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. 

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.

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