With Wolves, it’s Time to Separate Fact from Fiction

By Beacon Staff

Never let facts get in the way of some good hysteria.

That seems to be the mantra of the fringe anti-wolf crowd as it once again seizes on the iconic animal’s imagined evils in yet another attempt to revisit the futile notion of a second extermination.

Pick up a newspaper in any part of Montana, Idaho or Wyoming these days and there’s a fair chance you’ll read a screed about the latest reasons why the big, bad wolf should be banished:

• They’re eating all the elk.

• They’ve got tapeworms.

• They’re Canadian.

It’s obvious that this is an orchestrated backlash. It’s just as obvious that these are recycled arguments grasping at the same old straws.

Let’s start the myth-busting from the top:

They’re eating all the elk: Yes, it’s true, wolves eat elk. It’s just as true that elk are doing just fine in Greater Yellowstone and beyond.

Hunter success rates are high. For instance, in Wyoming’s prized Jackson herd, in the heart of prime wolf and grizzly country, an average of 36 percent of hunters have harvested an elk over the past 10 years. Compare that to a 20 percent success rate in neighboring Colorado, where there are essentially no wolves and the elk population is triple the size.

Populations are still above wildlife-agency objectives in some places, leveling off in others, and lower elsewhere. Where elk numbers are lower, wolf predation is just one of many factors. In most cases, suppression of wildfire and corresponding reduction of elk habitat is a prime culprit.

Hunter complaints about not seeing as many elk are more about wolves changing ungulate behavior than population declines. Elk simply aren’t lingering where they once did.

Moreover, keeping elk wary has had an extraordinary impact on habitat, especially in Yellowstone National Park. Willows, cottonwoods and aspen are regenerating after seven decades of elk over-browsing, re-opening areas to other wildlife.

This “trophic cascade” phenomenon moved one northwest Colorado rancher to shift his thinking on wolves after they moved into his lands. At first wary of the wolf’s impacts on cattle and elk herds, he now welcomes their presence after seeing how they apparently helped restore his dying aspen stands.

They’ve got tapeworms. Yes, but Echinococcus – like many common parasites – is also shared by coyotes, foxes, deer, moose, elk and our best friend Fido.

The Montana Department of Health says that while transmission of the tapeworm to humans is “theoretically possible, it is highly unlikely.” Renowned wolf scientist Dr. David Mech dismisses the Echinococcus argument as “a tempest in a teapot” and notes that the humans at greatest risk — wolf biologists — have never contracted the parasite despite “having handled thousands of wolves, coyotes and scats.”

They’re Canadian. It’s déjà vu all over again on this one — Greater Yellowstone wolves are an exotic species because they were imported from Alberta and British Columbia, where they’re reputedly bigger, badder and more voracious.

Truth is, wolves trapped in Canada were selected because of similarities in habitat and prey. They are the same species that has traditionally crossed the Montana border. Science and common sense tell us this is one species: Canis lupus.

Bigger? An Idaho Department of Fish & Game wolf expert says the average weight of the 188 wolves shot by hunters in Idaho averaged less than 100 pounds.

There’s no denying wolves have had an impact on game and livestock. People whose livings are tied to ranching or outfitting are understandably anxious.

But hysteria and hyperbole in pursuit of an unattainable goal isn’t an answer. Just as it’s unreasonable to insist that not a single hair on the hide of a wolf ever be harmed, it’s just as unreasonable to expect that wolves will again be exterminated or banished to parks.

Wolves are here to stay, and the sooner those of us between the fringe elements talk constructively about maintaining viable populations, the sooner we’ll move past the polarization – and realize that most of us have the same values about protecting open spaces, wildlife and our unique quality of life.

Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman