The War on Wolves: What It Is, Why It’s Happening, and What You Can Do

What is the war on wolves?

Idaho has been all over the environmental news lately for what is being dubbed its “War on Wolves” (Clark). In the one year since wolves were stripped of their protection as endangered species, Idaho has killed more than 400 wolves.  The governor of Idaho, Butch Otter, specifically prioritized the delisting of wolves on the endangered species as a political goal (Gibson).  Idaho is the hot topic now, but they are only part of a larger pattern of discrimination against wolves and other predators.

Why is it happening?

Norm Bishop, one of Yellowstone National Park’s most respected biologists, was terrified of wolves as a child.  As recounted to S.K Robisch and reported in Wolves and Wolf Myth in American Literature, children’s stories such as The Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Pigs embedded in Bishop the idea of a wolf as a ferocious monster; he lived near a railroad track and would imagine the steaming train as The Wolf.  His parents had to forcefully rid him of his intense fear of wolves through getting Bishop a dog and burning a copy of The Little Red Riding Hood right in front of him (Robisch xi).  Children fearing wolves is not uncommon in many cultures.  For example, in a Russian school, when the fable of A. N. Krylov “The Wolf and the Lamb” was to be dramatized, none of the children wanted the role of the wolf (Hunt 319).  It is not surprising, then, that these children grow up with a fear of wolves that translates into a desire to kill wolves; it is the same with all predators.  In North America, the wolf was driven to the point of extinction by hunters.  Though the wolf population has begun to rebound, the attitude that got the wolves killed off is still rampant.  To protect the wolves, and ourselves from the environmental devastation that results from the eradication of predators, we must combat the idea of the demonized wolf.

In the Russian school, it’s hardly shocking that the children didn’t want to be the wolf, even in play; the Oxford English Dictionary includes various definitions of the word “wolf,” mainly with negative connotations, such as: “a person or being having the character of a wolf; one of a cruel, ferocious or rapacious disposition;” “applied to a person, etc. who should be hunted down like a wolf;” “as a type of a destructive or devouring agency, esp. hunger or famine;” “a name for certain malignant or erosive diseases in men and animals,” such as lupus. These attitudes are reflected in phrases from other European languages as well.  For example, the phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” which is derived from The Sermon on the Mount in the Bible’s Book of Matthew, appears in the English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, and Hungarian languages.  The phrase “throw somebody to the wolves” has versions in English, Italian, Spanish, German, and Hungarian. The phrase “big bad wolf” appears in English, French, and Hungarian, and that’s only a small portion of negative wolf-related phrases in European languages (Hunt 320). 

When people grow up internalizing the idea that wolves are unequivocally bad, it’s rare that they turn out a conservationist; Norm Bishop is the exception, rather than the rule.  Not everyone conquers his or her fear, like Bishop did.  In William Stolzenburg’s treatise Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators, Stolzenburg poses the following question: “Do predators matter in the web of life?”  The answer is a resounding yes.  One example is a 1978 ecosystem in the Aleutian reefs in Washington state; in 1978, scientists proved that the presence of otters there “could flip an ecosystem like a switch” (62).  With otters, the reefs were rich with kelp and marine life; without otters, the system collapsed.  Stolzenburg further argues that very little sways those of the antipredator persuasion: not the overwhelming science that tells us that predators are necessary in the ecosystem, not the endangerment of species, and not popular, taxpayer vote.  For example, as recently as 2007, the governor of Idaho, Butch Otter, said publicly that he wanted all but the bare minimum of wolves (then, one hundred, as required by law, but now one hundred and fifty), to be killed; in fact, he added that he’d like “to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself” (Stolzenburg 209).  It’s likely that Butch Otter was raised to resent the wolf and taught nothing of the wolf’s value to society and the environment.  In his article “Discourse and Wolves: Science, Society, and Ethics,” William S. Lynn writes of the systematic destruction of wolves and whether or not it can be justified ethically.  Though he acknowledges the need for wildlife management and the occasional killing of a problematic predator, he argues that a 2006 case in which Wildlife Services killed a pair of wolves under suspicion of livestock hunting, leaving their eight pups to starve to death, was unethical (75).  Lynn’s overall feelings about the government’s stance on wolves can be summed up in the following quote:

Like a written or spoken narrative, the meaning of a discourse can be interpreted for its good or ill intentions, content, implications, and consequences.  Thus, when the state of Alaska justifies the aerial gunning of wolves through policy statements of dubious scientific value, we have a discourse we can read like a text and from which we can extract its meaning. So too, when gunners take to the air to kill wolves, we have an equally meaningful action on which to base our interpretations and from which to discern the values and worldviews that inform those actions. When the Alaska Board of Game continues to authorize lethal control measures against wolves, we see a social institution whose members, policies, and practices are partaking of a broader antiwolf discourse (Lynn 79).

Lynn’s point is that seemingly small, inconsequential laws add up to show an overall anti-wolf sentiment which creates a bias in legislation.

What is the result?

The result of this bias is that gratuitous laws are constructed under the guise of necessary evil and wildlife management, like Idaho’s laws that promote the near decimation of wolves in the state.  For example, in the United States, seventy thousand coyotes are legally killed per year (Stolzenburg 209).  Most of the predator killings in the United States are legally sanctioned and often government sponsored, all supported by United States taxpayers, many of whom may not realize what ideas they are implicitly supporting.  In Oregon, elected Jackson County officials hired a man whose sole purpose is to exterminate mountain lions, supposedly to protect the people – but no mountain lion attacks have ever been reported in Oregon (Stolzenburg 209).  This is merely one example of people following the proposed ideas for predator extermination that sort of sound good, despite no actual grounding in science.  This mindset leads to a larger problem: people kill predators for entertainment because of anti-predator indoctrination, just as they have done since the dawn of the Stone Age (Stolzenburg 46) while completely ignoring the long-term effects of doing so.

Even advocates of nature writing such as John Burroughs subscribe to the more common attitudes: in 1906, Burroughs wrote that fewer wolves would mean more “useful and beautiful game” (Robisch 29).  He was wrong; science proves this idea patently incorrect, and yet it prevails even to this day.  It explains “why the Pennsylvania deer hunter sees everything right and nothing wrong in a forest that’s swarming with deer yet as barren of biodiversity as a city park” (Stolzenburg 206).  In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold learns this lesson himself.  He sees a she-wolf and shoots her on site, simply because that was what he had been taught to do.  Yet, as he watched her die, he realized that he had done something very wrong.  Leopold realized what we all should: that killing predators is short-sighted and we all need to “think like a mountain” (129).

At one point, there were less than five hundred wolves in the United States, all in Minnesota (Robisch 4).  By the time poisoning was legally outlawed in the United States in 1970, gray wolves occupied less than 4 percent of their former range.  Its southeast counterpart, the red wolf, was already extinct in the wild (Stolzenburg 42).  This was the result of a wolf-killing campaign that had begun in 1630 when colonists were offered a penny per dead wolf.  In 1915, the U.S. government furthered the program by encouraging citizens to shoot wolves with rifles from both the ground and air, to trap wolves in legtraps, and to poison wolves with thallium, strychnine, cyanide and other poisons.  The peoples’ inherent fear of wolves comes out not only in the number of killed wolves, but in the methods of killing:  “Captured wolves were scalped, lit on fire, hamstrung with hunting knifes, bludgeoned with clubs, dragged to death behind horses and disemboweled by packs of hunting grounds” (Stolzenburg 43).  The wolves killed were the strongest and best genetic material; the wolves left were missing toes and eyes and had been forced to modify their pack behavior to account for humans (43).  In other words, the wolf population had been reduced not only in number but in quality.

What can YOU do to help fight against the war on wolves?

Fortunately, the situation is now a little better, after extensive efforts such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, which met such great opposition that some of the meetings have been called “public wolf lynchings” (Ferguson xi).  The wolf population in the United States, especially in the northern Rocky Mountain regions, has recovered enough that the wolf has been delisted from the “endangered” designation of the Endangered Species Act (Robisch xiv).  As a result, the wolf territory biomes are much healthier.  As good news as this should be, it’s not a true victory.  As Robisch states, “As soon as the wolf returned, wildcatter antiwolf laws justifying another extermination campaign were written as quickly and poorly as possible” (xiv).  Idaho is a perfect example of this.  The process of extermination-rehabilitation will keep repeating until we address the underlying problem: the demonization of the wolf.  In The Yellowstone Wolves: The First Year, Gary Ferguson says that many people responded to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone with hope and wonder, but others viewed it as “a contemptible act—reckless, unthinking” (172).  The problem can only be combated where it begins: in children’s stories and early education.  As Ferguson puts it, “notions of the anti-wolf movement—that wolves are little more than the devil’s messengers, determined to steal children and nab every cow in sight—will eventually crumble . . . if ranchers can let go of fairy tails” (173).  If we teach children that wolves are to be respected and that they are a valuable part of many ecosystems, perhaps there will never be another widespread wolf extermination in the United States.

Making education a priority will help in the future, but there are things we can do right now.  There are tens of hundreds of signature petitions that crop up after new anti-wolf legislation is passed, and writing to your local representatives is always helpful.  Here are several petitions you can sign or letters you can send TODAY to help the wolves in Idaho and elsewhere:

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