Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Gray Wolves - A Conservation Issue

Gray wolves are an important part of the biodiversity across North America, but their legal status as a species (endangered, threatened, hunted) currently varies from state to state. Some people revere wolves, others demonize them. As of January 2010 a variety of legal actions and efforts to reinstate federal protection are at the center of financial drives and activist letter writing on both sides of the “wolf issue.”

Someone just asked me, “ What do you think about this?”

Unfortunately, wolves are the perfect example of how appealing to human emotions is the worst way to address conservation problems. We humans are hard pressed to change our beliefs or our practices when they are deeply invested with emotions.

Wolves are neither angels of the forest nor bloodthirsty devils. They are top predators with an important role to play in balancing ecosystems. Science has demonstrated time and time again that healthy wolf populations contribute to healthy stable populations of large herbivores that are also hunted by humans (deer, moose and elk). When these herbivore populations are more naturally balanced, other species, plant and animal, benefit as well. Long-term studies at Isle Royale and Yellowstone National Parks, as well as in Alaska have shown that the site of a wolf kill measurably increases the fertility of the ground for as much as ten years. The wolf brings the food web full circle.

But wolves challenge the human position of dominance. No animal likes to feel vulnerable, least of all humans. Sitting in California, where we exterminated our wolves long ago, it is easy for me to extol the wolfs beneficial role in the environment. I’m not going to look out my window and see one stalking my cattle. On the other hand, I have had coyotes stalking my backyard chickens in the middle of the day. I have looked out the window late at night to see coyote eyes looking back at me. Our growing hawk population brings predator/prey interactions into my yard on a daily basis. Whether it was protecting chickens, a small puppy or a tortoise hatchling, it was my responsibility to provide safe, completely fenced in areas for my animals without blaming local predators.

In Africa, the Cheetah Conservation Fund works with ranchers and livestock owners to help them protect their animals in a sustainable way that does not endanger cheetahs. Throughout some of the poorest tribal areas of the world, the Snow Leopard Trust engages local herders by listening to their fears and their needs in order to replace myth with knowledge and to build community-based conservation. These organizations succeed because the needs of the people and the wild animals involved are both taken into account.

In the American northeast, lawsuits reinstated endangered species status to gray wolves, yet there were 16 incidents of wolves being illegally killed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the last two months of 2009. The death of the animals came to light because several were radio-collared individuals in scientific studies. How many other uncollared wolves might have been killed is unknown. While these illegal wolf killings are being investigated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, legal status did not protect these wolves.

At the close of 2008 Idaho was believed to have a wolf population of 846 individuals. In 2009, the state instituted a wolf hunting season with a statewide quota of 220 animals. When the quota was not reached during the prescribed season, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission extended the season to March 3, 2010 in some areas. This isn’t a hunting season, it is a poorly disguised population control based on political influence not scientific data.

Wolves have become an issue because people on both sides have made this an emotional fight. There are real problems here–problems regarding biodiversity and ecosystem survival, subsistence ranching and human safety. None of these problems will be solved in a courtroom, through name calling or illegal slaughter.

If people with nothing but a felt gur on a barren Mongolian hillside, who depend completely on their livestock for survival can learn to value another living thing for the role it plays in the natural world, then surely, Americans can as well. But you can not force respect through litigation. If the conservation organizations involved spent as much money on community-based education and economic efforts rather than lawyers, maybe some real change might be accomplished.

I’ve watched wolves at Yellowstone National Park and listened to the howl of a wolf while camping at an isolated lake in the Yukon. I’ve never been afraid of wolves, but I have always respected them for the top predators that they are. A wolf is not a furry human, it is a wild creature, strong and powerful. The wolf’s goals and needs do not always correspond with human’s.

Would the world be a better place if we let wolves fulfill their natural place in the ecosystem? It would undoubtedly be a healthier place.

Would it be a different and sometimes more complicated place? Yes.

From wolves, to energy, to health care. It is time we came to the table honestly, respectfully, and willing to work together for the betterment of all.

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