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How my thoughts on wolves have changed

 

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA

The wolves that periodically venture into the valley behind my home are blood-thirsty killers. That's what I admire about them. They evolved to near perfection in their ecological niche, and they are lucky. They are not forced to contemplate whether their lifestyle serves nature well.

People, well: People are different. Our greatest evolutionary gift is thought. Thus, a friend at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, thinking about what he's learned over the years, has decided to lobby for the extermination of a pack of wolves ranging military lands less than 20 miles due north of here.

From my glass-fronted office 1,000-feet high in the Chugach Mountains above Anchorage, I can look down on the homeland of those wolves. I love wolves. And I have come to believe those wolves should die. They appear to have lost their fear of humans, and Alaskans witnessed a terrifying demonstration of the consequences of this last March. A petite 32-year-old schoolteacher out jogging near the village of Chignik Lake on the Alaska Peninsula was attacked, killed and partially consumed by wolves.

Wolf attacks on people are extremely rare, partly because we have made wolves rare -- and made them fear us -- by mercilessly hunting them down since white folks first arrived in North America. That history has skewed our knowledge.

When we were trying to drive wolves into extinction, because we considered them our enemy and even a competitor for scarce food, we hunted them down and suppressed their numbers until neither people nor prey populations faced much threat from them.

Then, beginning about 40 years ago, public perception shifted. People began to love wolves, not only as symbols of a remnant wild, but also because wolves seemed to be somewhat like us, or even better.

Wolves, biologist Gordon Haber once told me, could manage wildlife populations better than people, because wolves know things we'll never know. Haber was a biologist who studied wolves in Denali National Park until he fell in love with them. His science suffered after that, but he was much admired by those who agreed with his thinking. Haber, who died tragically in a plane crash while studying wolves, saw what wolves and people have in common: Wolves bond together in packs. They communicate. They take care of each other. They nurture their young in some ways like we raise children.

A good argument can be made that wolves are a representative model of the first human tribes. But they are not like us anymore.

We left the cave thousands of years ago and learned many things, including the sustained yield principles of scientific conservation. But wolves remain locked in ancient history.

The foundation for Haber's thinking can be traced back to 1970, when, during the buildup to passage of the Endangered Species Act, legendary wolf research biologist David Mech published an article titled "In Defense of the Wolf'' in Reader's Digest. Mech argued that wolves were an integral part of the "balance of nature.'' The Digest at that time had the largest number of readers of any publication in the country. Mech's article sparked a revolution in public thought, and for one brief, Earth Day-powered moment in history, the wolf could do no wrong.

An early student among the many who would study the interactions of wolves and moose on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Mech theorized that wolf predation was a good and necessary thing. It was, as ecologists would say, "compensatory.'' Wolves picked off the old, the sick, the weak and others destined to die soon anyway, and that was good for the population of their prey (though the prey might have disagreed).

Mech, Haber and others like them helped swing the pendulum of American thought and politics into the wolf's corner. It lingered there for decades.

But in the wake of the restoration of some wolf populations in the Lower 48 and the evidence mounting in Alaska, where the wolf has never been in danger of extinction, the pendulum has begun to swing back. In the past 20 years, a variety of Alaska studies have documented how wolves can threaten and suppress prey populations.

That's why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has come around to proposing an aerial hunt of wolves on remote Unimak Island in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge to save the local caribou herd. A decade ago, the agency probably wouldn't have entertained the thought.

The young Alaska biologists of the 1970s who believed that wolves were good have been replaced by a new generation of young biologists, and some old ones, who believe that wolves must be intensively managed if their prey are to have a chance of surviving in greater than minimal numbers. And that's among the reasons why the pendulum in Alaska appears headed way, way back -- all the way back toward territorial days, when wolves were pursued with a vengeance.


The evolution in thought has been interesting for me to watch. I was a student of ecology in Minnesota in the 1970s when Mech started studying wolves in my area. As a pre-fisheries and wildlife major at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, I readily bought into the balance-of-nature theory. It was all part of the nationwide environmental awakening, as scientists documented the many and subtle ways in which humans could wreak havoc on the environment. DDT, a wonder chemical in the human war against insect-spread diseases, had emerged as a nightmare in the natural world. Man was bad. Nature was good.

As people focused on the idea that wolves had been persecuted for centuries, we understood that persecution was wrong. Anyone who'd grown up singing "We Shall Overcome'' at church camp as the civil rights movement rippled across the country in the 1960s understood this. You didn't need science to back it up.

And so wolves became for me, as for many others in my generation, an iconic image of all that was wild, natural and good. I first heard them howling in the northwoods on a fall night in 1972. They were still the enemy of some in the surrounding country, but the Endangered Species Act would get through Congress the next year and things would begin to change dramatically. By then, I was off in Alaska chasing dreams that would never end. Wilderness was at the heart of those dreams, and that kept wolves in the center of the picture for me.

At least since people stopped shooting them at every chance, wolves have shown the ability to adapt to living near us. But they cannot live among us. They need big, open spaces in which to hunt. There are more such places in Alaska than in any other state, but even here, there are not all that many wolves.

What you need to understand is that all the hype about the bounty of Alaska's wildlife is so much bunk. Alaska is skinny country. The abundant wildlife of tourism promotions and television travelogues is a myth. In most of Alaska, save some of the marine coastal ecosystems, abundance is an illusion. Animals briefly cluster around short and vital food supplies in summer, or appear readily visible in landscapes where one can see for miles, sometimes tens of miles. This creates the appearance of bounty in a land of scarcity.

Still, even by Alaska standards, wolves were particularly scarce when I arrived. Wolves here, like wolves everywhere, had been under siege. Government agents in the Territory of Alaska hunted them from the ground and from the air. But they killed the most with a simpler, more efficient and less costly tool: poison.

After Alaska became a state in 1959, the Legislature banned poison. The wolf was classified as a big-game animal and given greater protection. But significant wolf hunting, often aided by airplanes, continued into the 1970s. By the middle of that decade, though, environmentalists were filing suit to stop the hunts, arguing there was no scientific justification. They managed to stop some on procedural grounds, though they lost most of the substantive arguments.

It didn't matter. The lawsuits were in some ways just a tool to be used in the court of public opinion, and there the friends of the wolf were steadily winning. When Democrat Steve Cowper was elected Alaska governor in 1986, he ordered a four-year ban on wolf-control programs, and for the next 15 years, those opposed to wolf control largely dictated the agenda in Alaska. They reached the peak of their strength in 2000, when Alaskans voted 54 percent to 46 percent to approve a ballot initiative that essentially outlawed the use of airplanes for any hunting of wolves.

Two years later, when Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and the Alaska Legislature overrode that ban, there was a growing body of research in both Alaska and northern Canada illustrating that wolf control worked. Some of the best research, ironically, had been driven by the argument that it didn't work. That was, however, only part of the picture. Public opinion was also shifting. In Alaska, hunters who depend on moose and caribou for food wanted declines in those prey species reversed. Killing wolves was the easy solution. And by then, visibly successful wolf-restoration projects in Yellowstone National Park and elsewhere made it harder for outside environmental groups to argue that wolf control in Alaska threatened the species.

These days, it seems that the big question about wolf control in Alaska is not "Should we do it?'' but "Can we afford to do it?'' Canadian Bob Hayes, who designed wolf control programs for the Yukon Territory just across the border from Alaska for almost 20 years, recently came out against the whole idea, arguing that wolf control is too expensive.

This is not the sort of thing many in the North want to hear. They want simple solutions in a world that seems to only get more complex as new things are learned about it. Scientific research now points to the recent high salmon runs as a new factor influencing predation on caribou and moose. Biologists already knew that the salmon runs helped support large populations of bears, which hibernate for the winter only to emerge from their dens hungry at calving season. Bear predation on caribou and moose calves has long been known to be a factor driving some of those populations downward. But salmon are now also being implicated as a supplemental food source that helps keep wolf populations artificially high.

It's all part of that old "ecosystem management'' thing. Nothing operates independently, no matter how much we might act as if it does. It reminds me of an argument I had with Haber 20 years ago while I was writing a series on wolves and their prey for Alaska's largest newspaper. Most researchers then were of the belief that wolves and their prey went up and down per the dictates of some sort of yet-to-be-divined natural cycle.

Haber was in a small minority arguing for what he called the "multiple equilibrium theory." It was a cycle of sorts, too, but with big plateaus and random movements. Prey populations, Haber argued, could stay locked in a high equilibrium or a low equilibrium for lengthy periods if conditions were right, get stuck somewhere in the middle, or bounce rapidly up and down. He got mad at me for trying to make the theory fit a cycle. Twenty years later, I'm beginning to think Haber was onto something. Not that I like it.

The most common natural scheme of things in Alaska seems to show that populations of wolves, moose and caribou remain trapped in low equilibrium for a long time unless people intervene. We've certainly done that in Fairbanks and Anchorage, where simple human occupation has pushed predators out into the surrounding wilderness. Wolves occasionally still venture into these cities, but it is hard for them to hunt efficiently there.

The result? If you want to see moose in Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks are among your best bets. Maybe the most efficient and non-controversial method of wolf control is the construction of shopping centers and suburbs.

Craig Medred has worked as a reporter in Fairbanks, Juneau and Anchorage, where he was with the Anchorage Daily News for more than 20 years, including a stint as the outdoor editor. He now writes for AlaskaDispatch.com, covering things like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which is also the subject of his 2010 book, Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations Along Alaska's Iditarod Trail.