Wolves once roamed far and wide from Canada to Mexico, until the arrival of Europeans who killed them off to protect livestock and domesticated animals. Large-scale predator control programs continued in the U.S., further dwindling their numbers. To this day, some states allow the hunting of wolves although they’re listed as endangered. By the 20th century, the species had almost disappeared from the eastern U.S., except in some areas of the Appalachians and Northwestern Great Lakes Region. Wolves are natural predators, which makes our fears justified. But there are myths behind the obsession of killing wolves, which continues to exist despite their numbers low numbers. After all, why are wolves so scary?
Wolves Howling at the Moon and Other Myths
It’s widely accepted that wolves howl at the moon, but the function of howling has little to do with this folklore gossip. The Big Bad Wolf tales of Aesop’s fables, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and the werewolf further add to the gossip. Popular mythology, folklore, and let’s not forget movies, paint the wolf as an evil omen— a bloodthirsty animal who attacks children, cattle or sheep. Sheep are usually connected to a godly goodness, but the wolf is no better than the devil. Unlike the Europeans, Native Americans viewed the wolf as a guide, once being men and now seen as brothers. Some tribes respected their hunting skills and tried to emulate them.
It turns out that long howl, sometimes heard as far as 5 miles is a form of communication used to attract mates, assemble a pack, signal alarm or scare off predators. Wolf howling increases during evening and early dawn, and more so during winter or breeding season. The mythic image of a wolf howling at the moon fits right in since the moon is always hanging around when the wolf is howling!
What are the Benefits of Wolves in the Wild?
To prevent total extinction, wolves have been reintroduced in the wild. One of those efforts is the well-known, gray wolves restoration in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. During 1995 and 1996, 31 gray wolves from western Canada were relocated to Yellowstone where they had been absent since the 1920s. Now 20 years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates that there are 1,691 wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain in areas of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, and with a few brave ones venturing as far as Utah, California and Colorado.
The reintroduction of wolves in the wild is beneficial for biodiversity. Wolves are apex predators that eat off sick and dead animals, and also control the population of species. For example, elk eat vegetation, such as aspen and willow trees, grazing heavily to an unsustainable level. The presence of the wolves changes these patterns; the elk no longer venture far, instead they limit their grazing. This vegetation then becomes available to smaller species like the beaver, which in the case of Yellowstone National Park had become extinct. Experts say the red fox has recovered as well as small predators, rodents and birds thanks to wolves hunting coyotes. Without predators our ecosystems are out of balance. There are many levels and connections between organisms; by removing a level, this disrupts the balance, created from millions years of evolution.
There’s also an economic benefit as it relates to wildlife tourism. From 2004 to 2006, Yellowstone National Park conducted a survey of visitors, and found that more than 150,000 people a year from different parts of the world came to Yellowstone for one reason alone: wolves.
Should We Continue to Hunt Wolves?
The conventional reasoning for hunting wolves falls within this spectrum: to prevent attack on humans and and livestock. Wolves only occupy about 5 to 8 percent of their former range thanks to human persecution and destruction of habitats. A new study published last year finds that killing wolves to protect livestock is actually counterproductive. When a wolf is killed, livestock are more likely to get killed the following year, by 5 to 6 percent. More livestock die even when only a few wolves get killed off, possibly because wolf packs get broken up into two groups when either the alpha female or male die.
After recent recovery efforts and a praise-worthy rise in wolf population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped federal protections in 2011-2012 from wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, parts of Washington, Oregon, and Utah. Since their reintroduction into the wild, 2,000 wolves were killed by 2013. Wisconsin hunters killed more than 150 gray wolves just this past year during a state-sanctioned wolf hunt. Many wildlife advocates argued that it was too early to remove wolves from the Endangered Species list. Last year, the rule was overturned in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan after complaints from conservationists that hunting would ruin recovery efforts in those states. What’s worse is that even when the wolf is federally protected, rules allow shooting wolves when livestock are threatened. Hunting also continues in Alaska and Canada, where the wolf population is steady.
Farmers and ranchers worry about their livestock, and typically oppose the recovery of wolves and support hunting efforts. Defenders of Wildlife has compiled A Guide to Nonlethal Tools and Methods to Reduce Conflict with useful tips for farmers and cattle owners who want to keep wolves away from their livestock without killing them.
Human and Wolf Interaction
Wolf attacks are considered rare but they do happen especially in the wild areas of Canada and Alaska. Wolf attacks are often in retaliation to the invasion of their habitats, but this is not always the case. They don’t readily attack humans who keep their distance, and not all wolves behave aggressively, but if provoked they will react like any other animal. A wolf’s hunting instincts detect weak animals or injured ones, knowing full well they’ll win in a fight.
Sometimes wolf attacks occur when prey are scarce, and they must resort to scavenging close to human areas. L. David Mech, a wildlife research Biologist with the International Wolf Center explains that wolves lose the fear of humans when there is a chance for reward. Though it’s not always true, this seems to be a necessary condition for an attack.
“This combination of lack of fear, proximity to humans, and the presence of many small children in heavy cover may promote in some bolder wolves the tendency to experiment with this new type of prey,” says Mech.
In some cases, wolves lose fear of humans, but yet they don’t attack. How is this possible? Since humans stand on two legs, they have a slight resemblance to bears and wolves generally avoid bears. None of a wolf’s prey stands on two legs. It’s also true that wolves have learned to avoid humans after all those years of persecution. For example, the wolves on Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, which haven’t been harassed by humans since their arrival on the island in 1949, retain their extreme shyness of humans. There are a few places, however, where wolves have either lost their shyness of people or perhaps never developed it.
And while no one wants to be Timothy Treadwell, making the grave mistake of setting camp near bear-central in times of food scarcity, the video below illustrates how it’s possible for men to interact with some wild animals.
If you want to see where wolves still roam, download out Pocket Ranger® Guide for Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Apps. And if you spot a cool wolf, share it on our social media sites, like our Pocket Ranger® or Trophy Case Instagram accounts.