By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
Who’s Crying, “Wolf?”
Wolves remain one of the American West’s most controversial species. Hardly a week goes by without a newspaper article describing conflicting issues about wolves across the West. Any discussion of the management of wolf populations and geographic ranges brings criticism from all sides of the issue.
When the wolf was “delisted,” or taken off the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list in 2009, a battle began. The fight is between a coalition of livestock and hunting groups and an alliance of environmental and animal rights groups. The issue is over how to manage the West’s healthy wolf populations and whether states should allow wolves to be hunted once more.
The grey wolf, Canis lupus, is the largest member of the dog family. Wolves likely originated during the Late Pleistocene about 300,000 years ago. While once found in any ecosystem on every continent in the Northern Hemisphere, wolves were hunted to near extinction by the early 20th century.
When European settlers came to North America in the 1500s and 1600s, wolves were living both in the forested areas and on the plains. Early settlers, fueled by a traditional European hatred of the wolf, began eradicating the animal using firearms, traps and poison. Authorities offered bounties to anyone bringing in wolf hides or other parts of dead wolves.
An all-out war against the wolf began when people began to settle the Great Plains in the 1800s. The enormous herds of bison that served as food for the wolves helped keep the pack numbers high in the region. When hunters decimated the bison populations in the mid-1800s, however, the wolves turned to domestic sheep and cattle as prey, bringing greater pressure on their numbers.
During the last half of the 19th century in the western United States, as many as two million wolves were killed. The U.S. government supported complete annihilation of the animal and passed a law in 1919 that called for eradication of wolves on federal lands.
By the time the law was repealed in 1942, another 25,000 wolves had been killed by the government plan. The wolf remained nearly extinct in the American West until the species gained protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974.
When, in the 1980s, a small number of wolves migrated from Canada into Glacier National Park in Montana, talk of reintroducing the animal to the region began. During this time, ecological research was showing that wolves and other predators play critical roles in maintaining the ecosystems to which they belong.
After several years of study, public comment and controversy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in the early 1990s to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Over the last 20 years, wolf populations have grown and packs have flourished, spreading out from Yellowstone and onto adjacent range land.
Today, ranchers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming find that news disturbing and fear loss of livestock to wolves. Big game hunters are also lobbying for less wolf protection, fearing elk and deer predation by wolves. Many feel that states should allow wolves to be hunted just as bear and mountain lion hunting is allowed. On the other side, environmental and animal rights groups argue on behalf of the wolf, seeing its presence as necessary for the ecosystem and worrying that too many wolves will be killed.
Research in three states of the Rocky Mountain West shows that wolf populations have completely recovered and no longer need ESA protection. According to an article by Ed Bangs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Oct 2009), wolves in the modern world require management to minimize conflicts.
This management may include public hunting of wolves or not, but Bangs stresses that it will involve killing wolves to keep their numbers in check. If hunters and ranchers are not allowed to hunt wolves, then controlled kills will be necessary to maintain healthy wolf numbers and control their conflicts with domestic livestock. The management goal is to find the most efficient, least expensive and most socially acceptable methods of dealing with wolves, while also further enhancing wolf conservation.
And that is Geography in the NewsTM .
Sources: GITN 1038 Crying “Wolf”, Apr. 23, 2010; Bangs, Ed, “Wolves, Elk, Science and Human Values,” Bugle, Sept/Oct 2009, pgs. 79-82; https://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/12/04/hunters-or-hunted-wolves-vs-mountain-lions/; and http://www.hpj.com/archives/2005/jan05/jan17/Wolvesthriveadecadeafterrei.CFM
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.
Geography in the NewsTM is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.