Wolves and Humans: Is Co-Existence Impossible?
According to a New York Times article from August 31, 2012, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has lifted protections on Gray Wolves in Wyoming. This removal of endangered species status for the Gray Wolf in not only Wyoming but in Idaho and Montana as well, first struck me as yet another poorly thought out federal decision. However after several conversations with some former Dickinson students, I have remembered just how complex these sorts of issues can be.
One of the biggest problems I have seen is that the people most affected by wildlife often are not well educated enough in ecology, biology or other related fields. Better education would allow for a better understanding of wildlife and thus, lower incidence of dangerous animal encounters. However, being an environmental activist in the east, telling someone out west how to behave around wolves, is a risky thing to do. Education, on the other hand, as a first step is something I hope we can all agree upon. Of course, saying that education is the best first step implies that a people aren’t well educated, at least not in that area of expertise. And for a citizenry that spends most of their time outside, it would be hard to be polite in insinuating a lack of education on that front.
So, what does one do? Is there a way to maintain healthy populations of a top predator in close association with humans? Well, for the past 17 years the USFWS (US Fish and Wildlife Service) has attempted to keep the peace between humans and three wolf populations in Idaho, Yellowstone National Park and the Northern Rocky Mountains, through education as well lethal and non-lethal removal of “problem” animals. In 1999, efforts at educating the public involved public presentations to over 5,000 people in the Yellowstone, Idaho and Northwest Montana conservation areas. In 2005 efforts to educate the public In Montana expanded to include 8 programs involving K-12 schools and 8 programs involving colleges, while information on outreach in Idaho and Wyoming (Including Yellowstone National Park) was considerably vaguer. The report for Idaho only briefly mentioned that presentations had occurred but did not give specific numbers, and for Wyoming only 21 public presentations were given.
This apparent drop off in outreach and educational programs could have been due to the increase in use of online resources and websites by the USFWS, which may have provided an un-due sense of public connect. It should also be noted that education and outreach in Wyoming and Idaho was considerably less, potentially because these two areas were considered to be “non-essential experimental populations,” according to the USFWS website. Within these “experimental areas” there appears to be more flexibility in terms of wolf management, and although non-lethal means of removal such as trapping and radio collaring individuals are often considered, lethal means have been the norm. In 2007 for instance, one quarter of the greater Wyoming wolf population was culled in order to prevent takes of livestock. The reasons given for such extreme measures were that problem wolves and wolf packs often: made kills regularly at the same ranches/grazing allotments year after year, were hard to track, and had enormous home ranges that often infringed with ranching lands. This would seem to describe any top predator, trying to survive in the wild. Essentially what the USFWS is saying is that culling is inevitable. But does this really have to be the case?
In another archived wolf management report from the USFWS website, there is mention of a conditioning program in which “problem wolves” were placed in a pen with electric shock collars and then had a cow calf introduced to the pen. When one wolf made an attempt for the calf, he/she was shocked. For the next six hours, neither that wolf, nor the others who watched the incident, attempted to attack the calf. So despite these controversial methods, it seems that wolves can actually learn through second-hand observation. If you shoot a wolf, needless to say, it will not learn, it will simply be removed from the gene pool. Perhaps wolf conditioning, over time, plus an integrated grade-school and higher-education program could solve this problem. But is it really possible to change the hard-wiring of a top-predator to be opportunistic? Or to change the minds of people who see wolves as nothing more than vermin that gnaw holes in their pocket books? Such a problem will surely take more than a few decades to solve.
From: Alexander Aflalo ’13
Published: November 4, 2012