Wolves and Ecological Balance

For years, as the young nation was getting on its feet, fighting a civil war, establishing homesteads and state borders, wolves were considered a nuisance. They crept up on livestock, whisking away and making costly meals of farmers’ hard-won cattle and sheep, making the fragile lives of the pioneers harder than they already were. The homesteaders, ranchers, and farmers set out to poison, hunt, and eliminate the gray wolf, whose range included the northern states, and whose pelts were thick and prized and fetched a pretty coin.

The result was that gray wolves came to the very brink of extinction, with no one to speak for them, no PETA crazies to throw paint on women wearing coats made of their skins, or government regs to slow the predation and wholesale slaughter.

By the mid-1970s, few wolves were left, though the nation’s zoologists and animal researchers and wildlife conservationists were by now sophisticated enough to realize the tragedy of the endangered animal with exquisite fur and alert and clever eyes that bespoke remarkable intelligence. No one had thought to champion the wolf, because it roamed and hunted as its nature demanded, naturally coming into conflict with the owners of the prey successfully caught by the grays. City dwellers had little to do with the wolves, or the predation problem common on farms and ranches, so no one spoke for the wolf. He had no champion, and was the victim of a nonstop drumbeat of calumny by those who were recipients of their nocturnal snatch-and-grabs.

The quality of the vicious libels published endlessly was of a nastier and less compassionate sort than the recent to-do over the silverback gorilla, Harambe, sadly shot to save the life of a wayward 3-year-old who careered into the gorilla enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo. What was misunderstood was that wolves were not declaring war on settlers and ranchers. They were, quite simply, obeying their own instincts, not being deliberately obnoxious -- and the ink poured against them never looked at the predation from the wolves’ point of view. The result was massive programs to exterminate them. These efforts almost succeeded. In the EU, wolves became extinct in the 20th century, the last one killed recorded as 1976. Species reintroduction never occurred, unlike the efforts now undertaken by our wildlife services.

For wolves in the Northern Rockies, the past years have been difficult. In 2009, Idaho and Montana offered the first wolf-hunting seasons in decades. Then in 2010, conservation groups won a federal case that restored protection for wolves in those states.

Laws were passed to call a halt to the predation. Most states abided by them, but not all. Particularly persuasive landowners and ranchers with mojo were still able to complain about livestock depletion and ‘pernicious wild wolves.’. Hunting gray wolves is still legal in Alaska -- but as the largest state is the 17th largest land mass on the globe by acreage, perhaps it is felt that the prey has a vast ground to inhabit, and humans do not intrude as much on the wolf habitat as they do in the lower 48.

The wolves hunted are gray wolves; a separate species, red wolves have not been the target of predation as have their ashen-colored cousins.

One point in favor of sage predator protection laws is compensation for cattle, sheep, or horses killed by wolves, bears, or cougars. (Though not for older women seeking younger male associates. No compensation there.). Compensation is one way to mollify angry residents, of course. The Department of Fish and Wildlife, for instance, compensates based on a variety of factors under its Rules for Depredation Incidents. Livestock or companion animals killed or injured by wolves are eligible for USDA compensation using state monies. The cost is minimal compared to the ‘cumulative environmental cost’ of stripping the ecosystem of its valuable predators.

Farmers, ranchers, and others with slaughtered animals get some funding through the FWS Livestock Protection Act) MT – the Montana Livestock Loss Board. They approve of the compensation program. The phrase used in the sticks is “paying for tolerance,” and it is pretty widespread and entrenched.

We have come a long way from that view of these magnificent animals as varmints to be killed for bounty wherever they were encountered.

Ironically, killing wolves in a given area does not decrease the depredation of animals and livestock. In fact, losses to farmers go up. Kill just a few wolves, a new study finds, and livestock losses actually rise. The Idaho legislature this year created a Wolf Depredation Control Board, a move critics say is aimed at pushing conservation efforts... It actually works against them. Balance of nature is a tricky thing, the band-aid appliers have found. Apply this intricate system to the blunderbuss efforts of the current heedless administration, which fails to do the research on tertiary results of fast-punch gross efforts at the intelligence- and science-challenged notions of “climate control.”

A current video sent me by a friend in Boseman now making the rounds is a nearly magical corrective to the sorry misconception of these wild and beautiful canines.

The video describes what happened when, in an attempt to recolonize the wilds, 14 wolves were released in Yellowstone Park in 1915. A stunning turnaround occurred that left naturalists dumbfounded, and which has much to teach us about the miraculous power of Nature to heal, if permitted to do so. And without the folderol of officious broadsides from Washington ordering billions to be spent for ill-conceived and myopic programs of recovery.

The introduction of the pack of wolves soon took back the range from the uncontrolled overgrowth of deer, which had proliferated unmanageably in the absence of natural enemies to keep their numbers in check. The deer had overgrazed the land, budding trees and foliage such that the ground was rubble, riverbanks were unstable and given to collapse, and trees could not find purchase where the canopy and ground cover were compromised.

With the reappearance of their natural enemy, the deer shrank back to areas more protected, abandoning their strip-feeding, leaving vestigial flora to regenerate. Once the deer had been culled by the wolves, and retreated to niches and dales unvisited by their predators, the grasses, flora, and trees took a remarkable resurgent turn. Birds returned. Seeds dropped by the new arrivals further added to the growth of leafy underbrush and foliage. Smaller animals and beavers returned, making habitat for more species that had been discouraged from setting up shop in an inhospitable environment. The pathways and curvature of the rivers began to regularize, as banks no longer collapsed, and trees were more solidly rooted.  The temperature, cooled by trees and clearer waters and a regulated balance of species and vegetation, became less punishing. Animals could shade under leafy trees that had been spindly and unrobust.

The ecosystem had righted Itself, left to its own, with but the addition of original species to the denuded mix.

After 100 years, the land is unrecognizable, restored to balance, and serviced by a wide biodiversity and biomass where once had been threadbare scree and scrub.

The homeostasis of the formerly barren and scrubby region was now in full flower, all by virtue of introducing back into a wildlife area a natural predator. No special foods, tricks, aircraft, or medical equipment. No massive government assignment or privileged stimulus apart from occasional monitoring and assessing the regrowth and regeneration of the area.

Although much was written in the wildlife and hunting literature decades ago, few not involved in direct contact with forests and streams were aware of what was happening to our precious species. With the advent of instantaneous dissemination of ‘news’ and alerts, many millions can now comprehend and participate in the resurgence of wildlife.

Visiting Israel’s desertified areas one year, we choppered down to expanses that had once been drained, the wetlands having been considered a waste and not valuable for very much. Fifty years after the founding of the country, Israel realized the loss of these invaluable ranges, where species thrived, and the environment was in a significant balance of water, water-based plants, insects and fauna. Israel brought back the wetlands she had summarily drained. It is a lesson many nations still have not learned.

Sadly, as of April 2016, over 4,200 wolves had been slaughtered in just six states. In these states, Wolf management has swung full circle in just half a century from extermination to recovery, and now, back again. Protected no longer, more than 550 gray wolves were dispatched to death this season. An enlightened public can reverse this ill-considered turnaround, which is one reason to raise the profile of these creatures before we face their extinction once again, this time for eternity.

If we still keep up the killing of these animals, the question naturally arises: Did we bring them back from the dead just to kill them anew?

Extinction is forever. As stewards of the land, its flora and faunae, we are no longer so cavalier about wiping out whole species for the convenience of one farm or ranch.

Though there are still a few benighted states that have not rewritten their hunting/extermination protocols for wolves, most have joined the chorus of scientists and animal experts who treasure the de-extinctioning of this remarkably adaptive treasure.