by Jessie Lyn Thompson
The haunting howls of a wolf’s cry echo across a lonely canyon. He cries for his brothers and sisters, lost in a hunt for unvalidated vengeance. He cries for his home, decimated for development and paved to house his hunters. He cries for his freedom, challenged and stripped to satisfy a nation often unconcerned with conserving a dwindling wilderness.
It is difficult to discern the true state of affairs for the modern day wolf. Bereft of the buffalo that once dotted North America’s plains and with elk herds migrating through ranch lands rich with slower, fatter livestock, wild wolves have become the tear in a schism between conservationists and cattle-ranchers. By 1930, a fear of livestock losses prompted government paid trappers, farmers and ranchers to eradicate wild wolf populations in the West. With the help of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, a wolf reintroduction program in the Greater Yellowstone Area in 1995, and decades of research, preparation and advocacy for wolf preservation, the return of the wild wolf is a reality.
From the gray wolves of the Alaskan tundra and Northwestern Rockies to the red wolves of the Southeastern marshes, wolves once roamed the wilds all across America. A hunting alliance between man and wolf predates written history, and the fostering of that kinship led gray wolves to become the ancestors of man’s best friend, the dog. However, the wolves of the wild differ greatly in temperament and lifestyle from their retriever and terrier descendants, and the tensions between man and wolf tighten when competing over cattle commodities.
Tracing human/wolf tensions back to 1893, the infamous relationship between a notorious cattle-killing wolf known as Lobo and his hired hunter, Ernest Thompson Seten, forever influenced the way Americans view wolves and the wilderness. Looking back on his experience, Seten wrote, “Each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children.” Although Seten likely embellished elements of his “mostly true” short story “Lobo: The King of Currumpaw,” the tale opened up a dialogue that spurred a deep appreciation for unspoiled lands and played a major part in launching the environmental movement.
To many, the wolf embodies the very spirit of the wild, the essence of the frontier lands that once defined America. Seten described wolves as “dignified, fearless, and steadfast.” They serve as a symbol of nobility, loyalty and curiosity. For others, say Little Red Riding Hood or the cast of “The Grey,” the wolf takes on a much more sinister visage. Branded as a trickster, a cunning deceiver and a ferocious competitor, wolves have become a villain to many livestock owners. Like Red, cattle-ranchers throughout history have demonized the ‘big, bad wolf’ as a killer and a pest.
“They serve as a symbol of nobility, loyalty and curiosity.”
Interestingly, an analysis of the January 2011 report on cattle losses by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) reveals that predatory deaths accounted for only 5.5 percent of total livestock deaths. According to the NASS, “coyotes and dogs caused the majority of cattle and calf predator losses accounting for 53.1 percent and 9.9 percent respectively.” Wolves accounted for 3.7 percent of total losses nationally, with variation among individual states. Wolf advocates, Defenders of Wildlife, funded largely by public contribution, offers compensation programs for livestock losses.
The back-and-forth banter usually boils down to one word: coexistence. On one hand, environmentalists argue that wolves provide fundamental elements in maintaining a balanced ecosystem by creating restored biodiversity and healthier elk and coyote populations. On the other, ranchers argue that because of livestock conflicts such as cattle loss and tedious non-lethal methods of wolf deterrent, wolves have no place in the wild anymore.
In 1995, after decades of disagreements and negotiations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reintroduced 14 Canadian wolves into Yellowstone National Park. Since the return of the wolf, biologists have documented undeniably positive effects on the ecosystem. As of January 2011, wolf populations in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana exceeded 1,500 wolves. However, since their removal from the endangered species list in August 2011, hunters in Idaho and Montana have killed hundreds of wolves.
In the western Great Lakes region, wild wolf populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan have surpassed 4,000, the largest in the contiguous states. In January 2012, the FWS removed wolves from the endangered species list in this region. Defenders of Wildlife president Jamie Rappaport Clark released the following statement: “The incredible comeback of wolves in the region is a testament to the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act and the dedication of wolf advocates, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state wildlife managers.”
Like their wild cousins, captive wolves share the woes of human conflict. Wolves bred for the movie industry or for private homes are often abandoned once their careers end or a breeder realizes that they cannot tame the feral instincts of a wolf. Organizations such as Wolf Mountain Sanctuary (WMS) in Lucerne Valley, Calif., offer what they can, but limited resources can hinder adequate care, and the refuge for these animals becomes a chain-link fence compound; a cage.
“They’re not supposed to be in a cage,” says wolf caretaker Tonya “Littlewolf” Carloni, founder of WMS. Carloni began her bond with the wolf at the tender age of 2 under the wing of her native Apache grandfather, whom she attributes her wisdom on how to care for wolves. “We respect our brothers,” Carloni stresses. “We walk with the wolves.” The gentle demeanor of several wolves at the sanctuary show a softer side to the wolf, an animal known for complex and sometimes vicious social hierarchies both within and among packs. “A lot of things they portray in movies isn’t true,” says Tonya. “They’re really very shy.”
An affinity for the wolf continues to thrive in current culture and mythology, and despite their struggles, wolves have celebrated several victories over the past few decades. A lone wolf known as 0R7 crossed the northern boundary between Oregon and California just before this past New Year, bringing hope of a wild wolf population to Californians. The future of the wolves, both wild and captive, remains uncertain. Undoubtedly, a combination of research, education, cooperation and compromise appears necessary in determining how humans might live harmoniously with wild wolves. The battle for freedom and survival, the promise of a sustainable wilderness, and the reconsideration of their oftentimes-tainted reputation echo in the cry of a wolf.