wolf with elk
When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the 1990s, researchers had a rare chance to study the top predators’ effects on the ecosystem after a long absence. They found that wolves help buffer the impact of deteriorating environmental conditions by providing food for scavengers. (Photo: Dan Hartman via PLOS Biology doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030132)

The first rays of daylight have just reached the banks of Southeast Alaska’s Chilkat River when I hear the unmistakable cries of the world’s most hated predator.

The distinctive yowls—at first plaintive then veering toward gregarious—seem to rise from the bowels of the mountains beyond the river, echoing miles across the valley to tickle the hair on my very cold head.

Wolves live throughout the Chilkat Valley. You can sometimes see their tracks in the snow. But as night turns to day, they head for the hills.

“You won’t see those wolves come down to the flats,” a visiting biologist tells me. “They know they’ll get shot.”

Alaska Fish and Game officials guess that some 7,000 to 11,000 wolves inhabit the state. Yet even though the agency has no protocol to produce “meaningful estimates” of wolf abundance in the Chilkat Range, it extended hunting and trapping seasons there in 2005. And state officials still shoot wolves from helicopters under a euphemistically named “intensive management” program to appease hunters who blame the predators for declining ungulate populations.

In 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the embattled canine from the endangered species list in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, setting the stage for a legal killing spree that claimed at least 850 wolves in the Northern Rockies in less than two years. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the fast and furious killings have wildlife experts here worried about the fate of OR7, the only wolf to set foot in California since the 1920s.

The three-year-old solo lobo (the seventh wolf to get a radio-tagged collar from Oregon wildlife officials) left his pack in Oregon, as young males are wont to do, to strike out on his own and find a mate, a new pack or perhaps unclaimed territory. His brother, OR9, was among the unlucky wolves killed by Idaho hunters.

canada lynx
The loss of wolves may have set the stage for an ecological domino effect: no wolves, led to more coyotes, which eat the lynx’s preferred food, the snowshoe hare, and more ungulates, which eat the vegetation that shelters and feeds the hare.

Though Ecology 101 tells us that healthy ecosystems need top predators, researchers are just beginning to understand how the presence—and absence—of wolves affects other species. One study found that wolves may buffer the effects of climate change in Yellowstone National Park, where winters have been getting shorter, by leaving their moose and elk leftovers for eagles, ravens, coyotes and other scavengers. Another paper suggests that the absence of wolves may explain the precarious status of the Canada lynx. No wolves means more coyotes—which hunt snowshoe hares, the lynx’s favorite food—and more elk and deer—which eat the shrubby vegetation that sustain and shelter hares. And a 2011 paper in Biological Conservation supports earlier work showing that wolves in Yellowstone influence the behavior of deer and elk, releasing grazing pressure on vegetation, which in turn increases songbird habitat and diversity.

As scientists slowly uncover the top predator’s secrets, deliberations over its management are notoriously contentious. Still, for all the ink spilled on high-pitched battles to control the wolf’s fate, researchers know surprisingly little about the cognitive roots of our attitudes toward Canis lupus.

Why do we hate and fear the wolf?

Imnaha wolf
The alpha male of the Imnaha wolf pack–where OR7 came from–awakes from being tranquilized after being refitted with a working GPS collar by ODFW, May 19, 2011. (Photo courtesy of ODFW)

In a paper published last year in the journal Human Dimensions of Wildlife, researchers found that people who view wolves and bears as dangerous and unpredictable were more likely to fear them. And whether you see carnivores like wolves as a fearsome threat to life and property or a vital link in a healthy ecosystem depends on your cultural roots, as a 2011 study of wolf conflicts in Wisconsin makes clear.

By 1960, extirpation campaigns had eliminated wolves in Wisconsin (and nearly everywhere else in the United States). The population rebounded by 2009 under a policy of protection. But as wolves increased, so did reports of attacks on livestock and hunting dogs.

Most non-Indian residents in Wisconsin support public hunts in retaliation. But no one had bothered to ask the Bad River Band of Chippewa Indians (Ojibwe, or Anishinabe, in their language), researchers noted, even though treaty rights give the tribe an interest in land that includes a large swath of wolf territory.

In the Ojibwe creation story, the Creator gave Original Man a brother in the form of a wolf to “walk through the world together.” When the pair was forced to part, the bond would remain, the Creator told them, and whatever happened to one would happen to the other.

Not surprisingly, Ojibwe tribal members, who grew up hearing these stories, had far more positive views of wolves, and were less likely than non-Indian respondents to support killing them for taking livestock or pets. In the survey, one tribal member wrote:

Wolves were harvested [historically] by Native Americans, however the wolf selected was harvested compassionately. Usually it was those wolves disconnected from the pack and scavenging. Those wolves were less likely to survive without the pack; just as an Anishinabe would less likely be Anishinabe without the tribe.

You don’t have to embrace the wolf as a brother—or hear what wildlife biologist Durward Allen called “the jubilation” in their howls—to appreciate that the people who walked with wolves for thousands of years before Europeans showed up might suggest a path toward coexistence.

Wisconsin wolf managers have already enlisted Ojibwe tribal members to work with them to resolve human-wolf conflicts with positive results. Wildlife officials throughout wolf country—which could include California if we give OR7 and his fellow travelers a chance—might consider a similar approach.

Fear and Loathing in Wolf Country 23 April,2013Liza Gross

Author

Liza Gross

Liza Gross, an award-winning independent journalist and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, writes mostly about conservation and public and environmental health. She was a 2013 recipient of the NYU Reporting Award, a 2013 Dennis Hunt Health Journalism fellow and a 2015 USC Data Journalism fellow.

Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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