of browsing elk.
With wolves back on the prowl, the elk became more restive. And as the elk spent less time foraging along stream banks, scientists have reported that willows and other plants that had been eaten to the nubs began to flourish again. So did some of the animals that depend on the trees, like beavers, which use willow branches to build lodges.
Since the wolves were reintroduced, beaver colonies have increased eightfold. So there are more beaver ponds—habitat for insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, even moose, Smith says. Especially in winter, wolf kills have provided food for other park dwellers, including ravens, magpies and bald and golden eagles. For human visitors to the park, one of the highlights of wildlife viewing in recent years has been watching the combat between wolves and grizzly bears, alternately fierce and comical, for control of elk carcasses.
Hard-core wolf watchers arrive at first light, their cars filling roadside turnouts in the Lamar Valley. They erect a picket line of spotting scopes and point their lenses at den sites in the hillsides that frame the valley. Some of the regulars act as volunteer aides to the wolf recovery project, documenting the appearance of new pups, changes in den sites and interactions with other animals. Three years ago, she and her husband retired from teaching jobs in San Diego and moved to Silver Gate, Montana, just outside the park's northeast entrance and a minute drive from the Lamar Valley.
Everybody means something in the pack. Each wolf contributes. One of my goals is to get more people to look into the lives of wolves so they better understand the effect they have when they kill wolves. A wolf pack has a familial makeup, typically consisting of parents and one or more generations of offspring. Slow to mature sexually, wolf pups stay with their parents up to four years, longer than many other mammals.
In the process, the pups learn about hunting, foraging and working with other members of the pack. The number of wolves in a pack varies with the size of their prey. Wolves that dine regularly on big animals—bison, elk or caribou—tend to operate in large packs of up to 15 members. In summer, packs are likely to split up, with individuals traveling 20 or more miles a day in pursuit of small prey such as squirrels and beaver.
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In winter, when snow slows down bigger animals, a wolf pack tends to work together, bringing down an elk every other day or so. The constant combat takes a toll. In Yellowstone National Park, where only 2 percent of mortality is caused by humans—mostly by car accidents— the average life span of a wolf is still only four to five years.