Taking an even longer view of the human—wolf relationship, let’s remember that this species came to us in friendship perhaps more than 30,000 years ago, according to an emerging consensus among paleontologists. Pre-agricultural people and wolves may have viewed each other warily at first, but eventually an instinctive fear turned into acceptance and then later into companionship.
Of the 20 or so wild animals that humans have successfully domesticated through the ages, wolves were first, by 30,000 years or more—and the wolf is the only large predator ever successfully domesticated. Though the other large predators, whether mountain lions or black bears, generally don’t pose much of a threat to us either, the wolf is the only one who became a companion. And while the wolf has survived through the millennia, in a dramatically reduced range as a result of human persecution, it has also offered an extraordinary array of benefits to human society by submitting to domestication. At the top of every dog’s genealogy chart is the wolf, and dogs have provided us with companionship, security, labor, and enhanced success in agriculture (guarding) and hunting (tracking and retrieving) over the millennia. More than any other species, the wolf and the dog enabled us to make the leap from tribal societies and prehistory to agriculture and the rise of human civilization.
“Dogs absolutely turned the tables,” Dr. Greger Larson, director of the Palaeogenomics and Bio-Archaeology Research Network at the University of Oxford told the BBC. “Without dogs, humans would still be hunter-gatherers. Without that initial starting phase of dog domestication, civilization just would not have been possible.”
The story of a wolf suckling the abandoned brothers Romulus and Remus at the creation of Rome may be allegorical, but wolves did forever change the human story. Their domestication stands alongside language, fire, and plant cultivation as one of the major innovations that most altered the fortunes of humanity. “It’s hard to see how early herders would have moved and protected and guarded their folks without domestic dogs being in place, and one has to wonder whether agriculture would ever have really made it as a viable alternative to hunting and gathering,” said Peter Rowley-Conwy, a professor of archaeology at Durham University. It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly all human exchange, from early bartering to the on-line transactions in the information age, have necessarily been built on the foundation stones of these developments. The wolf and its descendants have been part of the humane economy longer than any other species.
While many Native American tribes revere wolves, and place them at the center of their creation stories, many other Americans have succumbed to the cartoonish “big bad wolf” narrative and done the opposite. Throughout much of U.S. history, wolves have been ruthlessly persecuted. In his 1880 annual report, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Philetus Norris wrote that “the value of their [wolves and coyotes] hides and their easy slaughter with strychnine-poisoned carcasses have nearly led to their extermination.” Around the turn of the century, the federal government hired professional hunters and trappers to amass a body count of wolves, and state governments provided bounties on them. By the early ’70s, just after the U.S. Congress enacted a comprehensive Endangered Species Act to protect them and so many other imperiled species, wolves were hanging on only in the northern reaches of Minnesota—and at Isle Royale in Lake Superior.
Increasingly wildlife science is revealing the critical part that wolves play in maintaining robust ecosystems. Aldo Leopold, the father of modern-day wildlife management, renounced his killing of wolves in his classic book, A Sand County Almanac. He came to recognize, even in his days as a young forester, that wolves were anything but pests. They were critical actors in maintaining balance in ecosystems, and he saw the harmful effects of their removal, by predator control programs, in Arizona’s Kaibab National Forest.
In their decades of work at Isle Royale, wildlife biologists John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson have affirmed Leopold’s conclusion beyond all argument by showing how wolves limit the growth of prey populations—strengthening them by culling the weak, sick, or young, and preventing their numbers from expanding to the point where they denude the forest of saplings or strip bare the leaves of trees. Indeed, upon their reintroduction to Yellowstone, wolves immediately went to work reducing the high densities of elk and bison, forcing them to stop overgrazing meadows and riparian areas. These effects are documented in a popular video called “How Wolves Change Rivers,” based on a lecture by journalist and environmental advocate George Monbiot. The video has attracted more than 15 million views on YouTube.
The effects of wolves on livestock are also overblown. Data from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and other parts of the country where wolves live show that they are responsible for a very small amount of killing—between 0.1 and 0.6 percent of all livestock deaths in these areas. A 2014 Washington State University study, conducted over a 25-year period, found that indiscriminate killing of wolves actually increases the tendency of wolves to prey on livestock. The reason may be that sport hunting and commercial trapping of wolves break up stable wolf packs, creating a younger, less experienced population, inexperienced in killing traditional prey and more likely to show opportunism and pick off a sheep or calf. And of course, farmers who deploy guard dogs as a highly successful strategy of protecting their flocks and herds from predators can thank the wolf itself for that service.
In exaggerating the adverse impacts of wolves, the proponents of wolf killing underreport these good effects. Wolf predation helps maintain healthy deer populations, to the benefit of forestry, agriculture, and wildlife management. By killing sick deer, wolves can contain the spread of diseases that can be catastrophic for deer populations. And what automobile drivers haven’t been concerned, to one degree or another, by the possibility of colliding with a deer on the road? The insurer State Farm reports that there are roughly 1.2 million deer—vehicle collisions in the United States every year, causing some 200 human fatalities and about $4 billion in vehicle damage. Michigan typically accounts for about 50,000 of those collisions a year, with thousands of them in the Upper Peninsula. If the wolves maintained viable, healthy herds by taking mainly the young, weak, and sick deer, they might save tens of millions of dollars in repair and insurance costs, to say nothing of the incalculable benefits of preventing the loss of human life.
“Wolves provide a firewall against new diseases in deer,” Rolf Peterson told a Michigan Senate committee when the issue of wolf hunting was being debated. “A very obvious example may be chronic wasting disease.” Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a brain disease, like Mad Cow Disease, and it’s one of the major threats to deer populations, after it spread from deer farms and captive hunting facilities to free-ranging deer populations—another case of reckless trophy hunters visiting more affliction upon wildlife. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which says there are more than 400 deer farms in the state, notes that the disease has been spreading in large portions of the southern part of the state, since a major outbreak of the brain disorder in 2002.
“So far CWD has not spread into areas inhabited by wolves, anywhere in the United States,” Peterson said, “and the logical hypothesis is that wolves simply cull out diseased animals.” The disease is an ugly and nonselective way of reducing deer populations, and it creates a health risk to people who eat deer meat since the disease can be transmitted to people through its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease.
And while the indirect economic benefits that wolves bring may provide their greatest value, there are direct benefits, too. As with Isle Royale, people also just love to see wolves; to hear wolves; and to place themselves, even for a short while, in a wild place that harbors wolves. Each year, thousands of wildlife watchers gaze at the world’s most-viewed wolves in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone, bringing in $35 million to the Yellowstone region annually. In the Great Lakes region, the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, receives $3 million each year from wolf watchers. With wolves now claiming a more permanent place in the Great Lakes Region, we can expect tourism-related revenues to increase in all of the states with wolves.
John Vucetich is leery of invoking the practical, economic arguments about wolves, though he readily acknowledges their validity. It’s just that he believes the moral argument for protecting wolves is the most important and compelling. He understands, however, that political decisions and public policy more often turn on economics.
Ethics and economics are bound together in our decision making, and it’s clear that many politicians have it upside down when it comes to the economic analysis associated with predators. It’s not a zero-sum game, where more wolves mean fewer hunting licenses and increased cattle and sheep losses. A more comprehensive, fact-based assessment of wolves shows their multiplier effect—whether in a pure wilderness like Isle Royale or in a landscape where forests, farms, and human settlements are commingled.
“I think there are several areas where wolves are already playing a role in remaking the Upper Michigan ecosystem,” Peterson told lawmakers in his testimony. “The total positive economic impact would be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars.”
For more than a century, we as a nation had our way with wolves, killing them off throughout more than 95 percent of their historic range—leaving a trail of broken bodies and shattered wolf families and a gaping hole in our ecosystems. Like so many other forms of animal abuse, much of the killing was driven by ignorance and misguided government action. That decades-long scorched-earth policy of slaughtering wolves stands alongside the massacre of bison as one of the most inhumane and counterproductive chapters in the annals of American wildlife management and agriculture.
For too long, government policies toward wolves were driven by fairy tales and irrational fears. When we see people reverting back to such arguments, dusting them off for use on the floors of state legislatures or in meetings of local cattlemen’s associations, it’s time for us to call them as they are—false, groundless, and shameful. We know too much now to let claims like these carry the day any longer.
We cannot be Pollyannish when it comes to the occasional conflicts that arise with wolves, but we need not be foolish or cruel in our responses either. We must close the door on the era of indiscriminate killing and deal with occasional conflicts primarily by nonlethal means, as part of a multidimensional framework for management that takes reason and predator ecology into account.
In recent decades, we’ve tried to undo some of the damage: first, in the ’70s by protecting the small population of surviving wolves in Minnesota and Michigan through the Endangered Species Act, then two decades ago by reintroducing wolves to the Northern Rockies and the Southwest. These toeholds have allowed wolves to reclaim lands lost to them generations ago. The wolves have demonstrated enormous resiliency, but there’s no need to continue to test that capacity. They’ve reclaimed forests in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, established packs in southern Arizona and New Mexico, and now in northern California and throughout much of Oregon and Washington. They’ve even wandered into northern Arizona and Utah. Yet for all this progress, only 5,000 or so wolves survive in the lower 48 states.
In the last few years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protections under the Endangered Species Act for wolves in a number of states and turned over management to wildlife authorities there. Without hesitating, these states authorized trophy hunters and trappers to kill thousands of wolves, often with steel-jaw traps, wire snares, hounding, and baiting. In Wisconsin, where the worst of the methods were permitted, trappers and trophy hunters killed off 17 family units in just three seasons, or a fifth of the state’s total wolf population.
The courts have provided a check on recent abuses, repeatedly stepping in to restore federal protections for wolves in Wyoming and the Great Lakes. Congress overruled the courts in the Northern Rockies, and Montana and Idaho treated that act as license to kill wolves in appalling numbers. Thus far, the Humane Society of the United States and others have blocked similar efforts in Congress to remove federal protections for wolves in the Great Lakes and Wyoming. It’s the wrong move not just as a matter of law, but also as a matter of ecology and economics.
In 2015, more than dozens of world-renowned wildlife biologists and scientists wrote to Congress, noting that “the gray wolf occupies a mere fraction of its historic range.” “In recognition of the ecological benefits wolves bring, millions of tourism dollars to local economies, and abundant knowledge from scientific study,” they wrote, “we ask Congress to act to conserve the species for future generations.”
Having played a central role in protecting our parks and generating billions of dollars in tourism, all while preserving the cultural and ecological assets of our nation, government should now become an agent of the humane economy, and the protection of wolves, grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx, and other long-persecuted creatures presents the perfect opportunity. We now know too much about wildlife science to continue our old ways, and we have too much evidence of economic benefits to be in denial any longer. If ecology and economics are not enough, we need only look to the occupants of the dog beds in our homes, or the ones who sleep in our beds. They’re not so fierce, but they’re dependent on us. We can be good caretakers of them and their wild brethren and other wild animals, who need little more from us than to stop killing them for sport, bragging rights, or some irrational hatred.
Excerpted from The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals, by Wayne Pacelle and The Humane Society of the United States, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2016 by Wayne Pacelle. All rights reserved.
As president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle leads one of the world’s most effective animal-protection organizations and one of the highest-impact nonprofit groups of any kind. Placing emphasis on transforming public policies and corporate behavior, he has been a primary strategist in securing the enactment of hundreds of state and federal animal-protection laws and helped drive reforms adopted by many of America’s biggest companies. Pacelle is the author of The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers are Transforming the Lives of Animals and 2011’s New York Times bestseller The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them. His blog, A Humane Nation, is published each weekday.