Op-ed: The wolf and I
A story of love, history and lupine politics
My obsession with Canis lupus began when I was five years old. A local wildlife refuge brought a grey wolf to the Charleston museum in Charleston, SC as a form of educational outreach, and my mother — who jumped at any chance to expose her children to nature – packed my sister and me into the car. I was not afraid, as children often are when they think of wolves. My mother, a staunch wildlife advocate, counteracted every public-school reading of “Little Red Riding Hood” or trip to see “Peter and the Wolf” with firm reminders that “no healthy wolf has ever killed a human in the United States.” These animals, she assured us, were grossly misunderstood.
So when we entered the museum, I felt a rush of excitement rather than fear. Never in my life had I beheld a more magnificent creature. He lay sprawled on one side at the feet of his watchful trainer, huge paws stretched languidly in front of him, seemingly at ease. Only the intensity of his amber gaze gave away his wildness.
In a fit of enthusiasm, my sister and I fell to our knees in front of the animal and buried our faces in his well-brushed coat, much to the astonishment of the trainer. I ran my hands through the thick fur and marveled at the colors; what appeared grey at a distance was actually a subtle blending of reds, browns, blacks and whites, weaving together in a kind of natural tapestry. I was enthralled; the love affair had begun.
This was 1996, in the middle of a critical time for grey wolves in the United States. Listed on the endangered species list since 1974, the wolves were subject to a series of recently implemented recovery plans. Biologists were in the early stages of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park, and several Midwestern states, including Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, were developing management plans and conducting population counts. In Wisconsin, there were fewer than 100 wolves in the entire state.
Eighteen years later, wolves face a dramatically different landscape. There are now more than 800 wolves in Wisconsin, 2,200 in Minnesota, and as many as 10,000 or more in Alaska. Yellowstone is thriving with its keystone species back in place.
Conditions seem so favorable, in fact, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed on June 13, 2013 that the grey wolf be removed from the endangered and threatened species list. Delisting is typically considered when an endangered species meets its recovery plan’s goals. When this happens, the Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a study of any factors that could still threaten the species’ survival, such as disease, overhunting or competition with other organisms. If the researchers conclude such risks are not substantial, the Fish and Wildlife Service writes an official delisting proposal explaining the research that went into its decision; the proposal is then reviewed by an independent panel, and the decision is opened up to public comment. The complete process is often an emotional and highly politicized affair.
The wolf proposal, which claims that population numbers are stable and unlikely to suffer from any external threats, recently underwent its own review, conducted by a panel of scientists from unaffiliated institutes. The results sparked controversy across the nation when the panelists concluded that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s research is “not the best available science.” Touting the panelists’ claims of flawed assumptions and poor data analysis, opposition to the proposal — particularly among conservation groups, such as Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity — is strong. The Fish and Wildlife Service is still deliberating, but it expects to announce its final decision by the end of the year.
The gray wolf is no stranger to politics. In the decades since it first came to the spotlight, the species has been the subject of more debate, research and legislation than most other animals combined. I should know; I have marked the passage of time by victories and defeats in wolf conservation since the moment I set foot in that museum so many years ago. We have grown up together: the wolf struggling to resurrect its decimated populations, and I wending my way through grammar school, high school and finally college. It is a long and winding road we have traveled, the wolf and I.
In 1997, I watched the Discovery Channel documentary “Wolves at our Door” with the same excitement most children my age felt when they watched “Beauty and the Beast.” While my eyes were glued to the television screen, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources was conducting a survey of wolf distribution and abundance in the state. It estimated just 112 wolves, broken up into 20 packs statewide.
In 2000, I visited the red wolf sanctuary on Bull Island, SC. Red wolves are a different species entirely — Canis rufus rather than Canis lupus — but the similarities were enough to fascinate me. I read Gray Wolf, Red Wolf by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent to brush up on my wolf trivia. Meanwhile, Minnesota passed a bill outlining a new wolf management plan. The plan allowed livestock owners to shoot wolves that threatened their property, a provision that wolf conservationists found abhorrent. A collection of advocacy groups promptly filed a lawsuit.
In 2001, my favorite book was “Julie’s Wolf Pack” by Jean Craighead George. Back in Minnesota, the lawsuit was dismissed. The bill went to the Fish and Wildlife Service for review. Over the next few years, the agency began stripping the wolf’s legal protections. In 2003, it reclassified the gray wolf into three separate populations: the Eastern Gray Wolf, the Western Gray Wolf and the Southwestern Gray Wolf. It then downgraded the Eastern and Western segments from “endangered” to “threatened.” The status change offered fewer protections for these populations and, in some cases, allowed hunters to kill wolves that threatened livestock.
In 2005, my Christmas present was a CD recording of grey wolves howling, complete with music in the background. I kept it in the car so I could listen to it while driving around with my family. I thought no other sound in the world could be more captivating. The wolf, however, had bigger things to worry about; the Eastern Gray Wolf population was up for total delisting. While I rode around listening to those spine-tingling wails on repeat, the U.S. District Court in Oregon thwarted the Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans with a ruling that lambasted the “arbitrary and capricious” reclassification and listing changes from the past few years. Vermont quickly followed suit with a similar ruling. The Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to return the gray wolf to its pre-2003 legal status, undoing the reclassification and listing changes.
In the ensuing years, the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted a few more reclassifications and delistings, but they were all overturned. I continued adding to my collection of wolf-themed objects — a calendar here and a poster there, a paperweight, a pair of earrings.
In 2009, I wrote my college admissions essay on the topic of gray wolf conservation — the reason I had decided to study zoology. State-regulated wolf hunting seasons opened in Idaho and Montana that year. Over the next four years, the wolf and I experienced our fair share of trauma. I struggled with my labwork and despaired over my waning interest in research, while the federal government returned more and more control to the states, even going so far as to remove federal protection from wolves in the Western Great Lakes region, which includes Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois. State hunting seasons opened up around the Midwest.
And finally, the Fish and Wildlife Service released last 2013’s total delisting proposal — the culmination of the wolf’s troubled history. The independent review panelists explained that the proposal relies heavily on one gravely flawed study, which they claim includes poorly supported classifications of wolf subspecies and inaccurate statements about the gray wolf’s historical habitat range. Some panelists suggested that the researchers discounted or ignored certain data that might have undermined the proposal. In addition to the bad science, some biologists argue that wolves do not occupy a significant enough percentage of their historical range to be delisted.
Wolf-lovers nationwide are decrying the proposal with clenched fists and gritted teeth. Still, while the final decision is not yet made, we must acknowledge that a turning point may have come in wolf history. It is the end of an era in more ways than one. At the same time the proposal was being drafted, I was in the process of abandoning my zoology degree and my dreams of conservation research, quitting the biology sphere forever to pursue a career as a writer. I did not make the choice lightly. After so many years of planning for one career, my decision to switch paths was fueled by months of research and soul-searching — time enough to convince me, and all those connected to me, that this was the right path.
And so it should be with the wolves. Their struggle has spanned decades of political bickering and legislative seesawing. Their populations have been subject to countless experiments with captive breeding, reintroduction, rezoning and controversial management. They have teetered on the brink of irrevocable extinction and have passed nearly a half-century soldiering their way back. Any decision regarding their future should satisfy not only the federal government, but all those connected to the wolves — the environmental agencies, the wildlife advocates, the bright-faced children sitting at home reading their books on Canis lupus and dreaming of the future.
The experts and the advocates are not convinced. I am not convinced. The time is not right to pull the plug on this species. That day will come, one day — of this I have no doubt — but until the evidence is sufficient, we must stand with the pack and march on.