Features » March 10, 2015
Do We Need Wolves?
The Endangered Species Act is under attack as Congress moves to delist wolves.
‘I have nothing against wildlife, but I need to be able to make a living too. We don’t have time to sit out there with rifles and control these things.’
“I’ve been around animals all my life,” says Marcia Mihalek. “Heck, I had a pet raccoon.” Mihalek and her husband, James, operate Rolling Acres Ranch, a 400-acre horse and cattle farm in rural Northern Wisconsin, nine miles southwest of Ashland, that’s been in the Mihalek family for generations. In the past year, at least 12 calves have gone missing, and she maintains that a local pack of wolves is to blame. “I have nothing against wildlife, but I need to be able to make a living, too,” she says. “We don’t have time to sit out there with rifles and control these things.”
Wolves are resourceful, social creatures. They are also apex predators with warm pelts. Historically, humans have emphasized the latter and, when it comes to feral threat assessment, erred on the side of caution. European settlers, taking no chances, opted to wipe out wolves entirely. They had their reasons. It also sent an alpha message you could make coats out of.
These days, unless a wolf is going for your throat, your ability to deliver that message has been judicially compromised. In December 2014, the departments of natural resources of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan informed state residents that they can no longer legally kill a wolf except in the defense of human life. U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell had overturned a 2012 decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to lift federal protection of gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region. Calling the USFWS decision “arbitrary and capricious,” Howell took regional management of local wolf populations away from the three states and placed it back into federal hands. Her ruling came on the heels of a similar September U.S. District Court decision involving wolves in Wyoming.
For ranchers, it means they're no longer permitted to kill wolves preying on their livestock. As Mihalek sees it, “Somebody out in Washington is making decisions for us, once again.”
Maybe not for long. The 114th Congress is moving to pass legislation (in some cases with bipartisan support) that would overturn Howell’s ruling and allow states to continue the wolf management practices in which they’ve invested millions of dollars over the past three years, including a series of highly controversial, hastily implemented recreational hunting and trapping seasons. In addition, the proposed legislation may have far-reaching implications for the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Whether or not Howell’s decision stands, the reversal in federal policy–a fur-trapping buzz kill or an environmental triumph, depending on your point of view–marks another loop in a complicated knot of wolf-centered policy. Ranchers demand the right to protect their herds as they see fit. Hunters and trappers resent any interference in their annual chance to nab the top predator. Meanwhile, environmentalists and wildlife advocates are fighting to give the native species a chance to recover as much of its former habitat as possible, while reminding us that wolves, sharp teeth and all, have both an ecological purpose and an inherent right to exist. States are now scrambling to find a balancing act that works for their constituents and regional economies–one that demonstrates an ability to responsibly manage the return of a nearly eradicated carnivore without federal oversight.
In the beginning
For thousands of years the wolf covered more North American territory than any other mammal, with a habitat stretching from the middle of Mexico to the Arctic. Coexisting alongside Native Americans, who had ecologically sophisticated management practices of their own, an estimated 250,000 lived in what’s now the United States.
In 1630, 10 years after the Mayflower anchored in Plymouth Harbor, the Massachusetts Bay Colony established a cash incentive for settlers to eliminate wolves. By 1642, the emerging colonies had ordinances on the books legally requiring small towns to bait and maintain wolf traps on a daily basis. These arrangements caught on. Methods evolved and currencies changed, but 200 years later a man could still make a living lacing dead bison with strychnine and waiting for packs to feed. In 1915, Uncle Sam got serious about the wolf ’s extermination and sanctioned his own team of pros–known as “wolfers”–to hunt down tens of thousands.
These days, for many of us, it can be difficult to picture a scenario that justifies eliminating an entire species from a continent. But the national policy of wolf extermination was rooted, somewhat, in historical necessity. For European settlers facing one existential crisis after another, the wolf ’s spot at the top of the food chain made it a clear threat. Negative perceptions of the wolf as a man-eating beast were also rooted in the old country. Wolves, being opportunistic scavengers, fed on the scores of bodies medieval warfare and the Black Plague left on the European landscape. That kind of bad PR can take generations to overcome.
“A combination of disease patterns, like rabies, witnessed in Europe and the mythology that grew up around the wolf left people fearful,” says Adrian Wydeven, the head wolf recovery biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 1990 until 2013 and co-editor of the book Recovery of Gray Wolves in the Great Lakes Region of the United States. By the mid-twentieth century, only a few gray wolves remained in the lower 48–around 500 in northern Minnesota and 20 on Isle Royale, a 200-square-mile island in Lake Superior that is part of Michigan. But then something clicked.
In the early 1960s, a burgeoning environmental movement began pointing out that a number of native species were on a one-way trip out, the wolf among them. Operating under the assumption that all animals have their place in the natural world, the movement began influencing our approach to wild animals.
In 1966, the Endangered Species Preservation Act authorized the Secretary of the Interior to identify and compile a list of species worldwide facing likely or imminent extinction. The wolf was added to the list in 1967, but protections were limited. In 1973, under the Nixon administration, the USFWS implemented the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA’s goal remains as ambitious as it was controversial: to protect critically threatened species and their habitats from further deterioration, even when economically inconvenient. In 1974, four subspecies of the gray wolf were added to the endangered species list, and in 1978, all wolves were listed–effectively making it illegal to kill them under any circumstances except self-defense.
Once under federal protection, Minnesota wolf packs naturally expanded their territory eastward to Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Out west, some wolves migrated south from Canada, and the first den was discovered in Montana’s Glacier National Park in 1986. In the 1990s, 66 Canadian wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rockies, in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. New packs formed and numbers grew.
(US Library of Congress)
American zoologist Robert Paine introduced the term “trophic cascade” (“trophic” relating to feeding and nutrition, and “cascade” in a descending sense) in 1980 to describe the holistic impact a top predator has on its environment. A wolf, for example, plays an intricate role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem by influencing the population of smaller animals, plants and evenutally insects.
While the theory of trophic cascade has its critics, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park provides a good case study. George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life, has observed, “the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park … but also its physical geography.” He maintains that by keeping herds of mule deer and elk on the move, wolves reversed over-grazing along the park’s rivers, allowing new growth along the banks. These trees and shrubs prevent erosion, keeping the rivers channeled, while providing food for beavers, whose dams create pools of water that offer habitat for otters, muskrat and migratory waterfowl. When wolves eat deer, the leftover carrion provides sustenance for eagles, ravens and other scavengers. Gray wolves also eat coyotes, which means more small rodents for eagles, hawks, fox and members of the weasel family like badgers.
Since the wolf ’s recovery, whenever deer numbers decline, hunters have tended to blame an out-of-control wolf population. While it’s true that deer (white-tailed along the Western Great Lakes, mule deer in the Rockies) comprise an integral part of the wolf ’s diet—it’s estimated that an adult wolf kills and eats the equivalent of 15 to 20 per year—the science suggests the wolf ’s effect on deer populations may actually be a net positive.
“In Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, over large geographical areas, wolves tend to have relatively limited impact on the deer herd [size],” says Wydeven. “The wolf’s impact on population is more localized and more likely to influence behavior than numbers.”
By keeping herds on the move and selecting the weakest prey, for example, wolves can cull the sickest members of a deer population while leaving the healthiest most likely to reproduce. As a result, predation of deer by wolves may assist in addressing diseases like chronic wasting—a scourge of deer populations.
Contrary to popular opinion, wolves are also good at regulating themselves. “Frankly, that might be one of the lessons we could learn from them,” says Peter David, who works as a wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC). Based in Odanah, Wisconsin, the commission represents 11 Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, helping them exercise their off-reservation treaty rights, such as fish and wild rice harvesting, throughout the treaty-ceded territories. “People sometimes get the idea that wolves dictate deer numbers, but it’s more generally the other way around.” In other words, a scarce food supply likely impacts wolf breeding behavior.
The state of the wolf
By 2009, about 5,500 wolves had made their home in the continental United States—3,900 in the Western Great Lakes and 1,600 in the Northern Rockies. Where supporters of the wolf’s comeback saw encouraging progress, the USFWS saw evidence that the gray wolf was out of danger and removed it from the endangered species list. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced, “The recovery of the gray wolf throughout significant portions of its historic range is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act.”
Statistically, that was true. Ninety nine percent of the species that have made it onto the federal government’s endangered list have yet to make it off. Cynically, the list serves as a morbid lifetime achievement award—acknowledging the impressive careers of once prevalent creatures who probably won’t be on the stage much longer.
The USFWS decision was a controversial one, and legal challenges abounded—disputes ranging from taxonomic categorizations of subspecies to geographic definitions of original habitat—creating a regulatory holding pattern. In many states, federal oversight experienced a yo-yoing between delisting, relisting and downlisting the species before the USFWS implemented its final ruling in 2012 to delist the gray wolf entirely.
More controversial than the decision to delist, however, was how in that same year, six states–Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho–went about marketing and implementing their now-legal wolf hunting and trapping seasons. For many, the timing–the fact that the recently recovered wolf was now the target of a multi-state hunt–was hard to wrap one’s head around. Ethical debates about what wolf hunting and trapping methods would be tolerated made regional headlines. In the end, outrage focused on the number of wolves taken. Minnesota’s first hunt, in 2012, resulted in the “harvesting” of an estimated 25 percent of the state’s wolves.
A state’s primary motivation for having a wolf season isn’t always cut-and-dried. Though it’s widely believed that reducing the wolf population through hunting prevents livestock depredation and protects big-game populations, some wildlife scientists disagree. Most depredation of livestock occurs in the spring during calving season, whereas hunting seasons are typically in late fall and early winter.
“A general sport harvest is an incredibly inefficient tool to address depredation problems,” says David. “First, most depredations are happening months before the season takes place, so [the harvest] doesn’t provide any immediate relief.” Furthermore, he says, in Wisconsin and most other states, “it isn’t targeting the animals that are causing problems. If I had a store and I had a shoplifting problem, I don’t deal with it by taking out random customers in the store.”
Wolf advocates support the use of non-lethal management practices, such as trapping and removal, and better education to help address conflicts. They also point to the toll the hunt takes not just on the wolves who are killed or trapped, but on their pack. “There is a concerted effort to portray wolves as little more than fur-covered DNA,” says Maureen Hackett, founder of the Minnesota-based group Howling for Wolves, which opposes the wolf hunt. “Wolves have empathy for the suffering of their own. Under the stress of a state-organized wolf hunt, the pack’s social structure is diminished. Any male or female can reproduce, but the breeding pair controls reproduction within the pack. Things get messed up when you start taking apart these structures. Without leadership, pups don’t have older wolves teaching them how to be wolves. They have a dedicated family unit, and we’re running around tearing that apart.”
Not everyone shares her concern. “If you find oil or natural gas on your property, the value goes up. If you find an endangered species, your land becomes virtually worthless because the critter prevents productive use,” writes Marita Noon, the executive director of Energy Makes America Great Inc., in a column published on several conservative websites. The title of her article, “Shoot, shovel and shut up!” is also the slogan emblazoned on t-shirts and hoodies (available in black and pink) marketed on NoWolves.com.
Hackett puts it this way: “There’s a certain group of people—small but active—who just want to kill wolves. They see the only good wolf being a dead wolf. They write us on our Facebook page, tell us how excited they are to go out and kill wolves, with or without a permit. We call them ‘haters.’ ”
To be clear, not all wolf hunters and trappers are “haters” seeking to rid the world of the domesticated dog’s sole ancestor. At the heart of this controversy are people participating in an activity that, no matter how unappetizing the modern masses find it, goes back thousands of years. Visit one of the handful of trapping-centric online forums and you’ll find diverse accounts of the trials and joys of trapping. Of course there are the Ted Nugent types lamenting the arrogance of any “law” that attempts to stand between them and their Book of Genesis-mandated dominion over any goddamn critter they might deem a target, and this type can dominate an online forum. But you’ll also find an excited grandfather looking forward to taking his grandkid out on their first joint fur-finding excursion, or folks discussing their environment, the animals in it and the myriad variables at play when it comes to “harvesting” a wolf.
U-Black was one of the first wolves born in Yellowstone National Park following their reintroduction In 1995. As she matured, she left her pack and joined a new one, later becoming the alpha leader (HFW / Dan Hartman).
In the three years since the USFWS put the responsibility for managing the gray wolf back in the hands of the states, their job had been threefold: addressing conflicts where wolves and people clash, implementing recreational hunting and trapping seasons, and, most importantly, making sure the wolf isn’t killed off again. That would be embarrassing.
Management strategies to maintain wolf populations have varied widely from one state to the next. Wisconsin, under the leadership of Gov. Scott Walker (R) and a Republican legislature, has (considerably) the most pro-harvesting agenda. It is unusual in actively seeking to reduce the wolf population, by enforcing a maximum number of wolves the state will tolerate: 350. According to the 2013-2014 wolf count, 660 wolves live in the state. Michigan and Minnesota, in contrast, have minimum thresholds, numbers that they want to keep the wolf population well above (200 and 1,600, respectively), and have a less permissive hunting policy.
“If you really valued wolves, you’d want a higher population goal than [Wisconsin has] right now,” says David. “The state’s current population goal of 350–and its interpretation by the current administration as a cap rather than a minimum–reflects the demands of a small number of special interest groups.” Those groups include the Wisconsin Bear Hunters’ Association, the state chapter of Safari Club International and United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, all of which actively lobby in support of a hunt. Since 2008, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent in Wisconsin to further a pro-hunt agenda, tens of thousands of which have gone to Walker via political donations.
“The state of Wisconsin,” says David,“is treating wolves like vermin, like a problem, not an ecological resource.”
Unaware of the political machinations surrounding its comeback, the gray wolf has managed to go from an endangered pest to a recovering iconic species and then back to dodging traps, snares and bullets in the time it has taken most Millennials to cover their own wireless plan. The wolf ’s fate now rests in the hands of the federal judiciary, Congress and the White House.
On Feb. 10, in response to the ruling of Judge Beryl A. Howell, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) introduced the Western Great Lakes Wolf Management Act to a congressional house committee. If passed, the bill would prohibit any wolf in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from being covered under the Endangered Species Act. His bill would also give each state exclusive jurisdiction over the management of wolves within its borders. In a letter to Kline’s constituents and other stakeholders, his legislative assistant Pat Pelletier wrote:
Congressman Kline knows how much harm wolves can cause to livestock and the agriculture community; the overpopulation of gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes region contributes to the decline of livestock, pets and other animals in the wild. … We would appreciate your support.
Another bill to gut Howell’s decision was introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) a few days later. Cosponsors include Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) and Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.). If passed, H.R. 884 would take gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Wyoming (home of most of Yellowstone National Park) off the endangered species list and remove the bill’s provisions from any “judicial review” in federal court.
While the livestock industry and pro-wolf-hunting organizations like Safari Club International no doubt support this legislation, on Feb. 18, on behalf of numerous wildlife advocates, the Humane Society subbmitted an open letter to Congress urging them to oppose both bills on the grounds that “the best available science indicates that the gray wolf occupies a mere fraction of its historic range and therefore has not yet recovered from centuries of systemic persecution.” The letter, signed by 50 scientists, adds that “the species could occupy much more of its former range if the threats (primarily, human-caused mortality and inadequate regulatory mechanisms) were properly mitagated.” Wolves aside, some environmentalists see these bills as a larger end-run around the ESA and its power to protect species and ecosystems. Once referred to as “the Magna Carta of the environmental movement,” the ESA can stop development projects, from real estate to mining, if the USFWS determines such projects disrupt “critical habitat” essential for the survival of a species listed as “threatened” or “endangered.”
Shahla Werner, director of the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter in Wisconsin, says the effects of the Ribble bill could be far reaching. “This could set a dangerous precedent in Congress for delisting the wolf and undermining the courts,” she says, though she notes that the precedent may have already been set with legislation passed in 2011 that delisted wolves in Idaho, Montana, and parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah. Such a precedent, says Werner, “could potentially leave the Endangered Species Act open to dismantling, one species at a time, until it really doesn’t have any teeth anymore.”
The wolf has preyed on domesticated livestock since we humans first unveiled our ingenious brands of docile ungulates. In the 1st century, Greek officials were paying wolf bounties in silver drachmas. Today, food aggression and territorial disputes remain at the heart of human-wolf interaction. Until we figure out how to make cows and sheep out of bricks, wolf management practices must respect the threat wolves pose to the livelihoods of ranchers like Marcia and James Mihalek. Certain circumstances will likely require lethal measures. But after years of conservation efforts, the wolf is back, and we can’t kill it off again in the lower 48 without looking cosmically stupid. Coexistence presents the only path forward. Part of the challenge will be undoing a mindset that’s been imaginitevly cultivated for thousands of years. No other animal has infiltrated myth and metaphor—fueled our capacity to anthropomorphize—as successfully as the wolf. Many of us work jobs we hate to “keep the wolf from the door.” In ancient Rome prostitutes were called she-wolves. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, “the Lord is my shepherd” precisely because Satan is wolf-like enough to warrant one. Everything from “The Three Little Pigs” to The Wolf of Wall Street to Duran Duran being hungry like one creates an image of the wolf as a bloodthirsty beast, rather than simply a creature trying to eat.
The late Canadian naturalist and author Farley Mowat, best known for countering negative perceptions of the wolf in his classic book Never Cry Wolf (adapted into the 1983 Disney film), wrote, “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be–the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer–which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.” If our goal is to reframe our relationship with wolves and learn how to exist alongside them, we might look to one of the few cultures that ever pulled it off.
“People sometimes look at the tribes as extremists when it comes to issues like this,” says David at GLIFWC. “I often try to argue that differently. There are those who put the wolf on a pedestal, in a sacred position, and those who just detest wolves and want to crunch them under their heel. In all honesty, for the tribes, it's neither of those. It's middle ground really: this is your brother, somebody you're side by side with, neither above you or below you. It's really a kind of moderate position.”
For the Ojibwe in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana and North Dakota, respect for the wolf extends back to a bond forged in their creation story, one in which ma’iingan (the wolf) is a skilled survivalist, a teacher and a spiritual ally. In The Mishomis Book, spiritual leader Eddie Benton-Banai from the Lac Courte Oreilles band explains that the Creator directed “original man” and ma’iingan to travel the world together. On these travels, they became brothers. When the journey was over, the Great Spirit indicated that, though they would take separate paths, they would be forever linked: “What shall happen to one of you, shall also happen to the other. Each of you will be feared, respected and misunderstood by the people who will later join you on the earth.”
Fear and misunderstanding have already been accomplished. Respect might take time. But considering that 57 million households in this country voluntarily cohabitate with four-legged carnivores with names like Spot, appreciating Native respect for the wolf, or simply acknowledging the apex predator’s right to live in its natural environment, might not be too difficult of a stretch.
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John Collins is the editor of Rural America In These Times. He lives between Minneapolis and La Pointe, Wisconsin, a village on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.