By Jim Robbins
Illustration by Cynthia Gale/images.com
For most of the 1990s, Ed Bangs, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Office, helped truck wolves from Canada to the U.S. and was instrumental in establishing the first pack in the Northern Rockies in more than half a century. For years he nurtured them and protected them from poachers.
A decade later, the return of the wolf has been wildly successful. Since 1994, their number has gone from a handful to more than 850 and continues to grow. They will likely soon colonize new states, including Oregon and Colorado. The job of taking care of the wolf population has changed, too.
Now the job is to protect the species in a different way: by killing as ruthlessly as possible those wolves that show a proclivity for livestock. Bangs and state biologists in Montana and Idaho find professional hunters to shoot the wolves from helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft or to track them on the ground and kill them. Sometimes the hunters kill a lone wolf; sometimes they kill a whole pack, pups and all. To do the latter, they catch a wolf, collar it, and allow it to return to its pack. Tuning in to the transmitter, they follow this so-called “Judas wolf” as it visits—and betrays—its pack-mates. The hunters kill them one by one. “If there’s no alternative, we kill a couple of wolves,” said Bangs. “And we keep killing them until we run out of wolves or the problem stops.” The irony is not lost on Bangs.
The American West is getting wild again. Half a century after the wolf was dynamited in its den, hunted, trapped, and poisoned out of the West, it has reclaimed the northern Rockies. This is one of the fastest recoveries of an endangered species on record, and few expected so many wolves would come back so quickly.
The return of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) has become one of the most controversial wildlife issues in the U.S. While people in Alaska and the northern Midwest have long lived with wolves, the wolves were gone for so long in the West that their return to daily life has been a shock. This is partly because wolves touch something very deep in the reservoir of human emotion—a depth to which few other animals come close—yet at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some respond to a wolf howl with shivers of delight, but for others that same ululating howl evokes chills of fear.
But the return of the wolf clearly demonstrates something else. Wildlife management has changed dramatically since the last wolf was wiped out some 60 years ago. Although the northern Rocky Mountains contain millions of hectares of federally protected wilderness and parks, much of the area is covered by snow and ice for more than half the year. Wolves, like people, want to live in the more hospitable valley bottoms. But that’s where rural subdivisions have spread unchecked and where people keep everything from llamas to horses to potbellied pigs and dogs and where ranchers graze cattle and sheep. It’s all too tempting a target for some wolves.
So the diminishing wilderness has met the computer age to create what some call—only half in jest—“robo-wolf.” Managing wolves in this New West is an intensive process with radio and GPS-collared animals that are tracked down when they kill, night-vision scopes for those who hunt wolves, and electronic guard systems that are activated by wolves wearing special electronic collars. This technology may well be the harbinger of future predator management.
Canis lupus is arguably the most charismatic of what biologists refer to as “charismatic megafauna”—wildlife with sex appeal and the fierce public support that seldom materializes for the Wyoming toad or the short-nosed sucker fish. This is so, at least in part, because the wolf is a social animal that loves, mates, and rears its young much like humans do. On the other hand, there are deeply ingrained stories about the dark side of the big bad wolf.
“When people start talking about wolves,” says Bangs, who has spent the last 17 years meeting with people passionate one way or the other about these predators, “within seconds they are talking about something else—their children’s heritage, the balance of nature, someone else telling you what to do. A lot of people get tears in their eyes and start sobbing. Managing the wolf is managing a symbol.”
“As a consequence,” he says, “wolves are managed much more intensively than any other animal. People on both sides want to know where wolves are.” Last year, for example, the Montana legislature passed a law mandating that every wolf pack in Montana have at least one wolf with a radio collar.
The wolf’s Rocky Mountain homecoming offers tourists and naturalists the breath-stealing sight of a pack of the long-legged hunters loping across a grassy meadow or sunning themselves, drunk on meat, on a Yellowstone Park hillside. But because no predator kills as often or with the same savagery as a pack of wolves, it has also meant a return to raw, frontier-style brutality in the Rocky Mountain West—not just by wolves but by the people charged with managing them. And because American culture idealizes wildlife, the killing—on both sides—has come as a shock.
The killing has been ratcheted up in recent years as the animal’s numbers have grown. From a few dozen animals at reintroduction, there are now around 850. This increase has occurred much more rapidly than expected: biologists had predicted there would be around 500 at this point. Wolves kill often, for each wolf needs an average of 4 kg of meat daily. They also travel far and wide, and each pack has a home range of 650 to over 1,300 km 2 .
Because the West is growing ever more crowded and the habitat ever more fragmented, officials say there is no way to keep the wolves in the West without constantly monitoring, shooting, and trapping them. The current population of wolves is growing annually by 30 percent, which can take a toll on people’s livelihoods. “The key to keeping the wolf around is human tolerance,” Bangs says. “The only reason wolves disappeared is because we killed them all. How do you kill the minimum you need to maintain human tolerance so we don’t kill them all again? You kill problem wolves.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service goal is to have at least one member of almost every pack fitted with a radio collar so that the pack’s whereabouts is always known. There are 110 packs in the three states, ranging from just two wolves to ten or so in each pack.
Lone wolves who take livestock are hunted down and killed almost immediately. Trespassing packs are dealt with harshly: they are repeatedly trapped, drugged, harassed, and—if they continue to range too close to people and livestock—dispatched with extreme prejudice. More than 300 wolves have been shot by federal agents since 1987, a practice known as “lethal control.”
Wolves in Yellowstone National Park get even more hardware. In the Park’s twelve wolf packs, two to four wolves in each pack are fitted with collars. Some collars beam the wolf’s whereabouts to a GPS satellite 48 times a day. Biologists in the field can download that information into a receiver if they are within a kilometer or so of the animal. New-generation collars bounce the wolf’s location off a satellite to a computer which then e-mails the wolf’s whereabouts to researchers. The biologist doesn’t even have to leave the office.
With such intensive management, some say, the West’s wildlife is less than truly wild. But ultimately, it may be the only way to keep predators around. “If we don’t have information, then we can’t manage them, and without that, they don’t stand a chance of surviving in this humanized environment,” says Douglas Smith, National Park Service wolf biologist.
A meeting of ranchers about wolves sounded like Tales from the Crypt for the agricultural set. Three ranchers who had suffered wolf attacks quietly related story after story about wolves howling around their homes at night, about coming home to find frightened, bawling, huddled cows circled by wolf tracks in the snow, about the empty feeling in the pit of the stomach when they see buzzards circling their pasture, and about cows who have trampled calves while fleeing approaching wolves. “It makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck to hear 75 or 80 cows screaming at the top of their lungs,” says Randy Peprich, a lean, bearded rancher in the Paradise Valley north of Yellowstone National Park who has had numerous wolf depredations on his ranch. “I never heard a cow scream until the wolves came back.”
Ranchers are not the only ones struggling to acclimate themselves to wolves. Owners of rural residential homes, which have sprung up throughout Montana during the past several decades, have also discovered the wolf at their door and observed the predator-prey relationship disconcertingly play out in the front yard among the tulips and daffodils. A helicopter pilot flying over Ninemile Valley near Missoula watched as two wolves chased three deer in circles around a house.
The Ninemile, situated a few hundred kilometers north of Yellowstone, is home to a large population of wolves. Motion picture actress Andie McDowell lived here for several years in the 1990s when the wolves were first colonizing the valley. She spoke out in support of the wolves, says Bangs, but her enthusiasm waned after the two Great Pyrenees guard dogs she had bought to protect her children were slaughtered by wolves. One was found half-eaten under the swing set. “She wasn’t against wolves after that,” says Joe Fontaine, a wildlife specialist who works for Bangs. “She just didn’t speak out in favor of them.”
The reality of the predator-prey relationship can test the mettle of even the most ardent wolf supporters. A saddle horse in the Ninemile, for example, was apparently set upon by wolves and galloped away, so frantic and blinded by fear that it impaled itself on the end of a 10-cm diameter irrigation pipe. It managed to free itself and run a short way before collapsing and being eaten.
Wolves that kill livestock are a minority; most stay with a wild diet. But from the first attacks in 1987 until the end of 2004, wolves have dropped 429 head of cattle, 1,074 sheep, 9 llamas, 12 goats, and 4 horses. This may seem like a lot, but “It’s so low,” says Bangs. “It’s half of what we thought it would be.” And if it weren’t for ongoing efforts by federal agents, the toll would have probably been much higher.
Federal biologists have tried in several ways to make the situation tenable for ranchers and rural homeowners. Those with wolves nearby are often given antennas and receivers so they can track the wolves. They are sometimes given rubber bullets, bean bags, and other “less-than-lethal” kinds of weapons. Ranchers in Montana and Idaho are allowed to shoot wolves now, but only if they see them attacking livestock.
Some environmentalists do not accept as a given the need to kill wolves. Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, lobbied for years to return the wolf to the Western wilds, and now it wants to protect those animals. It has paid out more than half-a-million dollars to reimburse ranchers for dead livestock in an effort to make the wolf politically acceptable. The organization is also pioneering nonlethal methods of keeping wolves away.
With hundreds of red flags fluttering in the breeze, the lower sheep pasture at one ranch looked like a used-car lot. A European innovation, “fladry” appears to keep wolves away by scaring them. It usually works for only a month or two, after which the wolves become habituated. But it’s better than nothing and can be used at key times. Researchers are also testing “turbo fladry,” where an electrical current runs through a wire threaded through the flags.
Some wolves are fitted with a RAG (radio-activated guard) collar, which trips an electronic alarm when the wolf approaches. The alarm plays taped sounds of glass breaking, people yelling, sirens, gunfire, and explosions.
The best defense against marauding wolves is human presence, and so Defenders of Wildlife has created the Wolf Guardian Project. At their own expense, deeply committed volunteers, including students and housewives, camp out in remote mountain pastures during lambing and other critical times of the year.
“Anything that makes it not worth the risk for the wolves can help avoid or reduce depredations,” said Suzanne Asha Stone, the Northern Rockies Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. The guardians track the wolf’s radio collar and, when the wolf approaches, whoop it up—yelling, banging pots and pans, firing off firecrackers.
There are, however, only so many guardians to go around. So the go-to strategy remains shooting the problem wolves. The killing is usually carried out by Wildlife Services, a division of the Department of Agriculture that hunts down nuisance wildlife and is good at what it does. Officials are apparently also worried that the public will find out, for whereas the press can ride with the Marines into Baghdad, no one gets to see what Wildlife Services is doing to wolves with taxpayer dollars. A request to a public affairs officer with the Department of Agriculture in Denver to accompany an agent on a lethal control action was refused. The business of killing wolves is better done out of view of the public.
So is this what we wanted? And if not, what did we expect? The case of wolf reintroduction into the western U.S. raises some uncomfortable questions about predator conservation in the modern world. Do we want to reintroduce predators for their role in ecosystems, or are we just trying to recapture a symbol of the wild? Despite our best intentions, how much “wildness” are we willing to tolerate? And is the hyper-management worth it? “I think it’s kind of ridiculous, myself,” says Bangs. “We don’t do it with any other animal in North America. There’s a lot to be said for ignorance and mystery. The essence of wilderness and the wild is its unpredictability.”
LIVING WITH WOLVES: THE EUROPEAN COUNTERPART
In 1978 biologist Petter Wabakken arrived in Hedmark, Norway, to begin teaching wildlife biology at the local college. He heard from local hunters that they had seen wolf tracks but that no one had believed them. Wabakken decided to find out for himself. In the no-man’s land that is the Swedish-Norwegian border, Wabakken found a solitary wolf pair. Three decades later and after dozens of scientific publications, countless cold winter days spent following wolf tracks, and the arrival of a third wolf in 1991, the population exploded.
Now the Scandinavian wolf pack numbers more than 100. Their presence has put Norway and Sweden on notice: as signatories to the 1970 Bern convention, the two countries had pledged to protect and restore the biological integrity of their native animal communities. But the rapidly expanding wolf population would put that resolve to the test.
A similar story is playing out in the rest of Europe. European wolves, exterminated from virtually every central and northern European country by the end of the Second World War, are coming back. Wolves roam the plains of central Spain and the vast arctic tundra of Finland and Karelia; they are found in great numbers in the deep forests of Romania and the sunbaked hills of Greece. All told, 25 European countries are now home to wolves, with the number likely to expand as wolves migrate from current population strongholds to Austria, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
If the wolf is ever going to find a permanent, welcoming home in Europe, Scandinavia ought to be it. Norway and Sweden are wealthy, liberal democracies with a sense of the natural world so integral to the Scandinavian identity that it is recorded in thousand-year-old Norse myths. But Scandinavians are grappling with the challenge of modern predator management. “The farmers remember when their parents worked hard to get rid of wolves, and now the city folk are coming and telling them they have to have wolves again,” says Olof Liberg, a Swedish researcher at the Grimsö Wildlife Research Station and coordinator of SKANDULV, the Scandinavian Wolf Research Project.
But does this mean it can’t work? Not if you ask the Swedes. Swedish officials have found a successful formula for protecting their wolf population. Farmers who have livestock in wolf areas can apply for money to build fences and other protective structures; if a wolf takes an animal, the state will also pay compensation for the lost livestock. Wolf biologist Luigi Boitani of the University of Rome, Italy, says that Sweden has been the most successful of all European nations in integrating science into public policy when it comes to wolves.
But just over the border in Norway, the growing wolf population was greeted with gunshot salvos after the Norwegian government elected in Spring 2005 to cull one-fifth of the country’s population of 25 animals. Norwegian farmers are also paid compensation if they lose livestock to wolves, but Norway’s sheep population of more than 2 million animals is nearly five times larger than Sweden’s—and Norwegian sheep are allowed to roam the mountains freely to graze in the summer.
Scientists have responded to the challenge by using innovative approaches to keep tabs on wolf populations. The Scandinavian Wolf Research Project, for example, is sponsoring a wolf hot line in association with hunter groups. Hunters can call the hot line and find out whether wolf packs are in the areas where they plan to hunt. The hope is that fewer hunting dogs will fall prey to packs. And in a region where virtually every self-respecting citizen owns a cell phone, Scandinavians have figured out how to give wolves cell phones, too. One wolf was fitted with a special collar that held a cell phone instead of a radio transmitter. Every time the wandering wolf neared a cell-phone tower, the phone sent a text message, allowing researchers to track the wolf’s movements.
By Nancy Bazilchuk
Table: Current European Wolf Numbers
Table Caption: The main conservation issue in Europe is the incongruence between biological and administrative units. For example, although wolf numbers per country are used for policy and administrative purposes, there are actually only six major biological populations of wolves across Europe.
Personal communication with Luigi Boitani, Department of Animal Biology, University of Rome, Italy.
About the Author
Jim Robbins lives in Montana and has written about wolves since the first animals returned to the state in the early 1980s. He has written two books and many articles about environmental issues for The New York Times, Discover, Audubon, and Condé Nast Traveler.