At one time there may have been as many as 2 million wolves in the continental United States. Hunting and persecution reduced the number to a few hundred by 1960. Most of them were restricted to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Almost universally reviled in 1900 wolves began attracting a following of conservationists and other activists. By the 1970’s attitudes toward wolves began to change. Favorable attitudes were more prevalent the farther away from wolves one was. Rural residents and ranchers were not and still largely are not fans. City dwellers, on the other hand, were far more open to conservationist arguments.
Starting in 1995 wolves began to be reintroduced in the American west. Reintroduced packs began to spread from Yellowstone National Park after reintroduction, Today there are populations in the park, in Wyoming, and in Idaho. There are also packs in California, Oregan and Washington. The number is over 1,000 in the west. But everywhere wolves go, anger follows.
The latest case in point is Colorado. Colorado voters narrowly passed a wolf reintroduction bill with a deadline to reintroduce the animals by 2023. About 50.3 percent of state residents supported the idea. The biggest bases of support were in urban areas, and ranchers are angry.
Supporters of wolf reintroduction view the animals as keystone elements of a healthy ecosystem. They use Yellowstone Park as an example. They say the park vegetation has changed, behavior of prey species has changed and the park have overall changed for the better.
The argument is that wolves kill and eat sick and injured animals, lower coyote populations and in general bring the wildlands into a natural balance.
The opposition is usually led by ranchers and hunters. Hunters fear competition for prime specimens of game. They believe wolves kill prime animals. Ranchers fear loss of livestock as well as valuable dogs and other domestic animals.
Wolf supporters say the loss of livestock to wolves is minimal and that there are programs to reimburse them for loss. Ranchers say that while that is true one has to prove the animal was alive when attacked and that wolves did it. Wolves can eat a cow down to the hide in a matter of hours and often eat the hide too. That, they say, makes proof almost impossible. The compensation programs pay the value of the animal at the time of death. An animal killed in winter is lower value than one ready for market ready for sale.
Another problem is statistical. While it may be exactly true that wolves only kill a small percentage of animals that number may be a large one and it is not evenly distributed. We recently reported on a rancher who lost 143 sheep to two wolves. It may be a freak example, but the wolves stampeded the sheep and they died from the results of the stampede.
The death of those sheep is in line with what industry periodical Beef Magazine argued. Wolves harass cattle and other animals, keeping them fearful. That results in poor feeding, fewer pregnancies and other disruptions. In one case the rancher had to keep cattle away from a river system due to water purity regulations. That meant he had to pasture them nearer to wolves. He told the magazine wolves stalked and harassed the cows which wouldn’t eat and didn’t behave normally.
All over the west the battle continues as wolves have been poisoned in Oregon, entire packs have disappeared in California, and hunters wait outside Yellowstone for wolves to roam out of protection.
Meanwhile, at least one researcher thinks both sides need to take a closer look at facts and check the emotions at the door. Wolves are not the “Silver Bullet” to restoring the pristine nature of an imagined wilderness Eden. Nor are they the salivating monsters simply waiting to kill every calf, lamb or foal.
They are simply an important predator with a right to exist and a place in the ecosystem.