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How wild is a managed wolf?


Another wolf made the news last month: SW266M received capital punishment in Wyoming for the crime of eating woolly domestic mammals. His "name" means he was the 266th male wolf captured and tagged in southwestern Montana. His record yielded the further information that he was born in May 2007 on the east side of the Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, Mont., and also that he was the littermate of a female wolf, SW341F, who died last March of unknown causes in Eagle County, Colo.

These facts amaze me — that we have instant access to information about hundreds of wolves being tracked all over the Rockies. It makes me wonder again what we are doing as we allegedly "re-wild" the West. Officially, we're reintroducing wolves where we'd wiped them out. Polls have indicated that three-fourths of Americans favor bringing back the wolves. But that might be a "Sure, why not" majority; the Americans who oppose wolves, however, are pretty fierce about "why not."

Washington state is currently going through this debate, though it isn't trying to reintroduce the wolf; the wolves have already reintroduced themselves — much like SW341F wandering into Colorado. So now, Washington's wildlife officials are trying to figure out how many wolves constitute enough so they can take them off the endangered species list.

But as one frazzled wildlife official noted, "The 80 percent of the people in this state who are supposedly for the wolves coming back are not the ones coming to the meetings." The people showing up are mostly the grandchildren of those who eradicated the wolf from the West 70 years ago.

What's resulting is a propaganda war. One side employs the Little Red Riding Hood information machine, portraying the wolf as a vicious "man-eater" — a term actually used in some of Washington's hearings. The other side is what could be called the ecosystem managers' machine, a growing stream of scientific articles, coffee-table books and documentaries portraying wolves as members of intelligent, playful and close extended families, "working" to shape up otherwise lazy elk herds and take down the weak and sick elk.

Where does the truth lie? There is very little evidence to support the "man-eater" thesis, although "livestock-eater" is a different matter. In any case, that doesn't seem to matter. The Little Red Riding Hood machine tells us that wolves were eradicated because they were fearsome bloodthirsty creatures, but it's probably closer to the truth to say they were made out to be fearsome creatures so that we could get on with their eradication, because they were another well-organized carnivore species that, once upon a prehistoric time, competed with us for food.

There is more evidence to support the thesis that elk get lazy and reproduce too much without large predators harassing them, although the elk probably have their own unsolicited opinions on that. But despite siding with the pro-wolf propaganda machine, I have lately become more than a little uneasy with what we are trying to tell ourselves about this so-called reintroduction.   

Turning several hundred large carnivores loose in the Rockies to play their historic role as managers of the elk herds — admittedly something we need help on — is a creative act that reflects well on our expanding awareness of how the world might work better. But is it really "bringing back the wolf" when the wolves wear radio collars and generate better genealogical records than most humans do, and when their whereabouts at any time can be ascertained with GIS coordinates?

These large carnivores that we're putting back in the woods are so thoroughly managed that the question arises: Are they still really wild wolves? How long will it be before technology reaches the point at which it will be possible to administer "behavior modification" through the collar when one like SW266M gets a hankering for the wrong slow herbivore?

This reintroduction might be better described as a creative expansion of the original contract between humans and wolves, when some of the more intelligent wolves decided to collaborate with some of the more intelligent humans rather than compete. And I think that could be a good thing; I had that basic contract with a border collie once, and she made me a better human.

But let's be clear about what we are doing. We aren't just reintroducing wolves. We are attempting a higher level of engagement in our relationship with a difficult fellow species, and it will require at least as much behavior modification from us as from the wolves.

George Sibley writes about the West in Gunnison, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].