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Steamboat Magazine

The Wolf

06/06/2014 04:41PM ● By Christina Freeman

A wolf in Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. Photo by Thomas D Mangelsen

Essay by Jane Goodall

I have always been fascinated by the big predators. With my late husband, Hugo van Lawick, I spent many hours watching lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, jackals and less often, leopards. I once made a six-month study of the spotted hyena…and of course, my favorite animal is the dog! 

Of great concern to me is the recent decision by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection across its range in the Lower 48. In some states, wolves have already been delisted. I’m deeply saddened by the rampant wolf hunting that has resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 gray wolves in those Rocky Mountain and Midwestern states.

My love of wolves began when I was a child. It was not until much later, after I had begun my long term study of the Chimpanzees of Gombe (in 1960) that I began to read about the wolf studies of Adolf Murie, Gordon Haber, David Mech and others in Denali National Park. From these pioneers we have learned so much, especially from the study of the Toklat pack. This study was started by Murie in 1939 and has continued ever since. This decades-long study has verified that wolves are a very social species, and relationships between members in a wolf pack are close and long-lasting. This is important, since the larger prey, such as caribou and elk, must be hunted co-operatively. The young remain for at least three years with the parents and during this time they acquire the skills that will enable them to be good pack members.

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Large connected landscapes, including Wilderness Areas, will be a key link to Colorado for Yellowstone wolves like these.                 Photo by Thomas D Mangelsen

Last August, I finally had the opportunity to visit Denali National Park. I was with wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen who had told me countless stories about these famous wolves, including seeing 13 members of the Grant Creek Pack – also once known as the Toklat West pack. I was especially looking forward to seeing the descendants of the Toklat pack that Murie had come to know so well. We were in Denali for four days and during that time we drove throughout the area where Tom had seen the Toklat and Grant Creek wolves many times before. It was a marvelous experience – grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, a red fox and other wildlife provided a great show. But we did not see a single wolf. Tom visited all the places where for years he has watched and photographed wolves. Not a sign; nor did we hear them at night. 

What was wrong? 

In 2010, the buffer zone outside the park was eliminated. With no buffer zone, wolves wandering outside the park could be trapped, shot or otherwise killed during the hunting season. Wolves travel long distances in search of prey, and they do not understand invisible boundaries. In 2012, the pregnant breeding female and another wolf of the Grant Creek pack were trapped and killed using a horse carcass surrounded by snares as bait. The only other breeding female of the pack was found dead of unknown causes a short time later. As a result, there were no pups that year and the pack abandoned the famous Murie den site. It is believed there are only two or three scattered members remaining of the once-most-famous wolf pack on Earth. Their den is near the road – Tom showed it to me – and it was a favorite venue for visitors. Experts doubt that those remaining will ever get back together as a viable pack. 

Only 59 wolves were counted in the spring of 2013 in Denali, the lowest population of wolves in the park in more than 26 years. A few years ago, a visitor’s chance of seeing a wolf in Denali was near 45 percent, today it is less than 12 percent. Visitors had flocked to watch these wolves and pups, bringing money to the national park, the communities around the park and the state; but now their numbers, and their revenue, are dwindling. 

Now this is happening in the Lower 48 as well.

Back in 1926, the last wolf in the Yellowstone and Teton National Parks area was killed. Almost 80 years later, a successful wolf reintroduction program was launched. Many scientists believe that reintroduction has been beneficial for the ecosystem, particularly because it led to a redistribution of elk, whose herd size had increased in the absence of wolves. These large elk herds concentrated in riparian areas, resulting in overgrazing and erosion along the riverbanks and making it difficult for the young trees to mature. Following redistribution, native willows, aspen, beavers, moose, insects and fish reclaimed the area.

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The Druid Peak pack on the move in Yellowstone.  Photo by Thomas D Mangelsen

In Yellowstone, as in Denali, the reintroduced wolves became a popular tourist attraction. It was there that Tom had shown me my first wild wolves, in the distance, through a spotting scope. I loved the fact that I was looking at a species that was moving back into its ancient territory. It was a very cold day, but numerous people were there, dressed in warm clothes, also watching the wolves through spotting scopes. They were eager to identify the individual wolves that they had grown to know through their markings, colors and behavior. Over the years, people were able to get closer and watch them more easily.

In 2012, the Wyoming wolves lost their Endangered Species Act protection. If an individual roams outside Yellowstone, it can be killed. A limited trophy-hunting season is in effect for the areas immediately outside the park boundaries, but the areas outside the trophy hunt region are regarded as predator zones. Here, the wolves can be killed on sight – trapped, poisoned or shot, even from the air.

Delisting occurred because it was believed that recovery of the wolf population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had been accomplished. Those responsible for managing the wolf population typically think in terms of the species as a whole. They calculate the number of wolves that an environment can support. But it is important, too, to remember that each pack is comprised of bonded individuals, each with his or her own personality and unique life experiences. When leaders are killed the pack and its traditions may disintegrate, which may have unforeseen consequences on population growth.

Yellowstone wolves are now being killed, including those that biologists have fitted with radio collars in order to study their behavior. Eight of these were killed during 2012 alone and, as David Mech says, this is a blow for long-term research. The most famous of the wolves, number 832F (known to visitors as O-6 for the year she was born), was one of those killed, and this shocked and saddened those who had come to respect this wise breeding female.

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A Grant Pack wolf pup howls for his family.  Photo by Thomas D Mangelsen

As in Denali, this war on wolves is having an impact on visitor numbers. This could have a serious economic effect. A survey published in 2006 found that an average of 2.8 million people visit Yellowstone each year, bringing in as much as $35 million to the surrounding communities. Fifty percent of those asked said they were there specifically to see or even hear the wolves. In the winter, when it is easier to see the wolves, the number rose to 59 percent.

But it is not just the importance of ongoing wolf research and the economic benefits of wolf tourism that we should be concerned with. The wolves should be valued for themselves alone. Not only are they highly intelligent, but they also have a rich emotional life, expressing feelings such as fear, anxiety, contentment, compassion and so on. They are intensely loyal to pack members and are likely to grieve over the death or disappearance of a close companion. And they certainly feel pain. In other words, they show many of the characteristics that make the domestic dog ‘man’s best friend.’


Colorado wolves?

They’re coming.

By Jennie Lay 


We don’t have wolves in Colorado. Yet.

That’s not to diminish the few isolated sightings – including one filmed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife officers in North Park, near Walden, in 2007. Plus, we know that at least two visiting Wyoming wolves have died in Colorado, one on I-70 near Idaho Springs in 2004 and another near Meeker in 2009. And, of course, Colorado was the heart of their historic range until we wiped them out by the mid-1930s.

The nearest established wolf population is in Wyoming, with a long gauntlet of ranchland, oil and gas fields and highways between Yellowstone and the Colorado border. At this point there is no evidence that wolves have set up shop here – just rambling visits. Moving into Colorado would require a male and female wolf to arrive at the same time, then successfully breed.

Colorado offers a blank slate for wolves and the people who will live and work around them. It may take another decade or two, but ecologist George Wuerthner, senior scientist and ecological projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, says he’s sure they’re coming. He says Colorado has had the luxury of a lull in their arrival, allowed time to be proactive and debunk some of the fears and rumors surrounding the species.

Hunters are learning that wolves aren’t diminishing their hunt. Wyoming Game and Fish official announced in March that “for the second year in a row, Wyoming elk hunters had a banner year with the elk harvest for 2013 topping more than 25,000 animals…surpassed only by the record 26,365 elk taken in 2012.” And Wuerthner points out that Colorado has more prey base (deer and elk) than any other place in the West. Colorado also has vast expanses of public land in the western half of the state, something that he believes gives wolves an edge on the politics.

“If they can get here, they will do reasonably well,” Wuerthner says. Opposition is based on mythology, he says. “Wolves are never going to eliminate their prey. If the habitat is in good shape, the elk and deer can hold their own.” Habitat studies have proven that wolves’ presence improves riparian habitats, which is better for fishing and birding too.

As for protecting livestock, Wuerthner points to studies that show the key is letting stable wolf packs thrive. The greatest conflicts tend to lie with fragmented packs and teen wolves running amok – they are undisciplined, not as skilled at hunting, and tend to be the first to get into trouble. Hunting adult wolves is what creates this problem, he says.

Wuerthner also says ranchers need to operate in ways that won’t lure wolves into a ranch operation, and into livestock-eating habits. Dead sheep and cattle need to be properly disposed of in wolf country – no more bone yards. Studies show that having a human presence around the cattle pays off as well, as do calving and lambing sheds. The worst predation is on public lands where ranchers practice “the Columbus method. Put them out in the spring and come back in the fall and see how many you can discover,” Wuerthner says. “If you’re smart about things, you’ve gotta lock your bike up.”

Colorado has a chance to change wolf perceptions and overcome obstacles that are social and political before they arrive. Wolf populations to Colorado’s north were taken off the federal endangered species list, but wolves that wander into Colorado are still considered endangered species. A Colorado working group developed a management plan for transient wolves in 2004, but the state has yet to tackle a species recovery plan. Wuerthner advises Colorado to “start the positive education now. Learn from Montana’s mistake, where the misinformation ran away with itself.”