Interview: Retired Federal Wolf-Recovery Coordinator on OR7 and the Great Wolf Debate

A wolf from OR7's pack in Oregon. (Image: Oregon Department of Fish and Game)

After a two-month jaunt in Northern California, the lone wolf known as OR7 is now hanging out near the state border with Oregon. The two-year-old male wolf, California’s first in almost 90 years, has stirred both fascination and concern. OR7 has also prompted state officials to consider how to manage a growing wolf population.

In other Western states, the expansion of wolves has brought intense public debate, not to mention years of lawsuits. Ranchers and hunters believe the wolves kill too many livestock and elk. Environmental groups say ecosystems are healthier with a top predator like wolves.

To see if California could avoid this knock-down-drag-out fight, I spoke to Ed Bangs, the recently retired wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s been on the frontlines of the wolf debate for more than two decades.

Wolves have made an astounding recovery in the West, which is why a wolf came into California, right?

Wolves are one of the most adaptable species on Earth. They’re a very cool animal. They can stand just about anything except for human persecution. Our society decided that wolves didn’t have a place in the lower 48 and we got rid of them all. By 1930, they were gone.

With the environmental movement in the 60s, Canada and Alaska started wolf recovery. Wolf populations in Canada started to expand and as they did, we started to see a few show up in northern Montana. In 1986, the first den was discovered. Since then, natural recovery has pretty much filled up northern Montana and Idaho. And we reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996 to accelerate wolf recovery.

When I retired, there were over 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Washington and Oregon.

How would a pack get established in California?

Wolves always leave their pack as lone animals. Males and females disperse at equal rates and equal distances. A pack is all family members, so it’s like looking for a date at your dinner table. If you want to get married, you leave town. They head out and avoid other packs. They scent-mark until they find someone of the opposite sex.

The peak of breeding season is Valentine’s Day. That’s what starts a pack – these lone males and females. The lone male in California has probably missed his chance this year.

We’ve had dispersing wolves going into Colorado for 10 years now. They are no closer to a pack than they were 10 years ago. When you have a loner, it’s biologically meaningless. You need a pair to breed. But what it does do is fire up the public.

Right, which is what’s happened in other states. Is there any way that California can avoid the battles and lawsuits?

No, I don’t think so. It’s nice to imagine that. You have to remember wolves and wolf management has nothing to do with reality. I mean we can give you facts, you know, all the biology stuff. That isn’t what people talk about. They’re talking about what wolves mean to them symbolically.

The concept of wolves immediately polarizes people. You’re calling me to talk about wolves, not red-backed voles. And there’s a reason for that: because people are fascinated by wolves. Anytime you mix wolves and people, the reactions are very predictable. California is going to go through that very thing.

That doesn’t sound too promising…

It’s not a bad thing. It forces a fair, open debate. Imagine if it was the way it was before, when no one cared at all about natural resources or wildlife. Apathy is a lot worse.

I think California Fish and Game is going about it in the right way. They’re transparent and open. They’ve had public contact. I think it’s a positive sign. I’m a firm believer that better information gives you the chance to make better decisions. There’ll be rough spots in the road, but getting out in front of it is a good thing.

Some ranchers and environmentalists are working on methods to coexist with wolves…

There’s no silver bullet, pardon the pun. To the livestock industry, wolf losses are so small, you can’t even measure them. If it’s your calf being killed, it’s a very big deal. Can you have wolves with no damage? No. Can you have wolves with a tolerable level of damage? Yes. There are tools to do that. There’s compensation and livestock protection measures.

Wolves kill livestock much less frequently than you’d believe. I find it amazing still, given almost unlimited opportunity, that there’s as few depredations as there are. But resolution of some of those conflicts has involved killing wolves. We’ve killed nearly 2,000 wolves in the past 20 years due to livestock depredation.

You have to respect both sides of the issue. You can see some people want wolves back and some don’t want to be run out of business. There’s compromise but it takes both sides to do that. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap.

  • http://twitter.com/gary_chandler Gary R. Chandler

     

    When attempting to
    manage wolf populations today, we must admit that the threat of prion
    contamination in our watersheds and food chain now poses a much greater risk to
    several industries, human health, and homeland security than our god-given
    wolves ever did. In fact, predators are one of nature’s few defense barriers
    against the deadly spread of prion disease.

     

    Prions are a form of
    deadly protein that builds up in the cells and bodily fluids of people and
    animals afflicted with various forms of prion disease, including mad cow
    disease, chronic wasting disease, scrapie, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
    Prions now are such a formidable threat that the United States government
    enacted the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 to halt research
    on infectious prions in the United States in all but two laboratories. Now,
    infectious prions are classified as select agents that require special security
    clearance for lab research. The intent is to keep prions and other dangerous
    biological materials away from terrorists who might use them to contaminate,
    food, water, blood, equipment, and entire facilities. 

     

    Dr. Stanley Prusiner
    earned a Nobel Prize in 1997 for identifying and studying deadly prions.
    President Obama awarded Prusiner the National Medal of Science in 2010 to
    recognize the growing significance of his discovery. 

     

    We now know that
    various forms of prion disease are already spreading around the world. Prion
    disease has been found in livestock and a variety of wildlife species across
    the U.S. and Canada (in gray wolf habitat). Reducing wolves in these areas
    below natural numbers will open the door even wider to the deadly spread of
    prion contamination in the environment.

     

    The prion pathogen
    spreads through urine, feces, saliva, blood, milk, soil, and the tissue of
    infected animals (not to mention soil and water). With those attributes, prions
    obviously can migrate through surface water runoff and settle in groundwater,
    lakes, oceans, and water reservoirs. There is not a known cure for prion
    disease and allowing sick animals to wander the wild unchecked by wolves will
    further contaminate entire watersheds – increasing the pathway to humans,
    livestock, and wildlife downstream.

     

    If prions must be
    regulated in a laboratory environment today, the outdoor environment should be
    managed accordingly. Wolves and other predators represent one of the few
    natural barriers to help minimize the spread of prions in the environment and
    within our food chain. Accelerating the killing of wolves and other predators
    for profit and pleasure is a foolish experiment in prion management and a
    reckless platform for safeguarding wildlife, watersheds, and homeland security.
    In fact, the National Park Service studied the issue and concluded that “as CWD
    distribution and wolf range overlap in the future, wolf predation may suppress
    disease emergence or limit prevalence.” (The Role of Predation in Disease
    Control: A Comparison of Selective and Nonselective Removal on Prion disease
    Dynamics in Deer.) 

     

    Now, more than ever,
    wolves are part of a healthy ecosystem and a healthy future. It’s time to
    develop a comprehensive prion-management strategy that maximizes safeguards for
    human health, food, water, and wildlife around the globe. The stakes are too
    high for fragmented and misguided prion policies.  Just ask the Canadian cattlemen what a few prions did to
    their industry. Ask the U.S. cattle and dairy industries if they want to
    increase prion pathways in the watersheds that feed our public and private
    lands. My guess is that a prion in the soil or water doesn’t care if it
    attaches to a cow, sheep, deer, elk, or human. It kills them all with the same
    efficiency. Dilution of this pathogen is not a solution. Ignoring this pathogen
    is not a solution because prions migrate, mutate and multiply. Let wolves and
    other predators do their job in the food chain without human interference. This
    is no time for people to play god. 

  • Rdshort55

    The next article should investigate the actual, not mythological, costs wolf depredation presents to ranchers. I can save you the trouble.  The actual costs are extremely minimal to the ranching industry. If any other industry demanded that the federal or state governments or even groups like the Defenders of Wildlife paid them for each rare loss they would be laughed at. Many ranchers want NO risks associated with doing their business. Wouldn’t we all like that perk?  It’s not clear if these are Ed Bangs words but whoever said or wrote in the article, “You have to respect both sides of the issue. You can see some people
    want wolves back and some don’t want to be run out of business. There’s
    compromise but it takes both sides to do that. It’s not easy and it’s
    not cheap,” some soul searching should take place. No rancher, worth his or her salt as a rancher, has been run out of business by wolves in the last 100 years, if ever. Oh sure, some might blame wolves rather than acknowledge the general economy, their own bad management or simply poor ranching skills but they certainly cannot document their wolf depredation claims.

    I beg the author to do a little research and then a little analysis to discover what a ridiculous farce this whole “wolf driving ranchers out of business” mantra really is. Ed Bangs said it, “When I retired, there were over 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of Washington and Oregon..”  Someone in the article said, “We’ve killed nearly 2,000 wolves in the past 20 years due to livestock depredation.” Think about it folks, more wolves have been killed in response to often scientifically undocumented but claimed wolf depredation than exist in the region Bangs mentioned. More wolves have been killed while largely protected Under the Endangered Species Act than exist. How ridiculous is this sad act? Seriously, how many cows and sheep can 1700 wolves eat in a year? In the grand scheme of ranching, not many. Tens of millions of cows and sheep graze private and public lands annually. Even the most challenged mathematician can easily decipher how utterly small the percent of the ranching industry could be impacted by wolf depredation.

    Ranchers spend more money annually lobbying against wolves than all the wolf depredation in the lower 48 could possibly cost them annually. It’s actually kind of funny when one thinks just how stupid some ranchers are for spending valuable time and money in the chambers of state capitol and in DC when they could be on the ranch watching over their livestock. Yes, my comments are facetious but only to highlight the raw stubbornness of ranchers that cling hopelessly to the wolf myth that grandpa told them. All this wolf myth business would be funny if not so sad… for the ever-persecuted wolf.

  • Rdshort55

    The next wolf article should investigate the actual, not
    mythological, costs wolf depredation presents to ranchers. I can save you the
    trouble.  The actual costs are extremely
    minimal to the ranching industry. If any other industry demanded that the
    federal or state governments or even groups like the Defenders of Wildlife paid
    them for each rare loss they would be laughed at. Many ranchers want NO risks
    associated with doing their business. Wouldn’t we all like that perk?  Another newspaper article reported retired
    Federal Wolf-Recovery Coordinator, Ed Bangs, to have said, “You have to
    respect both sides of the issue. You can see some people want wolves back and
    some don’t want to be run out of business. There’s compromise but it takes both
    sides to do that. It’s not easy and it’s not cheap.” If Bangs actually
    uttered those words some soul searching should take place. There is fact and
    there is fiction. There is myth and there is reality. There is truth and there
    are lies. The facts and therefore the truth is this. No rancher, worth his or
    her salt as a rancher, has been run out of business by wolves in the last 100
    years, if ever. Oh sure, some might blame wolves rather than acknowledge the
    general economy, their own bad management or simply poor ranching skills but
    they certainly cannot document their wolf depredation claims.

     

    I beg readers to do a little research and then a little
    analysis to discover what a ridiculous farce this whole “wolf driving
    ranchers out of business” mantra really is. Ed Bangs said it, “When I
    retired, there were over 1,700 wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and parts of
    Washington and Oregon.”  The article
    also reported Bangs to have said, “We’ve killed nearly 2,000 wolves in the
    past 20 years due to livestock depredation.” Think about it folks, more
    wolves have been killed in response to often undocumented wolf depredation
    claims than there wolves now existing in the region Bangs mentioned. More
    wolves have been killed while largely protected Under the Endangered Species
    Act than exist. How ridiculous is this sad fact? Seriously, how many cows and
    sheep can 1700 wolves eat in a year? In the grand scheme of ranching, not many.
    Tens of millions of cows and sheep graze private and public lands annually.
    Even the most challenged mathematician can easily decipher how utterly small
    the percent of the ranching industry could be financially impacted by wolf
    depredation.

     

    Ranchers spend more money annually lobbying against wolves
    than all the wolf depredation in the lower 48 could possibly cost them. It’s
    actually kind of funny when one thinks just how irresponsible some ranchers are
    for spending valuable time and money in the chambers of state capitols and in
    DC when they could be on the ranch watching over their livestock. Yes, my
    comments are poignant but only to highlight the raw stubbornness of ranchers
    that cling hopelessly to the wolf myth that grandpa told them. All this wolf
    myth business would be funny if not so sad… for the ever-persecuted wolf.

    Ed Bangs is also reported to have said, “You have to
    remember wolves and wolf management has nothing to do with reality. I mean we
    can give you facts, you know, all the biology stuff. That isn’t what people
    talk about. They’re talking about what wolves mean to them symbolically.”

     

    If these are in fact, Bangs’ words, he is absolutely
    correct. Let’s be honest. The wolf issue is really a local vs federal control
    issue. The wolf is merely a symbol. On whatever side of this political issue
    one stands, it is downright cruel to wantonly kill wolves when the biological
    and economic realities that Bangs eludes to are, in fact, on the side of the
    wolves.
     

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