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The Challenge and Opportunity of Recovering Wolf Populations

The Dilemma of Wolf Management


The inevitability of wolf control, however, introduces a new, complex element into the equation governing the wolf's future in all but the remotest areas of the world: wolf protectionism. The same cultural attitudes that fostered wolf recovery also encouraged an extreme degree of wolf protectionism. Those of us professionally involved with wolf recovery have traditionally been maligned by antiwolf people (Haubner 1990). Now we are vilified by many wolf lovers as wolf enemies because of our acknowledgement that wolves often require control.

Wolves are revered for several reasons. Because they tend to kill prey that are old, sick, or weak (Murie 1944; Mech 1970), many laypeople mistakenly believe that, without wolves, prey would automatically die out from disease. Wolves are also hailed as good models for the human race because of their alleged monogamy and family allegiances. A book has even been written titled The Soul of the Wolf (Fox 1980).

Other misconceptions about wolves encourage wolf protectionism. Because of the book Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat (1963) and the popular movie made from the book, many people believe wolves live primarily on mice rather than ungulates. Both are fiction (Banfield 1964; Pimlott 1966), but both purport to be true and are sold and shown by museums and other unsuspecting educational organizations. Other misconceptions, half truths, and outdated views that many protectionists hold include the following: wolves only prey on livestock when no natural prey is available; the loss of pack members fosters disastrous social chaos in the wolf population; wolves socially limit their own population; because the wolf is on the U. S. endangered species list, this means that there are very few left anywhere in the world; and wolves are so shy of humans that they will move out of areas of high activity or avoid settling in them, and they will maintain dens and pups only many kilometers from such activity.

Because of these misconceptions and the power of animal rights groups, wolf control is resisted by much of the public (see Garrott et al. 1993). This attitude has three major negative implications for wolf recovery. First, some people revere wolves so much that, rather than having wolves face control, these people would rather not restore wolves to areas where they would have to be controlled. Because wolves will probably have to be controlled almost everywhere they are restored, this sentiment translates into political pressure against wolf recovery. Second, the antiwolf public, such as some livestock owners and organizations, intensify their antiwolf attitudes in reaction to the extremism of the other side. They also fear the possibility of road closures and other restrictions on land use that are often fostered by protectionists using the wolf to prevent logging, mining, snowmobiling, or other human uses of semiwilderness and wilderness. Third, some wolf advocates resort to terrorism (Hayes, personal communication) and deceptive advertisements (Anonymous 1992). This zealotry intimidates public officials, who might otherwise be predisposed toward wolf recovery, to shun it.

Of course, the prowolf contingent holds a wide spectrum of attitudes. Thus, some people will accept control against livestock depredations but oppose control prescribed for increasing game herds. Some will accept control by government agencies but not by the public. Many people will accept indirect methods of control such as fencing, guard dogs, or aversive conditioning. These indirect methods are more acceptable because they do not involve humans killing wolves directly. Few proponents of these methods seem to realize, however, that keeping wolves from prey ultimately reduces the carrying capacity of wolf range, and thus fosters starvation and increased deaths from intraspecific strife (Mech 1994). This is particularly true in countries such as Italy, Spain, Israel, where a high percentage of the total carrying capacity for wolves is comprised of livestock, but it applies on a smaller scale to North America as well. As long as wolf deaths are either indirect (and thus not so obvious) or natural, many people accept these deaths who would not tolerate direct or human-caused deaths.

Direct lethal control is still usually the only practical course under most conditions. There are several ways to apply this control. Control by government agency, usually the Department of Agriculture in the U. S., is the type generally most acceptable to wolf advocates, but it is by far the most expensive and time-consuming. Control by landowners or their agents is the one most favored by landowners, but it is difficult to police, and most landowners lack the time and expertise for it, except by poisoning. Open taking of wolves year-round in no-wolf zones similar to the taking of coyotes in most areas of the U. S., and regulated taking by the public, could be applied in no-wolf zones or in wolf sanctuaries to hold the population down such as is done in many suburban areas for white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), geese (Anser sp.), and beavers. A modification of this type of control is public taking by special permit.

All of the nongovernment approaches to control are much less expensive but also less precise to the area or to specific wolves taken and generally are the most disliked by wolf advocates. A notable exception is the government control of wolves to increase herds of big game in areas of Alaska and Canada. A public take of 1200-1500 wolves per year in Alaska brings little or no protest, but the state's controlling of 150 wolves to increase big game herds is protested vehemently (Anonymous 1993). While biologically this seems illogical, politically such state control allows animal-rights groups to portray this control as a dastardly government program that must be stopped.

The wolf's high reproductive potential and its tendency to disperse hundreds of kilometers insure that there are few places where wolves could be restored without some form of control being necessary. But the very people most enthusiastically promoting wolf recovery are generally those who want no control, so this dilemma makes public officials reluctant to promote recovery.

Because wolf-taking by landowners or the public is the least expensive and most acceptable to people who do not regard the wolf as special, there will be greater local acceptance for wolf recovery in areas where such control is allowed. Thus, if wolf advocates could accept effective control, wolves could live in far more places.


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