The plight of the wolf (Conclusion)

Editor’s note: Columnist Frank Newell is on temporary leave. Until he returns, we will reprint submissions from our archives. The following is reprinted from March 2011.

No other animal on earth is so loved and so hated by so many people worldwide as the wolf. The hatred comes from two sources. One is from a centuries old perception born out of false, unfounded fear. Folktales passed down through the generations portray wolves as sly, cunning and vicious killers. The other cause of hatred comes from greed, a disregard for the ways of nature and abuse of the environment. 

I’m talking about ranchers, cattlemen and sheepherders, mostly in northwestern states who would like to see all wolves killed because wolves sometimes kill livestock. 

You cannot go against nature but for so long before bad things begin to happen. Wolves are efficient and capable predators that help control the balance of nature. They were here thousands of years before man came into the picture. The Native Americans lived in peace with, and respect, all wild animals, especially the wolves. 

Then the white man came, cutting down the forests and abusing the soil and the water. Almost everything he did clashed with nature and the environment. He showed no respect for things natural and pure. His greed knew no bounds. His only respect was for the almighty dollar, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do, to include killing his own kind, to get that dollar. When he got it, he wanted more. 

One good example of humans living in harmony with nature could be found in the Cherokee Indians in the mountains of North Carolina a century or two ago. They knew how to catch wild turkeys by digging a narrow trench about eight feet long and three feet deep. They would put grains of Indian corn in the bottom of the trench and make a trail of corn leading from the forest and up to the edge of the trench. In a day or two a flock of wild turkeys would discover that corn trail and would follow it, pecking as they went, right up to the edge of that trench. At first they were wary and hesitant, but soon, one of them would jump down into the trench and start to peck the corn. Then, one by one, the others followed. A turkey requires a certain amount of space to get into the air and fly. Being cramped together in that trench, they were trapped and couldn’t fly. 

The Cherokees would take a few of them, only as many as they needed, and then only the smaller, less beautiful ones. They set the rest free. Now you can believe one thing. The white man would have killed the biggest of those turkeys, maybe even all of them, even if he didn’t need them all. 

The Native Americans of times past knew and respected wolves. Like the wolves, Indians hunted the buffalo, elk and caribou in teams. And like the wolves, they mostly killed the old, weak and imperfect ones. Elk vs. wolves and Indians equals good. Add the white man to the system, and the trouble begins. 

Wolves are currently getting a lot of bad publicity from hunting guides, outfitters, taxidermists and owners of motels and restaurants, mainly in the rugged, far out country in the state of Idaho. These people say that for many years hunters have been coming to hunt mainly elk. In the past, they have had good success in killing trophy animals, which encourages them to return every year, and until fairly recently there were plenty of elk to hunt and kill. That success and annual return financially benefited the local economy, and the elk were numerous and fairly easy to locate. 

Many years ago, wolves were killed off, completely eradicated from Yellowstone and central Idaho. That led to an increase in elk populations, which led to an increase to the local economy from hunters coming to kill elk. Then, in 1995 and into 1996, the government released some gray wolves in the area. It seems that now the hunters are finding it increasingly difficult to find elks and, like the elk, the numbers of hunters are declining.  

So the wolves are taking the heat, being blamed for the declining elk population, just as they have been unfairly blamed for a host of bad things worldwide through the ages. 

Our eyes let us see what our minds want us to see. I believe that wolves don’t have an adverse effect on elk populations in most areas. I believe that the real cause is right before our eye. I believe that the truth is that before wolves were restored, elk populations were too high, not only for the environment, but for the elk themselves. Elk hunters and guides had a somewhat easy time of successful elk hunts because there were so many elk. However, the hunters were out to kill the biggest, most magnificent elk, the very ones that should be left to pass on their genes. Wolves take down the weak and less perfect ones, and in doing so, help nature cleanse the species. So that is why I believe that over the years, the best bull elk were over-harvested, and now it is beginning to affect populations and hunting success. 

Now the wolves have, in some areas but not in others, brought elk population densities to a natural level. The guides and hunters are probably going to have to work harder, and perhaps that’s the way it should be. And to those who would like to see all wolves killed, I would say, “nature put them here and man has no right to wipe them out.”  For every 1,000 people who hate wolves, there is at least one who has a deep passion and love for them. I am one of them. I believe that, just as the lion is king of the jungle, and the eagle is king of the sky, the wolf is king of the forest.