Misconceptions stir passions on both sides of wolf debate

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Cliff Vancura/Durango Herald illustration

Wolves stir passion. Unfortunately, that passion is often accompanied by incomplete or inaccurate information, as has been the case in several recent letters to The DurangoHerald.

Wolves are not as evil or destructive as wolf opponents allege, nor are they the cuddly, noble spirits of wilderness that some romantics espouse. They are animals, and they behave like animals – with all the good and bad that implies. As such, it is important to address some of the claims that have been made recently about wolves.

Wolves have been blamed for the decline of elk populations in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Wolves have undoubtedly contributed to population declines, but as Idaho Game and Fish studies point out, other factors including long-term habitat changes, noxious weeds, severe winters and predation by other species (bears and mountain lions), have been at least as important in causing big-game population declines.

Some have claimed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to release 1,000 Mexican gray wolves in the Four Corners. The existing recovery plan calls for 100 wolves in the Blue Range of Arizona and New Mexico, and a new recovery team is updating the plan, with a draft for public review expected by the end of this year. It could include a long-term goal of 1,000 wolves throughout Mexican gray wolf’s range, but there is currently no such proposal from the USFWS.

There is concern that wolves in Colorado would cause the layoff of Division of Parks and Wildlife officers, because of reduced license sales (revenue) that would result from reduced big game populations. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have had substantial wolf populations in the last decade. Officers have not been laid off in those states, and, in fact, personnel have been added to help manage wolf populations.

The Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley is in the midst of a planning process, and the draft plan discusses the possibility of using wolves to help control bison populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service included a discussion of wolves because the public requested it but it is not the agency’s preferred approach. Incidentally, any claim that bison from Yellowstone would be used to expand populations at the refuge and that brucellosis-infected animals are intentionally being relocated is simply not true.

Pro-wolf views also include inaccuracies that could impair the public’s understanding of wolf biology and politics. A common statement is that there are no records of a wild wolf attack on a human being. There actually have been many attacks on humans by wild wolves and a number of fatal attacks, mostly in Asia and Europe. There have been two recent deaths, one each in 2005 and 2010, attributed to wolves in North America. Wolves were not killed in either case, so it is not known if they were healthy or not. Fatal wolf attacks, from both rabid and healthy animals, continue to occur primarily in Eastern Europe and India. This doesn’t mean that wolves actively seek humans as prey, but as with any predator, circumstances can trigger predatory behavior. A number of non-fatal attacks have occurred in North America, mostly in areas where wolves have lost fear of humans, such as in national parks where wolves are protected and humans intentionally approach wolves.

To keep things in perspective, there were 31 fatal attacks by dogs in the United States in 2011 and 34 in 2010. Bears, both black and brown, have killed far more people in North America than wolves.

In spite of known attacks, wolves are not the demons depicted in the new movie, “The Grey.” I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I’ve read and seen in trailers, the wolves are portrayed as relentless vicious attackers who pursue their human prey for days. There is no evidence of such focused and continuous attacks on humans by wolves. Wolves do indeed test their prey, and active resistance often ends confrontations.

Another misconception is that if a wolf kills livestock, the federal government pays the owner of the livestock fair market value, and therefore, the owner has nothing to lose. The federal government does not have such a program, but the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife has managed such a program for decades. While a step for livestock producers and wolf populations, ranchers sometimes feel that costs associated with preventing predation, impacts on herd management objectives and the effort needed to file a claim lessen the effectiveness of the payments.

As with most issues that cause intense emotional responses, the truth about wolves lies somewhere between the extremes, and sometimes there isn’t a clear “right” answer. Hopefully, discussions about wolves can be conducted in light of facts and in a respectful and productive way that recognizes everyone’s values and rights.

Gary Skiba retired in 2010 after a 23-year career with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He was a member of the Mexican Wolf Recovery Team from 2003 to 2005 and was the manager of CDOW’s development of an interim wolf management plan, completed in 2004. Reach him by email at gskiba6933@msn.com.