Whenever federal wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs goes to a public meeting about wolves in the Northern Rockies, he can almost always count on the following encounter:
A grizzled rancher walks up, tilts back his battered Stetson, sticks out a callused, work-worn hand and says, “My granddad killed the last wolf in this county, back in …”
It has been less than 100 years since wolves were extirpated in the Northern Rockies and within one, two or three generations, said Bangs, extended-family memories are fresh and vivid.
“I had an 80-year-old gentleman come up and tell me that as a kid, he and his Dad hunted wolves along the East Front in Montana,” said Bangs. “Today’s wolves are using the same trails they did back then.”
Yet wolves in the western Great Lakes region of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin were never fully exterminated and now number close to 4,000 – more than the 1,700 wolves that live in the Northern Rockies states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, with wolves showing up in Washington, Oregon and Utah.
As for the reintroduction of red wolves into North Carolina, it has been more than 200 years since they were all killed, said Bangs, and there is no cultural memory of them, and little to no hostility.
While the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone in 1995 stirred up a regional, political firestorm that is hottest in the Cowboy State of Wyoming, the gradual comeback of Midwestern wolves happened with much less political heat or controversy.
Why is that?
Midwestern wolves are not any different–in behavior, appearance or genetics–from the Canadian wolves that were reintroduced into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem more than a decade ago.
“Wolves have been studied to death,” said Bangs. “We’ve got a ton of research about them from all over the world.” What’s unique about the Northern Range wolves is that scientists have a front-row seat on rapidly changing ecosystems, as plants and animals alike respond to the presence of a top predator, absent for many decades.
Great Lakes wolves naturally repopulated the northern half of Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Wisconsin–expanding from the remote reaches of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters and the famed redoubt of Michigan’s Isle Royale.
While lots of researchers are fascinated with wolves, Bangs is more interested in something else–how people react to wolves, almost always in extremes.
Some people love wolves passionately, attaching all sorts of mystical/ecological significance to an icon of wilderness, of stunning grace and beauty.
Others are equally passionate about hating and fearing wolves, describing them as evil incarnate, wonton killers of livestock, wildlife and family pets.
About the only people left in the middle are the wolf biologists, who get beat up by both sides.
Meanwhile, wolves go about the daily business of raising young, hunting and killing prey, eating, playing, marking territories, driving away rivals or killing strange wolves. They are not Disneyesque heroes or villains. They’re wolves.
POINT OF VIEW
How people feel about wolves generally depends on where people are from, agree Bangs and other researchers.
Hunter-gatherers like Native Americans and Alaska trappers generally have a positive opinion about wolves, admiring their pack loyalties and cooperation, said Bangs. But they also harvest wolves for their pelts.
“If livestock are economically important where you live, then predators are not well thought of,” said Bangs, explaining the hostility toward wolves among ranchers.
Urban dwellers, particularly those with higher incomes and educations, are generally more supportive of wolf conservation.
Adrian Treves and Lisa Naughton, researchers at the University of Wisconsin, have found that public attitudes break down in quarters – one quarter don’t care, one quarter are intensely opposed to wolves, one quarter intensely support wolves and one quarter are “swing voters,” just like in politics.
Hunters have more complicated views of wolves, agree Bangs and Treves. “Hunters are willing to share (with wolves),” said Bangs, “but not everything.”
Treves has found that bear hunters are loudly opposed to wolves, which may be linked to wolves killing hunting dogs. Until recently, deer hunters in Wisconsin haven’t voiced opposition to wolves, said Treves. That changed last year, he said, when a slightly lower deer harvest was widely blamed on wolves.
“I do see more intense emotions about wolves in the Northern Rockies, than I do in the Great Lakes states,” said Treves. That being said, Treves does see a gradual convergence in attitudes between the two regions, of growing hostility and fear of wolves.
MIDWEST VS. THE WEST
So what’s going on?
Part of it appears to be history and culture, how long wolves have been present or absent, as well as the regional ecosystems.
Jim Williams, former program director at Yellowstone Associates Institute and former assistant director for education at the International Wolf Center in Minnesota, has worked with wolves and wolf researchers in the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes. Williams cited a number of factors.
In the Great Lakes states, said Williams, precipitation is much higher, creating moist, even lush vegetation. “That allows for a high density of livestock on private property,” said Williams, “and most farmers can look out their door and see all their livestock.”
The Northern Rockies are, of course, much drier, which means less available forage for wildlife and livestock alike. That means livestock are scattered across bigger landscapes, said Williams, “and that makes it harder to monitor and guard livestock from predation.”
Both the Midwest and the West have national forests and wilderness areas, said Williams, and local citizens tend to resent federal ESA decisions. The intensity of political resentment is higher in the West, said Williams, which gets tied in with the federal reintroduction of wolves.
“We never lost the wolf entirely in the Midwest,” said Williams, with enduring populations in northeast Minnesota and on the nearby Isle Royale, Michigan. “We never lived without wolves, they were part of the landscape, a given.”
The gray wolf, canus lupus, was eradicated in the rest of the country during the early 20th century. As a result, Northern Rockies residents sometimes view wolves as alien and strange, a perspective at odds with the historical record. The Lewis & Clark journals are filled with references to abundant game and abundant predators such as wolves.
In the Northern Rockies experience, the wolf was imported by federal agents, in cages and released into Yellowstone 15 years ago – it didn’t happen gradually or naturally, noted Williams, and was thus more deeply resented.
While there are many more wolves in the Great Lakes states, they’re actually harder to see in the heavily forested landscape, said Williams. The Northern Rockies and Yellowstone have big forests too, said Williams, but the forests are broken up visually by mountains, meadows and old fire sites. The wide-open vistas of the West make wolves more visible, he said, as tourists into Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley can testify.
“I think hunters in the Midwest have a different view of wolves,” said Williams. In most areas of the Great Lakes, white-tail deer are plentiful and often badly overpopulated in spite of generous bag limits for hunters.
“Wolves help manage deer populations in this situation, rather than compete with hunters,” said Williams. There are a few places where wolf predation has brought deer populations down (particularly Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), but that’s the exception, he added. Deep, lake-effect snows on the UP make for harsh winters, and worn-down deer are easier prey, he said.
In the West, said Williams, the demarcation lines between wildlands and non-wildlands is fairly clear and obvious – the mountains are wild and the ranches and towns are in the valleys below. “In the Midwest, farms are interspersed with defacto wildlands,” said Williams, referring to heavily timbered areas. There’re few visual clues that say wolves belong there, but not here.
“I think wolves have occupied most of the good habitat in the Midwest,” said Williams, echoing Bangs’ assessment about wolves in the Northern Rockies.
Treves and Naughton have correlated wolf predation of livestock in Minnesota and Wisconsin, with spatial analysis of road density, forests, pastures and cropland. “We have an 88-percent predictive rate,” of where, but not when wolves will attack livestock, said Treves. He cautions that while science can’t predict the behavior of individual wolves, it can identify predation hot spots as a management tool.
No one has conducted a similar study in the Northern Rockies.