A Story of Survival

This is my 131st post. Hard to believe I’ve had that much to say, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading. I’ve certainly enjoyed telling stories, mine and others’. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share another–a story of prejudice, indiscriminate killing, and, hopefully, survival.

One day, I sat in my high school library frantically searching for a topic for my science project (or was it social studies?). This was before the Internet, so I believe I was flipping through catalogs or magazines. I found an article about the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Perfect, I thought, and whipped out a short report on the topic. It was mildly interesting to me at the time—we killed all the wolves and now were making an effort to re-balance the ecosystem.

Looking back, though, the assignment was the beginning of a lifelong interest in the species and their struggle to survive not only in the wild, but as the target of ranchers, hunters, and just plain wolf haters.

My husband has asked me why they are such a controversial species, and I’ve shrugged. “No, really,” he says. “Why do so many people hate wolves?”

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Really, I have no idea. I know why some people say they hate wolves, but I have yet to find evidence that corroborates their claims. It’s ironic, really—we idolize dogs and vilify their wild ancestors. Can we love only those we’ve tamed?

Some say wolves are a nuisance because they kill livestock. And they do. But—indulge me again with a few numbers—according to the USDA, in 2008 farmers lost 125,000 sheep for one reason or another, including disease, old age, and predation. Coyotes accounted for 31,600 of those losses. Wolves: 1,300. But here’s the real kicker: dogs took 1,400.  Dogs killed one hundred more sheep than wolves killed.

Others say wolves take too much game, leaving less for hunters. But that’s just not true. Elk populations are holding steady in the West. And we in the Midwest know that deer are in no danger of extinction.

Still others believe wolves are vicious, indiscriminate killers of animals and people. These people aren’t to be taken too seriously, though, because they clearly know little about the animal they so dislike. Yet their hatred can be frightening (just search “wolf hunting” on Facebook).

Over the years, my interest in and love for wolves has grown. On a late spring day in Yellowstone a few years ago, I was lucky enough to watch a wolf stalk a bison calf and then an antelope. (The wolf was unsuccessful.) I also got to see old photographs of my husband’s grandmother’s biplane covered with wolf carcasses from a local bounty hunt, back when our government paid people to kill wolves. I also researched the species for my book, in which wolves play a pivotal role.

Here are some things I’ve found that are true:

  • Wolves are wary of humans. They do not hunt humans. If you’ve ever seen a wolf in the wild, consider yourself lucky. Real life isn’t a cheesy Liam Neeson movie.
  • Wolves play a role in the health of everything from beavers to birch trees. They are a keystone species, so when we negatively affect the wolf, we negatively affect the surrounding world.
  • The government (you and me) reimburses farmers for livestock lost to wolves.
  • There are nonlethal ways to help prevent wolves from hunting livestock.

Hating wolves, best as I can see, is a social decision passed from parents to children, from friend to friend, a decision as old as Red Riding Hood herself. Somewhere along the line, people turned wolves into horrible, mythical creatures. People did. Wolves, of course, have always just been wolves.

In the early 1900s, one government agency in charge of wolf bounties even created false stories about wolves killing livestock at random so they could maintain their funding.

We hunted wolves almost to extinction. Then some of us realized our error and began efforts to save them. We passed the Endangered Species Act. In the 1990s, we reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone, where they had been wiped out.

This reintroduction has been mostly successful, though no nonpartisan animal biologist I’ve read has said wolves are ready to be taken off the endangered species list, which is one of the last, if not the last, protections wolves have. They are already hunted in states like Idaho, Minnesota, and Wyoming, where hunters can take as many wolves as they want. And again, if you’ve done that Facebook search, you know plenty of people are waiting to wipe wolves out again.

Yet taking the wolf off the endangered species list is exactly what the Obama administration has proposed. The public comment period ends September 11.

Indulge me one more time: please go to www.regulations.gov and search “gray wolf.” That will bring you to a page where you can leave a comment to speak out against delisting the gray wolf. We did it wrong once. Let’s not do it again.

Many thanks, and happy 131st.

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23 thoughts on “A Story of Survival

  1. really good article Jessica. I agree with you and your commentary on wolves, as I learned the same from an educational experience at a wolf retreat center here in Minnesota.

  2. Agree 100 percent….as you know I Iove wolves and have pictures of them hanging in the cottage. Went to the email site and plagiarized your words in my comment…..”we did it wrong once, let’s not do it again.” Good job Jess.

  3. In my opinion, it’s all about respect. The loss of respect is usually because of fear. Fear of the unknown and lacking the knowledge or the desire to gain the knowledge of the thing we are fearful of. If people would learn to respect animals and their habitats there wouldn’t be a problem. Instead we intrude on their homes and wonder why they get upset and react. Great post Jess. I’ll go to the site right now and state my opinion.

    • Thank you, Wendy! You are so right–fear leads to disrespect. I wish people would educate themselves about animals they fear. When we had bats in our house, I had to learn about them, and now I actually love them. (Well, I respect them, anyway.)

  4. I agree with you, 100 percent Jessica, and thank you for sharing this. I’m also going to make my way over to that website. I’ve always loved and admired wolves, ever since I was a child and watched the movie Dancing With Wolves (you know, with Kevin Costner). It is also about respect and some humans thinking that they can always take what they consider to be theirs. It’s sad. These animals need all the protection that they possibly can get.

  5. What a great (and important) post. I love wolves, but I do admit to a very strong fear of them — and I wonder if that’s a lot of what goes on with the hatred of wolves. Especially with all the legends, lore and fairy tales surrounding them, as you mentioned? Still, that doesn’t mean I think they should be hunted, and I’m on my way to the regulations page; thank you for alerting me. (p.s. And now I’m all the more looking forward to your book!)

  6. Wow! This post would fit in the ‘you learn something new every day’ category! I must admit that prior to reading, I knew very little about wolves, short of their fairy tale lives. Thanks for informing me!

    • I have read it – a long time ago, but I remember loving learning so much about the natural world while not feeling like I was attending a lecture. Yes, wolves weren’t in my first draft but I found a way to work them in. 🙂 Actually, they’re pretty central to a memory of the main character, a 9 yr old boy, and now I can’t imagine the story without them.

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